Spiral Dynamics: Memes, Worldviews & The Information Age
I first came across Spiral Dynamics during a late-night YouTube binge, thanks to my friend Bradley. The video entitled The Grand Model of Psychological Evolution ran an hour and twenty-six minutes long and I just so happened to have that kind of time on my hands because sometimes it’s late, I can’t sleep and okay, you’re right, I have nothing better to do. 🙂
The man speaking to me in the video was bald, wore a black shirt and soon lured me in with his charismatic persona. I was hooked.
The video that reeled me into Spiral Dynamics.
Fast-forward to after the video ended, and I’m sure this sounds crazy, but I felt a quantum leap in my cognitive state like I had ascended from out a valley to stand atop a mountain peak.
For what must have been three to five days, I walked around in a state of hyper-awareness with hardly a wink of sleep. I was simply too excited to learn what I had just learned and proceeded to obnoxiously spread this new idea to those around me who would entertain it.
Needless to say, this state faded and I soon fell back into my old ways. But the change had occurred—I had glimpsed what I perceived as something special!
From there, I couldn’t help myself. I fell deeper into the Spiral over the following months, listening to every podcast and video I could find (additional resources will be at the end of the post). I couldn’t get enough. I even went on to purchase the official Spiral Dynamics book, which I’m still working my way through (currently on page 150/350, I’m a slow reader)…
Spiral Dynamics, the book. I *had* to get it…
Anyways, what came out of my studies of Spiral Dynamics is still processing and I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned so far—the model of Spiral Dynamics beginning with a relevant and thought-provoking scenario that now faces every one of us. Allow me to paint you a picture with the colors of the Spiral…
Welcome to the Age of Information. Thanks to social media, we now live in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to isolate from each other’s seemingly opposing worldviews. The ostrich strategy of sticking one’s head into a hole in the ground (which is something ostriches don’t actually do, apparently) no longer holds the same success it once did. The line dividing our online and offline worlds grows increasingly blurred. What happens in one realm spills into the other and we’re forced to contend with each other’s ideas, no matter how unpleasant we might find them.
It’s reached a boiling point where the world feels wobbly, our psyches unstable, and it’s difficult to even know what’s true, what’s a joke, what’s ironic or what’s certain. If we’re going to survive the Age of Information, it will require a leap forward in human consciousness.
So, let’s start with memes…
MEMES, WORLDVIEWS & LIFE CONDITIONS
Today, humans plug into the internet to become hosts for memes.
Memes are bits of information that communicate something of perceived value. They latch to our psyches where they are then shared and spread like viruses. And as you already know from browsing social media, no one is safe from memes!
Kinda like that.
Memes circulate the internet but can just as easily spread in the physical world. The phenomenon is nothing new. Ideas spread and have done so for thousands of years since the inception of language. The only difference is today’s contextual backdrop: the technological advances, the rate at which ideas spread, the sheer volume and differences of ideas, and our inability to handle this change at the psychological, organizational and societal levels.
But have you ever stopped to consider why you find certain ideas more valuable than others? It’s kind of a strange question to ask, but the answer is that you find certain memes valuable because they are compatible with your existing worldview.
Drake understands the mechanics of worldviews.
And this is what we’re here to discuss: worldviews—how people think and why they adopt the values they do.
Here’s how building a worldview works, according to Spiral Dynamics:
Your worldview is biological, psychological and sociological. As you go about life you come into contact with various bits of information from your environment (family, friends, society) which then coalesce to form an overarching worldview.
The memes of language, music, philosophy, religion, politics, and sports squiggling into your worldview.
Worldviews act like magnets. They attract bits of information in alignment with our existing worldview and repel the bits that aren’t. This is why worldviews once solidified are difficult to change. Organisms take great care in crafting a stable worldview, which becomes part of their identity and will go to great lengths to protect homeostasis. Any disrupting forces to a static worldview are either ignored, shunned or demonized. It’s common for the host to label these incongruent memes as evil, harmful, dangerous, silly, repulsive or disgusting. It’s only when this organism reaches a transformational dilemma that it might consider change and open up to these worldviews (more on this later).
Another important characteristic that heavily influences that your worldview (aka what you find valuable and thus the memes you allow into your mind) is your perceived Life Conditions: the time, place and setting in which you live.
Think Maslow’s Hierarchy:
Remember this thing?
Imagine you wake up in the middle of the Sahara desert with no belongings. There’s someone next to you. They start talking about the 2020 United States Presidential election. What do you do? It’s likely you would not only repel their memes but perhaps their mouth along with it—if only you could find some tape…
If your basic needs aren’t met, politics are off the table. Certain Life Conditions allow us to consider certain worldviews.
Life Conditions are also the reason someone living in the jungles of the Amazonian Rainforest will have a vastly different worldview compared to someone sleeping in a high-rise apartment in downtown Brooklyn, and so too across stretches of time.
Memes, Worldviews and Life Conditions are foundational concepts of Spiral Dynamics, but where did these ideas come from? Let’s discuss briefly…
THE GRAVES MODEL—A STUDY OF WORLDVIEWS
The origin of Spiral Dynamics dates back to the 1960s starting with a guy named Dr. Clare W. Graves, a psychological researcher and colleague to Abraham Maslow, the same fellow from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow would later admit the superiority of the Graves Model).
Disillusioned and fed up with the world of academia, Graves embarked on a major research project where he interviewed people across cultures, asking questions like what makes the world go round? and how do you define a mature human being?
What he discovered was that:
“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” —Clare Graves (Spiral Dynamics, pg 28)
Basically, human beings go through a maturation process in how they think, with increasing complexity, nuance and shades of grey in accordance with their environment. His findings originated The Double Helix Theory that states there is an interplay between the environment (Life Conditions) and a human’s response to it (Mind Capacities). He noted eight different levels of responses, which represent the eight stages of Spiral Dynamics.
Graves passed in 1986 but his research was further developed and popularized by two dedicated followers of Graves: Don Beck and Chris Cowan, who added the Spiral image, the color scheme and coined the term Spiral Dynamics. These guys also integrated the work of British biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (The Evolving Self) into the model, both responsible for language like “memes” and “levels of psychological existence.” A man named Ken Wilber later adapted a similar but separate model under the name Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi).
The Spiral (self-expressive worldviews on the right, self-sacrificial worldviews on the left)
Spiral Dynamics is a data-based, psychological approach to understanding worldviews. Moving up the spiral means expanding one’s circle of concern and thinking with greater complexity.
Spiral Dynamics is unique compared to other models in that it is not about labeling ‘types’ of people and instead gives more consideration into how people think, in a certain context, at a certain level.
Before we explain the stages themselves, there are few key characteristics of the Spiral:
– Stages apply to individuals, organizations and societies. Just as an individual goes through an evolutionary process of maturation, so too do organizations and societies.
– A color is assigned to each stage/worldview. There are eight of them: Beige, Purple, Red, Blue, Orange, Green, Yellow, Turquoise.
– Two tiers divide the eight known stages. We will discuss this later.
– No stage is better than another stage. More complex levels of thinking aren’t always desirable. Situational context is important and certain stages might better suit the perceived Life Conditions of certain organisms.
– This is also not to say all worldviews are equal. Certain perspectives are more useful than others depending on the context. There are some pretty crazy, unhelpful perspectives out there. But in Spiral Dynamics, worldviews are not good or bad…
– They instead manifest as healthy (open) or unhealthy (arrested/closed). A healthy worldview is one that is open and accepting of new information from different worldviews and thus able to move up the spiral (will disclose this shortly 🙂 ), where an unhealthy worldview is closed-off, judgmental and unable to increase its cognitive development. Knowing an organism’s color alone isn’t as useful as knowing how it’s manifesting (OAC).
– The stages are less concerned with content and more about the container of the content. i.e. The worldviews of an absolutist atheist and an absolutist Christian are diametrically opposed, but they share the lack of ambiguity. It’s not necessarily what an organism thinks that’s important but how it thinks. Another example is that Christianity potentially exists at all stages.
– The stages aren’t black or white. No person, organization or society is wholly one stage. We are a complex mix of elements from each stage. Nuance and complex thinking must apply. Stages can also ‘brighten’ or ‘dim’. Organisms are capable of regressing to lower stages to suit life’s moment to moment situations. Ex. If a child is walking toward a fire, complex thinking probably isn’t desirable and lower stage behavior would be helpful in this case.
– You don’t get to skip stages. One must include and transcend the stages below it. Just as an organism consists of atoms, then cells, then organs, so too must lower level worldviews be integrated before moving up. The precluding elements are essential and act as a foundation. Similarly, a newborn infant cannot skip the stage of being fully dependent on a provider.
– Each worldview has a transformational dilemma, a barrier it must face to advance to the next stage. This arises out of the limitations of an organisms existing worldview.
– As an organism advances up the Spiral, there is a pendulum-like swing between self-expressive and self-sacrificing worldviews. The organism’s concern shifts from individualistic to collectivistic from stage to stage.
Okay, now let’s take a deeper look at the stages, their respective examples and transformational dilemmas:
STAGES OF EXISTENCE
First emerged: ~150,000 years ago (self-expressing)
The first stage of Spiral Dynamics is Beige—existential. It is Pure Survival of the organism. Take action now to get survival needs met. Satisfy instinctive urges. Biologically driven.
Beige examples include infants/newborns, mentally ill, senile elderly, Alzheimer’s.
The Transformational Dilemma of Beige is that chances of survival increases by forming groups, which brings us to…
Emerged: ~50,000 years ago (self-sacrificing)
The second stage of Spiral Dynamics is Purple—animistic.
Purple examples include belief in the supernatural, ghosts, spirits, demons, voodoo, magic | sacrificial rituals, rites of passage | one-year-olds | connection to the family unit.
The Transformational Dilemma of Purple is that there is a greater chance of acquiring more/better resources by rising to power; it becomes too identified with the tribe and desires to claim independence; Swings to self-expressing…
Emerged: ~10,000 years ago (self-expressing)
The third stage of Spiral Dynamics is Red—egocentric. This stage takes at the cost of others and for its own gain. Seeking power, domination and indulgence.
Red examples can include dictators, authoritarian regimes, gang leaders, the mafia, criminals, con-artists, rebellious youth, and the “terrible twos” (but remember, it’s the context, not the content that’s most important. Benevolent criminals might exist (ex. Robin Hood), but these stages tend to attract certain examples over others.
The Transformational Dilemma of Red is that impulsive, short-term thinking is disastrous in long-run; unintentionally hurts the organism and those close to it (backfires); needs more people and organization for improved results; thus, swings to self-sacrificing…
Emerged: ~6,000 years ago (self-sacrificing)
The fourth stage of Spiral Dynamics is Stage Blue—absolutist. Blue thinks, “I know the absolute truth.”
Blue values certainty, discipline, stability, accountability, honor, sacrifice now for the future, obedience for delayed gratification (emergence of guilt).
Blue examples include the rise of civilization, law and order, belief in God and the Devil, fundamentalism, literalists, pre-modernism, parts of the Islamic world, the Bible belt, top-down hierarchical and bureaucratic structures, black-and-white thinking, unquestioned faith, punishment by death.
The Transformational Dilemma of Blue is that white & black thinking doesn’t work in a grey world; caste systems become oppressive; plagues cause a crisis of faith; the organism becomes hungry for personal success, and thus…
Emerged: ~800 years ago (self-expressing)
The fifth stage of Spiral Dynamics is Stage Orange—multiplistic.
Orange values individualism, self-sufficiency, modernism, materialism, strategy, achievement, competition, democracy, free speech.
Examples include corporations, departments, heads of state, branches of government, conservatives, Republicans, the scientific method, experiments, technological innovation, investigative, questions authority, success-oriented, profit, fiscal responsibility, status, awards, and recognition.
The Transformational Dilemma of Orange is that its personal accomplishments, materialism and money do not bring happiness; Orange’s selfishness is hurting the organism and those around it; destroying resources of the planet; craves connection to others, which leads it to…
Emerged: ~200 years ago (self-sacrificing)
The sixth stage of Spiral Dynamics is Green—relativistic.
Green values post-modernism, egalitarianism, communitarianism, ecological, love, compassion and feelings, sharing, belonging, ethical responsibility, tolerating ambiguity by encountering diverse perspectives.
Green examples include social networks, progressives, democrats, liberals, academia, support groups, care bears, hippies, yoga and meditation, Gaiaism, spirituality (susceptible to false spirituality, accouterments without depth).
The Transformational Dilemma of Green is that it is often overly idealistic; aims at peaceful co-existence but driven by fear and anger; caring and sharing doesn’t solve the world’s problems; struggles to carry out tangible, practical, real-world solutions, which leads us to the biggest shift in worldview thus far…
The Shift from 1st TIER to 2nd TIER
Each stage mentioned up until now (Beige, Purple, Red, Blue, Orange, Green) are 1st Tier stages that believe they have the right answer.
Tier One thinks: “If only more people shared my beliefs, the world would be a better place.”
First-tier stages despise the other stages around them. The way others think baffles them and they are generally unaware of the existence of the other stages and the essential interplay between them.
The massive shift from antagonistic to integral.
The radical shift from First-Tier to Second-Tier (Yellow, Turquoise) is a move from one-truth to many-truths. Second-Tier believes each of the first-tier stages has some grain of truth and accepts the world as an amalgam of many partially-true perspectives and not a my-truth-is-the-only-truth perspective. It is a radical shift in thinking and requires a frightening degree of open-mindedness.
From one to many truths.
Arising from the limitations of Stage Green, the organism faces the transformational dilemma and begins to move into the next stage of development…
First emerged: ~50 years ago (self-expressing)
The seventh stage of Spiral Dynamics (and the first stage of the 2nd Tier) is Yellow—systemic. Systems Thinking is the worldview necessary for survival in the age of information and reflects stage Beige (survival-sense) but at a much more complex level of existence having integrated the lower stages.
Stage Yellow sees the world as interconnected systems and models. Functionality is the highest priority. It is now completely cool with the other stages, seeing them for what they are: useful and necessary. Any rising conflict softens as the organism moves from antagonistic to integral. Actions once rooted in fear now shift to love, empathy, understanding and systemic-based approaches toward problem-solving. Stage Yellow studies, reads and thinks about solutions which would allow the 1st Tier Stages to get along in harmony and help them to advance up the Spiral. It’s estimated Yellow is 5% of the world’s population (Wilber).
Yellow is not without its own transformational dilemma. After spending so much time and effort buried in books and studying models, Yellow realizes that complex thinking alone won’t solve the world’s problems. Once again it begins to move out into the world, swinging to self-sacrificing. However, where the organism was once highly judgmental of other worldviews, Stage Yellow realizes it is not the highest stage and is ready to advance upward. It looks to the stages above as competent, wise sages. Which brings us to the next stage…
Emerged: ~30 years ago (self-sacrificing)
The eighth and emergent stage of Spiral Dynamics is Turquoise—holistic. It’s reflective of Stage Purple (KinSpirits), and sees its tribe as extending across the planet, as a Global Village. Equipped with the lessons of systems-thinking, Turquoise now begins to move out into the world.
Its circle of concern spans the entire globe and all living beings. It acts locally and thinks globally. It believes all organisms and entities are interconnected and interwoven. The rational, intuitive and emotional merge. Turquoise is non-dogmatic, comfortable with many paths of knowing and free from judgment. This stage is ’emergent’, representing ~1% of the world’s population (Wilber).
While there are still more Stages of Existence beyond Turquoise—I’ll add on what I’ve found of Coral at a later date—integrating these earlier stages gives us plenty of information to move forward. So what to do with this model? What does it mean?
“The map is not the territory.” — I think it’s useful to recognize the limitations of models. Models are not reality, at least not in the subjective sense. They are an attempt at modeling reality. They do their best to serve as a helpful guide in decision-making. Also, no model is 100% perfect. Each is subject to change if new information becomes available. SD seems pretty fluid and flexible to me, but we shouldn’t treat it as dogma. I cautiously and optimistically find value in its potential applications. Do your own research. 🙂
“Shedding the maps.” — After spending a good amount of time researching the subject and putting this piece together, I have already experienced some of the trappings of over-intellectualizing these concepts. They are extremely helpful but can also serve as an unnecessary filter against what’s otherwise an already beautiful experience of life that words can’t describe. There are times when our attention is better directed to the matter at hand and the map placed aside.
“Effective Use.” — Graves also delivers an ethical warning when using SD, that people have a right to be who they are. Instead of changing them, we should use SD to approach them as they are:
All too often ‘change’ is a directive rather than a process of opening possibilities, often with a tacit ‘or else’ attached. That is often accompanied by a vertical assumption that ‘up’ is the right and proper direction, thereby ignoring the other perfectly viable forms. Usually, downward change (back into congruence and a restoration of a comfortable state, even constructive downward mobility without disgrace) is dismissed as weakness rather than a possibility for better coping and adaptation. So if there is to be change, then facilitating the right kind of change at the right time with the right means for the appropriate people is essential to making effective use of the principles. — Graves
Self-Reflection — Personally, I enjoy using Spiral Dynamics in the context of self-reflection. Note that if you’re trying to place yourself on the Spiral, the ego likes to imagine itself as two stages above its actual position. 🙂 So while I aspire to Yellow-turquoise, I admittedly fall much closer to the Orange-green stages of cognitive development. Being honest with yourself will generate more profound results.
Independent of where I stand, perhaps a more useful and helpful question to ask oneself might be: what stages am I judging and how might I begin to better understand them? I say this question is more useful because it’s less important to move up and more important to open up (which in turn, facilitates the move).
Knowing what we now know, I’d like to issue a fun little challenge for all of us. On the one hand, where we lie on the Spiral is exactly where we’re supposed to be. But to those of us who are able and whose Life Conditions it suits well, could a healthy change make sense for us? Could it be that continued belief in our beliefs is keeping us stagnate? Are the perspectives we most despise actually the key to our cognitive evolution? Perhaps the greatest danger lies not the idea itself but in our current understanding of it.
Consider again for a moment the reasons why we repel memes—likely, irrelevance and fear. And isn’t fear just ignorance? The experience of not knowing? In order to reduce our ignorance, one investigates. Psychology calls this exposure therapy. Little by little, slowly over time, the client exposes themselves to the feared stimulus until one day they are able to face the situation. Until that day, these “harmful” memes have power over us, no matter how far we try to distance ourselves from them (and as we are now finding out in the Information Age, the concept of distance is beginning to break down). By facing the matter head-on, we shed light on the darkness and become en-lightened. To understand is simply to see more clearly. It will take deep personal reflection to truly understand the values of another worldview, especially when it is seemingly in conflict with our own. But thanks to Spiral Dynamics, I have reason to think it’s a path worth walking.
“No human is 100% wrong.” —Ken Wilber
BRINGING IT BACK TO THE BIG PICTURE
Unparalleled interconnectivity has brought human beings to a higher level of awareness. We now have access to all worldviews across all times. The result is hypersensitivity to suffering, no matter where it’s coming from or how minuscule. What affects one affects all.
With these new problems come new opportunities.
For those of us who are able and willing, Spiral Dynamics presents a compelling path forward. By striving for healthy manifestations of our current stages, opening up intellectually and emotionally to more nuanced thinking, integrating the perspectives of others into our worldviews, and utilizing systems-thinking, we benefit not only ourselves, but the world, so that we may all thrive in the Age of Information.
May we hold our worldviews loosely like grains of sand on a windy day. The tools exist within each of us to remedy the problem. For me, this journey has only just begun. If you know of any other models, techniques or tools for growth, please point me in heading that direction. If you’re interested in learning more about SD, I’ve shared some of my favorite resources at the end of the post.
I hope you enjoyed the read. If you did, please share it with others and consider subscribing to my future posts:
Wishing you well.
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Sources and Inspirations for this post:
- Spiral Dynamics, Don Beck & Christopher Cowan
- Clare Grave’s website
- Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi)
- The Liturgists Podcast Episode on Spiral Dynamics
- A slideshow I created on Spiral Dynamics
- The Coral vMeme – M.A. Carrano