Menu Close

Psychological Growth: Master The 8 Stages

Let’s look at psychological growth and its eight stages. Not only is this crucial for understanding yourself and your life journey, it helps you better grasp the field of psychology.

In psychology, we’re used to choosing one theory, privileging one approach, and rigidly defending our view. What if there was a way to go beyond this?

The basis of this post is Clare Graves’ theory of psychological growth. His theory includes the stages that formed the basis for the famous Spiral Dynamics theory.

Clare Graves’ theory has some long, dizzying names – I’ll simply call it ECLET theory or E-C theory.

Before we look at Graves’ eight stages, let’s look at what the theory tells us about ourselves.

Psychological Growth: The Keys

Three of the Graves’ key findings Graves were:

Human nature isn’t fixed – it’s ever-emergent

We pass from steady state to steady state

We change with the emergence of each new state

Graves expanded on those basic points:

human psychology is an unfolding, ever-emerging process leading to new, higher-order systems

humans change their psychology as their conditions of existence change

a person’s emotions, ethics, values, biochemistry, state of neurological activation, learning system, their preferences for education, management and psychotherapy are all appropriate to their central state

So we’re in a psychological growth process that’s governed by our biology, psychology and environment. This process contains identifiable stages, which we’ll be covering in a moment.

In each stage we have a unique set of emotions, values, psychology and ethics. The process leads us to higher-order behaviour: higher values, higher ethics, higher emotions, and so on.

This finding runs through not just Graves work but all of developmental psychology. Let me tell you – seeing yourself and others as in a process of psychological growth that has defined stages is absolutely transformative.

And now for a quick look at some of the terminology Graves uses in his theory. There’s a lot of juice here.

Key Terminology

There are three pieces of terminology that are critical in Graves’ theory.

  • Levels of Existence: Graves’ term for stages of psychological growth. As discussed in my previous post on Graves, he derived the term from studying how human beings mature. Graves claimed these levels emerge according to an ‘organismic blueprint’. A tantalising claim.
  • Life Problems: The problems we face at each level. We need to solve them to free up enough rocket fuel to move forward. Life problems fall into eight groups which increase in complexity: A, B, C, D, E, F, A’ and B’.
  • Double Helix: The growth process is two-dimensional and cyclical. He represented it with a double helix. One dimension of this is our neurology; the other is the Life Problems we face.

Let’s go deeper into what Graves said about the double helix.

Psychological Growth & The Influence Of Environment

A key insight from E-C theory is that our Life Problems guide neurological and psychological growth. Each Life Problem group, A, B, C, etc. correspond to the neuropsychological systems N, O, P, etc. They come in pairs.

This explains why he called his existential states AN, BO, CP, DQ, ER, FS, A’N’ and B’O’. To see how this works, let’s look at a stage most people can now take for granted, though not everyone.

AN is the stage where we are concerned with basic survival. Problems linked to our need to survive as humans – an animal with certain physiological needs – are called Life Problems A. To cope with A, we have neuropsychological equipment N, which is designed to perpetuate our own basic survival and reproduction.

If we combine A and N, what do we get? A and N combined make the first level of existence AN, as do B and O, and so on. That’s the double helix. Graves also claimed that if conditions and our neurology remain relatively constant, we won’t activate later stages.

Another point – even if we no longer struggle to meet A-level life problems, we still have to meet them! Earlier levels of existence are included in later ones, just like earlier Life Problems are included in later ones.

Features of The 8 Stages

And finally, let’s look at some features of Graves’ stages.

  • There is no final, ultimate stage. We constantly produce new problems, requiring new solutions. This activates new existential states, which then create new issues.
  • We always have several coping systems online. Our dominant system guides 50% of our behaviour. The one before and the one after guide the rest.
  • Humans are an assortment of different stages! If a person is ‘centred’ in FS – for example – most of their behaviour comes from FS, but some is attributable to ER and A’N’ – the two nearest stages. Some comes from DQ, CP, and so on in descending amounts. B’O’ will barely be active.
  • Graves observed that, collectively, each new existential state takes less time to emerge than the one before. Humans spent hundreds of thousands of years in the hunter-gatherer AN stage before transitioning; but we only spent a few hundred at ER before FS came around.
  • the AN, CP, ER, A’N’ are change-oriented, externally-oriented, and left-brain dominated. The other systems (BO, DQ, FS, B’O’) are more conservative, are internally oriented, and the right-brain dominated.

The Eight Stages of Psychological Growth

Now we turn our attention to Graves’ existential levels. These eventually became the famous Spiral Dynamics stages. 

graves levels of psychological growth

The AN State – The Autistic, Automatic, Reactive Stage

Express self as if it is just another animal according to the dictates of one’s imperative periodic physiological needs.’

In this state, A problems dominate. These include our immediate physiological needs such as warmth, sex and food.

N is the neuropsychological system responsible for reacting to and satisfying these physiological needs.

Modus Operandi

  • we have no self-awareness. Our concept of time and space is bound to these basic needs.
  • AN was humankind’s dominant stage until around 40,000 years ago.
  • young babies experience this state very early in life. The severely ill may do too, as may small bands of humans in remote parts of the world.

The BO State – The Animistic, Tribalistic Existential State

Sacrifice self to the way of your elders.’

B problems are aperiodic problems related to safety, security and assurance, like the need to escape harm and avoid cold and pain. Here we experience the world as an undifferentiated whole imbued with good and evil spirits.

The O neuropsychological system detects and meets our aperiodic physiological safety needs.

Modus Operandi

  • thinking is animistic, ritualistic and stereotypical: based on magical beliefs and superstition, not based on purpose.
  • to perpetuate our survival, we uses magical methods to appeal to all-powerful spirits.
  • we identify with our tribe and cannot readily distinguish ourselves from them.
  • we unquestioningly observe totems and taboos passed down from elders.
  • most active in tribal, hunter-gatherer or horticultural societies.

The CP State – The Egocentric Existential State

‘Express self, to hell with the consequences, lest one suffer the torment of unbearable shame.’

C problems include the realisation that we’re a separate human being with our own identity. While we realise we have power over the world and can manipulate it, our own selfhood is still relatively insecure. So the world is full of predatory others who can also manipulate the world to their advantage. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where might is right.

P refers to the brain system that gives us self-consciousness and allows us to perceive chronological time and 3D space.

Modus Operandi

  • we aim to guarantee our survival with no regard for others.
  • we aggressively express lusts and have no impulse control. Anger peaks at this stage. Everything is either for us or against us.
  • our thinking is completely egocentric. Raw, rough individualism dominates. We don’t not feel guilt or remorse for our actions – we’re not yet able to.

The DQ State – The Absolutistic Existential State

‘Sacrifice self now in order to receive reward later.’

D problems: for the first time we’re aware of the reality of death. Life has an ordered plan designed by a higher power. It’s a testing ground for our worthiness. Here we have a need for everlasting security and order.

The Q neuropsychological system is responsible for guilt, supports avoidant learning (learning through punishment) and allows impulse control and moralistic thinking.

Modus Operandi

  • the absolutistic authority prescribes rigid rules and standards for proper living. It often claims a divine source, such as an all-powerful God. We judge behaviour to be good or evil according to these rules.
  • we conform to authority and don’t question it.
  • life is a titanic battle between good and evil. We seeks safety and security in this chaotic existence.
  • our thinking is very black and white. There is only one absolutely true system of thought: all others are wrong.

The ER State – The Multiplistic Existential State

‘Express self for what self desires without shame or guilt.’

E problems: We see that our finite control over the physical world limits expression of our drives.

R neuropsychology supports objective, deductive, rational thinking.

Modus Operandi

  • while we’re not as egocentric as we are at CP, we readily manipulate others or trample on them to achieve our materialistic objectives.
  • we aim to fulfil our materialistic desires by exploring the objective, physical world and discovering its secrets using the scientific method.
  • we’re pragmatic and utilitarian and primarily use the objective, rational mind. Our values are competition, gamesmanship, entrepreneurship and efficiency, as well as acquiring and possessing
  • in the West, this is currently the dominant stage.

The FS State – The Relativistic Existence

‘Sacrifice self to get now.’

F problems are sociocentric. While we’re off on a selfish materialistic chase in EQ, we lose touch with others. Despite the houses and fast cars, we’re still unfulfilled. We now yearn for deep emotional connection.

S neuropsychology is active – the system “for truly experiencing the inner, subjective feelings of humankind”.

Modus Operandi

  • our pendulum swings back to Sacrifice-self. But this time we sacrifice ourselves to be liked and accepted. The group is what influences us. We put our energy towards creating emotional connections with others.
  • we value egalitarianism, warm interaction, the gentle touch, egalitarianism and getting along with others
  • here we connect with our emotional life on a new level and becomes more empathetic than we were at any other previous stage.

The ‘Monumental Leap’ in Psychological Growth

During his studies, Graves discovered levels of psychological growth that were radically different from those before it: levels 7 and 8 – A’N’ and B’O’.

Once we reach these levels, our attitude towards life changes completely. Instead of our fundamental concern being “How can I get….?” (approval, material possessions, stability, and so on), it’s now “How can I give….?’ ‘How can I can contribute?”

By discovering these levels – in which our orientation towards life fundamentally changes – Graves corroborated Maslow, as he set out to. Maslow claimed that human needs could be separated into ‘Being’ needs and ‘Deficiency’ needs. The two Gravesian levels A’N’ and B’O’ beautifully capture Maslow’s ‘Being’ needs, while the preceding six levels capture ‘Deficiency’ needs.

This fundamental shift is reflected quite clearly in the descriptions of the two Being levels, as we’ll see in a moment.

This change in the person is accompanied by the life problems which are salient for people centred in A’N’ and B’O’: the life problems A’, B’ are of a higher order than problems A-F.

The A’N’ State – The Existential, Cognitive, Problematic Existential State

‘Express self for what self desires, but never at the expense of others and in a manner that all life, not just my life, will profit.’

A’ problems are the threats to life and the destruction of the world by the previous stages. These include finding sustainable resources, solving issues of overpopulation and managing excessive individuality. We see that life needs to be restored if it’s to continue.

The N’ neuropsychological coping equipment supports systemic thinking and leads to a marked increase in our conceptual space.

Modus Operandi

  • our cognition is now fully open and available. We’re remarkably less fearful – of being disliked, of failing, of other people – and much more flexible than in previous stages.
  • our orientation to life is to express ourselves and be individualistic while also being of service to others in a non-compulsive way.
  • the magnificence of life comes before material possessions and titillation. We’re concerned with what is best for life itself. Our focus is on mending the problems humans create.
  • we see many valid sets of values. Values are situational and circumstantial.

The B’O’ State – The Experiential Existential State

Adjust to the realities of one’s existence and automatically accept the existential dichotomies as they are and go on living.’

B’ problems are seeing that life is fundamentally unknowable.

Note: Graves’ conclusions on this state were very tentative given the lack of it found in his data.

Modus Operandi

  • this is a Sacrifice-self stage, but we don’t adjust to authority’s mandates or to the opinions of others. We adjust to life as they see it to be.
  • after trusting in the left brain in A’N’, we become right-brain dominated again. We gain a newfound trust in emotions, subjectivity intuition and post-rational insight.
  • we’re transcending the need to know.

To finish, let’s recall that Graves performed this research around fifty years ago. He was a pioneer, and the success of Spiral Dynamics is testament to that.

Here’s to you, Clare.

Master the stages of human growth and revolutionise your view of yourself, others and the world.

The Ultimate Stages of Human Development Online Course gives you 20+ audios packed with life-changing insights from human development and personal flourishing.

INCLUDED IN MEMBERS SUBSCRIPTION: Levels Of Personal Development Online Course – My system to guide your personal improvement journey with this wonderful theory!