The Colors of Change: Red

Spiral Dynamics is a theory of human and societal development uncovered by  Dr. Clare W. Graves (1914-1986). Graves was a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He was a peer of Abraham Maslow.

Graves’ model is a bio-psycho-social one based on more than two decades of research. According to Ken Wilber, the founder of the Integral movement which incorporates Spiral Dynamics, the Gravesian model has so far “been tested in more than fifty thousand people from around the world, and there have been no major exceptions found in the general scheme.” It has also been called, the Theory of Everything.

With this model, Graves discovered the underlying pattern for human and societal change. He identified eight unique stages (or layers as I refer to them) that we move through in a set sequence. However, the model continues beyond these stages and is “neverending”. As long as humanity survives, we will grow and evolve.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Red layer of development.

Red “Egocentric/Narcissistic” (Individual, left-brain focused)

Emerged: 10,000 years ago

Mantra: Be what you are and do what you wantregardless. Nobody tells me what to do.

Core Values: Avoiding shame, defending one’s reputation, gratifying impulses & senses immediately.

Red swings back to individualistic consciousness and breaks free of the restraints of the tribe. It comes with a focus on power, and views the world as haves and have-nots, depending on strength or weakness. Red is very egocentric, self-centered, and hedonistic—the self wants to express itself and does not have sufficiently developed perception or emotional capacity to fully understand the impact of its behavior on others.

Here, the world is seen as a dangerous jungle full of threats, and survival comes by aligning with power and taking what you need and dominating those who are weaker. Red is action-oriented and assertive, not analytical or concerned about relationships.

Individuals perceiving the world from through Red will fight one another without any guilt, remorse, or regard for future consequences. Red will do almost anything to avoid shame, defend their reputation, and be respected.

Examples of Red include toddlers going through the “terrible twos,” rebellious teens, feudal kingdoms, street gang leaders, soldiers of fortune, and Atilla the Hun.

Positive Expressions of Red: Red energy can be positive when it helps someone lead and take charge in a positive way, say in the athletics arena. Imagine how you’ve felt when you’ve started attending a new kind of gym or a workout program.

Negative Expressions of Red: The pitfalls of this layer are anxiety (a fearful world), depression (being oppressed or frustrated by strong competitors), phobias (imagining danger where there is none), and vulnerability to shame.

Emotion that drives the transition to the next layer: Guilt and shame

Transition from Red to Blue: Red begins to decay when people become tired of the “haves” and “have nots” and enough people get fed up with being pushed around by powerful people and want to impose law and order to benefit everyone. At a deeper level, the individual feels out of control and begins a search for a higher power and a purpose, a right way to live. Blue is a swing back from the “Me” of Red to a tight-knit form of “We,” in which the individual makes sacrifices for the benefit of the whole.

Graves described this transition as follows:

Ultimately, Red men see that, in spite of their manipulations, life seems not in their control. Egocentric values break down from the weight of the existential problems they create. “What is this all about? Why was I born? Why can’t I go on living?” says the ‘have.’ “Why can’t I find some success in life?” asks the miserable ‘have not.’ Eventually they conclude that life’s problems are a sign indicating that if one finds the “right” form of existence the result will be pleasure everlasting.” ‘…the person begins to feel guilty about his or her ensnaring, entrapping, egocentric behavior and begins to say, so to speak, ”Well, I’d better sacrifice a little bit of myself to others if I am going to get along in this world.”


Graves' spiral dynamics from The Change Code

Your Colors

I’ve created a free assessment that you can take to find out your colors. You will receive a report with the results of your assessment, showing you a ranking of your top value systems by color.

Want to learn more about Spiral Dynamics? Check out my Spiral Dynamics Resource page or read more articles on the topic including more info on each color/layer.

Your Turn

I want to hear from you. How did you first learn about Spiral Dynamics? How have you used this theory in your personal or business development? Share your experience in the comments.