Spiral Dynamics

Spiral Dynamics

"Spiral Dynamics" is a theory of human development introduced in the 1996 book "Spiral Dynamics" by Don Beck and Chris Cowan. The book was based on the theory of psychology professor Clare W. Graves, and originally targeted at a business management audience. The American author Ken Wilber has popularized these ideas in a series of books. "Spiral Dynamics" is a registered trademark of the National Values Center, Inc.


"Spiral Dynamics" argues that human nature is not fixed: humans are able, when forced by life conditions, to adapt to their environment by constructing new, more complex, conceptual models of the world that allow them to handle the new problems. Each new model includes and transcends all previous models. According to Beck and Cowan, these conceptual models are organized around so-called vMemes: systems of core values or collective intelligences, applicable to both individuals and entire cultures.

In spiral dynamics, the term "vMeme" refers to a core value system, acting as an organizing principle, which expresses itself through memes (self-propagating ideas, habits, or cultural practices). The prepended and superscripted letter "v" indicates these are not basic memes but value systems which include them.

According to supporters, applications of this model allow the experienced user to analyze both micro- and macro- systems of human and cultural behavior. Christopher Cowan and especially Don E. Beck committed several years to applying the theory of Spiral Dynamics in an extended experience in South Africa to bring an end to Apartheid. The racial tension was so severe that in order to avoid a simplification of the deep-rooted cultural tensions into merely 'black and white' issues, they developed a color scheme to aid in his communication of the theory. The colors act as reminders for the Life Conditions and Mind Capacities of each system and alternate between cool and warm colors as a part of the model.

Within the model, individuals and cultures do not fall clearly in any single category (color). Each person/culture embodies a mixture of the value patterns, with varying degrees of intensity in each. Philosopher Ken Wilber used the term 'Holon' to describe the state of not only representing the highest level of emergence obtained, but simultaneously inhabiting (at least a part of) each of the previous levels as well. Wilber references the notion of 'transcend but include' when speaking of the process of advancing to higher levels of development.

Spiral Dynamics claims not to be a linear or hierarchical model, although this assertion has been contested. According to Spiral Dynamics, there are infinite stages of progress and regression over time dependent upon the life circumstances of the person/culture, which are constantly in-flux. Attaining higher stages of development is not synonymous with attaining a 'better' or 'more correct' values system. Each stage can (co)-exist in both healthy and unhealthy states, whereby any stage of development can lead to undesirable outcomes with respect to the health of the human and social environment.

:I am not saying in this conception of adult behavior that one style of being, one form of human existence is inevitably and in all circumstances superior to or better than another form of human existence, another style of being. What I am saying is that when one form of being is more congruent with the realities of existence, then it is the better form of living for those realities. And what I am saying is that when one form of existence ceases to be functional for the realities of existence then some other form, either higher or lower in the hierarchy, is the better form of living. I do suggest, however, 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.:::— Clare W. GravesFact|date=July 2008

First tier vMemes

These vMeme levels are focused on different themes for existence, and include almost all of the worldviews, cultures, and mental attitudes up to today. New systems build on adaptations of previous levels and seek to solve problems created by living in those earlier ways. (Attaching concrete examples to these levels of psychological existence is difficult and often misleading because (a) there can be multiple reasons for the same behavior and (b) centralization in a single level regarding all aspects of living is rare. These are ways of thinking about things, not types of people.) Fact|date=July 2008


*From 100,000 BC on
*"Express self to meet imperative physiological needs through instincts of "Homo sapiens"."


Animistic-tribalistic magical-animistic Tribal order
*From 50,000 BC on
*"Sacrifice to the ways of the elders and customs as one subsumed in group."


Egocentric-exploitive power gods/dominionist
*From 7000 BC on
*"Express self (impulsively) for what self desires without guilt and to avoid shame."


Absolutistic-obedience mythic order—purposeful/authoritarian
*From 3000 BC on
*"Sacrifice self for reward to come through obedience to rightful authority in purposeful Way."(Amber is Ken Wilber's current name for Blue)


Multiplistic-achievist scientific/strategic
*From 1000 AD on (as early as 600 AD according to Graves and Calhoun)
*"Express self (calculatedly) to reach goals and objectives without rousing the ire of important others."


*From 1850 AD on (surged in early 20th century)
*"Sacrifice self interest now in order to gain acceptance and group harmony."

econd tier vMemes

The Spiral Dynamics theory sees the following systems as emerging levels that gradually move away from a focus on subsistence-level concerns of the First Tier, and towards a being-level existence. The existence of two different tiers of psychological development was introduced by the founder Graves. Cowan claims it is possible Graves introduced the tier system as a marketing instrument. Up to today there is no research evidence the two tiers exist. Cowan no longer supports the existence of two tiers but claims the only thing now known about the Yellow and Turquoise systems is that they are more complex versions of Orange and Green. The open-ended theory suggests that the levels Coral and beyond are not yet substantially formed and will solidify as a greater portion of society develops towards those memes.


*From 1950s on
*"Express self for what self desires, but to avoid harm to others so that all life, not just own life, will benefit."


*From 1970s on
*A sacrifice self-interest system which is still forming


According to Don Beck and Ken Wilber, each vMeme has both healthy and unhealthy versions. The pathologies are sometimes referred to as being "mean" as in "Mean Green vMeme" (MGM) or "Mean Orange vMeme" (MOM) . As examples, the MOM includes the extremes of capitalism like exploitation, environmental devastation and a general lack of ethics and sensitivity, while the MGM includes performative contradictions like anti-hierarchy, anti-competition, etc.

Cowan disputes that any credible evidence exists for the existence of the "Mean Green vMeme" and that it is a misrepresentation of the theory. While he recognizes the problems mentioned above, Cowan argues that they exist in other value systems as well, such that attaching them only to the Green vMeme is too simplistic. He considers the term "mean" to be inappropriate and a theoretical distortion when questions of adaptation or maladaptation, congruence or ineffectiveness are more to the point. Psychopathology potentially exists at all levels and is a different dimension.Fact|date=July 2008

Criticisms of Spiral Dynamics

Critics point out that the model's implications are political as well as developmental and that while the terminology of the theory is self-consciously inclusive, the practical implications of the model can be seen as socially elitist and authoritarian. [ [http://www.integralworld.net/index.html?meyerhoff-ba-5.html "Jeff Meyerhoff, Social Evolution"] ] In their work on the subject, Beck emphasizes that one of the characteristics of "tier two" individuals, also called "Spiral Wizards", is their ability to make superior decisions for all parties concerned and to manufacture consent for their approaches at lower levels using resonant terms and ideas. In addition to outlining an underlying developmental theory, "Spiral Dynamics" gives explicit suggestions to these "Wizards" for both consensual and non-consensual management of "lower-tier" individuals. One critic of Spiral Dynamics, Michel Bauwens, has argued that some conceptions of what it means to be "second tier" have come to resemble Nietzsche's idea of the Übermensch. [Michel Bauwens, "A Critique of Wilber and Beck's SD-Integral", P/I: Pluralities/Integration, no. 61: March 23, 2005] Co author Cowan no longer supports the ideas of his ex-partner Beck.

The emphasis Spiral Dynamics places on exercising power derived from greater developmental attainments has also been characterized as derivative of a number of other past political theories emphasizing decision-making by a select elite, including Plato's idealization of the philosopher king.Fact|date=September 2007 It should also be noted that, within this paradigm, Spiral Dynamics is itself characterized as a "second tier" concept, implicitly flattering those who support the theory and potentially inviting confirmation biases.Fact|date=September 2007

Further, some criticisms of Spiral Dynamics have been dismissed as expressions of lower-level memes, particularly the "mean green meme." This internal refutation of external critiques was one of philosopher Karl Popper's criteria for establishing that a system of belief is non-falsifiable and for distinguishing non-science from genuine scientific theory. [cite book | author=Popper, Karl R.| title=Open Society & Its Enemies| publisher=Princeton University Press| year=1971 | id=ISBN 0-691-01972-X .]

Some critics dispute the universality of deeper linear or emergent transitions as proposed in Spiral Dynamics, due to the high degree of variation they see among the surface expressions of human cultures over time. The claim that humans have changed systemically on psycho-social dimensions, such as self concept or the human propensity and reasons for self sacrifice, over the time period proposed in Spiral Dynamics, is not currently supported by mainstream anthropology, the social sciences, or evolutionary biology. [cite book | author=Tilly, Charles| title=Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons| publisher=New York Russell Sage Foundation| year=1984|]

Other theoretical elements

Clare Graves' original theory on which "Spiral Dynamics" is based was known as the "Emergent Cyclic Double-Helix Model of Adult Biopsychosocial Systems Development" or, more simply, the Emergent Cyclic Levels of Existence Theory (ECLET).Fact|date=July 2008 The colour system was added in the 1970's as a graphic element to decorate training materials used by Cowan and Beck. The term vMeme was introduced by Beck and Cowan in "Spiral Dynamics" where the color language replaced original Graves terminology. Graves had used letter pairs to refer to each level and had not considered any connection with memetics. Beck and Cowan emphasized 'change states' which are part of the Graves theory. They identify landmarks on the transformational path between the levels. Graves' original theory uses a double helix model to show the interrelatedness of an individual's perception of life conditions with their inner neuronal systems, producing a level of psychological existence. This double helix of two interacting forces is referred to as a spiral in 'Spiral Dynamics".

Further theoretical development

Following the release of their book, Beck and Cowan taught this theory in two courses, SDI and SDII. They ceased their formal working relationship in 1999.Fact|date=July 2008

Beck and Ken Wilber (with his integral theory) became interested in each other's work, resulting in Beck developing a branch of spiral dynamics that he calls Spiral Dynamics Integral. This version of the theory uses integral concepts such as the four quadrants. Beck is also associated with the spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen.Fact|date=July 2008 This approach continues to be applied and further developed in organisational and societal contexts.

Cowan does not subscribe to these developments and promotes a version of the theory which he describes as remaining more faithful to the original research of Clare Graves and extending from it. He continues to use the term 'Spiral Dynamics' to describe his work since he co-created it. With his partner, Natasha Todorovic, he has undertaken work in integrating Spiral Dynamics with NLP and other models, and in developing corporate strategy and practical applications.Fact|date=July 2008

Each of the external websites listed below promotes the organization of one of the two co-authors.



* "Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change", Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, 1996, ISBN 1-55786-940-5
*Robinson, DA, Goleby, M, & Hosgood, N 2006 "Entrepreneurship as a Values and Leadership Paradigm" Paper presented to Fourth AGSE International Entrepreneurship RESEARCH Exchange 7 - 9 February 2007 BGSB, QUT, Brisbane
* "The Never Ending Quest", Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorovic, 2005, ISBN 978-0-9724742-1-4

External links

* [http://www.spiraldynamics.com/ The spiral dynamics homepage]
* [http://www.clarewgraves.com Clare W. Graves homepage]
* [http://www.spiraldynamics.org/ Chris Cowan & Natasha Todorovic National Values Center Consulting]
* [http://www.spiraldynamics.net/ Don Beck, Spiral Dynamics Integral]
* [http://www.humanemergence.org The Center for human emergence] lead by Beck, Wilber and others uses Spiral Dynamics among other technologies.
* [http://www.spiraldynamicsintegral.nl/ Spiral Dynamics Integral information and activities in The Netherlands]
* [http://www.wie.org/spiral/ Flash introduction, audio, and articles on spiral dynamics]
* [http://info.worldbank.org/etools/bspan/PresentationView.asp?EID=353&PID=687 Stratified Democracy: The Cultural Dynamics of Nation Building in Afghanistan] Video with Don Beck on the World Bank website
* [http://humergence.typepad.com The Humergence Weblog]
* [http://www.astraea.net/holonics/holonics/holonicsintro.html An Introduction to Holonics]
* [http://www.astraea.net/holonics/holonics/astraeaspiral.html Tabular summary of emergent values in intelligent systems]
* http://www.humanemergencela.org/ Information available in spanish (informacion sobre este tema en español)

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