What is Spiral Dynamics

Never assume that you are stuck with the way things are. Life changes every single moment, and so can you.

~Ralph Marston

What is Spiral Dynamics?

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.

It has tremendous application and has been integrated into other theories, books, personal development models, and change concepts, including the Integral movement. Once you understand spiral dynamics, you begin to see it everywhere. I will share these applications and case studies in future blog articles. You can also learn more by reading my book The Change Code.

Spiral Dynamics was even used by Nelson Mandela during his presidency to eliminate apartheid in South Africa, without a civil war. Dr. Don Beck, the leading pioneer in the application of spiral dynamics, worked with Mandela during this time. He detailed his experience in the book, The Crucible: Forging South Africa’s Future

The Colors of Change

My mentor, Dr. Don Beck who is a pioneer in the application of spiral dynamics, and his student, Christopher Cowan assigned colors to the eight layers to make them easier to understand and navigate. When Beck was advising Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the colors were helpful. He could tell Mandela to give his “blue speech” or his “red speech” depending on the audience, so that Mandela shared his consistent message in way that was relevant to each group.

Overall, the warm colors (Beige, Red, Orange, and Yellow) are more “individualistic” and express a “me” focus, and cool colors (Purple, Blue, Green and Turquoise) are more of a “group,” “communal” or “we” focus.

The layers start at Beige and move between left brain/individually focused and right brain/communally focused, creating an upward spiral pattern for human development. Once we reach the yellow layer, we move into the Second Tier where both sides of the brain are activated. The following diagram shows the layers of development. The graphic also shows how we move from less complex to more complex life conditions. 

 

Graves' spiral dynamics from The Change Code

Before I share more about the colors, it’s important to remember that these are value systems within people; they don’t refer to types of people. You can’t say, for instance, that people who voted for a certain candidate are all a certain color.

Here’s a brief overview of each layer:

Beige: Focus is on basic human needs including food, comfort, sleep, reproduction, and safety. There is a limited concept of time, distance, connection, or self-awareness. More on Beige.

Purple: Focus is on family, keeping the good and bad spirits happy and the nest warm and safe. (The first communal layer.) More on Purple.

Red: Focus is on action and assertiveness. Sees the world as a dangerous jungle full of threats and survives by taking from and dominating those who are weaker. More on Red.

Blue: Focus is on “righteous order,” such as church hierarchy or authoritarian government, which enforces a black and white code of conduct, “right” and “wrong,” and provides meaning for life. More on Blue.

Orange: Focus is on materialism, driven by technology, scientific advances and competing to win. Individual, success-driven, and sees many right paths (unlike Blue). More on Orange.

Green: Focus is on healing the self and the planet, equality and creating networks. Values consensus decisions rather than authority, and seeks harmony. More on Green.

Yellow: Focus is on personal freedom, but without harm to others or excessive self-interest. Demands open systems, functionality, competence, flow, flexibility, and spontaneity. (The first “integral” layer, incorporating both the right and left sides of the brain.) More on Yellow.

Turquoise: Focus is on the power of the universe and the good of all living things (not just humans) as integrated systems. Capable and spiritually oriented, appreciates awe, reverence, gratitude, unity, and simplicity. More on Turquoise.

***

Next Layers

Because Graves’ model has no end, there are layers beyond Turquoise. Beck and Cowan claim that a Coral layer exists but haven’t been able to identify enough people in this layer yet to make it statistically significant.

How to Move Between Layers

I’m frequently asked how to move from one layer to the next and how to help others move. Just a reminder: we cannot say that one layer is “better” than another. Each layer is based on life conditions. The best layer for a person or society is the one that is most aligned with existing life conditions. When a layer stops functioning in the current life conditions, a move to the next layer is beneficial. You can’t simply “will yourself” to the next layer or force other people to change.

On the other hand, it is beneficial to create positive life conditions in a community to support the healthy development of individuals and society as a whole. As Graves said:

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 the prime good of any society’s governing figures should be to promote human movement up the levels of human existence.

Changing layers is not an easy process. It happens, usually gradually, in response to life conditions and/or because of our own inner work and growth. While life experiences can naturally move us along, most of us must also commit to working toward change, especially when advancing to, and through, the Second Tier.

Tension is the key factor for moving from one layer to the next. There has to be enough tension in your life conditions to create discomfort. This discomfort is so strong that you know things can’t stay the same, you have to change and find new ways for coping with the world. The earlier you can recognize this tension and act on it, the better.

Practices involving altered states can be effective in expediting the movement from one layer to another. These practices have been used since the dawn of time for self-exploration, insights, and personal development. The structured use of altered states was all

Your Colors

Did you recognize yourself in any of the color descriptions? 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.

 

 

 

Written by Monica Bourgeau

April 28, 2021

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