Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spiral Dynamics

"What I am proposing is that 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."--Clare Graves
For those unfortunate enough to engage in a "deep" discussion of some variety with me over the past five years, chances are I've pressed on you a reference to the book Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. I happened upon this book a few years ago, and it's had an impact on how I view the human condition and my own journey within it. Due to a serendipitous encounter with my friend and mentor Pastor Steve Poos-Benson, I've recently re-read it, at what seems an ideal juncture. I think about it often, and how it applies in my life. Is the conceptual model it describes coherent with reality? I think so. I think it's generally considered a valid framework with a proven track record in implementation. It's a psychology book, a self-help book, a leadership manual. It's about evolutionary psychology, applied to both individuals and to civilization. It's a tough book to summarize, but I'm a-gonna try. 

Spiral Dynamics seems to resonate with holistically-minded people, describing in a useful format some elusive and profound insights about the ever-progressing nature of human (and cultural) psychology and spiritual development. It presents a schema that facilitates useful conversation about people and societies going through periods of growth, change, and turmoil. It jives with my experiences and observations. In particular, the last section of the book, "The Spiral Wizard's Field Manual," gives a good application of how this whole model works. 

Beck and Cowan based their model on the work of their mentor, Dr. Clare Graves, PhD.  Here is a citation from wikipedia about Graves' foundational theory, "The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory":
Graves created an epistemological theory that he hoped would reconcile the various approaches to human nature and questions about psychological maturity. He collected pertinent data from his psychology students and others (in total a diverse group of around 1,065 men and women aged 18 to 61) in the seven years from 1952 to 1959.[1] He gathered conceptions of the mature personality and conducted batteries of psychological tests using recognized instruments. His analysis of this data became the basis for a theory that he called, among other titles, "The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory" (ECLET).
Graves theorized that in response to the interaction of external conditions with internal neuronal systems, humans develop new bio-psycho-social coping systems to solve existential problems and cope with their worlds. These coping systems are dependent on evolving human culture and individual development, and they are manifested at the individual, societal, and species levels. He believed that tangible, emergent, self-assembling dynamic neuronal systems evolved in the human brain in response to evolving existential and social problems. He theorized "man's nature is not a set thing, that it is ever emergent, that it is an open system, not a closed system." This open-endedness set his approach apart from many of his contemporaries who sought a final state, a nirvana, or perfectibility in human nature. His inclusion of the bio-, psycho-, social, and systems theory as vital co-elements also described an inclusive point of view that continues developing today.
Graves' work observes that the emergence within humans of new bio-psycho-social systems in response to the interplay of external conditions with neurology follows a hierarchy in several dimensions, though without guarantees as to time lines or even direction: both progression and regression are possibilities in his model. Furthermore, each level in the hierarchy alternates as the human is either trying to make the environment adapt to the self, or the human is adapting the self to the existential conditions. He called these 'express self' and 'deny self' systems, and the swing between them is the cyclic aspect of his theory. Graves saw this process of stable plateaus interspersed with change intervals as never ending, up to the limits of the brain of Homo sapiens, something he viewed as far greater than we have yet imagined.

Spiral Dynamics builds on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It proposes that human psychology and society continuously adapt to existing Life Conditions (which they call LC).  LC1 means the most basic life conditions are present--food, shelter, etc--but there is no time or capacity for deep existential questions. LC5 represents what many First Worlders experience today: material success, technological acheivement, scientific knowledge, along with a sense of alienation, ennui, and deep existential questions about our relationship to the earth and our purpose in the universe. The Orange v-Meme (keep reading, explanation forthcoming) got us to this point, but it can't get us past it. 

As life conditions continually change, then new paradigms of thought are required to meet new challenges. Beck and Cowan have a name for these paradigms/thought patterns/worldviews: v-MEMES. The v-MEMES are "unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling," and in this schematic representation, they are conveniently color-coded, starting with BEIGE, the level of basic survival instinct, and ascending through PURPLE (tribalism) to RED (egocentric power) to BLUE (deference to orthodoxy) to ORANGE (independent entrepreneurism) to GREEN (global equality), and then eventually arriving at YELLOW and TURQUOISE, which are "second-tier" v-MEMES, where systemic thinking, integration, and holism come to life. As these v-MEMES sequentially manifest in the mind and in society, they oscillate between "self-expression" and "self-denial" tones: sometimes the ego needs to assert itself, sometimes the ego needs to take one for the team. Below is an excellent pictogram of the key components of this model, and how each level is differentiated:

Importantly, none of these levels is bad, or inferior. In fact, each is essential, and represents a stage in the development of the individual or society, often revisited in new iterations borne of necessity or from regression. (Think "red" in they terrible twos, again in the early teens, perhaps again in a mid-life crisis.) These levels reflect the continual growth of the human brain and society. You can't really healthily skip through levels. You have to experience them, then "transcend and integrate" each level as you move upward. It happens naturally and predictably as one ages and as life conditions fluctuate, though many people get stuck primarily in one particular level. Also, some levels may manifest circumstantially: at church, you may need to appeal to Blue to stay in the boat; at work, you may need to pull from Orange to get the job done; at that awkward family reunion, you may need to reach for Green to keep the peace. The authors speak frequently about the "health of the whole Spiral." It's a spectrum of thinking patterns that need to be balanced, transcended and integrated, and perhaps pulled out of the hat when life conditions demand it. 

When a person (or society) is on the brink of engaging the next level of the Spiral ("a paradigm shift"), there is a predictable period of turmoil. Beck and Cowan call this the Gamma Trap. Here's how that works: a person is at an Alpha State in their v-Meme, where they reside comfortably, and the world appears in harmony with their thinking patterns. "It all makes sense." But inevitably, new Life Conditions and problems emerge, and their present v-MEME cannot adequately address them. They feel discomfort--here called a Beta State. "Nothing makes sense anymore." They feel pulled towards a new Delta--the new way of thinking that will allow the brain/spirit to engage on a higher level and solve their new problems. However, they must first pass through Gamma--this is the existential desert, the dark night of the soul. The guideposts aren't there anymore. The map is leading you in circles. Many people (and cultures) reject the discomfort of Gamma and retreat to the seductively familiar (and falsely reassuring) Alpha state, and thus remain trapped in their old comfort zones--and old problems. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." (Great quote, apparently misattributed to both Einstein and Ben Franklin.) But for those that "lean into" the Gamma Trap--if they survive--they make it to the Delta and engage a new v-MEME which empowers them to think in new ways and thus solve their emerging problems: "transcend and integrate." This Delta becomes the new Alpha State, and they resonate peacefully for a while until the LCs catch up and they encounter new problems that even their new v-MEME can't handle. They are thus compelled to progress further up the spiral, if they can cross their new Gamma Trap. Sounds like "eternal progression" to me. :)

One flaw of any model of human development like this (such as Seven Habits, which also had a big impact on me at another time in my life) is that they can be overly schematic and rigid. ("They've mastered these seven discrete habits, and thus they are highly effective. Congratulations! You, however, having mastered only four of the seven, are only moderately effective. So sorry . . .") Of course no individual or culture resides solely in one level of the Spiral. It's a spectrum. Not every individual has the capacity (instrinsic traits + life conditions + experiences) to progress all the way up the Spiral. As life conditions change, people can slide up or down the Spiral in peak phases, or regressions. Even people in the highest levels of thinking can become fixed and rigid. Yet some individuals are much more adept at moving up and down the spiral, meeting other people wherever they are at, helping them to adapt to their LCs, and helping them take the next step--or half step, or to survive a back step--up or down the Spiral. These people are referred to as Spiral Wizards. They are essential to helping maintain balance and the "health of the whole Spiral."

Despite being more fluid, perhaps the biggest critique of this model is that it is still hierarchical, and unapologetically so. While making no judgments of absolute superiority or value (people are where there are, society is where it is, everybody is just doing the best they can), Spiral Dynamics does suggest that as the human mind and civilization progress forward through time, there is a natural and beneficial ascendance up the Spiral. The thrust is upward, onward, inward and outward. Here's a final quote from Clare Graves that I think summarizes this idea. 
"I am not saying in this conception of adult behavior that one style of being, one form of human existence, is inevitably and in all circumstances superior to or better than another form of human existence, another style of being. What I am saying is that when one form of being is more congruent with the realities of existence, then it is the better form of being for those realities. And what I am saying is that when one form of existence ceases to be functional for the realities of existence then some other form, either higher or lower in the hierarchy, is the better style of living. I do suggest, however, and this I deeply believe is so, that for the overall welfare of total man's existence in this world, over the long run of time, higher levels are better than lower levels and that the prime good of a society's governing figures should be to promote human movement up the levels of human existence."--Clare Graves
So if you're moving through the Spiral, and find yourself caught in a Gamma Trap . . . don't despair, my friend! Lean into the change. You will survive, and things will get better. It's constant movement, adaptation, evolution. Resurrection and reincarnation. (Please don't take that literally.) It's the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis again and again, this continuous ascending Spiral of the human mind and society. 

(Here are some more resources, excellent summaries of the Spiral Dynamics model.)


  1. Thanks for your good work in condensing this huge concept. Let us hope that humanity does continue to move upward!

  2. I learned about this master map of developmental psychology when I was 19 and it really helped me leave the mormon church because i wanted to get to the next level of personal freedom and evolution. I'm now 27 and recently discover how the mormon church is a total lie and fraud. I think more ex mormons should learn this model so that they can accelerate their personal growth.

    Christian Torres

    P.S. I have not talked to an Ex Mormon that also knew about Spiral Dynamics. If your open to a skype call, I would love to chat. Here is my skype id: HighTechTorres

  3. Super powerful and amazing resource here - I love the idea of breaking through from a period of uncertainty with deep personal growth.