Clare W. Graves
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Clare W. Graves

The value systems theorist

Clare W. Graves, a professor of psychology was born in New Richmond, Indiana. His claim to fame lies as the originator of the theory of adult development. Dr. Clare Graves spent most of his professional life researching and ultimately developing theories for the value systems that associate different life conditions with the mental capacities that emerge in humans as they solve problems.

Clare W. Graves

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

An interesting event in his career occurred when he was teaching psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. It was here in the mid twentieth century that Graves developed a philosophic model of human psychology. He gathered data from his own students with a paper describing “the mature adult human being,” acknowledging his inability to answer their question about who among the many psychology theorists was ultimately “right” or “correct” with their model of human psychology. He defined psychologically mature human behavior as the mental behavior that enables a human being not only to survive but also to succeed and win over his environment. The psychologically mature person is the one that fate has endowed with the natural human qualities to rise above the conditions of his being and to impose control over it and modify it as he sees fit regardless of what others think. His conclusion was the result of the data he collected from his psychology students and others (in total a diverse group of around 1,065 men and women aged 18 to 61) in the seven years from 1952 to 1959.

The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory

In his work ‘The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory”, Graves visualized that in response to the interaction of external conditions with internal neuronal systems, humans develop new bio-psycho-social coping systems to solve objective problems and cope with their worlds. These coping systems are dependent on evolving human culture and individual development. And they are manifested at the individual, community, and species levels. His theories have been popularized by Beck & Cowan in their work of Spiral Dynamics. The Gravesian value system has been equated with the underlying assumptions inside an organization that are largely responsible for organizational cultures.

Spiral Dynamic by Beck and Cowan

Just as Heraclitus is famous for his insistence on ever-present change in the universe, as stated in the famous saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” so also Graves visualized that “man’s nature is not a set thing, that it is always developing, that it is an open system, and not a closed system.”

This open-endedness set his approach apart from many of his contemporaries who sought a final say, an enlightenment, or capability in human nature.

“At each stage of human existence the adult man is off on his search of his holy altar, the way of life he seeks by which to live. At his first level he is on a search for automatic physiological satisfaction. At the second level he seeks a safe mode of living, and this is followed in turn, by a search for heroic status, for power and glory, by a search for ultimate peace, a search for material pleasure, a search for affectionate relations, a search for respect of self, and a search for peace in an incomprehensible world. And, when he finds he will not find that peace, he will be off on his ninth level   search.  As he sets off on each search, he believes he will find the answer to his existence. Yet, much to his surprise and much to his dismay, he finds at every stage that the solution to existence is not the solution he has come to find. Every stage he reaches leaves him distracted and confused. It is simply that as he solves one set of human problems he finds a new set in their place. The search he finds is never ending.”

Graves’ idea can be summarized best in Freudian terms, that the mature personality accepts its identification but does not give it greater importance. And fosters the super ego but does not allow it to depress the fullest expression of the ego.

The importance of his research has influenced a number of management theorists like Chris Cowan and Don Beck who used it as the basis for their book ‘Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. Integral theorist, Ken Wilber. Dudley Lynch has used it as the basis for four books, including The Mother of All Minds: Leaping Free of An Outdated Human Nature.

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