Welcome to the third stage in Spiral Dynamics: stage Red. This comes between stages Purple and Blue.
The modus operandi of this stage is: “enforce power over self, others, and nature through exploitative independence”
After Spiral Dynamics Stage Purple, with our magical thinking, animism and dependence on others, Red marks the beginning of true self-expression, independent action and a deeper awareness of conventional reality.
In fact, Spiral Dynamics claims that we’re the most egocentric when we embody this stage. And the following descriptions of Red make it easy to see why.
Clare Graves observed this stage in the 60s in his research subjects and described it as: “express self with no concern for others.” Why this is so will become clear.
We all embody this level, and it’s an important part of our psychology. But in the late 90s, Spiral Dynamics estimated this to be the dominant stage in 20% of the world’s population – not a negligible amount by any means.
Spiral Dynamics Stage Red: Emergence
Let’s look at the emergence of Spiral Dynamics Red in individuals and collectives. As with all Spiral Dynamics stages, it has dominated in certain periods of human history. It’s active at certain points in our life and in certain areas in today’s world.
On a historical level, it became visible around 10,000 years ago with the rise of warlords, conquest and discovery. It could correlate with the rise of agricultural societies, which were often hierarchically arranged.
Peasants at the bottom could expect a share of the harvest big enough to get them through the day; those in charge took all they feasibly could. Expect to find Red dominating in smaller, law-less societies, before the emergence of Blue social structures that bound thousands of people together.
In modern times you can see Red in gangs, drug dealers, robbers, scammers and criminals. It’s especially rampant in economically poor conditions, like developing countries that don’t have law, police and civility. The strong do eat the weak in these places. Uncontrolled Red can be a true menace to others.
Even in advanced countries, it’s well embodied in the urban poor and on the “street”.
But this isn’t to demonise Red. We have to understand why it emerges – it’s a psychological and social phenomenon.
The Red mindset tends to emerge when we’re under threat of violence. Think of a prison environment, for example, where you’re surrounded by convicted criminals. You could be in genuine danger, and it’s likely you’ll adopt Red as a survival mechanism. Indeed, the Red worldview is a world of threats and danger, as we’ll see in a moment.
Many adults don’t embody Red very often in their lives, but there’s a period when we all go through it. It’s visible in the Terrible Twos, when children’s magical thinking takes a back seat and their sense of identity further solidifies. They learn to say: “I”, “no”, “me”, and life revolves around manipulating others (to the best of their ability).
It’s also common in the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty. We might fall into Red teenage gangs or adopt Red behaviour to get by. The Classroom Lunatic often embodies Red with his utter disregard for authority and discipline, unfiltered behaviour and reckless acts of vandalism and mischief (I can remember too many of these characters from my school days).
Many enthusiasts of Spiral Dynamics and developmental theory have put Donald Trump into this category. His impulsiveness and empathy disorder are well documented. I’d also say Vladimir Putin embodies Red. Though modern laws and rules prevent them from being outright warlords, they do give off Red’s egocentric “I am going to cut your head off” energy. And their politics show little embodiment of higher levels.
Spiral Dynamics Stage Red: Worldview
It’s crucially important to understand the Red worldview. These are the conditions that give rise to Red as a psychological coping system.
Essentially, Red sees the world to be full of threats and predators. There are predators, and there are victims. There are the strong, and there are the weak.
If you’re not one of the predators, you’re in trouble. You’re physically endangered. Your life could even be endangered. So, naturally, you should battle to be one of the strong.
This worldview is easy to see in serial killers, street gangs, prisons and the Mafia.
It also explains why young children embody this level. With the dropping of magical thinking and a heightened sense of identity, they become aware of themselves and their physical limitations for the first time. They do so in a world full of people bigger than them (potential threats) who are much more adept at managing life.
We can explain many of the values and psychological characteristics of Red by realising that we ultimately view the world as threatening to us.
I can actually remember the feeling of developing a full sense of identity in my early school years. It was not fun!
Spiral Dynamics Stage Red: Psychology
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this stage is only applicable to men. No, this stage applies to all. Granted, women may find it more difficult to successfully live out this stage than a macho male, but the underlying characteristics of this stage are available to everyone.
One of the keys to Red psychology is the inflated self-importance. Remember, this stage is maximally egocentric: “I do what I want to do, I’m macho and powerful, I seek to dominate when possible, and I try to satisfy my desires by whatever means.”
There’s no guilt or remorse at this level. There’s no concern for other people. I could even kill another person and not feel a shred of remorse for it. There’s sheer, utter, jaw-dropping ruthlessness.
Myopia is an issue here. In desperately trying to satisfy these power and domination needs, Red overlooks the consequences of their actions and the backlash they could lead to: “I want it all, and I want it now, and I’ll get it through impulsive action.”
One of the beautiful aspects we can take from Red is the sense of personal power it gives us. It’s true that here it may be overblown and uncivilised, but this is where it first comes online. That brings self-assertiveness and self-confidence with it. These are vital tools that we need to function in the world, even if we predominantly operate from the higher levels.
There’s a lot of anger present at this level – this is the force that allows us to fight and dominate in this predatory world we perceive. It’s what allows us to “bite”.
Often anger is demonised, especially by spiritual teachers, who usually believe anger to be somehow dirty or lower. There is wisdom in that, and the unabashed expression of anger soon lands us in prison, but equally there’s wisdom in integrating anger. Like it or not, anger is deeply wired into our psychology. It’s a force of nature that runs through the tree of life.
Failure to integrate it properly and use it when necessary will create dysfunction, whether it’s being a doormat, having an inability to set boundaries with others, being unwilling to use physical force when necessary, or many others.
But we also want the ability to look at self objectively and coordinate others’ perspectives on us, which Red lacks. Criticise or question the behaviour of a person at Red and you activate their self-defence mechanisms and risk verbal and physical abuse.
Spiral Dynamics Stage Red: Values
It’s crucial to realise that Red marks the forming of a well-defined self-sense that’s separate from others. We can’t reliably take the perspective of other people yet. In fact, others are just a means to our own ends.
We can’t grasp that our behaviour, wants and needs could somehow harm them or infringe on their own wants and needs. This is egocentrism to a tee, and you could say that one of Red’s prime values is simply “me”.
We value dominance and power over other people, and we want to be respected and feared. We want to prove our worth with heroic acts of power and stealth. Let’s “go down in the mouths of men”. Of course! That respect simply adds to our exaggerated self-aggrandisement.
A lot of importance is also placed on immediate pleasure and benefits for self: “If there’s no reward for me, right now, I’m not doing it.”
Spiral Dynamics Stage red: Behaviour
Let’s now look at some of the collective and individuals manifestations of Red. What does Red look like in organisations and individuals?
Learning through positive reinforcement taps into Red tendencies. This is when we learn or carry out a task only to receive an immediate benefit: “if you keep your mouth shut, I’ll buy you an ice cream.” Concepts like patience, delayed gratification and long-term effort are alien.
Since there’s no guilt or remorse, we’re okay with uncontrolled emotional expression. We’re prone to fits of anger and aggression. We see Red and let loose with outward displays of power and anger.
It’s easy to associate this Red behaviour with some of the most atrocious acts ever perpetrated by human beings and believe you’re above it. But watch out for it next time you’re squabbling with a loved one!
In Red organisations, the most powerful rises to the top. They are ruthless in their quest to maintain ultimate power. They bring their less powerful competitors under their wing and manage through force, manipulation and exploitation – “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse”. The Spiral Dynamics literature cites the mafia as a prime example of a Red leadership structure.
Red leaders meet disobedience and inability to carry out orders with aggression, violence, even murder. Remember the other famous line: “it’s not personal, it’s just business”? Thanks, Al.
When it comes to Red leaders and organisations, forget altruistic motives: power is gained for power’s sake, and it’s used to obtain more. Subordinates are simply a cog in the wheel of the power machine. Agricultural societies often had this exploitative leadership style. A warlord-style leader would take control and dominate his subjects, ruthlessly eliminating resistance from both the masses and his round table along the way.