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Emergent, cyclical, levels of existence

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Spiral Dynamics

Summary of Spiral Dynamics. Abstract

Dr. Clare W. Graves (1974)

Don E. Beck and Chris C. Cowan (1996)

The Theory of emergent, cyclical, levels of Existence by Clare Grave (also: Theory of Levels of Human Existence) was coined after his death (1986) "Spiral Dynamics" by his students Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their book "Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change (1996) (

A brief summary of Graves' theory is given by himself:

"The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man's existential problems change".

And more comprehensively:

"At each stage of human existence the adult man is off on his quest of his holy grail, the way of life he seeks by which to live. At his first level he is on a quest for automatic physiological satisfaction [AN Beige]. At the second level he seeks a safe mode of living [BO Purple], and this is followed, in turn, by a search heroic status, for power and glory [CP Red], by a search for ultimate peace [DQ Blue], a search for material pleasure [ER Orange], a search for affectionate relations [FS Green], a search for respect of self [GT Yellow], and a search for peace in an incomprehensible world [HU Turquoise]. And, when he finds he will not find that peace, he will be off on his ninth level quest. As he sets off on each quest, he believes he will find the answer to his existence. Yet, much to his surprise and much to his dismay, he finds at every stage that the solution to existence is not the solution he has come to find. Every stage he reaches leaves him disconcerted and perplexed. It is simply that as he solves one set of human problems he finds a new set in their place. The quest he finds is never ending."

The theory was first published in The Futurist, April 1974, in an article titled: "Human Nature Prepares for a Momentous Leap" Dr. Caleb Rosado summarizes Spiral Dynamics in the following five key points:

  1. Human nature is not static, nor is it finite. Human nature changes as the conditions of existence change, thus forging new systems. Yet, the older systems stay with us.
  2. When a new system or level is activated, we change our psychology and rules for living to adapt to those new conditions.
  3. We live in a potentially open system of values with an infinite number of modes of living available to us. There is no final state to which we must all aspire. [Here is where Graves differed with Maslow and most other psychologists. Maslow, before his death, told Graves that he (Graves) was correct and he (Maslow) was wrong in thinking of human development as a closed state.
  4. An individual, a company, or an entire society can respond positively only to those managerial principles, motivational appeals, educational formulas, and legal or ethical codes that are appropriate to the current level of human existence.
  5. A Spiral vortex best depicts this emergence of human systems as they evolve through levels of increasing complexity. Each upward turn of the spiral marks the awakening of a more elaborated version on top of what already exists. The human Spiral, then, consists of a coiled string of value systems, worldviews, and mindsets, each the product of its times and conditions. In other words, new times produces new minds.

The colors in Spiral Dynamics model: Clare Graves didn't use colors. Instead, Graves generally relied on his original letter-pairs, as well as numbers and names on occasion. The color scheme was applied to Dr. Graves's levels of existence in the 1970s by Chris Cowan for making title slides for use in teaching the theory. The color code was created as a design element for training materials and became a common language when included as part of the publication of the Spiral Dynamics book by Beck and Cowan in 1996. While there was a metaphor behind it, there was certainly no metaphysical significance intended, nor was it derived from chakras or anything else. The color code has taken on a life of its own, sometimes to the detriment of the model since it makes discussion of the transition states almost impossible.

Is Spiral Dynamics a typology? Graves' theory is of an emergent process, not a set of categories or boxes for people, nor a series of essential developmental stages. These are systems within the person or group, not kinds of persons or groups. In theory, the potential for all of these systems lies within everyone with a normal brain, and that's the vast majority of people. However, all the systems aren't awakened because the theory is a process of interaction between the neurobiology of the person (or group) with existential problems and conditions in the external milieu. Don't ask, "How do you deal with this kind of person?" Instead, seek to understand how to manage the form of thinking and behavior as it is being exhibited by the person, regarding a particular thing, at this time, under these conditions. Thus, ask "How do I manage the Orange (E-R) in this person?"

Levels of Human Existence - Clare Graves


Learning System
Motivational System
Specific Motivation
End Values
Value System
Problems of Existence
A-N Habituation Automatic Loose bands Physiological Periodic physiological needs No conscious value system No conscious value system  Automatic / Instinctive Maintaining physiological stability
B-O Classical conditioning  Autistic Tribe-like groups Assurance Aperiodic physiological needs Traditionalism Safety Animistic / Tribalistic Achievement of relative safety
C-P Operant conditioning  Egocentric Empires Survival Psychological survival Exploitation Power Egocentric / Exploitive Living with self-awareness
D-Q Avoidant learning Absolutistic Pyramidal Security Order, meaning Sacrifice Salvation Absolutely / Saintly Achieving ever-lasting peace of mind
E-R Expectancy Multiplistic Delegative Independence Adequacy, competency Scientism Materialism Materialistic / Achiever Conquering the physical universe
F-S Observational Relativistic Egalitarian Affiliation Love, affiliation Sociocentricity Community Relativistic / Sociocentric Living with the human element
G-T All learning systems open Systemic Flexible & Integrative Existential Self-worth Accepting Existence Systemic / Integrative Restoring viability to a disordered world
H-U All learning systems open  Differential Holistic & Global Experience ?????? Experiencing Communion Holistic / Experimental Accepting existential dichotomies

Characteristics of vMEMES:

Principles underlying Spiral Dynamics:

  1. Human nature includes a capacity for new vMEMES to awaken without eliminating old ones.

  2. Shifting life conditions activate vMEMES which may emerge, surge, regress or fade in response.

  3. The overall Spiral is forged by a pendulum-like alternation between the Self-Expressive, internal controlled 'me' (Survival, Power, Achievement, Flexibility) and the Self-Sacrificing, externally anchored 'we' (Kinship, Purposeful, Consensual, Global).

  4. Each vMEME comes in phases, either in personal passage or historic epoch, like waves on a beach, ENTERing as a surge, dominating the scene as a strong PEAK, and then EXITing from prominence to be replaced by another.

  5. The emergence of thinking systems along the Spiral is from lesser to greater complexity.

  6. vMEMES coexist as mixtures. For example a generally consensual GREEN-oriented character may activate his or her power seeking RED aspect in sports, and call up an ORANGE achievement orientation in marketing meetings.

👀TIP: On this website you can find much more about Spiral Dynamics!

Compare with Spiral DynamicsWhat is Value?  |  Hierarchy of NeedsHerzberg Two Factor Theory  |  Theory X Theory Y  |  ERG Theory  |  Expectancy Theory  |  Hofstede  |  What is Value Based Management?

For more information on Spiral Dynamics, see the excellent website from Don Beck and Chris Cowan: NVC Consulting

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