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Spiral Dynamics For Newbies: The 8 Stages

Too often the theory of Spiral Dynamics and the stages is oversimplified. Many teachers and writers simply discuss the Spiral Dynamics stages, missing out a tonne of fascinating insights into what Spiral Dynamics is and what it means for you.

Here you’ll learn way more than just the stages of Spiral Dynamics. You’ll also discover the properties of those stages and how you develop through them, along with the foundations of the Spiral Dynamics theory. At the end, we’ll look at how to spot these stages in yourself. All this will give you a rounded understanding, leading you to the most powerful results.

summary of the 8 Stages of Spiral Dynamics

Here’s A Secret: Spiral Dynamics Goes Way Beyond The Stages

You heard it.

Besides leading to a loss of complexity and nuance, just focusing on the Spiral Dynamics stages puts too much emphasis on the individual, ignoring the other factors the theory posits.

For one thing, we often paint individuals as wholly responsible for their dominant value systems. This means we see them as ignorant or unwilling to grow if at relatively low stages, and as wise and highly developed if at a relatively high one. Later value systems are also naively set as a goal for all humans. Do not make this mistake.

To quote the Spiral Dynamics theory itself, “Life Conditions awaken vMEMEs [stages] which may emerge, surge, regress or fade in response.” So this theory is an attempt at a holistic perspective on the human being where the individual and their environment dance and flow together. It is the weaving together of people and environments that leads to the variety of stages that are out there – not merely one or the other.

We’ll get to the stages later in the article. Do skip ahead if you’re dying to read about them. But I promise you: choose to delve into the background first, and you’ll be rewarded with a rich, nuanced understanding of this powerful theory and avoid all the common traps.

Let’s get to it.

What is Spiral Dynamics? Here’s An Executive Summary

Spiral Dynamics is a theory of human behaviour applicable to individuals and groups of them, like societies and organisations. It attempts to put human behaviour into a holistic, big-picture framework. What’s more, it provides a roadmap for effectively managing change and working with the different levels of human behaviour the theory itself posits.

A key assumption behind the theory is that ultimate maturity does not exist, only levels of maturity do. This idea comes from Graves, one of the pioneers whose research led to Spiral Dynamics. Graves wrote: “Damn it all. A man has the right to be who he is.” Ignore the archaic language!

Our behaviour is not good/evil or mature/immature. Instead, it is a spectrum leading from lower to higher. It moves through distinguishable packages or systems as the world around us changes and we adjust to it. In fact, Spiral Dynamics posits that eight such packages or systems of behaviour have emerged in all of human history – those are the eight vMEMEs or levels.

What Are The Spiral Dynamics Stages?

Let’s Talk About Memes

Spiral Dynamics takes a lot of its theory, including the eight value systems, from Clare Graves’ Emergent-Cyclical Theory, which I cover in The Great Updraft Clare Graves Series.

The concept of vMEMEs didn’t come from Graves, however. In fact, its origins lie in Richard Dawkins’ idea of memes. Dawkins said in an interview with VICE that a meme was:

the cultural equivalent of a gene. So anything that gets passed from brain to brain, like an accent, or a basic word, or a tune. It’s anything that you can say spreads through the population in a cultural way, like an epidemic. So a craze at a school, a clothes fashion, a fashion for a particular way of speaking, all these things are memes.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines a meme as:

any permanent pattern of matter or information produced by an act of human intentionality.

The goal of memes is to survive and propagate themselves across society and from generation to generation. Examples of memes are songs, laptops, coffee and communism.

So, What Are The Spiral Dynamics Stages All about?

Well, memes like those above undergird the concept of vMEMEs. To quote Beck and Cowan:

vMEMEs are the amino acids of our psycho-social ‘DNA’ and act as the magnetic force which binds memes and other types of ideas in cohesive packages of thought.

That is, vMEMEs are collections of similar memes that reinforce and strengthen one another. One method you can use to uncover the levels of development present in individuals, society and organisations is to look at the memes they identify with. As a result, the eight Spiral Dynamics value systems are each made up of memes that resonate with each other.

And the crucial point is that those collections of memes are what we adopt as we enter a stage. This then percolates down into our everyday life and can even affect what food we eat, what friends we have and the type of music we’re into.

As we’ll see, Spiral Dynamics claims that there are only eight major vMEMEs (levels, stages, collections of memes) that exist in human beings, though it does leave open the possibility for further ones. These are the levels of development that Spiral Dynamics enthusiasts know and love.

The “Spiral” of Spiral Dynamics

Before we look at the eight levels and their properties, let’s have a look at the Spiral aspect of Spiral Dynamics. What is the Spiral?

This theory uses a spiral to represent the human developmental process. Some of the defining features of spirals reflect key properties of human development. For instance, there are cyclical components to development, there are developmental levels – each of which is more complex than the next. Development also has a clear direction over time, tending upwards.

‘The Spiral’ is also used as shorthand for the developmental process in individuals and society. We often say ‘the health of the Spiral’ or ‘seeing the Spiral’.

Spiral Dynamics: Seven Properties of The Spiral

Let’s look at the key properties of the Spiral according to Beck and Cowan. As you read this, know you can replace “vMEMEs” with “stages” or “levels”.

Property 1: Human Beings Can Create New vMEMEs

Though this needs to be carefully interpreted, the basic message of this property is that our psychology isn’t necessarily limited and locked forever, both in a collective and an individual sense. All value systems had to emerge in historical time and they all have to emerge for each of us throughout our lifetime.

Human beings collectively started at Beige, and newborns also start at Beige. This property also captures the potential for development in individuals – we can develop to later levels. It also suggests that we can awaken levels that are as yet buried and inactive.

Property 2: Life Conditions awaken new vMEMEs, which may emerge, surge, regress or fade in response

This second property is absolutely critical. Graves formulated human development as a double helix, with an environmental side and an organismic side. We can think of these value systems as the coping systems we use for our Life Conditions: We move with them.

We need to take Life Conditions into account if we wish to understand the value systems active in ourselves and others. In fact, Beck and Cowan break Life Conditions down into four categories: historical time, geographic place, human problems and social circumstance.

Property 3: vMEMEs zig-zag between Sacrifice-self and Express-self themes

Value systems (stages or levels) are either Sacrifice-self (Collective) or Express-self (Individual) memes. On one hand, the Sacrifice-self systems (Purple, Blue, Green, Turquoise) centre around us relinquishing control to others, looking for authority from outside and accepting the world as it is. On the other hand, express-self systems (Beige, Red, Orange, Yellow) have us take control, take charge and attempt to change the world.

But even then, there is a clear path of development among these two categories. For example, the motivations and values driving Orange- and Yellow-centred individuals, though both Express-self dominated, are worlds apart. According to Csikszentmihalyi:

“It is not a circular motion that returns to where one started, but rather, it resembles an ascending spiral, where concern for the self becomes steadily qualified by less selfish goals, and concern for others become individualistic and personally meaningful.”

Property 4: vMemes emerge along the Spiral in a wave-like fashion

The developmental process isn’t a lock-step process: old stages don’t suddenly lose their influence on us. Rather, when a new value system emerges it does so in a wave-like fashion. And as new Life Conditions outstrip the capabilities of our current value systems, the next comes online.

Eventually it comes to dominate our way of being, and previous systems fade. A rule of thumb suggested by several developmentalists is that, when centred at a certain stage, 50% of our behaviour is determined by that stage and 25% by the two stages either side.

Property 5: The Spiral moves from lesser to greater complexity

Each value system is more complex than the next – they allow us to deal with ever more complex Life Conditions and give us greater degrees of freedom. This means there is a clear direction to human development.

However, that doesn’t mean that higher systems are always better – remember the importance of Life Conditions. In fact, under certain Life Conditions, the later levels are both impossible and unnecessary to reach.

Property 6: Different vMEMEs dominate in different areas of our lives

Though we’re often centred at a certain vMEME, our religious life, our professional life, our social life and our family life may all be guided by their own stages. At the same time, we have several dominant levels, which come to the fore in different circumstances, along with our less-active systems.

Property 7: vMEMEs are arranged in groups of six in tiers

Graves saw that the Yellow vMEME was wildly different from all those preceding it. This led him to describe it as the first step in a new metastage of development. Together, the first six stages constitute the first tier of human development. This is because the Life Conditions corresponding to them are ones of scarcity: lack of safety, lack of basic subsistence, lack of power, lack of approval, lack of belonging, and so on. In fact, Graves called these ‘animal-like needs’.

When we move from Green to Yellow, we experience a ‘monumental leap in meaning’ and move from scarcity to abundance motivation. Indeed, there is a remarkable dropping away of fear, a recognition of the magnificence of existence and a desire to see it flourish. There’s also an enormous release of problem-solving capabilities. Our Life Conditions are of a new order of complexity.

The Eight Spiral Dynamics Levels

Let’s have a look at what comes to most people’s minds when they think of Spiral Dynamics: the stages of development it posits.

If you’re new to this theory, I recommend you to identify these different coping systems in you, the people you know, and the problems we’re facing as a species. You will be shocked to discover the explanatory power of this theory.

Let’s first look at the properties of the eight levels or coping systems as a whole before picking out the key characteristics of each.

Properties of the Spiral Dynamics Levels

vmemes... guide our decisions and priorities and eventually our behaviour

magnetically bind people together

organise themselves into packages which influence everything we do

are neither healthy nor unhealthy in themselves, but can become malignant

brighten and dim as Life Conditions change: the hierarchy represents degree of complexity

oscillate between Express-self, go-it-alone themes and Sacrifice-self, conformist themes

attach onto ideas, people and institutions to propagate themselves

…determine ‘how’ and ‘why’ people think and make decisions, not the ‘what’

The Eight Levels

Summary of the eight Spiral Dynamics stages.

It’s time to look at the famous Spiral Dynamics levels. I’ll detail how they emerge, the coping system they lead to, and the corresponding Life Conditions.

Note, Life Conditions are very complex and vary from person to person. I include them as a very rough guide to help you understand why these levels emerge.

Spiral Dynamics Stages – 1: Beige Survivalistic

desert with footsteps representing Spiral Dynamics Beige

We begin with the most basic coping system found in humans.: the Beige vMEME. It corresponds with the most basic form of human existence, Life Conditions LC1. These life conditions capture our need to survive as a biological organism.

We all come into this life as helpless infants unable to care for our own survival. And in later years, we become reliant on others to care for our basic needs, meaning we exhibit Beige behaviour.

Place: Historically speaking, the bush, the savannah, the jungle. Nowadays, in poverty-stricken countries or remote areas
Problems: Stay alive as a biological organism and perpetuate the species
Social Circumstance: Small bands of hunter-gatherers offering mutual protection; caregiver-patient relationships
Time: Dominated humankind for thousands of years. Can be triggered by natural catastrophes and war

Beige Behaviour

  • Devote energy to basic human survival needs: sustenance, shelter and procreation
  • No sense of linear time, cause and effect, or individuality
  • Respond automatically and instinctively to body sensations indicating levels of sustenance or desire to procreate
  • Can readily access pre-verbal capacities largely unavailable to modern humans

Spiral Dynamics Stages – 2: Purple Magical

image of a bush with sunset in background, representing Spiral Dynamics Purple

If we can satisfy our basic need to stay alive, energy is freed for the move to the next level and for the more complex Life Conditions LC2. These correspond to Stage Purple.

Here we begin to form a sense of individuality, albeit a rudimentary one. More attention goes to understanding the world we’re in. We realise that events are sequential. As a result, we now perceive cause and effect for the first time and the world is seen as alive with spirits and gods dictating everything from the growth of crops to the weather.

Social needs emerge as the individual realises they coexist with other humans. In the developed world, this level is mostly visible in young children. But like all other levels, it never truly leaves us.

Place: the jungle, the savannah, the bush
Problems: coexist with other human beings in a causal world governed by spirits
Social Circumstance: tribes
Time: Agricultural societies. Today’s third-world countries. Found in very young children in developed world.

Purple Behaviour:

  • complex thinking still limited. Person attributes causality to the all-powerful spirits, confuses truth and imagination, and relies solely on intuition
  • the person and the tribe attempt to appease the spirits by means of superstition, rituals and the ways of the forefathers. They use dreams, omens and signs to understand reality
  • person is only concerned with their immediate environment and the survival of their small group. Outsiders are threatening
  • this system is sacrifice-self, other-oriented since their identity is consumed in the identity of the tribe or immediate others

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Spiral Dynamics Stages – 3: Red Powerful

Spiral Dynamics Stage Red Worldview

Several events can trigger the awakening of the next level: Stage Red. With time, the limitations of the totems and rituals of the tribe may be exposed, making the individual question their tribe membership and leading to a desire to break free and go it alone. The individual realises the spirits aren’t so powerful after all.

The Red level appears in early childhood as their individual self becomes more differentiated. As a result, they view themselves as separate from the world and begin to truly assert themselves for the first time.

Spiral Dynamics Stage Red Values

Place: Places where resources are scarce, like underdeveloped countries and poor areas in developed countries. Prisons.
Problems: Survive in the jungle of life that’s filled with other threatening separate selves. Learn how to dominate others by force. Survival of the fittest.
Social Circumstances: The lower classes, people who have little access to education or are poorly educated.
Time: Appears in childhood and adolescence. Came online historically before the appearance of the great empires.

Red Behaviour

  • person is impulsive and routinely displays anger, power and force with no guilt or remorse
  • immediate gratification is most important – no concern for the results of their actions
  • person doesn’t show any concern for other people – they’re absolutely egocentric
  • analyses others according to whether they’re powerful and threatening or weak and prone to domination
Spiral Dynamics Stage Red Psychology

Spiral Dynamics Stages – 4: Blue Absolutistic

Spiral Dynamics Stage Blue Worldview

The Blue level emerges when we sense the limits of our selfishness and unrestrained expressions of power and force. We become aware of the consequences of our actions for the first time. Indeed, guilt begins to take hold. In reaction to our animal-like fury, we become self-denying and strive to follow rigid rules laid down by higher authority. We also extend our circle of concern to include our fellow Chosen People, not just ourselves.

Place: Places where civilisation and survival are under threat due to conflict or lack of resources
Problems: Chosen people are under threat. A divine plan guides the world, and we must live in accordance with that. Order is needed and people need to work together
Social Circumstance: Working classes in developed countries, second-world countries where fundamentalist religion dominates
Time: Dominated from early civilisation to the Enlightenment. Appears in early adolescence in developed countries

Spiral Dynamics Stage Blue Values

Blue Behaviour

  • Person submits to a higher authority which lays down rigid rules for living based on divine authority. These are taken to be the one and only way to be. Other ways are evil or wrong
  • Identity revolves around belonging to the group of Chosen People
  • Sees people who don’t follow their rigid set of rules to be evil and in need of conversion
  • Divine prescriptions for living are taken to be literally true and are unquestionable – other names for this stage include ‘Absolutistic’ and ‘Mythic’

Stage 5: Orange Materialistic

Spiral Dynamics Stage Orange Values

Time for Stage Orange. Sacrificing self to follow higher authority becomes stale and the person decides to go it alone again. There’s a frustration with authority and a desire to rebel against it. They also question and deconstruct the previous absolutistic claims to truth. Their attention now turns to using proven practical methods to fulfil their material desires. The person finds truth through evidence and reason in reaction to the dogma they believed during the previous stage.

Place: Where survival is secure and people have freedom. The modern, developed world
Problems: The world is a physical reality with certain rules – learning and applying these rules leads to success. Life is a game, a series of tests and opportunities to prove oneself
Social Circumstances: Educated people, the wealthy
Times: Historically, this thinking surged during the Enlightenment. It’s now the abiding level in the developed world. Often appears in adolescence.

Spiral Dynamics Stage Orange Psychology

Orange Behaviour:

  • Search for independence and autonomy. Top priorities are short-term victories and materialistic achievement
  • Focus is on self – look to satisfy material desires in the here and now. Cost-benefit ratios run decisions
  • Discover the rules of the game of life and play the game to win
  • Thinking is multiplistic: many possible ways but only one right way
  • Retains a Red impulsiveness which has been softened by Blue, but still has little empathy for others – manipulates and connives others rather than dominating them with force
  • Trusts experience and data, is pragmatic and doesn’t question deeply
Spiral Dynamics Stage Orange Worldview

Spiral Dynamics Stages – 6: Green Relativistic

Spiral Dynamics Stage Green Worldview

Competition with others becomes stifling and we realise that our selfishness is hurting other people. Materialism ultimately doesn’t fulfil us and the fallout of pursuing it – environmental damage, inequality, health issues, injustice and pillaging of resources – is made plain to see. We may be rich and have a great self-image but still feel a void despite the promises of everlasting material happiness. We also feel a need to belong again – to feel closer to others and feel accepted. This leads to the Green level.

Place: In advanced, modern societies.
Problems: Inequality between races, social classes and genders. Lack of connection with other human beings. Attend to damage caused by excessive materialism and scientism
Social Circumstances: In educated youth, the middle class. People whose materialistic needs are assured
Times: Emerged to a significant degree in the 60s with the Boomers. Often emerges in university years

Spiral Dynamics Stage Green Values

Green Level Behaviour:

  • person is connected to their feelings and emotions more than any other preceding level
  • values sensitivity, warm, respectful discourse, sharing, and understanding
  • seeks to tear down artificial human divisions and hierarchies and create parity
  • is relativistic: one view is not necessarily better than the next, all views must be heard and considered
  • supports the downtrodden and needy, attempts to regulate growth and protect endangered species
  • strives to give everyone a say and relies on cooperation, togetherness and communicating feelings with gentleness
  • accepts others in return for being accepted themselves.
Spiral Dynamics Stage Green Psychology

Stage 7: Yellow Integrative

Spiral Dynamics Stage Yellow Values

The self-sacrificing in Green may stifle us. We see the inherent limitations and contradictions of Green relativism and sensitivity. Fighting for justice and being ‘eco’ gets old. We also see too much from too many different angles to grab onto our Green relativism and pluralism any more, and feel an urge to express ourselves again. This awakens the Yellow vmeme.
Graves called the move from Green to Yellow ‘a monumental leap in meaning’ because we’re now abundance-motivated, not deficiency-motivated. The conceptual space available to us at Yellow is more than the sum of those of the prior levels.

Spiral Dynamics Stage Yellow Psychology

Place: Advanced developed countries
Problems: Many vmemes clashing simultaneously, world’s systems in jeopardy, complex global issues to be resolved
Social Circumstances: Well-educated segments of the population, thought leaders, likely to continue emerging in Green-dominated areas
Times: Has only come online to a significant degree in last 40/50 years

Spiral Dynamics Stage Yellow Worldview

Yellow vmeme Coping System

  • person is self-oriented, looks to change the world to impact their quality of being and to develop themselves as much as possible, but is responsible and careful not to harm others or be overly selfish
  • for the first time, is aware of all the prior vmemes, respects them and can see the validity of them all. Individual has FlexFlow capabilities: they can enter the conceptual world of each of the prior vmemes. They also recognise that both malignant vmeme expressions and vmeme clashes are inevitable
  • is attuned to the evolutionary process which underlies culture, society and human issues
  • heavily emphasises knowledge, information and competence and relies on these in pursuing their goals – ‘left brain with feelings’
  • prime concern is with the magnificence of life and with having different vmemes functionally coexist

Spiral Dynamics Stages – 8: Turquoise Holistic

And so we come to the final vmeme , one well documented in other developmental models, but less so in Spiral Dynamics. It’s also very rare at this point in time since LC8 are rare.

Turquoise comes online when we recognise the limits of our Yellow individualism – we attempt to gain knowledge and information in order to understand the evolutionary process of humankind and address current systemic issues, but can become isolated with our individualism. In fact, we need to become more Communal to actually bring about the changes we desire to make for the health of the Spiral. Instead, feelings, emotion and intuition supplement our cognitive capacities and we bring both to the table.

LC8 are present if the life of the Spiral is in jeopardy and holistic, global approaches are needed to restore its health.

Turquoise Coping System:

  • focus on the wellbeing of the Spiral – collaborate and concentrate global forces to bring about change
  • connects again with emotions and intuition, which become part of repertoire: ‘right brain with data’
  • thinks holistically, reflecting their view of the world as a single organism – individuals, systems and creatures are not separate. Self is also seen to be part of this whole
  • understands the fullness of the Spiral more than Yellow does – this understanding helps person to stay grounded in their complicated, chaotic world

Now it’s time for the million-dollar question: which of the Spiral Dynamics stages are you at? It’s time for a test.

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Spiral Dynamics Test – Which Stages Do you Embody?

Now we get to the really exciting part. Let’s test what Spiral Dynamics stages you embody!

Instead of asking which Spiral Dynamics level we’re “at” and doing a test to find out, we might ask whether we healthily embody each level and attempt to recognise its importance to us. That’s exactly what we’ll do in this test. As Wilber says, transcend and include – not transcend and exclude.

Check out my article specifically covering the Spiral Dynamics test for all the nuances, but let’s touch on this topic here in case you’re interested.

In short, it’s hard to say you should “be” at any of these stages. Nor are you at a single stage. Life is a matrix of situations and circumstances requiring a wide repertoire of responses.

All stages brings their own unique capacities to the table, and failing to healthily integrate them can bring remarkable dysfunction. Sometimes we need outright Red aggression and domination. Other times, Blue conformity is the order of the day. All of these systems are latent within us, waiting to be expressed.

Ideally, we want to “flex and flow” between the different levels, like a chameleon. When life calls for it, we’re able to easily slide up and down the spiral and choose the appropriate response. Beck and Cowan called this being a Spiral Wizard.

Now, despite all my reservations, it’s also vital we ask ourselves “which stages we’re at”. Doing a test can be instructive. But again, with nuance – this is a multidimensional question. We should ask the following questions.

“which stages do I feel most identified with?”
“which can I call on when I need to, even if I don’t fully identify with them?”
“which stages do I find difficult to embody?”
“which stages have I yet to embody?”

In my Spiral Dynamics Test article, we look closely at each stage and reflect on how well we embody each of them.

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