Introduction to Spiral Dynamics

Where do our human values really come from? Since our values come from many different aspects of our world-views, we adopt values that come from a variety of influences. To find new ways to work within a value system usually requires understanding the world-views of others. How people think, what they do, and what makes them adopt certain values over others.
Having this kind of insight into people and their world-views are of profound relevance in a variety of areas. These would include but are not limited to building leadership, conflict resolution, organizational skills, cultural adaptations, the direction of community resources, communications, and marketing. All these are relevant in using spiral dynamics.

a spiraling mosaic - introduction to spiral dynamics

A Working Definition of Spiral Dynamics

Spiral dynamics is an approach based on data and psychology to understand big picture world-views. This approach to systems of thinking about the world is utilized by many modern organizations, cultural groups, and individuals. Spiral dynamics is a trend that is becoming more relevant in various diverse and different industries today. It is a systematic approach that is primarily concerned with how people respond to their immediate world. Based on their current circumstances in the world around them, this approach analyses their unique strategies for coping with situations, instead of lumping people into categorical types or classifications.

It is also concerned with how people conceptualize their thought processes, instead of what concepts they think about. An example to illustrate this is thoughts that are absolute, yet still primarily binary, as in ‘if things are not black, then they must be white’. It could also be the demonstration of being comfortable with uncertain concepts or ambiguous ideas, such as complex queries about changes, ‘When, to do What, to lead Whom, or How should Who?’ Who would truly take precedent?

What are the Origins of Spiral Dynamics?

Spiral Dynamics is referred to in various variants, but also many kinds of disinformation rhetoric. These circulating varieties are noted by studies from Cowan & Todorovic who have noted these quasi spiritualist versions of SD, but also recognize their hodge-podge brand as less than useful. Some variants simply incorporate the theories of human behavioral science that are so very generalized. These adaptations could be applied to many realms of religion, politics, business ethics, or personal growth, no matter what culture the person originates from. But excluding these from the information pool, there are some legitimate background data about the SD model and where it came from originally.

Spiral Dynamics built itself on the ideas studied during the decade from 1950 to the 1960s. It was first explored by one Dr. Clare W. Graves of Union College, New York. He sought to understand human nature better by asking questions. His queries included thoughtful concepts for thought such as; Why are people different? What makes some people want to change, but not others? How does the mind respond to an ever more complex worldview? And many others, based on being a Christian and scientific inquiry. This teaching method was born from frustration because the undercurrent of student classroom methods afforded him many theories, a variety of professors, and the thirst to know if this was the correct visionary information to have none but themselves to blame over their potential incarceration. In the year 1952, Clare Graves went looking for patterns in human behavioral development and needed subjects to relate to his other theories. This project would be an unexpected commitment for the next 20 years or possibly longer.

Graves found he could no longer return as a referee in the classroom, all day explaining such theories were proof of the myths behind their existence. His first efforts attempted to repeat or validate the contemporary writings for an old friend. Graves had it with Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, yet to their dismay.
Unfortunately, Graves’s data continued to resolve that their hierarchal system would not work universally as a theorem. He saw Abraham Maslow as a peer, like niche players being victims of their exploit so elegant, but missing lacking the ability to see outside himself and internally. These being the forces that are guiding and driving the energy behind in silence. Maslow even admitted that the Graves’ model for behavior was vastly superior to his own.

The research done by Clare Graves showed how 8 different kinds of reactions in human experiences were levels or slightly tinted variations with each person being allowed into the study and assuming they completed all 8 levels. As dear Graves’ fell into bad health in 1996, his ability to finish this expanse of working research and publish it waxed, then wained. 

This body of unfinished work was taken up by two former students of Graves and developed further. These students were named Don Beck and Christopher Cowan respectively. Together they took on the ‘Gravesian Theory’ and soon rebranded it under the terms ‘Spiral Dynamics’. Christopher Cowan would eventually come to work with Natasha Todorovic to create the closest version of Spiral Dynamics to the original teachings of Graves and documented this brilliant research in a work entitled ‘The Never-ending Quest’. The culmination of all these research team workings would lead to the greater realized vision of Graves’s work as it is better known today.

The Double Helix Theory

picture of a double helix

Graves had a body of research that resulted in some extensive data and one empirical theory.
He called it his ‘Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory’ (also referred to by the acronym ECLET). This states that all human beings evolve physically, socially, and psychologically. The summary of this theory details that mature humans have gifted with ever-unfolding psychology that is emergent, oscillating, and essentially a process that spirals. This spiraling is marked by the progress that subordinates our lower, more primitive ordered behavioral systems to the higher, and newer ordered systems of behavior. This evolving as the existential problems facing human beings change over time.

Ascertain complex thresholds are reached, the human mind becomes overburdened by the ability to sort these out, and it becomes necessary to create realistic models that are more complex, as a coping strategy. This is how human beings deal with the new problems of existence and living in reality. This grand interplay between our world and humanity responding to it is the ‘Double Helix’ system, which describes our relationships as individuals on a societal level and as a species existing as the following model of the theory that follows.

Helix 1 represents life conditions in reality. It asks what the world is like for those who are part of this grouping. What are the physical elements of reality? What problems do those in reality face? What are the primary motivations and energies put towards? What is a time like for those in reality?
Helix 2 represents mental capacities and the response as a neurobiological reaction. It asks how does the group or individual deals with things within the world. What kind of skillsets does this require of members in this grouping? What are the coping systems for individuals like? What groups develop within society to provide coping mechanisms for specific life conditions that occur?

In their combined formula, Helix 1 and 2 become representative of 8 separate levels of psychological existence, as identified by Graves. These are known as the 8 levels of psychological existence. ‘All 8 are levels that are noticeable in most people, but especially when money is concerned. Each of these levels is a representation of a conceptual space or systems in human beings. It is not a magical random method of sorting people into types like the mythology of fantasy might try, but rather the system tries to account for individuality with people. The levels are attempting to understand the people types in terms of what might matter to them or what might be set higher as a priority, it is possible to divulge clues as to the systems that might be coordinated in their personal world. To make this all easier to understand, Graves came up with a rather convenient lettering system for working out the 8 levels with which he identified human beings in the first place.
The levels each had a letter choice from A – M, this would denote the life condition of Helix 1, followed by a choice of the letters N -Z to denote the mind capabilities of Helix 2. This system allowed simplicity to explore, as Graves identified larger samples of people to seek out and interview for each level of his personal existence. The following section is the final outcome of this perplexing numerical system for Spiral Dynamics.

A Layout for the 8 Levels of Psychological Existence

Reactive and biologically driven existence. Living in a limited sense within cause and effect, being in touch with nature. This is a lesser level for our times, but people do sometimes regress to this state. It is the existential level, based on survival, needs for biogenic satisfaction, driven to reproduce, and primal, to satisfy urges that are instinctual.


This level is sublimation within the group dynamic, having no separation of identity. No ‘I’ or sense of self. Animism is power, cooperation with the universe, a shared view of the universe, the ritualistic summoning of tribal powers, and through these manifestation occurs. This level seeks to honor ancestral connections, placate the spiritual realms, gain protection from harm, and establish family bonds.


Actions are egocentric, power through actions, assertive tendencies, and using the self to be dominant over others. This level is seeking control over sensory pleasures, and the breaking away rites of leaving the tribal boundaries. Impulsive action, earning respect, gaining valor, fighting for honor, and avoiding shame in life. Establishment of order, using might to fight for what is right. The world is seen as an adversary, heartless, without caring, and only through raw power can true potential prevail again.


From out of the chaos that is the remnants of the RED level, comes the obedient and rightful heir, authority of truth, binary-based thinking with the ability to categorize or deny that which is determined by the self. There is one right way, one that leads toward stability. This right-hand path is achieved through the security, sacrifices, and submission of the will. Doing things as written, so it will be done. At this level, there is a book, manuscript, manual, tome, manifesto, and only through it can there be a new normal. The old order has officially been challenged, and the BLUE level undermines all past authorities.


Opportunities present themselves at this level, successful competition is very possible, and competition to achieve the influencer position, autonomy over a living, and the ability to get results without failure. Emerge from the difficulty of being rigid, discovering the power to maneuver away or out, rather than choosing to comply, or conform to the criterion as stated, it is an incomplete face that is very real. It is not likely to set up such moral standards, be goal-directed, liberate others through independence, and still never have you experienced true freedom under the throne of Cierce. It is a time for choosing the possible choices, see the future as a goal with definition, plan to be abundant without planning the whole year and to work towards the common good. If victory has been achieved, then to those winners, obviously go the spoils of war.


This level seeks harmonious love, joining together with the human condition, mutually beneficial chances for growth and belonging. Achievement is drawn through relativistic awareness. Herein emerges a highly valued response to the excessive tendencies of the RED level. Everyone counts at this level to the point of being debilitated doing things on their own. The need to be collaborative is overrun with others, groups, memberships, and even tolerates ambiguity when it is encountered as part of a diverse perspective of the whole. This level truly requires trust, it harms none philosophic outlooks, highly fine-tuned empathy and overt sensitivity to other individuals.


Demanding flexible work, true autonomy, fully realized independence, self-worth based on being systemic, and a desire to fit like a good cog in the living ecosystems. All-knowing, asking good questions, accepting of paradox, and all things uncertain. This level is selfish, but for the wish to do harm to anyone, curiosity is high, learning comes from all possible resources, thinks in terms of contextual outlooks, and sees things with great clarity, but is often unable to explain or teach them back again. Although this level is keenly aware of what their strengths and weaknesses are and have felt martyred by the public educational system, corporate structures in the workplace and God. This is an individual out looker, who finds motivation in fear, the need to survive, but lacks the do well mode of compulsion or ambition. Guilt, denial, and rewards do not work on this level of an individual.


The great existential problems of this level are unknown, or not fully explored. Because these kinds of crises will often be created outside of reality, then manifest in very real emotions, depressions, creative work, hunger, pain, and sometimes violence. Hopefully, this level is well accepted, then it should return focus on the still-developing growth of the global community in everyday events, helping the life struggling to survive on Earth in any way, and being fully conscious. Be here now, be nowhere, but still right here. If maybe possible to create a fully holistic field of energies that draws on the well being of all entities. This level is most comfortable with many paths, many dogmas, many ways to the truth, but one path to knowing. Self-esteem is strong because it is drawn from the greater non-localized fields of energetic opportunities.

Graves also made a distinct observation, the existence of an oscillation in the energetic fields of human beings. These could be seen as a ‘locus of control’, is the script or the instructional formatting that a behavior pattern originates from, as in special location and special coordinates. Even when the focus is made intentional to peers and other friends, there are still variances that have not yet been understood and will take more time to do so. Therefore there is probably a focal oculus for a level beyond the 8th one, something that Graves felt might be explored one day with further research.

Finding True Human Value In Spiral Dynamics

An important aspect of Spiral Dynamics is understanding there is a difference between what is the content versus the container. Meaning the difference between how people think about things versus what people think about. Each of the 8 levels is representative of how people think about things or a way of thinking. People may be thinking about something from two different poised positions, and therefore their viewpoints might seem to be polarized or in direct opposition.
An example could be drawn that a theologian and an atheist hold views that are diametrically opposed, but in reality, they share a similar worldview. They are both absolutist (D-Q BLUE) in their conceptual worldview. Depending on the particular container that represents the individual, concepts like ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ or ‘acceptable’ come to be interpreted with a great variance of meaning and the way they are expressed. So the things that people are saying are one thing, but understanding the thinking systems they are using gives us insights into their values, behaviors, and world-views.

People and their groupings may be in a state of being open, closed, or arrested, but it will be uniquely challenged by their state at any of the levels. Their thinking on a particular level may be limited in terms that are unique for that level. Their thinking actually sees no other alternatives, or maybe unable to comprehend anything more about an issue. The same problem being tackled by persons of differing levels will come to different conclusions. Those who are open probably have a centralized view at a particular level, although they are unable to accept differences in thinking, so they are unable to move between levels and variances. Those who are arrested find their decision making is blocked by the barriers that allow movement between levels of thinking. These states represent different kinds of characters within the same levels or the capacity to process what is happening.

In Spiral Dynamics, maturity measures how an adult responds to their world. Graves recognized a number of forms of maturity that occur at different levels. Maturity is a function of the neuronal systems, and it is also part of the conditional applications of existence. Existential problems are also part of the conditional applications of existence. The journey that leads different people forward in their conceptualization of maturity, how they are influenced, and how they change, all depends on learning to deal effectively with the world at their individual levels. Therefore levels are not good or bad inherently. All levels have their negative and positive aspects or expressions. The conclusion being, the container is not the content. The whole is not the sum of its parts.

The great error many make when thinking about human values is the assumption that our nature is fixed. There is no single set of human values that we all must or should live by. Such assumptions don’t allow for the research into human behavior to cast a wide enough net. Values in governments differ from values in the workplace, just as values in the community differ from values in the military. Spiral Dynamics encourages us to change the way we filter information within the context of the worldview being shared or coordinated. By doing so, we can alter our own lens for viewing and identify problems, stress factors, strengths, weaknesses, and potentials in all situations. The insights afforded us by the application of Spiral Dynamics can help human beings to better communicate, manage, resolve conflicts, and work together despite our inherent differences. This could change the world by understanding the worldviews we all share, but perceive differently.