Spiral DynamicsFeb 08, 2021
(SPIRAL GRAPH BELOW)
I’m super excited about Spiral Dynamics. This potent and evidence based psycho-social system has literally changed the way I see the world. I have more peace, more compassion and more hope for human evolution because of Spiral Dynamics. I’m not kidding.
And so what is it?
Spiral dynamics is a complex but incredibly helpful tool for understanding people, politics and the world - particularly people that are different from us.
I was first introduced to Spiral Dynamics when I was in graduate school in the 90’s through the work of the philosopher Ken Wilber and his book A Brief Theory of Everything. Spiral Dynamics has come back to me more recently through my work as lead of Women’s March San Francisco and trying to understand the political divides in America under Trump.
Spiral Dynamics is a way to understand the psychosocial evolution of humans. They divide peoples different worldviews or value systems into colors that are organized as a spiral. And the really interesting thing about Spiral Dynamics is that it has nothing to do with intelligence. It has nothing to do with emotional development. It’s actually deeper than that.
We each have our own perspective on life and these perspectives are like glasses we wear, or the lens we see the world through. Each of the colors or different segments on the spiral, describe the unique lens through which we and other people see things. And we each have them.
Spiral Dynamics is based on the work of Clare Graves. He was a Canadian researcher who did decades of research looking at people’s value systems and ways of processing and understanding their lives. This work was expanded out and made practical by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan who were associates of Graves.
Beck and Cowan applied these principles to business, corporate, and even to top level government. Spiral Dynamics was used to help transform South Africa out of race categories. It’s been used to design productivity and marketing systems for a wide range of industries, professional institutions, and sports programs.
One of the really interesting things about Spiral Dynamics is that all humans seem to move through the different color (memes they call them) or levels of the spiral. There’s kind of an order that we all go through and you don’t get to skip the order.
The Spiral intricately lays out our human evolution and the development of our consciousness, moving from our most basic instinctual nature to our highest experience of the interbeing or interdependence of all things. And as we move up in our own development, we don’t leave behind what we’ve already learned. We incorporate it. We include it, and actually grow larger, and wider, and more complex, more sophisticated. I find this inspiring and very hopeful for humanity as a species.
The first tier on the spiral is beige. Beige is our animal nature. It’s our instinctual, survival needs. Beige is all about food, water and shelter. We all have beige within us. Though not a lot of people are operating on beige as their primary outlook in the world. At this point in civilization, people that are beige would probably be the declining elderly, the mentaly ill, maybe really dysfunctional homeless people. Certainly, infants are beige. Although, again, we all have these survival instincts within us.
The next tier or color is purple. Purple points to tribalism. There’s very little purely purple left in the modern world. The view of purple is magic and mythic. It sees forces of nature as the realm of spirits, and tends to be very superstitious. So there would be a very substantive belief in good spirits and bad spirits, and maybe needing to placate spirits.
The tribal worldview is really like a hive mind. Hive mind is when a group tends to think as one organized unit. Ants and bees are believed to operate with hive mind.
There is very little individuality in purple. The survival of the group means the survival of the individual. If we correlate it with human development, we would probably be looking at the developmental worldview of a very young child who cannot survive without its parents. Now that’s not to say that tribal people are like little children. This is more about worldview, again, than intellectual development or skill.
As civilization developed, we came up as tribal beings. The experience of our ancestors was that the survival of the tribe was the survival of the individual. The lone individual was not important. There was no science. How people made sense of the world, of birth, death, sickness, and natural disasters was all very supernatural.
I had an art non-profit for quite a few years and we used to support an art program in an all girls school in South Sudan Africa, which is in central Africa. South Sudan is one of the newest countries in the world. It just established a government in 2011. It’s a pretty primitive place that has been ravaged by civil war since its formation.
This is an example of where Spiral Dynamics can really helpful because the culture of South Susan is so completely different than anything in the West. There were about 300 girls age 6-18 living in this boarding school. A big part of the impetus to get them into the boarding school was to stop them from being married off at age 12 or 13.
As an American woman, it’s easy to be horrified by this idea. But, upon deeper reflection, through the purple level of Spiral Dynamics, there is alot going on that it’s worth understanding. Part of the social welfare system that operates in this still very tribal culture of South Sudan, was that girls were basically sold into marriage, often to much older men.
Traditionally marriage in central Africa is an agreement that includes a dowry or payment for the bride. South Sudan is an agricultural, village based country, so payment was often in livestock. So a young girl will be worth 200 goats to her family in marriage. These goats are part of the economy and may actually be the retirement plan for her parents, Since there is no Social Security system.
There was very little concern for the girls’ care in some of these family systems. Remember, the individual isn’t very important here. Sometimes brothers or uncles would even come and kidnap the girls from the school to drive them back home to marry them off to a 50 year old man so that they could get the goats.
We can’t even think about understanding that from our perspective, but from a purple or tribal perspective, this was part of the way that things were done. And they’ve been done that way for thousands of years. The idea that the girls have individual rights is just not even in their worldview yet. That starts to come as we move further up in the spiral. It’s not that these people are stupid, crazy, or mean, although they might be all of those things individually. This is a worldview and value systems. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying that from the perspective of Spiral Dynamics, it can be understandable.
The next level up the spiral is red. As we move up the colors of the Spiral there is a pattern of alternating from concern with individuality, to concern with the group, back to concern with individuality, and then back to concern with the group. So we start with beige which is concerned with personal survival. Purple is tribal, concerned with group survival. And red returns back to the individual again.
The red tier is the emergence of strong leadership. There’s a focus on reward and punishment. Red is the realm of heroes and mythology, of superheroes, and idealization of leadership, power and strength. A lot of the Old Testament is very red. Comic books are very red.
Red can lend itself to very harsh rules, simple ideas, and the willingness to fight to survive despite the consequences to others. Red is very helpful when you require tough minded, cold blooded decision making in times of crisis. So red is really helpful in times of war, or revolution, and really celebrates the feast of conquests, and stories of heroes. Red is very concerned with respect and honor and integrity - think of war heroes. The Taliban is very red. Terrorism, if viewed by the terrorists point of view is very red. The military has a lot of red in it, as do revolutionaries, and military gorillas. Red is more concerned with individual power rather than the group power. Evolving from the tribe, and evolving into leadership of the tribe.
Ken Wilber and his book of Theory of Everything estimates that about 20% of the population is red. Gangs and organized crimes are very red. Children on the playground can be very red where they’re willing to hurt each other for dominance. And certainly, we can see red in the way we may argue with a spouse, or corporate takeovers at work, where we might be willing to harm someone else for our own benefit. We all have this in us. Don’t kid yourself.
The next tier up the spiral is blue. Again, we flip back towards group centered. And blue is really focused on order, purpose, and direction. Blue organizes around the idea that life has meaning and that there’s a higher order or higher purpose to things outside the individual. There’s generally a code of conduct based on right or wrong. And if you violate these codes or rules, there may be severe and even everlasting repercussions. So religious fundamentalism, the majority patriotism, there’s a sense of higher purpose in belonging to the group.
It’s estimated that 40% of the population is blue. Rally cries to “make America great again,” calls for law and order, even being a serious sports fan can be blue. So blue is very hierarchical. Generally, blue supports al the patriarchy and has strong codes of honor. This tier also supports charitable good deeds. The ancient codes of chivalry would be very blue. I find it interesting that police uniforms tend to be blue and a lot of trade unions use blue in their color scheme.
Blue is very concerned with fair treatments. It appeals to traditions. And again, we have this idea of honor, service, and loyalty, particularly, loyalty to the group. Blue people tend to work best when they’re told how to do things the right way. And this idea of doing things out of duty and being punished when you don’t do that, can give meaning to life. This is the idea of being a good citizen, a good Methodist or Catholic, a good employee. Most of us have blue within us, because as we move up the Spiral we transcend AND include the previous tiers within us.
Blue works really well if it’s got a cause to work towards, fight for, or be in service of. Blue is often driven by a sense of guilt and obedience to authority, not questioning authority. From a spiritual or religious perspective, things are divinely controlled. This can provide a sense of purpose in doing what’s right. But doing what’s “right” from the blue worldview means right according to whatever particular group they’re aligned with.
I was raised by super conservative parents who were extremely blue, and I first felt the benefit of Spiral Dynamics in navigating my relationship with them. I moved to San Francisco. I’m politically liberal, and my mother would be sending me all these totally conservative, liberal hating emails. It made me crazy. And my mom is a smart woman. Through Spiral Dynamics I came to understand that she has a different worldview and the things that made sense to her didn’t make sense to me.
The next tier up the spiral is orange. It’s actually kind of a joke because Donald Trump was totally orange in world view and there were always pokes about his fake tanned orange skin. It’s very interesting when you understand orange, that from Donald Trump’s point of view, much of what he did and how he did it actually makes sense. Again, this isn’t about right or wrong. This is the idea that people act from their particular place on the spiral, their worldview. And people are, most of the time, doing the best they can with what they have. They’re actually making decisions and they’re looking at things from a perspective that makes sense to them.
One challenge in learning about the different tiers on the spiral is that the only color that makes sense to people is the tier that they’re at. And so the tier above and the tier below tend to be demonized.
This is where we get into a lot of really terrible discourse online or in person rather than trying to understand each other. When we are nearsighted and just seeing things from our own world view, it’s easy to think, “What, are you stupid?” When faced with different worldviews.
I love that Spiral Dynamics moves us past judgement and into compassion and understanding. Worldviews and values have nothing to do with intelligence. It has to do with priorities, with what feels more important to a person.
Learning that other people see the world differently and understanding that their perspectives are valid can really push us outside our comfort zone.
So as we move into the orange tier, we’re going to flip back into concern with the individual. Orange is hallmarked by seeking success and material achievement. People in orange want to be recognized for their achievements and to be challenged for their own improvement.
Orange likes to display its individual and personal success. So you can think of corporate executives who have massive amounts of wealth. People that get fancy cars and big houses and talk about the prestigious colleges they went to, those are all very orange. Symbols of success and material achievement are seen as the most important things in life. Orange is a product of industrialization, but isthmus certainly existed with royalty, medieval and feudal power historically.
Orange sees the world as full of opportunities, and alternatives, and is willing to test options for the greatest success. Science can be motivated by orange values.
This focus on individualism and personal achievement is a move beyond blue’s need for control, order and predetermination. Ideas of what’s right and wrong are no longer of primary concern. Orange is willing to push the edges to challenge itself.
People on the orange tier are motivated by progress, recognition and material rewards. Competition improves their motivation and productivity and it fosters individual growth.
Orange is very concerned with analyzing and strategizing for prosperity. Most business is orange. Orange views the world as very rational, like a well oiled machine, with natural laws that can be learned, mastered, and manipulated for your own purpose.
This world view is ruled by laws of science, and economy, and human events. The world is a chess board on which we play games, and the winners gain prominence over the losers. From an orange perspective, it’s very reasonable to manipulate the earth’s resources for your own strategic gains. Ken Wilber estimates that about 30% of the population is orange.
It’s important to clarify that we incorporate the tiers Into our next stage of development as we move up the spiral. Ken Wilbur likes to say that we “transcend and include” previous perspectives as we evolve.
Rather than rejecting our earlier worldviews, we Incorporate them in mature them as we move forward in life. From the perspective of spiral dynamics, we grow in complexity and flexibility as we evolve. We all carry aspects of many different tiers within us, depending on what tier we have developed up to.
Beck and Cowan like to talk about people not as living just in one particular tier or color on the spiral, but almost as if people are musical notes. And each color on the spiral, each worldview is a different note, and people tend to resonate as chords.
I know I can be highly competitive, which is very orange. I have a violent streak and if you threaten me, I can get really red like, “You want to go at it? Okay, let’s do it.”
My desire for survival is tenacious. But I also love to belong to a group. I love to be part of a community where I feel like I’m serving a higher good, which is blue. And I’m also pretty magic and mythic, which is purple. I can easily see all the different colors within myself. These alternate depending on the situation.
The next tier up the spiral is green. It’s so interesting to see where these colors land in logos. The Green Party, Greenpeace, environmentalism, are all very green. Green flips back into concern for the group, concern for the many.
This tier is concerned with feelings, equality, caring for the earth. It’s against hierarchy. It’s a lot of emphasis on dialogues, relationships, consensus, human rights. Social justice is very green. Certainly, the worldwide outpouring for Black lives Matter, concern with diversity, human rights, animal rights, multiculturalism, and to free people from hierarchy are all green.
Green recognizes that we live in a shared habitat, both ecologically and with all humanity and that when we join in a community, we grow personally. It’s very concerned with everybody having the opportunity to grow.
So in green, the well being of people and building consensus gets the highest priority. Whereas in orange, the highest priority is on achievement and making things better for yourself. And in blue, the highest priority is obedience to authority and belonging to the group. Red is about power over others.
Green really calls us to grow in caring, being in touch with feelings, and social responsibility to the community and everyone in it.
Beck and Cowan divided the spiral into two tiers. Beige through green is the first tier. And once we move out of green, we move into what they call a second tier.
There’s been a lot of talk in my lifetime about a new paradigm, about massive change in humanity and that is the move from the first tier, to the second tier, the new paradigm.
Once you get into the second tier, it’s much more about systems thinking. The memes of the first six colors of the spiral, whichever color people are in, can demonize the colors around them. Orange is fighting with green, green is fighting with blue, red is fighting with everyone, and there’s not a lot of mutual understanding at all. In fact, it’s really challenging to understand how or why people could think the way that they do outside of your own color, outside of your own worldview.
Once you move up into the second tier one can see the whole Spiral and the value in it. Second tier is fairly undeveloped at this point. There’s only two colors on it, yellow and turquoise. Very few people reach this place, but we are all on our way there.
Second tier thinking understand that each worldview has something to offer to society as a whole, and to each of us individually. Yellow and turquoise can see that there’s healthy aspects of each meme. There are also pathological aspects of each color, but From a second-tier perspective each color on the Spiral is necessary to a fully functioning society. Each worldview is not just valid from its own perspective, but is important to the health of the entire system.
Yellow sees life as a complex system. And it explores ways to be responsibly free. Yellow is also aware that there’s a possibility of collapse of the system. There is intention in keeping the whole spiral healthy and the awareness that everything is connected to everything else.
Deep buddhism is very yellow. The idea of interbeing, the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, of metaphysics. Yellow people enjoy doing things that just naturally feel right to them, Regardless of the opinions of others. They’re advocates of free access to information and materials, which is also a little bit green.
Through the yellow lens, life is an integration. It’s like a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies. Yellow is very flexible and spontaneous. The idea of function over form being the higher priority. The philosophy that there’s a natural flow of life that can be trusted is also very yellow, Ken Wilber estimates that 1% of the population is yellow.
And the final meme that’s developed so far is turquoise, which views the world as holistic. Turquoise experiences the universe is a holistic system. Through this lens, there are multiple levels interwoven into one incredibly complex, living system. According to turquoise there is a universal order, not based on external rules, like in blue, but in a living consciousness and a grand unification.
Turquoise is a place of a new spirituality. There’s a reconnection with mystical forces. Almost harking back to purple, but from a completely different perspective. Turquoise thinking uses the whole spiral. There’s multiple levels of interaction. Again, we have this harmonic idea of people being chords, using all the different colors in the spiral.
Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were turquoise. Highly evolved spiritual masters like the Dalai Lama, and Eckhart Tolle evoke the idea of being awake, free and enlightened.
The spiral, in my understanding, is more like a verb. It’s a moving motion filled, evolving thing. This suggests that the spiral continues to evolve as humanity evolves and there are probably more colors to come.
I believe that coral is going to come after turquoise. Maybe Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed werecoral. I don’t know. They don’t even talk about it in the books yet.
As you move out into the world, as you post on social media, as you listen to the news, and our different political leaders, I I have found it to be a powerful, practical way to have compassion. It’s a system for developing understanding and a way to expand our own view to incorporate the possibility that other people really are doing the best they can with what they have. From the perspective of spiral dynamics, it makes sense why they would make the choices and believe the things that they believe from their particular worldview.
Life calls us to grow and evolve. Rather than demonizing each other, I think the best thing we can do is to have understanding for each other, and to try and help each other to progress up the spiral into greater complexity, into greater harmony, into greater awareness that we’re all in this together.
We each have a role to play and wherever we are is valid, even if it’s challenging to understand. Challenging ourselves to understand others is our own personal growth work, even if we don’t agree with them. It’s much easier to help someone grow and evolve if you actually understand them and can speak their language than if you’re demonizing them and telling them they’re bad or stupid. The colors of the spiral are beyond morality, they’re beyond intelligence, they speak to our shared humanity.
I hope this has been helpful. I know it’s helped me in being a little more compassionate, more peaceful person. I get much less irate now when I understand, “Oh, that person is blue. Oh, that person is red. Oh, that person is orange. That’s why they do what they do.”
I wish you well as you explore your own worldview in this intense and fast changing habitat that we’re in right now. Blessings on your path.
Renee LaVallee McKenna, Spiritual Psychology