Frequently Asked Questions

NVCC's SPIRAL DYNAMICS® trainings incorporate Graves's models and theory which has a rich history and broad applications in today’s world. In this FAQ section, we’ve answered the questions people ask most often about Spiral Dynamics. We also try to address some concerns. If you have a question that's not yet covered here, click the Ask A Question link on the left.

Just click on a general subject that interests you (menu on the left) for a list of question areas, or choose a question from the group below:

Questions about the Overall Theory of Spiral Dynamics

What is Spiral Dynamics®?

The term, SPIRAL DYNAMICS®, means different things to different people. At NVCC it refers to a brand and a trademark defining NVCC's workshops, training, consulting, assessments, services and various products incorporating the work of Clare W. Graves. These products and services are all designed to help you get at the map to the nature of human nature. The Spiral model offers a point of view and a way of thinking better about differences in leadership, learning, management, social structures, economics and virtually every other area where human coping strategies have an impact. That's saying a lot because the perspectives we use are a broad view of who we are and who we might become as Homo sapiens.

"Spiral" depicts how people develop diverse worldviews and the characteristics of those varying perspectives; it is a metaphor for the double-helix form used by Dr. Clare W. Graves. "Dynamics" explores the process of emergence and how living systems evolve, grow and change. For an overview of the theory, please click on the "About Spiral Dynamics" link at the top of your screen.

In our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs we explore things like why we cooperate, collaborate and conflict over differences in values and the value systems that form them. We concentrate on human thinking systems—deep structures—instead of the surface attitudes and beliefs that form their contents.

People who really understand the various models covered in a typical SPIRAL DYNAMICS® training recognize that it’s not a typology, a stairway to godliness, a religion, a weapon, a cult, a panacea, a hierarchy of intellectual capital or a pedestal from which elitists can look down on the rest of us. Instead, we incorporate a theory of how people frame the reality they experience—how people see their worlds, why they choose to do what they do from a set of distinct 'logics' and what others can do because of that diversity of systems. Our work seeks compassion and integration without dismissing differentiation.

The Spiral Dynamics book is largely a simplification and popularization of Dr. Graves' “emergent, cyclical, double-helix model of adult biopsychosocial systems development”—“levels of existence theory” for short. It’s a bridge that seeks to cross the lines of disciplines and knowledge sets to pull many ways of knowing together. The work is rooted in systems theory and developmental psychology, and concentrates on the mature adult personality in operation with all its permutations, positive and negative traits. 

Graves's very descriptive label, "biopsychosocial systems," suggests the imperative to integrate biological/genetic factors with psychological factors and sociocultural forces in a systems view. (One reason good intentions fail is that all these elements are not incorporated in the solutions and addressed simultaneously.) A sub-movement that calls itself "integral" has adopted some of the principles and much of the language of the Spiral, and we await a shakeout among its followers to see if that's ultimately terribly destructive or a stimulus for additional legitimate work. Either way, the Gravesian legacy stands well on its own. 

The material in SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs is conceptually rich. Many other useful theories, models, knowledge sets and techniques can be sorted through the Spiral lens to better match therapists with clients, teachers and students, managers and employees, governance and governed, investigators with topics. These models can be adopted to complement other ways of knowing, ranging from strategic approaches to personal growth.

By using SPIRAL DYNAMICS® tools, business people can understand organizational culture with more finesse. Coaches can better work with clients in transition and maximize those at stability. Educators can design learning that makes better sense with more relevance to learners. Parents and their children can begin to recognize each other’s needs and viewpoints. Managers can address human factors dilemmas because we describe them in a language that reaches far beyond the usual demographics. Marketers can improve communications, and health care providers can reach patients more effectively. Religious leaders can tailor their efforts to serve a range of groups simultaneously, and the average person can find comfort in what sometimes feels like an incomprehensible world. Why? Because one of the key principles in our programs grants human beings the right to be who they are, a window to see how they might be, and a map to find where others are.

In SPIRAL DYNAMICS® training we share a way of thinking and making connections that, while not new or revolutionary, gives more explanatory power than practically anything else by providing a means to pull lots of information and insight together and then to focus it. The Spiral is not merely a color code of categories. It is, a complex and highly enriching way of thinking about things if the underlying principles are understood and applied.

The term, “Spiral Dynamics”, is a registered trademark of NVC Consulting protected by international treaty. It is also title of the 1996 book—Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, that laid the groundwork the application of Gravesian theory. It is a brand that, when used by NVCC or NVCC affiliates, represents a body of intellectual property, including copyrighted and proprietary materials, that we protect to the best of our ability.


Is the Spiral About Waves or Particles?

Both. There are two ways to approach the theory included in SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs. One views the emergent systems like overlapping waves that roll across the shifting sands of human nature. Each comes in gradually, breaks mightily and then folds back to become part of the next surge. There is overlap, mixing and interaction with as much emphasis on the transitions as on the peaks of the curves.

The foaming waters of new thinking cause our world to be different; we become different and change our world.. In this view, the transitional states are apparent in the waves as they rise and fall. Graphics appropriate to this framing show overlapping curves, blended stacks and multilayered sequences as the point of centralization slides among a hierarchy of systems in a sequential flow. There is a certain fuzziness to this approach which is discomforting to those who demand precision and reassuring to those who are uncomfortable with absolutes and categories.

Another approach treats Graves' levels of psychological existence (or Spiral Dynamics' “vMEMEs”) more like discrete particles with lives—almost consciousness—of their own. Closer to the memeticists' idea of how ideas migrate, this view sees Graves’ systems as quasi-independent entities that arrive and depart from human awareness as conditions change. One can speak of the arrival of vMEMEs, their brightenings and dimmings, and even how they compete for prominence on the mindscape. In this approach, the vMEME is the focus with the person functioning more like a host. The idea of tracking vMEME migrations and monitoring their emergence fits this school. Graphics typical of this framing involve stacks of blobs, proportional onions and even stair steps. Whereas the wave-like view is more of an emergent process with a prescribed hierarchy for the arriving waves, this viewpoint allows discussions to center around proportions of vMEMEs, various combinations that disregard the sequence, and even talk of "skipping" a level to take shortcuts. We disagree with almost all such talk and feel it doesn't reflect Graves' theory accurately.

This dualistic nature of the model is sometimes confusing, yet it needn't be unless one takes either view as an extreme position. Much of Dr. Graves’ own original writing was more particle-like because it is far easier to be descriptive and concise when speaking of levels (and sub-levels) one at a time. Indeed, most of the theories to which he compared his work involved stages and developmental sequences. That sometimes leads to such categorical language as: "4s do thus..," "an Orange would..," or "if an FS personality were in charge, it would...", though phrases like "a person centralized in her ER would tend to..." and "when the person is moving from CP toward DQ..." are more apt.

Yet many of Dr. Graves’ graphics were efforts to depict the wavelike shape of human nature and how these "ways of thinking about a thing" do not represent all-encompassing typologies for people, but describe the level of thinking about a given aspect of living as it relates to other aspects. Had computer graphics been available in his day, no doubt his illustrations would have been 3-D or holograms. The Spiral Dynamics book leans toward the particle view in some places, toward the wave-like in others. Readers simply need to be comfortable with both and recognize that they do, in fact, overlap.


Is "Spiral Dynamics" a religion or cult?

We get this question more and more. The answer is no. SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs, products and services are not a religion—or a front for neoconservative politics, a New Age church, or representative of any particular ideology. Our work focuses on how people think about things like religion, and how religiousness, spirituality, non-belief, etc., fit their conceptions of their worlds. It is not about beliefs, but thinking about beliefs—the whys and wherefores. 

The models in SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs can be taught and learned in different ways; that's where some of the confusion lies. When people see revival tent tactics being used by smug and authoritarian teachers, they confuse the methodology with the content. Frankly, some people learn quite well under such circumstances - they are congruent and needs are met. For others, those methods are a turn-off, and they turn away from the underlying material because of how they encountered it. All of this is actually explained quite well within the theory, itself.

We are aware that materials in SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs are used by people involved in churches and spiritual paths—just as it’s used by people working in business organizations, educational settings and government agencies to improve understanding, management, and leadership because human factors are involved. Similarly, the Spiral model describes intrafaith pressures as much as interfaith forces in terms of how people approach their theologies and process the -isms they believe in, whether theistic or atheistic. We are not so happy when we hear of its assimilation into cults, and can only hope that the model helps members figure out better alternatives for their lives.

Recently, some people have tried, with missionary zeal, to force-fit ideas coming out of SPIRAL DYNAMICS® trainings into their philosophies and convert it into their spirituality/theology and thereby suggest—because of who they are and not what the model is—that the quasi-religion they produce was inherent in theory all along, that it is a spiritual ladder to salvation and that heresy cannot be tolerated. Not so. When they come out of religious traditions which believe theirs is the exclusive route to salvation and away from their hell, then it is easy to convert to faith that their version of theory is the only truth, and the exclusive route to joining a fellowship of saviors. This isn’t the Church of the Spiral, the Brotherhood of the Sacred Tier, the Yellow Brick Road to the Salvation of Human Kind, or the time-pay stairway to individual enlightenment. For those who find comfort in any of that, OK; that's their right. But it's not the whole, or even a very significant, part of what we cover in our programs.

NVCC's SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs are about biopsychosocial containers—deep values, valuing systems—not the particular contents of a faith or disbelief structure. It’s a theoretical model still in development, one that is constantly being refined, tested, explored and adapted for use. The point of view is based in considerable research and a long tradition of scholarship in a range of fields ranging from developmental psychology to anthropology and General Systems theory. But there is no central dogma or missionary vision, even though there is foundational research and accuracy to Gravesian theory. Thus, it can be used and abused; handled by open and closed minds, alike. One can agree resolutely or disagree vehemently with the premises for they are not articles of faith. They are findings and hypotheses within an emerging point of view subject to review, criticism, and further development.

The Spiral graphic used in SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs is neither a theology nor an a-theology. It is a framework for both that lays out how things religious are likely to be approached by people at different levels. There are many spiritual, religious and non-religious paths to human growth and a wide variety of people within all of them. This is a perspective about mature adult psychology and how individuals and cultures change their views of what matters in the world. While altitude and verticality are all the rage, there can be richness and power on many levels horizontally, as well—many forms of enlightenment arise within systems, too. This approach seeks out understanding of both.

The Spiral helps us look at the differences among those people and the possibilities their differences create. Each level represents a way of thinking about things—a thema—that will tend to shape the schematic form taken by religion, the response to a guru, reaction to authoritarians, or the conception of self. The Spiral model offers a way of looking at those schematic and thematic forces at work. 

So, once again, SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs are not a cult or cultish property, nor an exclusive community of right-thinking minds bent on changing the world for its own good according to their specifications. It is merely a theory and point of view for working with human beings. People become attracted to models like the Spiral for various reasons and handle them in very different ways—people attracted to material covered in the Spiral Dynamics book are a highly diverse lot, and the 'community' is both divided and eclectic.

NVCC's SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs are not a faith, a systematic theology, a specific belief set, a political position or an exclusive club for elites and self-proclaimed wizards with secret handshakes following their guru. The program consists of a theoretical point of view and a perspective on the emergent processes in human nature. Its intent is to provide bright and curious human beings of all stripes with another tool to recognize and sort through human differences—and to act in ways that are as constructive and congruent as possible for the good of themselves, their societies and the planet. As Dr. Graves liked to say, "Damn it all, a person has a right to be who he is."


Does the Spiral consist of a typology?

Dr. Graves' theory describes an emergent process, not a set of categories or boxes for people or a series of essential developmental stages locked into chronology. These are systems within the person or group, not kinds of persons or groups. They’re ways of thinking about a thing, not labels for thinkers.

One of our ongoing problems is that many people look only at the Spiral and ignore the critical Dynamics. When taken alone, the Spiral model does come across like a stair-step of types of people: Blues and Oranges and Greens. Even some of the graphics give the false impression of a layer cake of sharply-delimited levels. Thus, quite a few writers, even some who should know better, use the Spiral model as nothing more than a simplistic 8-color coding system with descriptors for the different categories. That's probably better than categorizing people into only two classes - friend or foe, for example. And it provides a means for talking about human differences apart from the usual discriminatory markers like age, ethnicity, gender, etc. But it still misses the Gravesian theory, thus the Dynamic aspect, as well as the wave-like nature of the systems. 

In theory, the potential for all of these systems lies within everyone with a normal brain—and that's the vast majority of people. However, all the systems aren't necessarily awakened because that results from the interaction between the neurobiology of the person or group with existential problems and conditions in the external milieu. Sometimes change might come from a stray neutrino striking someone's cerebral cortex; but generally, change results from the experience of living, solving problems, and encountering new ones which demand fresh thinking to resolve.

From our perspective, we don't ask, "How do you deal with this kind of person?" Instead, we seek to understand how to recognize and manage the form of thinking and behavior within the person that s/he exhibits regarding a particular thing, at a particular time, under particular conditions. That is because (a) people can change as conditions change and (b) because these are ways of thinking about a thing, so there can be multiple sub-systems within one human being. Thus, the informed user asks, "How do I manage the Orange (ER) in this person?" rather than "How do you deal with Orange people?" It's a subtle difference, and one which is critical to moving out of typology and into the flow-state view that we present in our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs. 


Did Dr. Graves come up with the name, "Spiral Dynamics?"

No. The term was coined several years after Dr. Graves' death in 1986. Before we began using “Spiral Dynamics,” we called it Value Systems Theory and Coping Systems. The trademark was registered in 1999. The motivation for the name change was both the need for a title for the book, and a recognition that the earlier labels did not resonate as well as we'd hoped. There had always been confusion between values and value systems and, despite its accuracy, coping systems suggests just getting by.

Graves referred to his theory in several ways: the emergent, cyclical point of view; emergent cyclical theory; or emergent, cyclical levels of existence theory. In our work, we frequently use ECLET™. The full name can be expressed as "the emergent, cyclical, double-helix model of adult biopsychosocial systems development." 

SPIRAL DYNAMICS® is the brand and trademark that refers to NVCC's trainings, consulting, assessments, products and services. These are based on the spiral-like nature of the emergent systems as illustrated in many of Dr. Graves's diagrams, and to the dynamic energy of the process.


How does intelligence relate to this theory?

Intelligence doesn't relate very well at all. It's very hard even to define intelligence in a meaningful way. Howard Gardner's work probably best explains the concept as it describes and legitimizes at least nine 'intelligences' that include physical, emotional, and intellectual pursuits. The old notion of I.Q. (ala Stanford-Binet) isn't inclusive enough, and even in Graves' day he found poor correlations between his work and the intelligence measures then available, except in the case of seriously mentally challenged persons who had low I.Q. scores and rarely exhibited behavior beyond the B-O range. Instead, he discovered people of both high and relatively low intelligence (as he could measure it) centralized around the A'-N' (Yellow) level, the D-Q, and the rest. Effectiveness in coping is a different dimension.

So, "up" the Spiral is not a move to greater intelligence any more than it is a move up a spiritual ladder to higher consciousness, though it does describe a hierarchy of ways of thinking about consciousness and approaching explorations of self/others. The awakening of new levels adds to the behavioral repertoire and introduces new factors for consideration when making life's choices. Many scholars propose movement along continua of cognitive complexity and an increasing ability to sort through more factors simultaneously—more elaborated thinking processes—but that's not the same as intelligence in the conventional sense.

What does seem to move along the Spiral is the valuing of different intelligences. If one looks at Gardner's list, we can see that people centralized in different Gravesian worlds might well need to emphasize various kinds of intelligence, and how the 'well-adjusted' person in those worlds would need to be 'smart' in ways which address the existential problems at hand. While this might be viewed as a cultural artifact, the valuing of intelligence(s) is one of the things which differentiates levels.


What about emotions and temperament factors?

While there are relationships between emotional and temperament factors at the various levels of psychological existence, the theory does not offer an easy catalogue. Moreover, many of these characteristics seem to ebb and flow through the levels. Some track with the inner-outer cyclical nature of the model. Others rise or fall with movement in the hierarchy. Some of the findings are discussed in Clare W. Graves: Levels of Human Existence, available via the Purchase Materials link above.

For example, both rigidity and dogmatism are high at DQ (Blue); both fall off in ER (Orange); and rigidity rises without dogmatism at FS (Green). The model does not reflect a process of emotional "growth" or a mellowing of temperament, though some dimensions undeniably 'soften' at higher levels as more factors enter life's equation. In addition, the personalities of individuals functioning at the various levels can vary markedly with respect to temperament as one person centralized around the CP (Red) level operates in a quiet and passively aggressive way, while another similarly centralized is loud and assertively overbearing. One of these people could be warm and loving (in a CP way of expressing it); the other cold and distant (also in a CP way). Likewise, two people can behave similarly and yet be coping with their realities from quite different levels on the Spiral. The question is always more to why the person behaves thus than what the person is doing.

One important aspect of the theory is that temperament, as an aspect of personality, might not change much as one moves to a different level of psychological existence; or it might shift markedly. In terms of emotions, one should ask what the stimulus for the emotion is, what event or memory triggers it, and how the thinking about that thing factors into the sensations being felt since emotions are informational feedback, not stored baggage to be purged.


What about the Spiral and consciousness?

The answer depends on one's definition of the term, “consciousness.” If you mean greater cognitive complexity and attention to more interactive factors in life's ongoing equation—using more of the neuronal systems with awareness of more things—there is a close relationship. If you equate it with intelligence as conventionally measured in "IQ," there is virtually none. Smart people exist at all levels in the model; it's just sometimes difficult to measure. And if by consciousness you imply spiritual completeness or fulfillment, we'll argue that is possible throughout the Spiral in many ways. (See Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction for an overview of many positions.)

Different 'intelligences' are also valued more or less highly at different levels. If you mean proximity to a state of transcendence, godliness, Buddha-nature, or such, that's something different and best understood through other means than the Spiral model. Conflating this and spirituality is like comparing apples and oranges—a comparison that doesn't really work despite some commonalities as fruits.

Yet if the question is "How does this person think about consciousness?" or "How does this group approach consciousness studies?" or "What kind of sensory set is being applied to the logic of this learning?" or "How can we approach consciousness and even 'soul' most congruently and meaningfully for this person?", then the Spiral lens is a useful way of looking at the mindscapes involved. 

From that standpoint, asking, "How does this person think about religion?" is an approach we encourage in our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® trainings. Suggesting how a particular version of a particular religion might resonate with people thinking in some ways and not in others is also in the domain of the Spiral. But characterizing "Spiral Dynamics", itself, as a stairway to enlightenment is not.

Today, there are large populations with both the surplus time/energy and resources to explore their inner selves and the inner selves of others (i.e., exiting ER and entering FS, as well as exiting DQ moving toward ER's individualism). The ripple of the 1960s is now a roaring wave of questions about who we are and what we might become. Many people drawn to consciousness (a.k.a. spirituality), whether rooted in Eastern traditions or other paths, now try to fuse the Spiral model/Graves theory with their approaches and apply this map to that territory. They overlap it with expanded spiritual consciousness rather than using more of the mind/brain which is there in all respects.

In our view, that does a disservice to immensely powerful and important ways of knowing and becoming that stretch across human history, and force fits the Spiral model to the point of fracture because consciousness is such a multimeaning construct. The fact that one can make metaphorical links does not mean two things are the same.

In our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs we use Graves's models and theories to explore how people think about such things and the nature of the mind that contemplates the mature adult personality in operation. Clearly, the mind/body/spirit trio (or other permutations with different labels) is worthy of study, just as the future of levels of existence is. The former is far richer than the base of Gravesian research can do justice. For an example, see the work of Antonio Damasio and others exploring spirit and the brain.

We continue to insist that "spirituality" and "enlightenment" can occur at many levels, and are often best illustrated as stretching out horizontally and growing from the spiral levels in a different dimension rather than coinciding with them as some kind of vertical quest for eternal life. (Why is higher consciousness so often vertically up? Why not out, or in, or over? Turn the spirals on their sides or create 'shells of consciousness' and look at how the conceptions and hierarchicalism change in tone. A shift from verticality opens new perspectives on growth and development.)

We often suggest parallel spirals where other dimensions can be compared as complements, not overlapping fields with the question ever in mind: "How does this person or group think about consciousness and why is it important to them?" How would this concept be approached in Blue? Green? What would differentiate Turquoise from a stretch of Green with some Yellow terminology attached, or even a Blue version wrapped in exoteric existential jargon? How might a 9th or even 10th level be recognized if it came to be? How would it be genuinely different from the existing states?

It appears that the ER urge for dominance plus belief in the power of a right-thinking mind sometimes overwhelms the more subtle wisdom and elegant insights that permeate all the levels in their unique ways, and thereby tries to channel them in a new-and-improved direction on its domineering terms. Likewise, the ability to reframe DQ basics into esoteric synonyms allows very traditional perspectives, Graves-wise, to appear much farther along the spiral than they might actually be—DQ's obedient one-true-way framed as something far more complex and elaborated than it actually is.

We should also point out that some teachers already propose levels of existence far beyond what Gravesian theory has uncovered and even sell programs promising to elevate participants to those new planes of existence—inflationary consciousness?—while cheerfully accepting their mundane credit cards in payment. We cannot really judge such experiences remotely or assess teachings we have not experienced. We only caution those seeking higher levels to know what they're getting into: beware of DQ, ER and FS wrapped in Turquoise or polychromatic clothing that looks impressive but works within the givens; ask what characterizes those higher levels and differentiates them from the present ones clearly in terms of what is added or removed; and watch the teachers' feet and not the lips to observe the approach to both business and the philosophy of development. Charlatans and egocentrics can sound very impressive. Keeping these caveats in mind helps avoid distraction by hype and fancy words that sometimes mask a relatively hollow core as feet fail to walk the talk. 


The Spiral:  Much more than a color code

Over the past few weeks (early 2007) we have encountered some disturbing situations. A woman was in tears of frustration because she just couldn’t be “second tier” enough. A young man was experiencing incredible personal trauma seeking to confirm his “turquoise-ness,” lest he be second class being by finding himself mostly in "first tier". Meanwhile, another, sensing a failing struggle, wondered just how much meditation it would take to “get there,” as if there is a there there which must be achieved. One correspondent was desperate to find a remedy for his “mean green” pathologies since he’d dared to disagree with "gurus" and been convinced of his own deficiencies for questioning dogma. And another was trying to figure out why so much faith-like authoritarian certitude has appeared, an elitist hierarchy in seeming contradiction to the intent of the theory. Sales of Turquoise elixir to a population anxious to become enhanced versions of themselves seem to be booming. One writer recently offered the 'constructive' criticism that we sound very "Red" and, of course, just don't get it. Meanwhile, we ask ourselves if the entire world of fans of the Spiral model is going crazy.

Of Types and Turquoises

These days, students often come into our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® seminars having been pre-exposed to some variation on the theme of the Spiral. While there are some good representations of the point of view which begin to equip them, other spin-offs are misleading in that they program participants into the typology trap or worse. Some versions foster obedient belief in the dogma of a quasi-religion swathed in cultish saffron yellow robes more than critical thinking about emergent systems in human nature, how complex we are, and how much we still don’t know.

   That is to say, derivative renditions frequently impart an over-simplified, types-of-people, color-coded view of the Spiral which relies on ‘altitude’ or ‘verticality’ to point to idealized end states: “Enlightened people are Turquoises, at the least, and travel the Yellow brick road to get there.” When followers of these approaches come to us, they often have the impression that ‘up’ is good and ‘down’ is deficiency, and that to be at least ‘second tier’ or ‘turquoise’ is the necessary goal of any sensible human being or organization. They aren't seeking to understand the many models we cover, nor do they see Graves work as a window on human nature: they want their faith in their own 'turquoiseness' to be confirmed since a sensation deep inside irks them with, “I’m not there yet.” So, they put on a mask and try harder to be something that has no substantial definition. This need is met by those eager to exploit weaknesses and gather followers.

   Very well-meaning people are sometimes so highly ego-involved in preserving their high-status colors, even to creating an identity around 'living the spiral' just as others might organize their lives around the sacred words in a holy book that mundane facts become heresies. De-programming this pre-frame in favor of a clearer understanding of what the model is and is not, as well as demonstrating that all the systems have both strengths and weaknesses in their times and places, is not simple. 

   Appreciation for all the levels is easy to say, hard to do. For people stuck in New Age versions of the DQ/ER transition in search of purpose, meaning, and empowerment with missionary zeal, it's nearly impossible. Too much integral indoctrination seems to fixate rather than open their minds. And the self-centric certitude of many struggling to break out of ER and into FS (while proclaiming theirs to be a Yellow-to-Turquoise conversion) makes understanding of the whole spiral profoundly difficult and the elegance of each level difficult to discern. (That is one reason we now require completion of our in-depth SD Level 1 as a prerequisite for admission into our SD Level 2 and advanced courses.)

   We address the worship of upsy-downsy dimensions elsewhere in the FAQ: draw the spiral sideways or use concentric spheres and solve the up-or-down dilemma. We point out that congruence – fit and appropriateness to the realities at hand – is the test of effectiveness in systems, and that positive change – from wasteful and consumptive ER to constructive and sustainable ER, for example – comes before transformations across systems and counts as growth, too. 

   At the same time, we also agree that more elaborated systems offer progressively more explanatory power and degrees of freedom for their contexts, so there’s potential advantage in them, too. Facilitating their emergence is laudable, but insisting on it at the expense of effective and functioning lives is arrogant delusion. Sometimes, a ‘lower’ system is better than a ‘higher’ one because it is tuned to fit a situation well. Within limits, we support Clare Graves's admonition that, "Damn it all, a person has a right to be who he is."

   Seeking “verticality,” fostering the belief that “higher is better” in all contexts, aspiring to the mythical “second tier,” following the “staircase” to enlightenment, are all examples of how people (especially when centralized around DQ (Blue) and ER (Orange)) can miss central aspects of a model and convert it into something entirely different. So this page is aimed at reinforcing a central aspect of our approach which many superficial renditions overlook or dismiss: Graves’s concept of an emergent, cyclical, double-helix. The levels, however they be designated (colors, numbers, letter pairs, etc.), are the products of this interactive process. They are artifacts, not essence. Understand this principle and you begin to understand the theory, not just a model with handy color categories.

Interaction on the double-helix

   The interplay of existential problems in the milieu with the neurology of a human brain is the core of the theory, as well as one of its most practically useful aspects. (Graves used the double-helix as a metaphor.) An understanding of this dynamic is what gives this approach such power for explaining why people do as they do, and anticipating where they will go next. That is because why and what we do are logically consistent with the world we experience. People put first things first and behave in ways that they believe are adjustive and adaptive to the realities at hand, using the equipment available to them in their brains. The impacts of experiential and genetic aspects are intertwined.

   One’s sensation of the ‘real’ world activates a corresponding neuronal system that permits thinking which is consistent with living in such a world. The mature personality is congruent with the realities at hand. Behavior fits because the bio-psycho-social system is thereby stabilized. This is a balance theory with these four aspects blending at each level to form a package. When either the existential problems or the neuronal system changes, then that instability triggers disturbance and the possibility of a shift to a different level of existence. When problems surge in the priority stack, then look for a neurological shift to a way of thinking that is more aligned with the now-pressing existence problems. 

   This means, for example, that thinking in exclusively Yellow ways in an overwhelmingly Orange world is less adaptive in the short term than shifting toward an ER which is more congruent. The fluent Orange will have a tactical advantage because intelligent and open full-bore ER is the better fit, though its best is inadequate to address the A' problems to which Yellow is attuned. In the long term, the more elaborated system recognizes a broader and more complex set of problems, thus has offers overall advantage.


   In the Gravesian perspective, there are a few relatively distinct levels (with entering and exiting phases where they combine to form a wave-like continuum), but an infinity of forms of expressing each of these. Thus, the themes are identifiable as basic frameworks, while the forms of expression they take are varied. Beware of presentations which offer traits and symptoms as if they were consistent markers of levels; it’s easy to do (“FS drives a hybrid” or “DQ is rules-bounded” or “violence is CP”), and that's often misleading. While there are plenty of good models for sorting through values as beliefs and attitudes, SD searches out valuing systems, the ways people think about those things.

   Although one can certainly argue that there are as many types of people as there are people, one of the premises of this approach (and other psychology-based frameworks) is that a degree of generalizing is necessary if we are to deal with human nature in practical ways at the individual, group, societal, and species levels. In this case, these generalities are about patterns which can be found in how people think about things, not the specifics of what they think about or believe. It’s the container/contents (vMeme/meme) differentiation discussed elsewhere.

Getting stuck in traits

   Sometimes color-based generalizations go too far and turn into simplistic stereotypes and glib labels for dividing elites from lesser persons. This is one reason why we focus our students’ attention on Graves’s two-part letter-pair designations more than the Spiral colors. Although confusing at first to novices, the terminology is far more powerful than a color code, no matter how stretched its rainbow. The A-with-N, B-with-O, C-with-P, or G-with-T terminology forces the user to recognize the importance of BOTH the world outside – the life conditions – and the world inside – the neurobiological state. Misalignment between the helixes presents all sorts of issues, and it’s just too easy to collapse colors down to types and thereby miss the essence of the theory.

   Furthermore, many color-oriented people get stuck as if the residue of the systems is all that matters. The traits and values which attach to these existential problems are relatively easy to identify and stereotype; the ways of thinking about things are more obscure and difficult to perceive and describe. Thus, A becomes survival, B becomes superstition and tribe-like groups, C becomes aggressiveness, D turns into orderliness, E into materialism, F into soft sociability, G (or A’) into systems, and H (or B’) into holonic saintliness. When such believers see one of these things, they attach it to the corresponding color without asking how the thing is being thought about – the underlying neuronal decision-making system - thereby missing the analysis entirely. Then, they blame the model when their initiatives don’t work rather than trying to improve their understanding of the model.

The Beige blunder

   We hear of people categorizing all forms of survival as “Beige” – whether it’s the individual seeking food, water, and shelter to stay alive until tomorrow or the corporation seeking to maintain its profit picture so as not to collapse into bankruptcy in a few quarters. They don’t ask what ‘to survive’ means, why it matters, and how it is accomplished. This sort of confusion arises when one either gets caught in by semantics or doesn’t understand the nesting aspects of the model – that earlier problems and solutions are subsumed as we move through the levels. They do not go away, but they are instead addressed as sub-sets of a more elaborated, complex world. Survival is an aspect of all the levels; we “survive” in different ways.

   When the problems of an earlier level are present but attenuated, they can sometimes be resolved from other, higher levels. Thus, thinking DQ washes over CP and addresses C problems with survival, but with a Q-oriented neurology. ER does so with the R system, and A’N’ with its N’ neurology. All of the systems have means for addressing many A-level problems, usually with neurology expanded beyond the basic N.

   The question, then, is how much of one’s energy and attention is devoted to particular problems. How strong is their pull at a moment in the person/group’s awareness? It’s that awareness (both conscious and unconscious) of existential problems which selects the neuronal system of best fit. That operating neuronal system provides the filters through which awareness passes, so that one perceives in a way tuned for that system. Thus the double-helix interplay.

   For someone functioning in the ER zone, for example, the A problems are minor. Of course the person will get hungry and thirsty, and those survival needs are resolved with proportionately little energy expenditure, at least directly. The person “works” and allocates a part of the result to wining and dining. It is almost a given; the ‘problem’ is deciding what and how much to eat and drink, where and when, not if. If jobless and without income, one tries to figure out how to get a job, obtain food stamps, or what to sell to generate revenue for food; that’s not AN. For someone more centered at AN, the process of meeting biological requirements takes up much of the day’s energy; survival is not a given, and choice is virtually non-existent. Take that person centralized in ER and put them in a disaster situation, a sinking ferry boat, perhaps, and they might reframe the situation to A-level survival and shift into a corresponding N neurology, behavior shocking others who might have maintained Q or R or S approach.

   Many instructors erroneously cite street people as examples of AN living. Yet talk to a sample of homeless folks and you’ll quickly recognize a huge range of cognitive complexity, usually far beyond N-level neurology. While the A problems are more immediate for the urban homeless than for the lawyers, bankers, and shoppers walking around them, relatively few street dwellers are functioning at the first level of human existence. Look for the reasons they are where they are; very rarely is it due to a lack of brain power or closedness at AN.

   To say that N neurology is basic is not to say that it is deficient. When the A problems are overwhelming, it is the appropriate and congruent means for coping. It brings unique intelligences and competencies to the fore matched to an A world. We sometimes hear comments about companies moving into Beige. This is simply nonsense. Is the corporate thinking reflexological and automatic, rooted in immediate satisfaction of basic needs and instinctive, or functioning in a strategic and calculated manner to sustain profitability and market niche? Tough times on the stock market do not Beige make.

Stereotyping Red

   Likewise, there’s the recurring confusion of CP with violence and aggression – the widespread terrorism = Red error. Again, ask if one is seeing impulsive, guiltless, and uncontrollable acts without regard to long-term consequences or deferred rewards – whether done in joy or anger. Violence and aggressiveness are human traits, not merely third level ones. Consider inter-tribal warfare, authoritarian aggression and self-righteous indignation, cut-throat self-serving business practice, or even pro-active defense of the oppressed. To call all of these things “Red” because they involve acting out is failure to differentiate among the reasons people behave as they do. 

   CP liberates the ego and breaks the apron strings of custom and ritual; it is often both intelligent and creative. When the world is truly C, then the activation of P neurology as a sense-making approach fits. If the person is thusly centralized, then the reality at hand is “Red,” and appropriate adjustive behavior is congruent with the CP level of psychological existence. People functioning at more complex levels will have passed through some degree of CP, though the duration and intensity is quite variable. Those who are centralized there might well believe it is the totality of existence, the mature adult human being in operation.

   According to this point of view, the more elaborated thinking will retain elements for coping with C problems as part of the developmental process. However, the person centralized at a level is often the ‘expert’ in dealing in such a world, and someone who has awakened more systems might not have equivalent competencies at hand; their attention and expertise will have shifted to a different system’s reality. Natives of a level are most effective in coping with it because it’s their natural habitat; others are merely psychosocial tourists.

   Emotionality and acting out can arise with many systems, for their own reasons, and with their own thinking behind them. Conflating the P neuronal system with others is a serious and common mistake, especially as the aggressiveness and authority-challenging of ER’s entry phase is compared with the cruder CP where raw cunning and impulsive acting are the norms rather than cold calculation and performance art to achieve desired outcomes. Likewise, the conflating of obedient absolutism wrapped in sociability (kindly, loving DQ) with the relativism and interpersonalism at FS, or projecting DQ certainty and purposefulness through tricked-out language to call it B’O’ (Turquoise) is a distortion, even though comforting for the uncomfortable.

   When obedience to rightful external higher authority is called for, someone centralized in the DQ zone is a good fit. While someone at ER will have passed through some degree of DQ, their world is more focused on expressing individuality, challenging authorities (instead of revering them), and testing ideas in their own minds rather than finding things in which to believe and build a life around. But if rugged individualism and 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead' thinking are required, look for someone with a healthy dose of CP.

The right to be

   If we accomplish nothing else, we want to help people recognize that there is elegance in all of the levels, and that constructive change first occurs within levels, then between them. Sometimes the move from less functional to more functional behavior at a level is a huge growth step – from a destructive, subtractive form to a more positive, additive form. Such changes can lead to more sustainable actions and more effective living. Sustainability is not enough, of course; merely maintaining the status quo is a losing proposition because entropy wins. Instead, we must do better than sustaining. Start by fixing what is and, at the same time, looking to what can be.  

   And, in the long run of time, higher levels are inevitably more effective because we can’t stop learning and creating new existential problems which only new thinking can solve. More of the same is rarely enough; something beyond the system which created problems is required to solve them. But in the short term, finding thinking of good fit, and working to help people think better as they are, is worthwhile. It is constructive, positive change, and often far easier to accomplish than large-scale transformations. If change is the concern, then the existence problems (as perceived), the neurology (internal state), or both must change if a new system is to awaken and endure. This, again, is why the double-helix aspect is so important to utilizing the material in this point of view.

   The ongoing Gravesian question is “how is the person thinking about the thing?” That’s the rest of the question that begins with “what’s the person thinking about?” And that’s why the double-helix aspect of Graves’s theory is so much more informative than commonplace typologies and color codes. The interaction of a world with a brain to produce a biopsychosocial system is quite something to behold. The various forms of internal logic those interactions produce are a key aspect of who we are, how our societies function, and where we put our energy and attention. Recognizing those elements of biopsychosocial systems and using them to craft more effective means of being and doing is what our programs have always been about. It's much more than a color code, and how people think about the theory is one of the most telling assessments there is.


Is violence a product of Red?

As discussed above, Red often gets painted as the seat of violence, and it is certainly responsible for its share. But that's not a complete picture. Purple can become violent in defense of its territory and to defend against perceived threats. (The first photos of a previously uncontacted Amazon tribe show them launching arrows at the airplane, perhaps seeing it as a demon or a predator.) When Red takes over, there can be egocentric and impulsive aggressiveness, as well as passivity in acceptance of a social contract that defines social roles. (Don't confuse Red with sociopathy and mental illness. Red is an adaptive system matching specific life conditions with a neurology that fits such a world. The sociopath can function in many levels, not just Red, and often applies neurology that is misaligned.)

According to Graves, both the most peaceful and warlike of systems is Blue. Authoritarian aggression has slaughtered millions of people, just as authoritarian submission has stood by in the belief that those of higher position deserve to make decisions. Indeed, absolutistic, polarizing Blue is a big part of both the Crusaders and Holy Warriors battling today for their unilateral religious and political ideologies. 

Orange wreaks massive violence against peoples and ecosystems in quest of resources and dominance - usually excused as a greater good. Often such violence is committed remotely and through agents, allowing the appearance of "clean hands" to endure. Green can become defensively violent, though physically hurting people is a last resort. (Adamant non-violence can come from Blue, as well as Green and other levels for their own reasons.) And Yellow can take strong action if strong action is needed for life to continue. 

So violence is a part of human nature, not a system-specific trait. Using Red as a catch-all for any aggressiveness or violent acting out is a misconception. Ask, instead, why the person is behaving thus and how the behavior comports with their view of the world.  


* Thinking that Gravesian existential problems = difficulties is also a common confusion. Instead of troubles, think ‘problems’ in the sense of mathematical problems to solve; life equations to resolve in achieving a balanced state. “If the world is thus, then appropriate behavior is so.” These problems can be positive, negative, or neutral; what they represent is new factors and variables in the equation of living. In this sense, problems are growth-producing; they are not necessarily negative. 

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