FAQ Basics

A Brief Introduction to “The Spiral” model
and Gravesian Theory

People think in different ways. A brother and sister, husband and wife, manager and employee, even corporation and client company might have very different world views and values. People in adjoining cubicles or families living right next door to each other sometimes don’t seem to be inhabiting the same neighborhood. Colleagues in an organization have wide ranging ideas about vision, mission, and purpose. Countries sharing one planet often seem to be in totally different worlds with their policies. Why?

NVCC’s Spiral Dynamics® programs are a way of thinking about these complexities of human existence and bringing some order and predictability to the apparent chaos of human affairs. It provides a framework for tracking the evolution of worldviews and a scaffold on which to stand while analyzing situations and planning the most appropriate actions. Sometimes called levels of psychological existence theory, this work lays out a pattern of human differences and a trajectory for change. It addresses why we have unique perspectives on living, and how our own senses of what “the real world” is like can vary. More than that, SD offers concrete tools for communicating, managing, organizing, and learning to fit who people are and who they are on the road to becoming what they will be next.

Based in the original research and theory building of Dr. Clare W. Graves, this point of view describes how emergent waves of consciousness flow through individuals and groups leading to greater expansiveness in thinking and an increase in conceptual space – the entry of more factors into life’s equation and the ability to incorporate more ways of knowing. He called it “the emergent, cyclical, double-helix theory of adult biopsychosocial systems development.” The theory and models drawn from it elaborate different ways of thinking, thus behaving, which are congruent with shifting views of existence and which people functioning at those different levels deem appropriate.

This theory does not track with intelligence per the old IQ models, and only somewhat with multiple intelligences ala Howard Gardner’s work as they reflect shifting focus of attention and emphasis. Temperament variables do not fit neatly into this Spiral, either, so Jungian approaches complement, but do not overlap this work. Although there are some correlations with personality factors like rigidity, authoritarianism, impulse control, guilt, and values preferences, some of these are linear relationships and others appear to rise and fall with different systems or groups of systems.

In other words, this is more of a quantitative than qualitative hierarchy, though both kinds of differences arise among the systems. It describes expansiveness in thinking and conceptualization, not the worth or decency of the person. People don’t get smarter or better as they move through the levels; though they do broaden their perspectives and increase their options to act appropriately in a given situation. They don’t necessarily achieve higher planes of “consciousness” in the neo-spiritual, metaphysical sense, though they do become conscious of more complex factors in more elaborated ways. And they may well come to think about “consciousness” in new and different ways. So the reasons for acting in particular ways change, as do the behaviors. Yet all of this doesn’t necessarily make a person happier or sadder, wiser or more foolish, kinder or harder, better adjusted or more out of sorts; it only increases their degrees of behavioral freedom and opens a different sense of what life is about.

In Spiral Dynamics® training we tell the story describing how biopsychosocial systems along a continuum form an expanding spiral. (A zig-zag line or a wobbling curve works, too.) A 3-D image is more intriguing since it allows the depiction of both emergence of new elements and a cycle of emphasis between inner and outer locus of control as the double-helix aspects (problems of existence in the field and neuronal systems in the organism) interact and alter each other across psychological time.

That double-helix interplay is central to the Gravesian point of view. The coping systems he identified – levels of psychological existence – grow from the interplay of a set of conditions in the world, a ‘reality’ as a person or group senses it (Helix 1), with neurobiological equipment in the brain system that is triggered by such inputs (Helix 2). In other words, the neurology reacts to what the senses bring in and a coping system forms. The result of that might be stabilization, or it might be a change in how the conditions are perceived, a change in how the neuronal system is organized, or even a behavior that transforms one or both sides. And sometimes, it seems, the neuronal system changes leading to a reconceptualization of ‘reality’ into a new form requiring different responses.

In original Gravesian terminology, this phenomenon is represented with letter pair designations. (The Spiral Dynamics simplifications usually take the shortcut of assigning a single color to the system.) For example, if the existential problems are A, then N neuronal systems can cope with them: A-N. If the problems elaborate to more complexity, then N is no longer adequate; O is required: B-O. If, through successful living, problems C come to be, then O gives way to a congruent P neurology: C-P. And it’s possible that the problems remain apparently static but the neurology expands, leading to a revisioning of what the world is like on the emergent double-helix.

Stability arises when there is balance and congruence between Helix 1 and Helix 2 – they fit and align. Shift either one – change the list of existential problems in the world, or modify the neuronal system to think in a new and different way – and the system falls out of balance. That’s when systemic change happens. If one is trying to facilitate change, it’s crucial to tend to both sides of the double-helix model. The impact of this interaction on shaping worldviews and the logic of what behaviors are appropriate is often overlooked, yet it is central to the Graves theory. It is the artist that paints the colors of the spiral onto the canvas of human life in the particular ways that make us unique.

The term biopsychosocial systems reflects Graves’ insistence on a multidisciplinary approach to understanding human nature – Bio: for the neurology and chemical energy of life, genetic propensities; Psycho: for the familiar psychological dimensions such as temperament, measurable intelligences, and personality variables which shape our styles; Social: for the collective energy in relationships and group dynamics within the cultural forces that influence human conceptualization of ‘reality;’ Systems: the interaction of double-helix aspects to create recognizable sub-systems (levels) and the process of change due to feedback and experience within the overall system of human nature. (He found great significance in Bertalanffy’s General Systems approach.)

These elements interact constantly within Gravesian levels to produce the expressions of them that we can observe. We do not see the systems (vMemes): we see their results in the form of memes they attract, attitudes they exhibit, preferences they choose, and values they espouse. In other words, vMemes are how we think about things; memes are the things we think about.

Some users also feel it is appropriate to add -Spiritual to make the term bio-pyscho-socio-spiritual systems since they view the metaphysical as another distinct aspect of human nature rather than being integrated among the others. It is an almost Cartesian separation that promotes a distinction between material and spiritual, whereas Graves’s view was that the spiritual is wrapped within the systems and their worldviews and expressed through them as biopsychosocial systems. In fact, his view was that the need to name a higher power or find a directive design would fade as compassion and comprehending the whole living system as an interactive mind/brain field emerges.

This work was called “Value Systems Theory” for a long time. That title produced confusion since most people have a clear definition of values in mind already, and most know what they value. When some then add ‘moral’ to values, the field is even more limiting and ego involving since people hold many of their values dear. In fact, many of the efforts to assess levels of psychological existence have been attitude and preference studies which explore what people claim to value but fail to get at why they come to make those choices, or how they hold them once adopted. Measuring symptoms is relatively easy; diagnosing underlying causes is much harder because means and ends are not always well aligned. The process of thinking is not always obvious.

So this approach is more about the process of valuing that categorizing values. The Graves/SD models are about where values choices come from and how they are made, not the specific results. The intent is to address why people adopt the values they do, not to list precisely what those values are since people can think about the very same thing in remarkably different ways, or think very different things just alike.

This point of view goes after deep systems for valuing, not collections of values, per se. Thus, you might think of values, moralities, standards, beliefs, and priorities as contents or memes, per Richard Dawkins and memetics. The Gravesian levels in the Spiral model are more like containers for them, thus the use of “vMemes” – for value system meme attractors – conceptualizers rather than concepts. In some ways the conceptual process restricts the contents, though, just as certain contents require a more specialized container and can’t be force-fit into just anything.

The basic eight theoretical containers described in the tables below can hold all sorts of contents. The question is, how do they hold and shape them? How does the person relying on such a container(s) think about the thing? How is that content set shaped by the container it’s put into, and how is the container impacted by the contents?

What people in each world seek out in life . . . (Goals of “Successful” Living)

1 BEIGE (A-N) survival; biogenic needs satisfaction; reproduction; satisfy instinctive urges; genetic memory
2 PURPLE (B-O) placate spirit realm; honor ancestors; protection from harm; family bonds; respect elders; safety for tribe
3 RED (C-P) power/action; asserting self to dominate others and nature; control; sensory pleasure; avoid shame
4 BLUE (D-Q) stability/order; obedience to earn reward later; meaning; purpose; certainty; Truth; the reason to live and die
5 ORANGE (E-R) opportunity/success; competing to achieve; influence; autonomy; mastery of nature; understanding self
6 GREEN (F-S) harmony/love; joining together for mutual growth; awareness; belonging; spirituality and consciousness
7 YELLOW (G-T) independence/self-worth; fitting a sustainable living system; knowing; the big questions; the long view
8 TURQUOISE (H-U) global community without exploitation; understanding of life energies; survival of life on a fragile Earth

Don’t get too bogged down in the jargon and terminology, yet. Focus on the idea of emergent levels of psychological existence – a series of new worlds building upon what comes before and then becoming something unexpected and new. The basic landmarks are designated by color language in the Spiral Dynamics book — beige, purple, red, blue, orange, green, yellow, turquoise, coral, and others to come. Those are the “nodal” states – peaks on a series of curves. There are sub-systems between the peaks where the thinking represented by the adjacent colors blend together.  You could think of them as string of lights. Each light is on its own dimmer. They brighten and fade as conditions change. Sometimes that’s by conscious choice, and often not. For more information on terminology and transitions, click here.

For example, many business people today are in the Orange-to-Green transition seeking a return to more community and spirit in their lives. For some the relativistic, sociocentric Green is brightening as Orange fades; others have shifted back to Blue in an effort to achieve the same sense of purpose and spiritual completion. A number of politicians in developing nations are in the Blue-to-Orange range trying to move their economies from structured, centrally-controlled bureaucracy/theocracy to entrepreneurism and free markets: a fade between bright Blue to more Orange.

Many environmental and activists are living in the Orange-to-Green-to-Yellow zone as they work to achieve positive, sustainable results on a human scale through interaction, involvement, and purposeful learning and teaching. Some parts of the world are still in the Purple-to-Red transition as ancient tribal ways confront well-armed and ruthless dictators. Others are in the Red-to-Blue as centralized authority tries to contain factional ethnic battles and feudal monarchies are challenged by doctrinaire belief sets. Hotspots emerge as corporate interests merged with governmental power – corporatocracies – from the Orange zone overwhelm indigenous peoples in the Purple-Blue range with ideas of progress and development schemes that don’t fit the realities at hand, and which ultimately destroy the less complex cultures, languages, knowledge, and ecology by exploiting them. Yet naive rescuers from the early Green zone sometimes romanticize the primitive and non-functional – a human zoo – thus slowing natural emergence as much as exploiters from Orange zone seek to transform it into their own image, or ‘missionaries’ from Blue structures seek to convert to the -ism of choice. Yellow thinking begins to question and analyze all of these human processes as parts of an integrated spiral where survival of life on earth is at stake, and Turquoise is looking for solutions on a global, holistic scale and lives accordingly. The next zone, Coral, may be the implementer, but that’s in the future.

The cyclical aspect of the Graves emergent, cyclical, levels of existence theory is depicted with the two color families. The warm color family (beige, red, orange, yellow, etc.) exhibits an express-self way of living with a focus on the external world and how to change and master it (with an internal, I-oriented locus of control where ultimate power lies within self); it is how that expressiveness occurs that differentiates the levels. The cool colors (purple, blue, green, turquoise, etc.) have a sacrifice-self way of living with a focus on the inner world and how to stabilize and come to peace with it (with an external, we-oriented locus of control where ultimate power lies in something outside and greater than the self). The Spiral cycles between a series of individual “I” and collective “we” poles as it turns between cool, deny/sacrifice-the-self group systems and warm, individualistic express-the-self systems. As individuals, most of us are mixtures of both, often living in the transitional phases, and sometimes traveling predominantly with one family or the other. This broad swing from individualism to collectivism and back is also something to note as societies move through time and cultures adjust to changes in life conditions.

The Spiral/Graves model is not a typology for categorizing people into eight rigid boxes. These are ways of thinking about a thing that reside in varying proportions within human beings and which ebb and flow, not labels for kinds of human being. The question is not how to deal with a person at a given level, but how to deal with the thinking of the level when it is activated in its particular way that person. While most of us operate with mixtures and blends of these colors, one or two are often dominant.

The eight levels of existence (recognized thus far) and the fourteen transitional states between them are only the visible signs of much deeper forces at work. Embedded within the spiral is a double helix. In the spiral diagram above (and below), the alphabet letters on the left represent the Life Conditions – a perception of “what the real world is like” and a particular set of Existential Problems – at each level. Those energies arise from the interaction of two elements: (a) the Life Conditions the person or group encounters and (b) the brain/mind capacities available to cope with such conditions. Thus, the term biopsychosocial suggests a moving blend of the biological nature, the psychology of experience and learning, and the sociology of group interaction with the world. Existential problems (life conditions) trigger neurological capacities (coping systems) and the combination is a level of existence (‘LoE’ in Graves, ‘vMeme’ in the Spiral Dynamics books).

This perspective argues that human nature is both nature and nurture — the genetic heritage and neuronal systems interacting with the experiences of being alive in an environment. It is this interaction between mind/brain systems and modules inside with existential conditions and problems outside that is central to the Gravesian point of view and energizes of emergence of the Spiral. This also explains why the SD model is an emergent sequence and not a developmental stair step tied to chronology; there is no mandate for movement, and no predictable time-line when there is, only a probably sequence.

The following tables illustrate the colors and letter pairs – A-N, B-O, C-P, D-Q, E-R, F-S, G-T, and H-U, the last system identified so far. (Rather than being a continuum of 8+, these systems may also be presented as a series of 6 core themes which repeat. This aspect of Dr. Graves’s hypothesis is as yet unproven, but fascinating to consider and widely promoted. Thus, A-N through F-S represents a first run-through – a First Tier of thinking systems. ‘Tier‘ is a word from Spiral Dynamics; Graves called them Subsistence Levels because they focus on relatively basic human needs. The first repeat – Second Tier – is represented by the letters primed; thus A’-N’, B’-O’, C’-P’, etc. These he called the Being Levels because subsistence needs are subsumed beneath quality of existence issues once the problems of the first six levels are in hand. The primes suggest similarities to the base systems, plus an additional set of neuronal capacities brought online. The gap between First Tier and Second Tier appears to be far narrower than sometimes reported, though there are differences. We rely more on the non-tiered designations below suggesting a hierarchical sequence without thematic repeats after six levels, though in his later works Graves did incorporate the idea of 6-after-6.

Either way, the first letter in each pairing represents the existential problems – the life conditions that stimulate a particular kind of thinking to resolve them. The second letter represents the mind/brain capacities – the neurobiological equipment and mindsets required to deal with such a reality. The combinations are represented by the colors which symbolize their interaction, when they are aligned.

Some markers of Life Conditions (A, B, C, … I, etc.)

1 BEIGE A a state of nature and biological urges/drives; physical senses dictate the state of being
2 PURPLE B a world of spirit beings, customs, and kinship; the individual exists through the tribe/clan; find safety in ancestral ways
3 RED C like a jungle where the tough and strong prevail, the weak submit; nature there to conquer; others to be exploited; raw power
4 BLUE D controlled by a Higher Power that demands obedience, punishes evil and eventually rewards good; a dangerous world
5 ORANGE E full of resources to develop and opportunities to make things better and bring prosperity here and now; abundance; choices
6 GREEN F the habitat of humanity and other beings where all can coexist; many simultaneous ‘truths’ with values relative to context
7 YELLOW G (or A’) a chaotic organism where change is the norm and uncertainty an acceptable state of being with much to learn
8 TURQUOISE H (or B’) a delicately balanced system of interlocking forces; a field of energies in constant interaction in many dimensions
9 CORAL I (too soon to say, but should tend to be I-oriented, controlling, consolidating if the pattern to date holds)

Some markers of Mind Capacities (coping means) and neurology activated by such a world (N, O, P, …U, etc.)

BEIGE N instinctive: as natural instincts and reflexes direct; automatic existence; biogenic needs and drives control living
PURPLE O animistic: to be subsumed in tradition and ritual ways of group; to sense spirits and forces in nature; wrapped in kinship bonds
RED P egocentric: assert self for dominance, conquest, and power; exploit without guilt; high risks for immediate rewards; fear of shame
BLUE Q absolutistic: live obediently as higher authority and rules direct to find meaning and purpose; conform to norms; feel guilt
ORANGE R multiplistic: sort pragmatically to achieve desired goals; compete and compare to excel; test options; calculate risks and plan
GREEN S relativistic: respond to human needs; work for affiliation and belonging; read situation and context to find truth; empathize
YELLOW T (or N’) systemic: free of irrational fears and compulsion;  interdependent; open to both information & feelings; sees connections
TURQUOISE U (or O’) holistic: compassionate comprehending; collective consciousnesses; learns experientially; attuned to energy

Note that the letters are not locked together. They can shift and, to some extent, can be shifted. Thus, it is possible for someone to live in an E level world but only have access to Q means of dealing with life; the world will seem beyond the person’s understanding at times — the old-time government bureaucrat suddenly in a privatized agency that must prove its bottom-line effectiveness. Some things from the more complex level will not ‘register’ in this person’s awareness and coping may be stressful, perhaps impossible. Some people can learn the more complex ways; others are less likely to.

Another person might have T (or N’) capacities, yet work in a situation with a performance appraisal system concentrating on D or E measures; such a person is often underutilized and frustrated by a management system that appears to lag behind the thinking and focuses on issues that seem secondary and narrow — the IT professional working where punctuality and compliance with a dress code matter more than competence or creativity, or the student who is punished for questioning teachers whose approach is far behind the complexity of the thinking. If wise, the organization will adjust its management system to fit the person; the school will match teacher, student, and method. If not, it will lose mind/brain power and interest as the person moves elsewhere. Getting the right person into the right job with the right materials at the right time within the right systems and structures is what SD is about. Then the challenge is to communicate, develop, motivate, and manage those people in ways that fit who they are now and prepare systems for who they will become next.

Some ideas to consider for understanding what is covered in Spiral Dynamics®  training and programs –

The Spiral is a model and 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 and new aspects emerge.

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. There are “smart” and “stupid” people at all levels.

The general trend is to movement 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. We can’t stop the river of learning and experience which washes new existential problems over us.

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 coexist in the person’s mindscape. However, at a given moment, the person might appear to be centralized.

Manage, lead and teach the system(s) in the person.

Individuals and organizations may appear to be largely of the warm-colored individual/elite approach or the cool-colored communal/collective world views.

Gravesian systems do not go away; they are subsumed within more complex layers and can rise to the surface if Life Conditions warrant. Movement is two-way.

Beware of finding simplicity which is not there. The “emergent, cyclical, double-helix model of adult biopsychosocial systems development” of Dr. Clare W. Graves is more complex than many renditions of it suggest.

People may talk about more complex systems without actually operationalizing the ways of thinking and being they describe – talking the talk without walking the walk. Look for “stretch” versions of systems that fake a good game but do not live the worldview, or rest in wishful thinking and aspirations.

People may shift their thinking to fit the conditions at hand and operate quite differently when under pressure. Regression to previous levels is a response to extreme stress, as well as to a next higher level.

There are entering and exiting phases lying between systems where most energy lies; the pure colors are only the theoretical peaks of waves.

People value different things because they think in different ways. They think in different ways because the mixes of thinking systems (vMemes) in the biopsychosocial complexes in which they exist are different.

Memes and vMemes aren’t the same thing. Memes are the ideas – contents that are replicated and imitated. vMemes are the systems identified as levels of existence levels – containers for memes.

Different organizations – companies, schools, NGOs, and governments – occupy different positions on the Spiral and need to develop managerial/governance strategies that match their people, their visions of the future, their purposes, and the jobs they perform today.

Managers should develop a consistent and systemic approach to all the issues within the organizational loop – recruitment, selection, placement, training, internal management, and external marketing – so they all align, integrate, and synergize.

Organizations should be constructed from both “the top down” and “the bottom up” to link the functions, intelligences, and decision structures that the more complex new problems ahead will demand. It’s much easier to fit the structures around people than to try and force people into structures.

Successful organizations are in danger of failing if they continue to manage people in the ways that made them successful in the first place because people change in how they think and value.

Many people need to be managed quite differently today because they have moved on the Spiral even further and faster than most of their bosses, teachers, and even parents. Spiral alignment saves work.

Marketing efforts, strategic plans, and M&A efforts often fail because the designers look into mirrors and assume the audiences and cultures they are attempting to reach share the same values systems they do. Culture clashes often involve coping system approaches more than beliefs and values.

The question is not “how do you motivate people?” but how do you relate what you are doing to their natural motivational flows. A person has a right to be who he or she is. Work and thinking should align.

Issues with productivity, quality, political instability, and restructuring are signs of growth and not decay which will force us to find new and innovative ways to manage people based on who they have now become.

Since people learn in different ways form different kinds of teachers, the task of education is to match learners, instructors, learning situations, and technologies designed for fit, function, and flow, then to adapt as learners change.

Higher levels emerge from lower levels and incorporate elements of them. Thus, people functioning at higher levels are likely to have more options and degrees of freedom than those at lower levels.

According to Graves, as a species, the leading edge of Homo sapiens is 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.