Meet Dr. Graves

NVCC’s SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs are based on the theories, models, and work of Dr. Graves. The following encapsulates our approach: “The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change,” according to Dr. Clare W. Graves.

cwgraves1Clare W. Graves, Ph.D, was a visionary thinker who began laying the groundwork for the theory behind the SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs in the 1950s.  Dr. Graves was a specialist in theories of personality and their applications. He had worked in clinical settings, and sought to apply psychological principles to industrial and medical problems, as well as social development. In his teaching and research, he was confronted with a simple yet profound question: “Which theory can accurately depict the development of human nature?” Dr. Graves was born in 1914 in New Richmond, Indiana, and died in 1986. He graduated from Union College, Schenectady, NY, in 1940 and received his master’s degree and doctor of philosophy degree in psychology from Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He taught at Western Reserve before joining the Union College faculty in 1948.

Psychologists had searched for their own version of a unified field since Einstein’s forays in relativity physics. To reconcile the useful but conflicting theories of Maslow, Freud, Jung, Skinner, Rogers, Piaget, and so many others, Dr. Graves set out on a 30-year study to explore and explain human nature as it is and could be. Rather than just rehashing older psychological constructs or opening yet another debate between conflicting theories’ truths, Dr. Graves began searching for some deeper reasons behind the shifting views of human nature. He didn’t look to psychology alone, but searched anthropology, sociology, the neurosciences, philosophy, and the arts for underlying themes.

By bringing compartmentalized and competing disciplines together within an integrative systems frame that included his own elegant research, Graves found remarkable patterns. He was among the first to approach psychological development from what he termed a “biopsychosocial systems” perspective. He concluded that external life conditions (existential problems) trigger psychosocially congruent internal neurobiological equipment (mind capacities) to create a ‘level of psychological existence’—or worldview, or valuing system. Since each level of existence is a hidden, complex interaction of nature with nurture, that old either/or debate was essentially moot. Personality and behavior were a both/and proposition, no more either/or.

Dr. Graves developed a comprehensive model of adult biopsychosocial systems development—or “emergent cyclical levels of existence theory”—as well as practical applications for it. His theory suggests that every individual or collective consciousness falls somewhere in, between, or among these various levels of being which are not types of people but ways of thinking about a thing. When a managerial application was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1966, the theory attracted wide attention and Dr. Graves became the subject of several magazine and newspaper articles. Poor health abruptly stopped his major work in the late 1970s.

Originally, the Spiral Dynamics book was largely a simplification and popularization of Dr. Grave’s theory, which held that human behavior can be broken down into multiple patterns or levels of existence with corresponding managerial, educational, social, and developmental approaches. First called Value Systems Theory and Coping Systems, the point of view proved very useful for dealing with diversity and human factors. Although some practitioners have moved into spiritualism and other domains, we continue to believe there is great utility and untapped potential in this original view.

Dr. Grave’s theory is rooted in General Systems theory and developmental psychology, and concentrates on the variations of ‘the mature adult personality in operation’ with all its definitions, permutations, positive and negative traits. Because his work integrates the roles of biological/genetic factors, psychological factors and socio-cultural forces in the creation of these levels of existence experienced by individuals and groups, it bridges multiple knowledge sets and disciplines to pull many ways of knowing together.

The result is a work that Canada’s Maclean’s Magazine called “a theory that explains everything” way back in 1967. While he found the pretense of that amusing, Dr. Graves’s work does help to answer profound questions that psychologists, sociologists, therapists, managers, educators, politicians and others are still asking—while putting forth new intellectual challenges for them all.

Visit to read more about Dr. Graves in his own words.