Spiral Dynamics: An Introduction
An extremely helpful description of how our worldviews can shift and in what ways has been described in the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck, and Chris Cowan, known as Spiral Dynamics. Clare Graves began his research in 1951, interviewing thousands of people. He did not have a theory which he then tried to do research on in order to validate; rather, he let the data speak for itself. As Don Beck says, Graves "did not design these (systems), he uncovered them, which means they existed all along, but not detected by us at this stage." This description of how humans think about things as they move through life's stages points out that not only our worldviews evolve, but they do so in predictable, describable ways.
Spiral Dynamics says our values evolve as our life conditions change. A concrete example is the difference a child experiences when she or he learns to walk. Suddenly, the world is a different place, because I can go to things, as opposed to watch them from afar, and I can interact more fully. My whole sense of what the world is, who I am, and who others are shifts suddenly, markedly, and forever. With this new view, my values change. Exploring objects by being able to hold them loses its luster: I am more interested in a much broader array of things, people, and events now available to me.
Each of the 8 or so stages or levels identified by Spiral Dynamics is aligned with a primary set of values that shape how we think, how we see others, how we problem solve, what our motives are, and other aspects of our process at each level. Each level is more of a description of how we function rather than a description of what "type" we might be. Further we can function at one level in certain areas or circumstances of our lives, and at another level in different circumstances. Certainly, when we are triggered emotionally, for example, we are less likely to be functioning at the time from a more sophisticated level. Spiral Dynamics talks about the values of the individual and of the culture, and also the interactions between the individual and the culture.
Spiral Dynamics describes two layers or tiers. In the first tier, called the “Subsistence Tier,”—because life is oriented toward our survival as human beings—there are six different sets of values that shape our sense of who we are and motivate our action. Each is described by a brief phrase that tries capture the essence of the orienting value and each is correlated with a color. When folks speak of the levels of the Spiral Dynamics model, they often will refer to the color associated with the value.
The six subsistence levels are:
1 Beige—SurvivalSense (consistent with Susanne Cook-Greuter’s Symbiotic stage)
2 Purple—KinSpirits (Impulsive)
3 Red—PowerGods (Opportunist)
4 Blue—TruthForce (Diplomat, early Expert)
5 Orange—StriveDrive (late Expert, Achiever)
6 Green—HumanBond (Individualist)
At each of these subsistence levels each of us believes our worldview is the only viable worldview, or the best worldview, and challenges other worldviews from whatever is the core value that drives its thinking. Each of the subsistence levels is preoccupied with embracing and growing its own perspective to the exclusion of others.
A second tier of values that has been documented to exist in some percent of the population, referred to as the “Being Tier.” To date, there are two identified levels at the being tier that have been observed. Levels in the second tier are oriented toward a collective, holistic perspective that recognizes the unity of existence, and interacts in the environment with that awareness in mind.
The two being levels are:
7 Yellow—FlexFlow (Strategist)
8 Turquoise—GlobalView (Magician)
In second-tier levels, it is possible to see and value every other level, because each serves a purpose. It would be absurd to think of an individual moving to adulthood without first going through toddlerhood and adolescence. As adults we don't think like a toddler or a teen, but still, our ability to think and love as we do wouldn't be possible without having moved through these earlier levels of development. We need teens and toddlers—they are part and parcel of our world. And second tier appreciates this about each of the subsistence levels.
Second-tier thinking pays attention to what goes on in the interior of an individual or group—not just exterior behaviors but also the interior world of mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual processes. Phenomena such as subjective awareness; sense of self; mental processes such as assessment, judgment, insight, intuition, interpretation, perception and perspective; consciousness itself; love; how we value; meaning and purpose; contemplation; introspection; reflection, and meditation are all relevant.
All of these interior aspects of human experience are central to the worldview of second-tier levels. Second-tier thinks about the whole of development and the totality of existence, both the totality of the exterior and the totality of the interior, and sees the unity in the separateness, the simplicity in the complexity, in the interdependence of all of existence all of the time. Second-tier thinking is concerned with holistic views that integrate all aspects of our existence.
Each of these 8 identified values levels flow, one to another, in a sequence, just as adolescence flows into young adulthood, invariably, and not the other way around or out of sequence. Each stage is born from the previous value stage, and incorporates but goes beyond the previous value stage. In that sense it is a developmental hierarchy.
Each of the values stages or levels alternate between a self focus and a group focus, as we will see. When individuals cannot achieve their goals separately, they unite to do so, and when group goals become too diverse or fragmented on the one hand, or restrictive on the other, its members pursue their own individual goals. The individual levels are beige, red, orange, and yellow, which alternate with the group levels: purple, blue, green, and turquoise. (Warm colors with a red base—individual; and cool colors with a blue base--group).
It is extremely important, if we are to understand and use the Spiral Dynamics model effectively, that we understand that each of us can operate from any level at any time (up to our current values level of development), and that our values responses are influenced by our life conditions in the moment. I may function in general at the green level, but if I find myself threatened by a thief, I may act from red values. If I am lost in the mountains in the winter, I may function at the purple or even the beige level.
The levels are life condition specific, not person specific. As we grow, our “center of gravity” so to speak may move from say, blue to orange, and in most cases in everyday conditions, we will likely function out of the orange set of values, unless the conditions change—and then we can act out of values at any of the previous levels.
It is particularly useful to be aware of the broad spectrum of consciousness that the Spiral Dynamics map offers. We are able to appreciate through this model that each of us has value and makes a contribution, and that we can replace judgment of others’ (and our own) differences or seeming flaws with an acceptance that they (and we) are making the best choice given our growth, development, and awareness to date.
We can see where the path leads. And we can decide if we want to push forward, or stay where we are. We can understand more fully both how and why we think, problem solve, choose, and act in the ways we do. We can understand the motives that drive those choices, in ourselves and others. Finally, we can begin to see how we might deepen the level of awareness that we have for ourselves and in our relationships and the world.
There are some cautions that have been raised in how we use the Spiral Dynamics model: the most important point to be made is that it is not intended to typecast people, but rather to describe the "conventional" thinking of each level. Ken Wilber raises some other concerns in his book Integral Spirituality, but for now these are beyond the scope of this introduction.
Let's talk about the different levels a bit, and so we can see how an awareness of the levels might offer us insights into our personal development, and aid in our growth as individuals as well as in relationship.
The most primitive level is referred to as "SurvivalSense,” (beige), and the value at this level is – attention to biological needs and urges such as food, water, sex, shelter, and physical safety in which one's sensory awareness dictates the choices.
A sense of self is only beginning to develop, and actions are usually responses to instincts. (Examples include primitive human societies, newborns, and individuals compromised in their functioning by one form of trauma or another, or by certain developmental issues). Obviously, most of the world today does not function at this level. But certainly, if individuals are at this level, they will have very limited capacities and we will have very limited expectations about their functioning as we watch them.
This level comprises 0.1% of the world population.
The second level in which a certain value emerges and leads to a specific process and set of behaviors is called KinSpirits,” (purple). Individuals at this level are struggling for a sense of safety and control in an environment which is perceived to be powerful and magical. The first level is individual focused, and this level is group focused. External forces, mysterious and unknown, are thought to shape existence, and so choices and behaviors are focused around appeasing these animistic forces with individuals bonding together for safety, comfort, and strength.
At this second level, functioning is like that of early ethnic tribes, emphasizing the rituals, sacrifices, and curses as a means of creating harmony and control in a highly intimidating environment. Today, examples of this level of functioning can include athletic teams, gangs, and some fundamentalist sects. Teenage identification with peer groups or clicks can look like this, with particular social rituals that may be created and expected.
KinSpirit individuals have gone beyond what individuals in SurvivalSense are capable of, but still have incorporated the survival wisdom of SurvivalSense. Ken Wilber talks about "transcending and including" to describe this dynamic, which occurs at each succeeding level of evolution and development, including Spiral Dynamics.
It has been estimated that in our world today approximately 10% of humanity functions at this level.
The third level, more relevant in our times is referred to as“PowerGods,” (red). Now, it’s not about appeasing mysterious powers but rather with the competition of survival of the fittest. This level focuses on power over others and nature. The weak serve the strong. Herein is an increasingly social interaction, more sophisticated than previous levels, although very individually focused. Individuals become aware of a self sense that is distinct from the tribe. The strong individuals protect the weak, in exchange for loyalty and labor—examples being feudal lords, slavery, rogue nations, and motivations such as fraternity and sorority “rushes,” and individual opportunists of all kinds.
Identity and loyalties motivate and give meaning to action, but in a highly egocentric, self-serving way. Teens, children living out the "terrible twos," Western colonists, iconic rock stars, self-indulgent narcissists, and some corporate mentalities are all examples of this level. Individuals are out for personal gain and personal pleasure on the backs of the less fortunate.
Approximately 20% of humans living today function at this level.
Truth Force (Blue)
Next emerges the fourth level, called “TruthForce," (blue). The purpose of life at this level is seen as stemming from a higher power demanding loyalty and compliance. This mythic force unites the world in the strict order of right and wrong, reward and punishment. Individuals identify with ethnocentric communities of membership. "Us and them" combined with a strong code of conduct, result in absolutistic values. There is one right way, one truth, one good people, and all are expected to conform to this order. This level marks the birth of organized religion. Compliance now means rewards later. Ken Wilber refers to this level of awareness as "mythic-membership".
Examples of this level of functioning include any organized group with a strong code of right and wrong, where obedient members are rewarded for complying with a strict code of behavior. One receives a sense of validation by the feedback of others in the group. Organized religions, particularly fundamentalist, national identity and patriotism, strict Darwinian notions of evolution, Boy Scouts, and "manifest destiny" are all examples of this level of functioning.
It is estimated that 40% of the world’s population today functions at this level.
The fifth level, which offers a worldview based on material, scientific, and technological gain, personal prosperity, and achievement, is referred to as “StriveDrive,” (orange). This worldview sees an abundance of resources and views our environment as available for exploitation -- at the material level, and at the level of the advancement of science and rationalism. Individuals strive to achieve material rewards and technologic advancement. Natural laws should be identified and mastered.
The predominance of corporate entities propel the quest for material goods, which are seen as sources of happiness in a largely pragmatic and godless world of those who have and have the will and the opportunity to gain more—and those who don't, and are manipulated by political and economic entities and marketplace alliances.
This state of awareness is also, however, responsible for the mass gains in scientific knowledge and the technological and informational world that describes the first world nations today. Corporations, public universities, the competitive marketplace, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Wall Street, the advertising industry, secular humanism, modernism, exploitation of poorer countries, colonization, and imperialism are all examples of this level of functioning.
People operating out this worldview represent perhaps 30% of the world's population.
The sixth level, and the last of the "Subsistence Levels," is called "HumanBond,” (green). This level recognizes that the advantages for some sectors of humanity creates an incredible disadvantage for other sectors and moves to correct that with a stance of all inclusiveness. Feelings, caring, community, and human bonding are valued. Each group is equivalently valued and decision-making is through consensus, including the voice of each entity. Emphasis then is on equality, not hierarchy, and this worldview voices advocacy for multiculturalism, pluralism, diversity, and inclusiveness.
Examples are the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, some versions of feminism, and groups advocating human and animal rights, various other environmental groups, NGOs, and consensus valuing organizations. The well-being of all people is the orienting principle of this worldview, along with beginning attention to inner self and spirituality (as distinct from religion).
This level includes an estimated 10 % of the world population.
The first of the "Second-Tier" or "Being," levels is called “FlexFlow,” (yellow). HumanBond’s weakness is in its inability to effect change through notions of consensus. Though well intended, HumanBond tended to create a cumbersome, long-winded process that often resulted more in acquiescence than in true consensus.
FlexFlow emphasizes effectiveness, competency, and views and interacts with complex system theory interactions. FlexFlow is both practical and flexible, and so uses some perspectives more than others, and some not all. The most competent entity leads in her or his arena of expertise, so power is diffuse, resulting in a reduction in the valuing of materialism and status.
FlexFlow attempts to integrate, although more from the initiative of individuals rather than the group. Wayne Dyer's recent writings, Stephen Hawking, Deepak Chopra, Roger Walsh, and Alfie Kohn are all writers representing FlexFlow perspectives.
Only 1% of the world’s population functions generally at this level.
While FlexFlow operates from the individual perspective, the last clearly developed the level of Spiral Dynamics, “GlobalView,” (turquoise), incorporates much of FlexFlow, but from a more group oriented perspective.
Seeing everything as interconnected and mutually interacting, not merely theoretically, but actually, marks the orienting principle of GlobalView, and involves physics and metaphysics, spirituality and mysticism, matter and energy, being and form, all from a quantum physics perspective.
At this level both the physical and nonphysical realms of life are valued, and the oneness of life and being are incorporated in ideas such as collective mind, evolution-oriented groups, some versions of the Gaia hypothesis, Ken Wilber's four quadrants and his treatment of stages of development, and his explorations of levels and states of consciousness. Some organizations are shifting to an “internal” model in line with these views.
This level is only now being seen in the world today, represented by about 0.1% of the world’s population.
This next SD stage, on the developmental horizon, has yet to be observed in individuals in the culture. But, in line with the observation that humanity is on an evolving course, it is likely that a further stage of development is likely to emerge. Although as yet it remains undefined, it will likely be somewhat individually (vs. group) focused, with a deeper interior orientation. It is likely as well to have spiritual overtones, with the notion of the oneness of existence as an orienting value and context.
Developmental Processes and Spiral Dynamics
The Spiral Dynamics model describes human values as ebbing, flowing, and evolving, in a fluid and dynamic process.
We can see by looking at the sequence of values/worldview of Spiral Dynamics, that each will primarily be either group focused, (the individual sacrifices for the group needs), or individually focused, (the individual seeks self expression, creatively moving away from group thinking).
Also, in each succeeding worldview, this individual versus group orientation alternates. In general we could say that the individual focus eventually gets channeled into group identity, and that the groups focus eventually fragments or becomes constricting, resulting in individual expression. This individual -group oscillating polarity is a primary catalyst, it seems, in the evolving of any worldview to a subsequent one, and is significant in motivation at a particular level.
New problems, new solutions, and more complex problems, result in new ways of thinking, new solutions, new values and priorities, and enhanced social and personal choices and flexibility. This is the shape of human evolution (greater complexity, greater flexibility).
Here are several useful clarifications as described on the spiraldynamics.org website:
•The spiral is a framework for how people think about things, not the things they think about. It represents containers that shape worldviews, not the contents that fill them (beliefs, values, etc.).
•There is no direct link with intelligence, gender, age, ethnicity, or other demographics, except as those variables influence the world around the person.
•No level is inherently better or worse than another. They do become more expansive, since each builds on all that came before.
•The theory is hierarchical in terms of conceptual space (the inclusion of progressively more factors and ways of understanding), but not in terms of intelligence in the conventional sense.
•The general trend is up the spiral because thinking in more complex systems offers more degrees of freedom to act appropriately in a given situation by using more fully the mind/brain which is there.
•A person is not generally locked at a single level. The Gravesian systems are ways of thinking about things, not typologies for people, so several can co-exist.
•Systems are rarely discrete, and often run in combinations, though one will often be the dominant state.
•Gravesian systems do not go away; they are subsumed within more complex layers and can rise to the surface if life conditions warrant.
•People may shift their thinking to fit the conditions at hand and operate quite differently when under pressure or stress.
•People value different things because they think in different ways.
•The question is not “How do you motivate people?” but how do you relate what you are doing to their natural developmental flows. A person has a right to be who he or she is.
•We are now at a point of transition between the first six subsistence levels and the next series of human existential states, the being levels. It is a time of both danger and opportunity as new ways of thinking, indeed, new sorts of human beings, emerge to prominence.
Because the Spiral Dynamics model has been shaped by data that has been culled from thousands of humans, by a variety of interviewers, over a wide ranging demographic mix, and because the theory flowed from this data (not the other way around), and also because the model describes the way people think and value, not who they “are,” it offers a very powerful and enlightening perspective on human developmental processes and directional themes. Spiral Dynamics has discovered that people act based on their world views and values, that these are discernible, and that the results of any given worldview is predictive of how they think of themselves, how they relate to others, what their goals are, how they find meaning, and how they go about their economic livelihood.
The eight specific worldviews that have been observed illustrate increasingly broader perspectives, complexity, and inclusiveness, among other factors. The model itself offers a viewpoint that is clear, integrative, prescriptive, intelligent, and compassionate.
It is one of the first (and the few) models that have developed data that begins to describe the later possibilities of human development, (along with, notably, the research of Susanne Cook-Greuter)—possibilities that we as a species are only now beginning to be introduced to by an ever increasing number of leading edge women and men. These later worldviews suggest a promising course for humanity, and offer a detailed insight for all of us regarding how we can expand our perspective and move toward a deeper experience—in our world and in our inner being as well.