Let’s look at the first two stages, or vMEMEs, of the Spiral Dynamics model.
Most modern humans pass through these stages in their earliest years and, once out of childhood, their core worldviews, behaviour and psychology come from higher levels. But make no mistake – it’s crucial to understand these stages to have a rounded knowledge of human beings.
And many modern people dysfunctionally meet their Beige and Purple needs, even in the most advanced countries.
What’s more, the Spiral Dynamics theory claims that the Yellow and Turquoise vMEMEs (levels considered today’s cutting edge) are analogous to these levels. Though they capture more complex levels of human functioning, they have a similar flavour to Beige and Purple.
We also want to actively appreciate Beige and Purple, their worldview, their culture and their coping mechanisms. These levels possess wisdom that has been buried and explained away by modernity, if idealised by postmodernity.
Let’s get to it.
Spiral Dynamics Beige: Emergence
The Beige level captures the fundamental needs, social structures, culture and life conditions of humans. Welcome to the “Survivalistic” vMEME.
The Spiral Dynamics theory calls this stage automatic, reflexive and survivalistic. This is because it correlates with our most basic biological needs. This level is seen in humans and groups whose prime concern is just to make it through the day.
Since it describes the most basic level of human functioning, Beige has been part of human culture from its beginning way back when. All individuals are born with Beige dominating and begin their growth from there – a young baby’s concern is to be nourished, sleep and stay alive.
Adults with serious diseases such as advanced Alzheimer’s or late-stage cancer often inhabit solid Beige and need permanent assistance.
Human groups are considered Beige when they are local and number several dozen members. They have no permanent settlements or institutions and live off the land by hunting and gathering. The group’s main purpose is to guarantee the survival of members and procreate, and they have an almost negligible effect on their environment. This mode of living dominated for thousands of years until the Agricultural Revolution brought wholesale change, though food-gathering cultures do still exist in remote corners of the globe.
Movement beyond Beige in a cultural sense is visible in the advent of agriculture, permanent settlements, food surpluses and more complex social structures, all of which took tens of thousands of years to develop.
Spiral Dynamics Beige: Psychology
Idealists may look at Beige individuals and admire their apparent peacefulness, egalitarianism and respect of nature.
I won’t begin to critique that here, but I will look at the fundamentals of Beige psychology. This will ground us in the reality of this stage rather than our fantasies about it.
When embodying Beige, we don’t yet have linguistic or visual memory, meaning we can’t use language, plan, form a mental map of the world, imagine things, or develop a sense of self, among many other capacities we take for granted as modern adults.
Rather, we survive using our basic sensory equipment like sight, smell, touch and movement. We’re moved by biological drives and satisfying our physical needs. This is much like how animals run on instinct and impulse.
We experience ourselves as indistinguishable from our body and the world around us. Our emotional life is nearly non-existent – all our energy goes to meeting basic biological needs.
And beyond these lacks – which in a sense aren’t lacks, rather the psychological features of that particular level – Beige is the most basic form of human psychology and encapsulates the most elemental concerns, fears and values around. That’s not to condemn this level – it’s just a reminder not to idealise it or any of the other early stages.
Spiral Dynamics Beige: Values
When I use the word values, I’m referring to those elements of life we give most importance.
As Beige is such a basic stage of human functioning, the common use of the word “value” as “high ideals” doesn’t really fit here.
As I’ve mentioned, Beige encapsulates primitive human life. The classic Beige values are survival and the meeting of our subsistence needs, including food, water, warmth, sex and safety.
But I should also make it clear that Beige is still active in every one of us. We eat and drink, go to the toilet, have sex, keep warm and keep ourselves out of danger.
In fact, there’s a strong case that we dysfunctionally meet these needs – just look at obesity rates and the amount of free porn available at the touch of a button. And all our higher functioning – individually and collectively – does disconnect us from the Beige glory of simply being alive.
Great, now let’s dive into Stage Purple.
Spiral Dynamics Purple: Emergence
The Spiral Dynamics theory calls Purple “Clannish” and “Magical”.
As always, let’s look at when Stage Purple first emerged in history and when it emerges in each of our lifetimes.
Purple is seen in the emergence of the first societies, which had permanent settlements, mythology, art, oral history, rituals and spirituality. These came during the Agricultural Revolution.
I don’t want to reduce Purple to agricultural production, but by looking at the new challenges farming brought, we can better understand Purple as a coping system.
To touch briefly on this subject, raising animals and growing enough crops to stay alive requires a broader understanding of the world than hunting and gathering. We need to plan, calculate, and understand cycles. Weather plays a key role. One storm could wipe out an entire year of crops, but one good month could bring a plentiful harvest with more than enough for the winter.
At this point, humans began their quest to understand life and why things in their environment occurred as they did. The first models of reality emerged.
Spiral Dynamics emphasises the tribal themes of this stage, one of which is animism. More on that in a moment.
Purple emerges for modern people in early childhood. It marks the beginning of our sense of self, magical thinking and the first deep connections with our parents. In Purple, we lay down some very fundamental aspects of our identify, like our belonging to a family, the sense of time and place, and trust in our safety.
The Purple Worldview
The worldview at Purple is that nature is alive and powerful. We view phenomena such as weather, crop performance, floods and rivers bursting as the work of gods.
Rather than an omnipresent, omniscient God, these gods are local to a certain valley, forest, desert, mountain, plain, or even individual objects like trees. Tribal cultures were limited geographically and couldn’t imagine the world over the horizon or on the other side of the lake, so to speak. Hence their extremely local conception of gods.
Purple sees omens and signs all over the place. While moderners – most using the scientific Orange worldview – might view a planet alignment in a certain constellation as a mere cosmological curiosity, for tribal people, phenomena of this sort are prophetic signs sent from the Sky God.
Rituals are a pillar of tribal culture for this reason: if the tribe can appease the Weather God and gain his favour, he may just bring good weather that year. And more generally, Purple brings the idea that human thoughts and actions make the world conspire for or against us in this almost supernatural way.
Most scholars agree that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers. Animism (from ‘anima‘, ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ in Latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings, and can communicate directly with humans.Yuval Noah Harari
Ancestors are also highly valued. Their ways must be preserved – they possess the secrets and wisdom needed for the tribe to survive.
Children embodying this stage see imaginary, magical creatures everywhere. Everything is alive and breathing, the work of powerful invisible beings or forces. Monsters under the bed, the tooth fairy and Santa Claus are all rooted in Purple.
We don’t want to idealise this stage or ignore its limitations. But modern people, who believe that all life is made of solid, dead building blocks, could do with reincorporating the aliveness of Purple.
Learn about the sneaky psychological snares that learning Spiral Dynamics brings. These blindside so many people.
Spiral Dynamics Purple: Psychology
One pillar of Purple psychology is magical thinking. This is a well-documented feature of child psychology, and it prevails in tribal cultures too.
The magical mind is in essence unrestrained imagination.
So children of a certain age will grab a broom, a cape and a witch’s hat and believe they can fly. Or they believe that Santa Claus really does fly around the planet on Christmas Eve delivering presents to billions of children. If it works in imagination, it works in reality.
So we can say that imagination and the mundane facts of life aren’t distinguished yet. In fact, thought is meshed with the world itself.
While at later levels we may discover the partial truth to that, at Purple it represents a fundamental inability to appreciate objectivity of any kind. There’s no understanding of the basic rules governing life.
But don’t think this is just limited to children and tribal cultures. No, Purple thinking is alive and well in adults in the modern world. So alive and well that we don’t even realise it.
“Touch wood”, “don’t let a black cat cross your path” and four-leaf clovers are all rooted in Purple. Not to mention the good old “it’s not their day” in sport.
When pushed to explain why we believe these phenomena to be real, we fall short. But believe them we do.
In modern individuals, Purple usually appears in childhood. Values associated with Purple centre around gut-deep connection and belonging, like our close family and place of birth – the first shreds of personal identity. We cling on to mummy and daddy for safety and comfort. They’re the wise guardians that will protect us from the unstable, magical world.
Tribal cultures value kinship, lineage and heritage. The tribe’s myths, legends and stories are fundamental to its identity. Members’ needs and desires are seen as unimportant; the collective is the priority.
While these are beautiful qualities, tribal cultures are also tribe-centric. In the Neolithic, tribes were small, but numerous. Tribe members are fiercely loyal to one another, but see other tribes as outsiders, as mysterious and untrustworthy. Tribes only coalesced into small states through brutal conquering and submission. There was no John Lennon-inspired intertribal harmony.
Modern idealists are historically illiterate. They focus too much on the brotherhood within tribes and seem to ignore evidence that shows tribes north, south, east and west were shockingly vicious to one another.
This tribalism is recapitulated at Blue, when our identity expands to a bigger group.
Take your knowledge of Spiral Dynamics to the next level with my Master Spiral Dynamics Ebook.
Are you keen to master Spiral Dynamics and have it transform how you see yourself, others and the world and how you approach life?
We cut away all the fluff and only discuss the best insights from Spiral Dynamics.
This will completely transform your way of seeing yourself, others and the world.