What Is Spiral Dynamics? Spiral Dynamics In A Nutshell

Spiral dynamics is a theory of human evolution based on decades of research by developmental psychologist Clare W. Graves. Spiral dynamics is a theory of human development arguing the human mind adapts more complex thinking when faced with similarly complex life experiences.

Understanding spiral dynamics

Graves created a psychological model describing multiple stages of human development according to various value systems.

These values systems he called memes, or sets of world views, preferences, and purposes used to structure societies and integrate the individuals within them.

Graves initially sought to validate the work of contemporary Abraham Maslow, who was developing his hierarchy of needs at the time.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His hierarchy, often depicted in the shape of a pyramid, helped explain his research on basic human needs and desires. In marketing, the hierarchy (and its basis in psychology) can be used to market to specific groups of people based on their similarly specific needs, desires, and resultant actions.

In truth, however, the spiral dynamics model became far more detailed and insightful. 

During his time at North Texas State University, he proposed that:

The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiralling process, marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher order systems as man’s existential problems change.

Graves passed away in 1986 before he had a chance to publish his work, but it was picked up by Christopher Cowan and Don Edward Beck and published in their 1996 book Spiral Dynamics.

Beck then joined forces with Ken Wilbur, a philosopher who popularised spiral dynamics by integrating it into his “theory of everything” framework.

Fundamentally, spiral dynamics help describe the development of people, organizations, and wider society according to the value systems that motivate them.

When encountering external circumstances, people are forced to construct more complex, conceptual models of the environment to help them deal with new problems.

The eight developmental stages of Graves’ model

Graves identified eight development stages, each with its own value system fulfilling its own function in a particular context. 

Every stage is represented by a particular color and is categorized as either a first-tier or second-tier meme.

Note that the colors themselves have no literal connection to the value system they represent.

Instead, they were introduced by Beck in an attempt to avoid racial tension during Apartheid in South Africa.

Individuals, organizations, societies, and cultures do not operate exclusively on one level.

Instead, each embodies multiple value systems to varying degrees.

The spiral dynamics model also posits infinite stages of progression and regression over time because of the fluid nature of life experience.

First-tier memes

First-tier memes describe the various worldviews, cultures, and mental attitudes from history until the present moment.

Here, new value systems build on adaptions from previous levels by seeking to solve problems associated with living in those older ways.

First-tier memes include:

Beige (archaic, instinctive, automatic)

Emerging around 100,000 BC, beige is the most primitive value system.

Individuals are primarily concerned with satisfying food, water, safety, shelter, and sex-based needs.

They live off the land like other animals and have minimal impact or control over their environment.

Purple (animistic, tribalistic, mystical)

Emerging around 50,000 BC, the purple value system describes cultures that show allegiance to elders, customers, or clans.

They obey the desires of mystical beings or spirits and preserve sacred places, objects, and rituals.

Individuals survive and find safety by coming together.

Red (egocentric, exploitative, impulsive, rebellious)

From around 7000 BC, the red value system began to emerge.

The world is now separated by the rich and poor with a need to avoid shame, be respected, and defend one’s reputation.

Individuals impulsively seek instant gratification and push the boundaries established by man or nature to overcome challenges.

Blue (obedient, purposeful, authoritarian)

In around 1000 BC, individuals began to find purpose and meaning in life.

They believed outcomes were determined by a higher-order power who clarified notions of right and wrong and punished those who strayed.

As a result, most religions and religious values are rooted in this stage.

Orange (materialistic, strategic, ambitious, individualistic)

According to Graves, the orange value systems emerged around 600 AD.

Early forms of consumerism started to appear around this time as advances in science and technology enhanced the quality of life and shifted the focus to material pleasure and acquisition.

As an advancer of civilizations, orange value systems took hold in the industrial age and are just as relevant in the present-day technological and information era.

Green (personalistic, pluralistic, sensitive)

Green value systems emerged around 1850 but took hold during the hippy movement of the 1960s.

These systems gave rise to movements around animal and human rights, feminism, and racial equality, among other things.

Green values are based on promoting a sense of community, consensus-based decision-making, spirituality, and the sharing of society’s resources.

Second-tier memes

Second-tier memes describe more advanced, enlightened, evolved, or aware value systems. 

Graves suggested the leap from the sixth to the seventh system was momentous because it represented a major shift in thinking.

Indeed, individuals exhibiting any of the first six systems tend to find it more difficult to relate to the perspectives held by those from other systems. 

The last two systems, as we will see, allow the individual to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously:

Yellow (systemic, ecological, flexible, conceptual)

Emerging around 1950, those with a yellow value system can appreciate the whole spiral for its complexity and elegance.

Most importantly, they learn and adapt to life by incorporating the lessons learned from each level.

This quality helps them accept that life is inherently uncertain with a focus on flexibility, functionality, competence, and spontaneity. Interests are pursued without excess and without harming others.

Turquoise (compassion harmony, peace, receptivity)

The turquoise value system emerged in the 1970s and believes in the interconnectedness of all forms of life as a single, integrated whole.

Everything is connected to everything else and nothing happens in isolation.

In recent years, this value system has rekindled the intuitive forms of perception found in the blue value system, strengthening the connection to a higher power or the natural world.

The turquoise value system has also increased the trust people have in non-material forms of perception, which were made untrustworthy when the orange value system emerged.

Key takeaways

  • Spiral dynamics is a theory of human development arguing the human mind adapts more complex thinking when faced with similarly complex life experiences.
  • Spiral dynamics creator Clare W. Graves viewed the psychology of a mature human being as an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, and progressive process. Importantly, individuals move from lower-order to higher-order behavioral systems as their existential problems change.
  • Spiral dynamics is comprised of eight value systems, or memes, with each denoted by a specific but unrelated color. Graves suggested the biggest leap occurred between the sixth and seventh systems because it was the first instance where the individual could hold multiple perspectives simultaneously.

Connected Business Concepts

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Herzberg’s two-factor theory argues that certain workplace factors cause job satisfaction while others cause job dissatisfaction. The theory was developed by American psychologist and business management analyst Frederick Herzberg. Until his death in 2000, Herzberg was widely regarded as a pioneering thinker in motivational theory.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His hierarchy, often depicted in the shape of a pyramid, helped explain his research on basic human needs and desires. In marketing, the hierarchy (and its basis in psychology) can be used to market to specific groups of people based on their similarly specific needs, desires, and resultant actions.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

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Theory X and Theory Y

Theory X and Theory Y were developed in the 1960s by American management professor and social psychologist Douglas McGregor. McGregor believed there were two fundamental approaches to managing people in the workplace to get things done and benefit the organization. Theory X and Theory Y are theories of motivation used by managers to increase the performance of subordinates.

ERG Theory

The ERG theory was developed by American psychologist Clayton Alderfer between 1961 and 1978.  The ERG theory is a motivational model based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The ERG theory is based on an acronym of three groups of core needs: existence, relatedness, growth.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.

Wheel of Life

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Job Characteristics Model

Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics model is a framework that businesses use to design jobs that facilitate employee motivation. Hackman and Oldham’s model is based on the idea maintaining motivation in the workplace lies in the job itself. While mundane tasks were found to decrease productivity, more varied tasks had the opposite effect. Hackman and Oldham identified five job characteristics that enrich a role and cause employee motivation, satisfaction, and performance to increase: skill variety, task identity, task significance, task autonomy, and feedback. These factors are linked with three psychological states that improve an employee’s motivation in the workplace.

Premack Principle

The Premack principle posits that an individual will perform a less preferred activity (low probability behavior) to obtain access to a more preferred activity (high probability behavior). The Premack principle was developed after a study of capuchin monkeys conducted by David Premack in 1965. Premack later conducted a similar experiment with children and found that irrespective of their preference between pinball and candy, they would perform the less desirable activity to get what they wanted. The Premack principle can also be useful in some workplace scenarios as an employee motivation tactic.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

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Six Thinking Hats Model

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Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

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Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


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Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

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Mandela Effect

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Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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