FAQ More Questions

Some More FAQs


  1. Is Spiral Dynamics a “Theory of Everything?”
  2. What does POA refer to?
  3. How does Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis approach relate to the Spiral model and Gravesian theory?
  4. What do the pairs of letters (A-N, B-O, C-P, etc.) mean?
  5. Why are there only eight systems or colors?
  6. Is this model hierarchical?
  7. Is there a timeline for systems emergence?
  8. What’s the highest level? Coral?
  9. Where can I read about the third tier (double prime) levels—A”-N”, B”-O”, etc.?
  10. Do people move up from one level to the next, like climbing stairs?
  11. What is the “prime directive?”
  12. Why don’t the numbers in the table on pp. 300-301 of the book, Spiral Dynamics, add up to 100 percent?
  13. Is “Flatland” a construct from Spiral Dynamics or Graves?
  14. Are magic and strong families evidence of Purple (B-O) in operation?


1)   Is Spiral Dynamics a “Theory of Everything?”

As readers of this site know, the 1996 Spiral Dynamics book is an application and extension of Dr. Clare Graves’s original thinking. It is no more a ‘theory of everything’ than his underlying work was, though some in pursuit of ‘everything’ theories have latched onto the Spiral model and incorporated bits of it into their approaches.

Back in 1967 Canadian journalist Nicholas Steed wrote an article about Dr. Graves’s work titled “The Theory that Explains Everything” for the October issue of Maclean’s Magazine. The piece begins with:

“Darwin invented one. So did Karl Marx. So did Freud and so, of course, did our own Marshall McLuhan. And now meet Clare Graves, a U.S. college professor who’s devised a theory that explains why China is belligerent, why hippies act so cool, and why you’re not getting along with your boss or mate.”

It is obvious from Mr. Steed’s opening that his view of a “theory of everything” is not an all-inclusive explanation for the origins of the universe, but a statement with sufficient explanatory power to pull a broad field into cohesion. In this case, it is human behavior. He goes on to quote Clare Graves as to why his theorizing came about:

“All my life…I’ve been confused and perplexed by the fact that on every damn subject there are so many schools of thought. Take psychology. The whole field is a battleground of contrasting theories: the Freudians don’t agree with the Adlerians, the psychoanalysts won’t talk to the behaviorists. The same’s true of all of life. Man is so confused that he speaks of peace and then righteously makes war. We profess to care about poverty, but yet give the poor so little that they riot. We advocate religious tolerance, yet we disapprove of inter-faith marriages. Everywhere you look people are divided into rival factions, each group claiming that it is right and the others are wrong.”

[Note:  Nicholas Steed’s 1967 piece was written about the theory before the systems were differentiated into their final form. CP is not included; therefore, the numbering in the following passage is lower by one compared to later discussions. Additionally, the seven levels as described by Steed would be further differentiated as transitional states in later work such that his Four would be transitional DQ/ER stages, his Five transitional ER/FS, and his Six the FS to GT transition states. CP and B’O’ were not yet included.]

Specifics of terminology aside, Steed offers an example which makes some important points:

“Graves cites the ‘God is dead’ theological debate as another instance of the change in levels at work. Thus the old religion was for Three [nodal DQ] and Fours [exiting DQ to entering ER]; the new approach is making headway with Fives [transitional ER to FS] because Fives will always go along with what the “experts” think best. The strong undercurrents of Three [DQ] thinking still at work in North America will continue for some time to provide the fundamentalist and dogmatic religions with flocks. Increasingly, though, the middle of the-road religions will change to Five thinking, and subscribe to the God is dead view. The most difficult change to make, says Graves, both for an individual or a nation is from Five to Six [entering FS through to GT]. “This is tough,” he says, “because nothing is more frightening for a Five than to have to start thinking for himself. It’s only when you get to be a Six [entering GT] that you start to see the world as it really is.””

He also reports that:

“…Graves noticed certain similarities between odd and even numbered levels. Odd numbered people, it appeared, were trying to adjust to their environment, while even numbered people were attempting to change it. At this point Graves noticed another phenomenon: there appeared to be a marked similarity between Ones and Sevens. Both were passive, both tended to a rather mystical type of thought, though on vastly different intellectual levels. Graves now believes Sevens may actually be Ones on a brand new ladder of levels, and that unlimited cycles of new levels may develop in the future.”

The first part of this statement touches on the the cyclic nature of the theory – adjust to what is or to attempt to change it. (Graves also thought there might be a brain hemisphere dominance component to this, a question as yet unresolved.) The latter part addresses the much-promoted First Tier / Second Tier split, as well as suggesting good reason to remain skeptical about its importance or validity while pointing out the open-ended nature of the theory.

In these Maclean’s excerpts we can see the Gravesian approach described as an effort to understand how people think about a thing. Despite the title, it is not an attempt to find a total grand unification, but to approach a more cohesive view of human behavior and the how’s and why’s of our ongoing search for theories of everything. Even with add-on bits, that’s also what our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs are about.

Indeed, the need to find a singular truth and a ‘master’ explanation rings of the battles fought as the Enlightenment sought to break the bonds of absolutism and metaphysical certitude centuries ago. We are still engaged in those skirmishes between surety and ambiguity, between the authoritarian and the relative – all done as if they must be mutually exclusive rather than coincide.

Graves, himself, made no pretense of discovering the explanation for existence through his research. He always took such talk with a nudge and a wink, having seen so many others fall into the trap of allness illness and grandiose views of their own intellectual prowess. He was a student of human nature and behavior in its many forms. Applying his work to himself, he usually placed himself in the DQ-ER range seeking to break out. According to Steed’s article:

“I was reared in a very severe Third level world,” he says. “And that takes a lot of breaking out of. My problem is that which confronts most of us – to a certain extent I’m held in bondage by the conditions of my own existence. Once I can get the problems of my own financial security solved, and provide for my family, then I’ll be able to start operating at a higher level. I’d dearly love to be a Six or a Seven but it’s pretty tough when you’re teaching for a living.”

Thus, his work was descriptive rather than prescriptive. Graves did not pretend to embody anything more than a keen intellect and curiosity, and a “mind out of its time” in some respects. His model was drawn from messages embedded in his data, not inspiration. He was well aware of his own limitations and the existential conditions which shaped his working life. He wanted to resolve his own confusion and put the contradictions to rest by going a step beyond them – a meta-theory. Spiral Dynamics was written to illustrate possible applications and to popularize that point of view.

Today, we continue to see the quest for ultimate organizing principles and the theory which can pull everything together into oneness, the grand unified field. Indeed, the need for the answer – a singular truth – is a marker of existential levels which are still strong among us, old themes dressed up in contemporary outfits. Now, books and entire movements are organized around the drive to touch the infinite and expressions of those levels; and more will be forthcoming. Such a belief can be incredibly comforting, just as many find faith in eternal life makes the awareness of mortality tolerable. Yet, while efforts to turn the Spiral model and the Spiral Dynamics brand into a theory of everything are appealing to many, such goals contradict the open-ended nature of the point of view and stretch the work beyond it’s limitations.

The world of “Spiral Dynamics”, itself, is presently conflicted and “…divided into rival factions, each group claiming that it is right and the others are wrong,” just as Graves described things in 1967. Integration and differentiation are poised as if they were adversaries rather than cohabitants. Many are understandably “perplexed and confused,” a condition which is not pleasant for those whose comfort rests with the absolute and the certain and whose search is for the answer to the meaning and purpose of life.

For some, that is still simply called God or Allah, or even paraphrased as “The Spiral” with attributes of quasi-divinity. Such is the only answer needed – a ‘theory of everything’ can be encapsulated within a word or clear belief. For others, as they slide along the trajectory described above from Three toward Four and Five, the first step is to rediscover God-ness within the self as they consolidate scientific and intellectual gleanings, re-crafted on their own terms, in the ongoing contest to explain why we are as we are, once and for all. These tend to be ‘theories of everything’ framed in thousands of arcane words trying to prove the unprovable with certainty. The need for all of this is a curiosity, in itself.

In many ways the dynamics of the search do not change, but we do seem to slide ever so slowly toward new mindsets and fresh conceptions of what living is about, and toward tolerance for greater ambiguity and relativism, overall.

“…As he sets off on each quest, he believes he will find the answer to his existence, and as he settles into each nodal state he is certain he has found it. Yet, always to his surprise and ever to his dismay he finds, at every stage, that the solution to existence is not the solution he thinks he has found. Every state he reaches leaves him discontented 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.”  (Clare Graves, NEQ, p. 475)

Thus, the evolution of ‘theories of everything’ will be exciting to watch through the Graves/SD lens as each represents a set of human problems and the search for ‘the’ solution continues to reframe old answers as well as to evolve and broaden in new contexts. Ask how each try at a theory is being conceptualized, not how fanciful or complicated it is, and whether it finds simplicity which is not there or opens doors to fresh thinking.


2)  What does POA stand for?

POA is a model which encompasses three factors in what Dr. Graves described as the entry style for managers based on workplace studies.* The POA notion can be applied to leadership, as well, but was never intended as a marker of the “great leaders”, only an important competent for anyone moving into a new situation.

The four looping phases of management are entry, analysis, congruence, and growth. The entry phase requires that the new manager (or leader) moving into a situation sets a positive tone so s/he can get a quick feel for what’s going on. This manager works to exhibit three things:  a degree of politeness (i.e., being decent, civil, respectful, and courteous), of openness (i.e., being informative, genuine, authentic, and engaged), and autocracy (i.e., willingness/capacity to be decisive, to be proactive, and to assume responsibility for the task s/he has taken on). Graves called this the entry style.

In our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® seminars, we teach this as “P-O-A”. Think of a 3-legged stool. The legs need to be reasonably aligned to keep balance. If any is too long or too short, the stool topples. Very Aristotelian. Having the stool fall over is not invariably a bad thing, but it makes the next phases very difficult because POA sets a tone where phase 2 analysis can be accomplished and the persona of the manager doesn’t interfere with assessment and observation of people and systems. Then follows phase 3, matching people, purpose, processes, etc., so that the work to be done and the people doing it are in sync – congruence. Then, according to the Graves theory, successful operation will most likely introduce new problems requiring new thinking. That’s where phase 4 growth comes in to deal with the new conditions, potentially changed people, and systems that might need to be reshaped to fit altered conditions. Then it’s back to entry – and emphasis on POA to engender stability and confidence. POA never goes away at any phase, but emphasizing it is critical to set the tone for entry, and to maintain a healthy culture.

Derived in “The Congruent Management Strategy” by Graves, Madden & Madden – available at www.clarewgraves.com


3)  How does Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis approach relate to Spiral Dynamics and Gravesian theory?

Transactional Analysis (TA) is a wonderful complement to SD and EC (Graves’s emergent cyclical) theory because it clarifies the affect component and some key personality and temperament variables. TA provides a useful model for exploring relationships and interpersonal dynamics, and the TA approach can even be applied in organizations, much as SD is applicable at the individual, group, and societal levels.

Eric Berne was a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. His popular book, Games People Play, and his last book, What Do You Say After You Say Hello?, set the tone for his social psychology, TA. Derivative works came from Thomas Harris with I’m OK, You’re OK and Muriel James whose Born to Win also elaborates and applies the model. While Graves was probably well aware of Berne (and Harris’s very popular application ), he doesn’t cite them, perhaps because his work in development had moved away from therapeutic models and personal growth approaches. Graves was focusing on development in terms of stages, and Berne’s work was rooted in behavioral differences at a level. So Berne would fall more in the area of temperament aspects of personality and relational issues, whereas Graves was trying for the deeper systems in which temperament resides and on which the relationships Berne describes rest. Both are useful.

Berne’s work is group-oriented and focused on observing behavior through the lens of interpersonal and social dynamics as people shift ego states. He also describes transactions, strokes, games, scripts, and contracts for facilitating positive change built around them. Ego states (parent, adult, and child) are interacting packages of feelings, ideas, and actions which set a tone for personality as the person engages them, most easily recognized in a social dynamic. The transaction that results is the central unit of interpersonal communication and the vehicle for analysis via ego states and their patterns of interactions within and between people. In a dysfunctional, growth-limiting form, the transaction becomes a game; and these psychological games can become an ongoing lifestyle in themselves. Along with a description of basic principles, Berne identified some common games and their patterns of dysfunction in his first best-selling book, thus the title.

In TA language, a stroke is a unit of interpersonal recognition and can be positive or negative (a discount). Teaching healthier, more supportive ways of giving interpersonal strokes is an aim of TA practice in coaching and teaching, parenting, and therapy. TA scripts are formed in childhood and become patterns of behavior and relationships played out for life. These can be self-limiting decisions which continue to arise and impact future choices negatively. If they are profound, scripted instructions might well remain embedded even as the person moves through Gravesian levels, playing out in varying ways. One of the goals of TA in psychotherapy is to recognize and revise scripts and their consequences. Therapy to revise scripts would benefit from recognition of the SD level involved.

A key aspect of therapeutic growth is recognizing and revising these scripted patterns. For Graves, the emergence of each level subsumes previous systems without erasing prior experience, though possibly reframing it. In a sense, a change in Gravesian levels potentially rewrites pre-existing scripts to new versions which must then be dealt with in an appropriate way for that level to the extent they still have impact. This sort of transformation would be both significant and challenging for both helper and helpee.

SD/ Graves speaks of levels of psychological existence—biopsychosocial systems in an emergent hierarchy. There is not an equivalent for ego states within the Graves model, although ego states clearly play out within and among the levels as people interact. Thus, the parent, adult, and child (with their subsets) exist in particularizable forms for BO, CP, DQ, etc. (Perhaps in limited versions for AN, though that is open to debate.) Graves’s concept of schema (particular manifestations of systems in persons in context) is closer to Berne’s life scripts.

For example, in DQ the nurturing parent and controlling parent represent stylistic differences. These are often confused with systems differences and the nurturance attributed to FS. Similarly, the controlling parent side of FS can be falsely ascribed to DQ. The adaptive child in ER is similar to aspects of CP, yet the underlying systems are quite different in cognitive complexity, ability to sensate guilt, and intention. Some of the confusions which occur with the SD community could be greatly clarified with an understanding of Eric Berne’s differentiation of ego states, transactions, and games. The tendency to collapse everything into simplistic typology or faux unity would be reduced if more practitioners had a grasp of TA principles.

Finally, the contract is an agreement to work on positive change made between a helper and helpee from the view that people are capable of deciding to live for-better rather than for-worse. The interpersonal dynamics are central to TA interventions, just as many TA oberrvations are best made in a group context.

There are some significant differences between these two perspectives. Gravesian levels are more elaborated systems and worldviews, with EC theory’s thema being both broader and deeper categories than what Berne describes as ego states and scripts. At the same time, ego states offer some useful distinctions of personality elements which are not embedded in SD, as well as a language for analyzing their interplay in transactions and games.

TA does not really propose a developmental hierarchy or sequence for change in terms of many dimensions which Graves considered important. It is a change-oriented model, but one more oriented toward change to better functionality and psychological well-being than transformation. Graves, on the other hand, is first and foremost a model for understanding and an explanatory theory around which to organize actions, and then a model for change when and if appropriate.

There are no steps and stages in the TA model, one reason it is relatively ‘safe’ and non-threatening. Instead, it seeks to foster movement from dysfunction to healthier living and a break with pathology to more effective adjustive behavior. In some respects, the goal is to enhance ‘maturity’ at a level and to improve coping strategies in that context. In the Gravesian theory, that change in behavior might alter either Helix I or Helix II sufficiently to contribute to a shift in levels if change is to be. While SD is first a tool for differentiation so as to design appropriate interventions and apply the most effective tools, it is also a sequential framework marked by increases in degrees of behavioral freedom and cognitive complexity through the systems. When abused, it becomes a weapon for sorting people on narrow dimensions.

Strokes take on unique forms and expressions with Gravesian levels, appropriate to those levels. These units of interpersonal recognition—either positive or negative—are meme carriers working within vMeme contexts. The response to the transferred meme (or basket of memes) is an indicator of level of existence, as well as of ego states. The meaning attributed to a stroke is a function of the perceptual system activated at a Gravesian level. This is why doing the same thing can be taken in very different ways with different results. This is a place where understanding Gravesian systems can contribute markedly to practitioners of TA.

TA identifies three basic types of transactions between people (and their ego states): complementary (balanced), crossed (with sup-types), and ulterior (duplex). While a discussion of these is beyond the scope of this commentary and widely available online and in the TA literature, note that attempts to make parallel the interaction of ego states with the interplay of personalities functioning at different Gravesian levels is problematic. To do so is to conflate the contents with the container rather than taking both into account at once.

A transaction between centralized DQ and DQ might be complementary and balanced or conflicted and bellicose, depending on beliefs and memes involved. A transaction DQ to ER might be angry or collaborative, depending on the purpose of the interaction and the characters involved. An overt ER to ER transaction with an ulterior Parent/Child element is confounding—common on The Apprentice—just as a veneer of A’N’ Yellow-speak painted over a set of DQ or ER premises is deceptive, and often effective with the gullible.

A crossed transaction in TA terms which also crosses Gravesian levels is an explosive thing. At the same time, balanced ego states tapping different Graves levels (controlling parent Blue to controlling parent Green, for example) might produce conflict which can be framed as a values-based differences, or surprising collaboration framed as common ground. This phenomenon has produced a great deal of buzz because it’s been so misunderstood as authoritarians clash for and against dogma. Others are the confusion of adapted child behavior with CP, nurturing parent with FS, and adult with A’N’.

Bridging across the models to relate ego states to Gravesian levels appears easy at the superficial level: parent—DQ, BO/FS; adult—GT, perhaps ER; and child— BO/CP, ER, GT? But that’s also to do a disservice to the complexity of both models since it relies on stereotypes rather than substance and fails to differentiate among the expressions in both. For example, the ‘controlling parent’ takes a different form at different levels; the adapted child plays out in various ways; the adult might simply be the full use of the neurobiological resources available to the person in context with appropriate emotions. Sometimes, emotional muting is confused with the Adult ego state.

There is an inner/outer focus shift in Berne’s approach, as well as Graves’s, between attention to input from the external and adaptation of our internal being to it. For Berne, it differentiates ego states. For Graves, it is the cyclic engine which helps to drive the emergent process of new systems’ awakenings.

Berne warned of unconscious, uncompromising internal drivers that sometimes grab people: Hurry up; Be perfect; Please people; Try hard; and Be strong. He warned that these can become compulsions. There is some relationship between these and several vMemes. (Recall that Graves proposed one of the transitional elements from subsistence to being levels to be a break with compulsiveness.) The analytical challenge would be to ask why it is a driver, and what the form of and energy behind its drive is. For example, “hurry up” sounds very ER, but it could be in compliance to dictates of authority—”Can’t you people hurry up?!” Or to solve a pressing social problem—”We must solve the HIV crisis and stop delaying while profiteers in the drug business kill people.” Likewise, to try hard can be operationalized in different ways at different levels, for different reasons. To please people sounds very sacrifice-self (cool colors) and affiliation oriented, but it can also be an adaptive mechanism for obedience, a manipulative strategy for ER (please important people), a survival strategy for CP in a submissive mode or BO trying to fit within the group.

Thus, a one-to-one correlation would be very difficult; but the drivers as script elements can be informative. They would not vanish in the FS-A’N’ transition; instead, these drivers would become sub-factors and interdependent variables rather than central thematic elements. That is to say, there would be little compulsion about them and no sole-source power; instead, they would be parts of an elaborated complex.

These are all adaptive mechanisms designed (in Darwinian terms) to help the species survive and succeed. Taken to extreme, they are problematic. That’s one of the keys to understanding the evolution of the levels—they are coping strategies designed, both consciously and subconsciously, to aid survival as life conditions change. Both TA and SD illuminate the characteristics which differentiate us, and which lead us to conflict and confluence. They are complements, and many of the issues in both the SD community and the world at large are better understood with TA’s principles in mind.


4)  What do the pairs of letters (A-N, B-O, C-P, etc.) mean?

The letter pairs were Dr. Graves’s original terminology. His double-helix notion included conditions for existence in the milieu (life conditions in the Spiral Dynamics book) as the first letter—A, B, C, D, E, F, G (or A’), H (or B’), etc. The second letter—N, O, P, Q, R, S, T (or N’), U (or O’), etc.—identified the coping systems produced by the neurobiological equipment in the brain. To come up with the lists, he simply split the alphabet in half. For simplicity they are often written without the hyphen, though that link between the double-helix components can be a useful reminder that the levels are resultants on interaction between them.

Each ‘level of psychological existence’ is the product of the interaction of those elements, thus A with N such that the designations are A-N, B-O, C-P, D-Q, E-R, and F-S (plus either a continuation—G-T, H-U, etc., or primes like A’-N’, B’-O’), to describe the levels if one adopts the 6-after-6 tier perspective.

The letter pair language conveys more meaning than the colors because it conveys the interaction of the outer problems of existence outside with the inner mind/brain system, something basic to the theory. Although Dr. Graves used numbers 1 through 8 on occasion, he relied primarily on these letter pairs. We teach this as the primary label set in certification courses, followed by colors as a short-hand for the eight nodal states, since the alphabet labels permit discussion of something the colors don’t:  the critical entering and exiting transition states—an/BO, BO/cp, bo/CP, etc., where the systems blend. Of particular interest right now in the world are the DQ/er, dq/ER, ER/fs and er/FS zones. (Sometimes it’s easier to omit the hyphens so long as the double-helix aspect is still in mind.)

This idea of two interacting forces is essential to Gravesian theory and the foundational ‘dynamic’ of Spiral Dynamics. Both genetic predisposition and neuronal systems and experiences accrued in living contribute to shape who we are. The use of letter pairs (rather than colors or numbers) serves to emphasize this double-helix notion that sets this model apart from others that simply rely on typologies and traits. While there is a great deal to be done in the study in each of them, the energy of the convergence zones is also an area deserving considerable more investigation and rigorous research.

The corresponding colors are A-N Beige, B-O Purple, C-P Red, D-Q Blue, E-R Orange, F-S Green, G-T or A’-N’ Yellow, H-U or B’-O’ Turquoise, then C’-P’ as Coral, then Teal, then ?


5)  Why are there only eight systems or colors?

There aren’t just eight systems. Dr. Graves’ model is an open-ended theory with an unlimited number of systems possible. His original research picked up eight nodal states, and those are like the peaks of overlapping curves and represented with the eight-color code. While philosophers and spiritual teachers have tried to project even higher levels – and a few claim to have reached them – we lack evidence to describe any further with any confidence.

In between these archetypal nodal points are pairs of entering and exiting sub-states where most of the energy of living lies. Overlooking that is trap of using the eight-band color code that those who are well trained in the theory avoid. In fact, there are at least 21 distinct stages in the Graves emergent, cyclical model as it has developed so far (entering, nodal and exiting for each – see terminology). For many years, seven levels sufficed to introduce the theory. While Graves found limited evidence for it, his data were scant and B’-O’/8/Turquoise has only recently been included widely, although it has long been talked about. The eighth now seems to be emerging, though good research on its nature is still yet to be conducted, and most of what’s being said at this stage is guesswork because, in theory, an eighth must arise from the success and problems created by a seventh. We are still struggling with the sixth, much less a wide-spread presence of A’N’.

If the theory holds, then 9th, 10th, 11th and many more levels of psychological existence lie ahead in the human repertoire. In our opinion, any attempts to describe them at this point are pure conjecture and, more often than not, based in extrapolations from DQ religion, ER self-empowerment and stretched individualism, and FS neo-spirituality. The requisite existential problems needed to activate the more elaborated mind/brain systems have not appeared with sufficient clarity or urgency, and efforts to fuse philosophical and metaphysical hierarchies into the Gravesian perspective miss the point of the levels of psychological existence theory.


6)  Is the Spiral model hierarchical?

Yes, in several ways. Built into the theory are the notions of movement, expansion and increase in conceptual space. Each new system subsumes the ones that came before, carrying forward elements of the past and putting a new face and new mind at the forefront. Thus, the form of a growing, expanding spiral. However, it is not a hierarchy in terms of intelligence, temperament or many other dimensions that ebb and flow throughout the Spiral. People don’t become more or less decent, wise, or worthwhile as they move along it; different intelligences rise and fall in importance. “Up” is not invariably better, and “down” is not invariably worse; the question is, what kind of thinking is congruent with the realities at hand, and what creates satisfaction in living?

That said, the awakening of each new system opens the opportunity for inclusion of more elements, but does not guarantee it. Each builds on what comes before, then adds a new set of priorities and a shift in viewpoint. Although Graves frequently spoke of vertical directionality—“up” to “higher” levels—there’s no reason why the model can’t as easily go sideways, downward or layer out from a middle like an onion. The preference for verticality is more a cultural leaning (“heavens above”) than a theoretical factor.

This is not a sack of marbles of different colors that can be sorted by size and tossed around willy nilly. The bag-of-marbles metaphor is inadequate because there is a sequence in the emergent process. It becomes far too easy to see the Gravesian levels, especially when couched as vMemes, as discrete particles that can be plinked individually rather than as interconnected elements in a whole that makes up personality. That’s the typology trap. A more accurate image requires morphing—new marbles grow from old ones—and the whole group spins like a top so that all the colors begin to form an overlapping pattern as the marbles become indistinct parts of a whole. That top, of course, becomes a spiral.


7)  Is there a timeline for systems emergence?

The Spiral  model isn’t chronological, unlike others which propose life passages or phases predicated on age. In other words, one level doesn’t appear at age 2, then 3, another at 7, a third at 18 and something else at 25 or 45 or 95. The level depends on the combination of existence problems and neuronal capacities, not the calendar. Dr. Graves always deferred to Piaget and the child development theorists to understand which personality characteristics arise early on and can be correlated with developmental stages in children. His interest was in the ‘mature’ human being, though early forms of these systems certainly do show up as children develop, and many of the principles apply.

The Spiral is a model of the mature adult personality in operation that strives to explore differences in people after the hormonal and developmental stages of infancy, childhood and puberty have finished. While there is a sequence—and some theorists maintain phases—in adulthood, the Gravesian timeline is quite fluid. Systems rise and fall as people readjust to shifting life conditions and neurology changes. It is this flexibility—the interaction between life conditions and coping means to produce coping systems—that sets Dr. Graves’ point of view apart. Thus, two people at ages 19 and 90 might share the same coping system; or another pair at age 32 be poles apart in how they think about things.

Dr. Graves did play with a historical sequence in the appearance of systems as they come to prominence as the leading cultural edges in the species Homo sapiens. Some of this was borrowed from the work of John Calhoun, Abraham Maslow, Lewis Mumford, Gerald Heard, and others who tried to explore the emergence of humankind. Many people cite the intervals Graves discussed, though he treated them more as metaphor and curiosity than a serious aspect of theory. The approximate times for the appearance of systems through history as reported in a graphic found in his writings are: A-N >100,000 years ago, B-O 40,000; C-P 10,000; D-Q 4000; E-R 1400; F-S 80; A’-N’ 30 years ago (as of 1980). Dr. Graves felt that B’-O’ was just beginning to appear in his day.

Note the apparent acceleration of change in these numbers. The time curve, if plotted, rises steeply after E-R. Then comes the question whether it will continue to accelerate toward an ideal state and finish as many in the spirituo-religious community propose, or again level off to start the slow rise in a next way, the view more congruent with Gravesian theory. Maintaining the view that human nature is an open-ended process (up to the evolutionary limits of the organism), Graves hypothesized that it would flatten with A’-N’. As a correlate of A-N, the time required for resolution of such profound survival problems of life on earth and the complexities presented by the previous six systems’ coexistence that would take a while to sort out. Thus, he projected a relatively longer prominence for A’-N’, somewhat shorter for B’-O’, etc. Whether this is the case or not is yet to be discovered. It is clear that twenty five years later, we are still dealing with political scandals, genocides, aggressive wars, and terrorism, not to mention climate change, shifts in earth’s magnetic field, and an unsustainable environment if we continue on course. Despite a lot of talk and some good efforts, not a lot has changed since Dr. Graves’s day.


8)  What’s the highest level? Coral?

Dr. Graves’s theory and the Spiral model are open-ended processes. There is no final state or top of the Spiral, no stage of completeness or perfection for human nature. Turquoise is the current edge of Graves-based data, so Coral is merely the last color picked from the paint box and open to all sorts of imaginative interpretations.

This is not a Spiral toward spiritual revelation and transcendent being as some would wish. The Spiral opens up and widens; it does not focus down to a pinnacle or finish. The “future” from each level is the next in the sequence; each is more expansive because it adds something to those which come before. The future for the Spiral is the passage to more and more systems in the human repertoire. Unless we do something incredibly stupid or a cosmic accident occurs, the process will continue for a long, long time.

Successful living at each level produces the new existential problems and energy to look to the next system. Graves’ letter pairs include the first tier of A-N through F-S; the second tier of primes A’-N’ through F’-S’; the third tier of double-primes (A”-N”, etc.) and so on.

In the color language of Spiral Dynamics , there’s Yellow, then the ever-popular Turquoise, Coral, perhaps Teal, Plum, Aubergine and a whole spectrum of others. (Be aware that use of letter pairs is far superior to colors when describing the nuances of the theory as Graves’ Helix I and Helix II forces interact.) The repeating pattern of 6-on-6 was a hypothesis; not a demonstrable fact. We believe the “tier” language has become vastly overblown and distorted, and now tend to avoid it.


9)  Where can I read about the third tier (double prime) levels—A”N”, B”O”, etc.?

As far as credible online reading about “the double primes,” there is none. There’s barely anything on the first two single-prime levels that we can recommend as valid. That such levels would come to be was pure conjecture on Dr. Graves’ part as he projected what might be if human nature continued on track.

While some people have produced ‘inflationary’ versions of the Graves theory with all sorts of metaphysical guesswork and philosophical hypothesizing, the existing data show little evidence of systems operating beyond A’-N’ and B’-O’. Graves did not venture further and was even hesitant about those.

Are there other states of being and transcendent entities who cross dimensions of time and space like existential cockroaches scurrying about on the plane of consciousness? Who knows? The theory states that new neurobiological systems are awakened by the awareness of new, unresolved existential problems in the milieu. For a more complex level of human existence to actually be, those more complex problems of existence must be recognized and felt.

Once someone can explain those in a meaningful way and demonstrate their impact, we’ll be prepared to say that human nature has gone beyond the D-Q/E-R/F-S centralization that typifies most of our doings. Until then, there is no point in playing games with most of the single primes beyond B’-O’, much less a third rendition.

The Graves theory (in its last incarnation and upon which the Spiral model is based) was of six systems layered on six. There have been cute and clever efforts by assorted gurus and pundits to shortcut that into various other forms, none of which reflect the model very accurately. Imagine, if you will, what it will take for human nature to create a world that activates even C’-P’ as a post-holism state, much less D’-Q’, E’-R’, F’-S’ in order to lead to A”-N”.

We are still struggling with D-Q in the mid-East, with the impacts of surging E-R as corporate predators gain ownership of life and ideas, and the very beginnings of FS as collective action to address human ills is debated ad infinitum in UN forums and think tanks while masses starve and kill each other in the name or religion, greed or ethnicity.

We still hurl chunks of heavy metal toward each other at high velocities to resolve international disputes. We still lament starvation and do virtually nothing about it. We argue in this country whether health care and a decent chance at a normal lifespan is a privilege for the rich or a right for all citizens. And nobody is quite sure what the ecology of the planet is like or what it will take to destroy or refresh it.

We humbly suggest attention to these matters of F-S and the actual nature of the A’-N’ that success with F-S might produce. (It’s still just forming and a point of centralization for a tiny fraction of human kind. What are the real, important F-level existential problems?) The underlying question is whether this species as presently actualized has a chance of surviving  until B’ problems arise at a level to be seriously recognized and resolved—much less concerning ourselves with anything beyond that.


10)  Do people move up from one level to the next, like climbing stairs?

First of all, people don’t always move “up.” This theory is a two-way street; people move up and down and sometimes they stabilize for a long time. You can also turn the model sideways, reverse the “high” and “low” so expansion and growth are downward, or even construct it like an onion with concentric, expanding shells; so movement could be “over,” “up,” “down,” or “out.”

Remember that the system of behavior is based on the combination of existential problems from outside and neurobiological equipment on the inside. Sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to shift down to a lower level that better fits the realities at hand. “Up” (or to a next system in the hierarchy) is not invariably better, only a move to a more complex and elaborated system. Dr. Graves used both “existential staircase” and “ladder of existence” in his writings, but found both inadequate to describe the emergent, cyclical double-helix.

Rather than steps and stages, this emergent point of view suggests that previous ways of thinking and behaving don’t go away. They are subsumed beneath and into more complex systems that then form clusters. The older ways don’t disappear as new capacities are activated. Instead, they go into storage and, if the person is open, can be revived as necessary. This is particularly the case when people approach the A’-N’ range (GT or Yellow) where they can tap into a wider behavioral repertoire. A person is not at a level as if standing on a developmental staircase; the person functions with regard to an aspect of living in a particular way. There may be multiple subsystems at work; and the person might change, or not.

It’s also worth noting that either the life conditions (systems outside) or the neuronal system (systems inside) can shift with respect to each other so that while one “advances” or “recedes,” the other does not. The process is more akin to punctuated equilibrium than stair climbing, with the achievement of balance and congruence as goals.


11)  What is the “prime directive?”

Frankly, we have no idea, other than the one in the original “Star Trek” that prohibited tampering with other civilizations. (That must not be it, since most people interested in this theory are, by nature, tamperers with the human condition.) Humans centralized at each level along the Spiral will have a sense of priorities, so one can devise themes that might fit well with their thinking—directives to save people, control people, convert people, dominate people, grow people, know people, love people, transform people, etc.

Thus, there is a sort of prime direction toward more elaborated systems and even a prime director—the mechanism built into human nature that causes the double-helix forces to interact, evolve and grow. We are a curious species, and the problems our curiosity creates also moves us necessarily forward to behave and think in new ways.

Dr. Graves remarked: “I do suggest…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 any society’s governing figures should be to promote human movement up the levels of human existence.”

That’s not the same as a “prime directive;” but the quote does suggest that Dr. Graves believed in active facilitation of transitions toward more complex systems when appropriate and feasible since the complexity of our problems increases with living, and higher levels offer more degrees of freedom to choose appropriate behaviors. (Remember, the Spiral Dynamics change process goes both ways, though.) This view, in turn, should be put in the context of Dr. Graves’s own time and circumstances, since what is “prime” lies in the mind of the beholder and where it rests along the spiral. People centralized in different vMEMESs will project their own intentions onto the theory and use it in ways that fit the world in which they exist. Statements like “for the good of the whole spiral” and “so that each whorl of the spiral can be healthy and fulfilled” and “so people at each level can be the best they can within their circumstances” are all renditions of answers to the question.

The following quotation from Dr. Graves in NEQ clarifies his position on the D-Q through E-R transitions and the risk to human survival continued thinking and acting in those ways entails. We’re now observing the “fallout” of 4th/5th level existence with environmental and social systems nearing collapse while individual possibilities, personal opportunities and the variety of choices are at a high point for many. Extrapolations of this are sometimes couched as “second-tier” thinking, but that is a delusion. Attacks on the next stage in the hierarchy—F-S (Green)—serve to slow not accelerate this process since the door needs to be opened not closed. Despite talk of enlightenment, higher consciousness and spiritual enrichment, most of the “leadership of man”—political, corporate and religious—rests squarely in the range Dr. Graves addresses as follows:

“No words that I shall ever pen will be more condemned or less hailed than those which I shall now commit to paper. But be that as it may they must be written for the future of mankind may rest upon man’s ability to extricate himself from living within “The American Ways of Life,” those states for existence which come to be when the E-R – the selfishly independent system of human behavior – begins to emerge. This statement will be heretical to some, communistic to others and anarchistic to many. But let me explain what is meant by the assertion. This world, as we all know, is full of paradoxes, but of all that exist, the most paradoxical, it seems to me, is the one which arises when man’s need for independence begins to emerge. As man starts his transition from the absolutistic form for existence, the ordered, authoritarian, submissive way of life, and as man moves through the stage of independence on into the sociocentric ways for being, five definable and describable states of existence emerge one after another in our ordered hierarchical way. These five states, each of which has a strong flavor of selfish independence in them, have brought more that is good to man and more that is bad for him than all states of existence which preceded them. No states of existence, prior to these five, have given man more power over the physical universe, more verifiable knowledge or a greater increase in his material welfare than have they. But no states are more certain to pave the way for man’s demise than these five unless we can move, at least the leadership of man, beyond these states where man believes that the epitome of human living lies somewhere with one or some of the E-R states of existence.”


12)  Why don’t the numbers in the table on pp. 300-301 of the book, Spiral Dynamics, add up to 100 percent?

The numbers do not total to 100% because it was not meant literally, nor was it based on actual data. It was intended only as an illustration and impression, not a report of any research findings. The numbers in all three columns were created to make a point about geopolitics. The word “estimated” heads the numerical column, though “wild-ass guess”—WAG—might be more appropriate.

The table should have been labeled so as to make that clearer. Totals of 111.2 percent, 107 percent and 107 percent, along with rounded-off numbers, were meant to indicate that it’s symbolic, not an accurate representation of findings rooted in a well-gathered sample of Homo sapiens. The fact that it has been replicated, although without permission, is still regrettable.

Thus, an estimated population of 111.2 percent rather than something closer to 100 percent has been cited, and even reprinted, by people who don’t notice the mistake, who try to cover it over with silly rationalizations rather than ask why the discrepancy exists, who are satisfied with the metaphor, or who suggest revisions to tweak the numbers to precision based on who knows what. The table was designed NOT to equal exactly 100 percent, since it was made-up numbers based on impressions in the first place, and to suggest otherwise would have been deceptive. However, being off a full 10 percent was just sloppy arithmetic that went uncorrected.

There was actually a discussion between the co-authors as to the propriety of inserting numbers at all, much less to suggest a precise 100 percent, since they could be misconstrued as valid research findings rather than educated guesses. The idea would have been better presented without numbers as a graphical soft-edged pie chart, fuzzy bars or with overlapping waves more on the order of Dr. Graves’ original diagrams to suggest general trends rather than imply precision which is not there.

The point of it was to compare population with consumption and influence in world affairs. The broad proportions were derived from United Nations and other information interpreted through the Spiral lens. There is no vast database from which detailed conclusions can yet be drawn about humankind, though various agencies and organizations like the World Watch Institute provide good information which suggests trends. Even efforts to gather broad samples of human kind via the Internet have a obvious design flaws, namely the requirements of literacy, access to computers, and willingness to participate in online studies which would skew any data gathered that way.

Furthermore, assessment of levels of psychological existence is very difficult since they form a constantly moving picture full of mixes and transition states, and instruments rarely get at how and why a person thinks what s/he reports. It’s actually contrary to the theory to think that only eight categories would suffice to describe the complexities of human nature. Thus, the table is also a gross over-simplification that depicts generalizations as examples, though those generalizations are often useful starting points for further study.


13)  Is “Flatland” a construct from Spiral Dynamics or Graves?

The terms “Flatland” and Flatlander have gotten wide play of late describing people who see a narrow world with few alternatives and unrecognized dimensions. They are sometimes used as a metaphor for closedness in Gravesian terms, and sometimes to suggest that failure to incorporate more spiritual elements (typically, those attractive to the pundit) is a serious deficiency.

The idea, hardly new or original, is derived from Edwin A. Abbott’s wonderful 1884 publication, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, which is widely available on line. The little book is still an excellent read, and there is far more to it than a simple pejorative usage would suggest.


14)  Are magic and strong families evidence of Purple (B-O) in operation?

Because B-O (Purple) is unfamiliar, there are several common misconceptions around this system. Recall that Dr. Graves drew most of what he wrote about the second level from library studies, not field research. The depiction of Purple in Spiral Dynamics applications varies widely, and has changed over the years.

First off, look for the conflation of Purple with small groups. There are many kinds of small groups that exist for many reasons and occur at every level. So teams and community spirit are not reliable B-O markers. They’re really not very good markers of the cool-colored deny-self systems, for that matter, since people centralized in express-the-self ways often form organizations. Look for reciprocity and communal/collective thinking throughout the cool, mutuality-oriented even numbers; individuals cooperating without fusion in the warms. It’s how people think about the group and belonging to it that’s the differentiator. Who and what does groupness serve?

Along that line, humans begin as a pair-bonding species, and the family is as much an instinct as a cognitive decision. It’s a survival strategy that is adapted at more elaborated levels. We shape the kind of family it is based on Gravesian levels – expressions of family and relating to significant others – but a family unit is not necessarily a Purple sign.

Second, while the Purple (B-O) world is often described as a magical place, magic is not necessarily Purple. Magic means different things, and there’s a big difference between a mysterious world populated with invisible mysterious spirit beings and the willful exercise of magic to influence outcomes. Magical and mystical existence in the hands of unseen forces that determine outcomes are more a Purple (B-O) tone, whereas the exercise of magic from the human side to shape outcomes shifts toward Red (C-P) as wizards, witches, and magicians go to work.

With the Purple to Red transition, it becomes possible to master the mystery and direct the spirits – the gods and godlings – to do one’s will if one is but powerful enough. The shaman who interprets the signs and brings the ways of the ancestors into the present begins to take the form of a proactive agent who exercises will by exploiting the metaphysical and channeling the unseen energies to effect change. It is directive, not submissive.

Finally, early versions of SD training and writings misspoke about Purple Chieftains. That’s not a good portrayal. If there is a chieftain in a Purple-oriented community, it is more the role of facilitator and interpreted of the sacred ways, often in coordination with the elders. Sometimes it is an inherited position, sometimes chosen from the group. In any case, at Purple if there’s a chief, it’s with a little c. The Big Boss kind of Chieftain – the upper case C version – arises with the Purple to Red transition. Now the Chieftain is a power figure, one who can dominate and command. Reciprocity and group process are overwhelmed by egos as rugged individualists seek to rise above the others. These are two very different forms of chieftaincy. It’s important to see the difference.