Spiral Dynamics

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Spiral Dynamics (SD) is a model of the evolutionary development of individuals, organizations, and societies. It was initially developed by Don Edward Beck and Christopher Cowan based on the emergent cyclical theory of Clare W. Graves, combined with memetics as proposed by Richard Dawkins and further developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A later collaboration between Beck and Ken Wilber produced Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi), with Wilber subsequently incorporating his own modified version into his overall Integral theory.[1]

Development of the theory[edit]

University of North Texas (UNT) professor Don Beck sought out Clare W. Graves after reading about his work in The Futurist. They met in person in 1975, and Beck, soon joined by UNT faculty member Chris Cowan, worked closely with Graves until his death in 1986. Beck made over 60 trips to South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s, applying Graves's emergent cyclical theory in various projects.[2] This experience, along with others Beck and Cowan had applying the theory in North America, motivated the development of Spiral Dynamics.[3]

Beck and Cowan first published their extension and adaptation of Graves's emergent cyclical theory in Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change (Exploring the New Science of Memetics) (1996). They introduced a simple color-coding for the eight value systems identified by Graves (and a predicted ninth) which is better known than Graves's letter pair identifiers. Additionally, Beck and Cowan integrated ideas from the field of memetics as created by Dawkins and further developed by Csikszentmihalyi, identifying memetic attractors for each of Graves's levels. These attractors, which they called "VMemes", are said to bind memes into cohesive packages which structure the world views of both individuals and societies.[1]

Through these value systems, groups and cultures structure their societies and individuals integrate within them. Each distinct set of values is developed as a response to solving the problems of the previous system. Changes between states may occur incrementally (first order change) or in a sudden breakthrough (second order change).[4]

Overview of the VMemes[edit]

VMemes as described in Spiral Dynamics (1996)[5]
Color Graves code Description Attributes
First Tier
Beige A-N SurvivalSense. The Instinctive VMEME
  • Automatic, autistic, reflexive
  • Centers around satisfaction
  • Driven by deep brain programs, instincts and genetics
  • Little awareness of self as a distinct being (undifferentiated)
  • Lives "off the land" much as other animals
  • Minimal impact on or control over environment
Purple B-O KinSpirits. The Clannish VMEME
  • Obey desires of the mystical spirit beings
  • Show allegiance to elders, custom, clan
  • Preserve sacred places, objects, rituals
  • Bond together to endure and find safety
  • Live in an enchanted, magical village
  • Seek harmony with nature's power
Red C-P PowerGods. The Egocentric VMEME
  • In a world of haves and have-nots, it's good to be a have
  • Avoid shame, defend reputation, be respected
  • Gratify impulses and sense immediately
  • Fight remorselessly and without guilt to break constraints
  • Don't worry about consequences that may not come
Blue D-Q TruthForce. The Purposeful VMEME
  • Find meaning and purpose in living
  • Sacrifice self to the Way for deferred reward
  • Bring order and stability to all things
  • Control impulsivity and respond to guilt
  • Enforce principles of righteous living
  • Divine plan assigns people to their places
Orange E-R StriveDrive. The Strategic VMEME
  • Strive for autonomy and independence
  • Seek out "the good life" and material abundance
  • Progress through searching out the best solutions
  • Enhance living for many through science and technology
  • Play to win and enjoy competition
  • Learning through tried-and-true experience
Green F-S HumanBond. The Relativistic VMEME
  • Explore the inner beings of self and others
  • Promote a sense of community and unity
  • Share society's resources among all
  • Liberate humans from greed and dogma
  • Reach decisions through consensus
  • Refresh spirituality and bring harmony
Second Tier
Yellow G-T FlexFlow. The Systemic VMEME
  • Accept the inevitability of nature's flows and forms
  • Focus on functionality, competence, flexibility, and spontaneity
  • Find natural mix of conflicting "truths" and "uncertainties"
  • Discovering personal freedom without harm to others or excesses of self-interest
  • Experience fullness of living on an Earth of such diversity in multiple dimensions
  • Demand integrative and open systems
Turquoise H-U GlobalView. The HolisticVMEME
  • Blending and harmonizing a strong collective of individuals
  • Focus on the good of all living entities as integrated systems
  • Expanded use of human brain/mind tools and competencies
  • Self is part of larger, conscious, spiritual whole that also serves self
  • Global networking seen as routine
  • Acts for minimalist living so less actually is more
Coral I-V unknown
  • unknown

Factions and lineages[edit]

While Spiral Dynamics began as a single formulation and extension of Graves's work, a series of disagreements and shifting collaborations have produced several distinct factions. By 2010, these had settled as Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorovic advocating their trademarked "SPIRAL DYNAMICS®" as fundamentally the same as Graves's emergent cyclical theory, Don Beck advocating Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi) with a community of practice around various chapters of his Centers for Human Emergence, and Ken Wilber utilizing recolored SDi levels subordinate to his Integral framework, with a greater focus on spirituality.[6]

This state of affairs has led to practitioners noting the "lineage" of their approach in publications.[7]


The following timeline shows the development of the various Spiral Dynamics factions and the major figures involved in them, as well as the initial work done by Graves. Splits and changes between factions are based on publications or public announcements, or approximated to the nearest year based on well-documented[8] events.

Vertical bars indicate notable publications, which are listed along with a few other significant events after the timeline.

Bolded years indicate publications that appear as vertical bars in the chart above:

  • 1966: Graves: first major publication (in The Harvard Business review)[9]
  • 1970: Graves: peer reviewed publication in Journal of Humanistic Psychology[9]
  • 1974: Graves: article in The Futurist (Beck first becomes aware of Graves's theory; Cowan a bit later)[10][11]
  • 1977: Graves abandons manuscript of what would later become The Never Ending Quest[12]
  • 1979: Beck and Cowan found National Values Center, Inc. (NVC)[13]
  • 1981: Beck and Cowan resign from UNT to work with Graves; Beck begins applying theory in South Africa[11][2][14]
  • 1986: Death of Clare Graves[15]
  • 1995: Wilber: Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (introduces quadrant model, first mention of Graves's ECLET)[16]
  • 1996: Beck and Cowan: Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change[1]
  • 1998: Cowan and Todorovic form NVC Consulting (NVCC) as an "outgrowth" of NVC[11][17]
  • 1998: Cowan files for "Spiral Dynamics" service mark, registered to NVC[18]
  • 1999: Beck (against SD as service mark)[17] and Cowan (against Wilber's Integral theory)[19] cease collaborating
  • 1999: Wilber: The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Vol. 4: Integral Psychology (first Spiral Dynamics reference)[20][21]
  • 2000: Cowan and Todorovic: "Spiral Dynamics: The Layers of Human Values in Strategy" in Strategy & Leadership (peer reviewed)[22]
  • 2000: Wilber: A Theory of Everything (integrates SD with AQAL, defines MGM: "Mean Green Meme")[23]
  • 2000: Wilber founds the Integral Institute with Beck as a founding associate around this time[24]
  • 2002: Beck: "SDi: Spiral Dynamics in the Integral Age" (launches SDi as a brand)[17][25]
  • 2002: Todorovic: "The Mean Green Hypothesis: Fact or Fiction?" (refutes MGM)[26]
  • 2002: Graves; William R. Lee (annot.); Cowan and Todorovic (eds.): Levels of Human Existence, transcription of Graves's 1971 three-day seminar[27]
  • 2004: Beck founds the Center for Human Emergence (CHE),[28] listing Wilber among "key personnel"[29]
  • 2005: Beck, Elza S. Maalouf and Said E. Dawlabani found the Center for Human Emergence Middle East [30]
  • 2005: Graves; Cowan and Todorovic (eds.): The Never Ending Quest[31]
  • 2005: Beck and Wilber cease collaborating around this time, disagreeing on Wilber's changes to SDi[6]
  • 2006: Wilber: Integral Spirituality (recolors the levels to align with chakras)[6][32]
  • 2009: NVC dissolved as business entity,[13] original SD service mark (officially registered to NVC) canceled[18]
  • 2010: Cowan and Todorovic re-file for SD service mark and trademark, registered to NVC Consulting[33]
  • 2013: Dawlabani: MEMEnomics, the Next Generation Economic System; Beck is content adviser, writes foreword[34]
  • 2014: Maalouf: Emerge! The Rise of Functional Democracy and the Future of the Middle East on collaborations with Beck; Beck writes foreword[35]
  • 2015: Death of Chris Cowan[36]
  • 2017: Wilber: Religion of Tomorrow (further elaborates on the recoloring)[32]
  • 2018: Beck et al: Spiral Dynamics in Action[37]

Spiral Dynamics integral (SDi)[edit]

By early 2000, Don Beck was corresponding with integral philosopher Ken Wilber about Spiral Dynamics and using a "4Q/8L" diagram combining Wilber's four quadrants with the eight known levels of Spiral Dynamics.[32][38] Beck officially announced SDi as launching on January 1, 2002, aligning Spiral Dynamics with integral theory and additionally citing the influence of John Petersen of the Arlington Institute and Ichak Adizes.[17] By 2006, Wilber had recolored the levels in his AQAL system, diverging from Beck's SDi.[32]

Later influences on SDi include the work of work of Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Sherif in the fields of realistic conflict and social judgement, specifically their Assimilation Contrast Effect model[39][40] and Robber's Cave study[41]


As an extension of Graves's theory, most criticisms of that theory apply to Spiral Dynamics as well. Likewise, to the extent that Spiral Dynamics Integral incorporates Ken Wilber's integral theory, criticism of that theory, and the lack of mainstream academic support for it are also relevant.

In addition, there have been criticisms of various aspects of SD and/or SDi that are specific to those extensions. Nicholas Reitter, writing in the Journal of Conscious Evolution, observes:[42]

On the other hand, the SD authors seem also to have magnified some of the weaknesses in Graves' approach. The occasional messianism, unevenness of presentation and constant business-orientation of Graves' (2005) manuscript is transmuted in the SD authors' book (Beck and Cowan 1996) into a sometimes- bewildering array of references to world history, pop culture and other topics, often made in helter-skelter fashion.

Along those lines, Spiral Dynamics has been criticized by some within academia as leading to a "cult-like" community of practice with its simplification of Graves's work. As a result, they instead base their work primarily on the same Gravesian theory that underlies Spiral Dynamics.[43] However, others accept SD or SDi as the basis for further academic work.[44]

The culture around SD and SDi has also been viewed negatively due to the prominence of the business and intellectual property concerns of its leading advocates.[45]

Metamodernist philosophers Daniel Görtz and Emil Friis, writing as Hanzi Freinacht, note that Spiral Dynamics provides unique insights, while also criticizing it for combining too many dimensions of development into one measurement. Their multi-part system combines aspects of SD with other developmental measurements, describing SD as the "awkward uncle" of their "Effective Value Meme" concept.[46] They also entirely dismiss the Turquoise level, saying that while there will eventually be another level, it does not currently exist. In support of this assertion, they note the lack of critique of metamodernism (which they roughly equate with the Yellow level), and explain those who self-identify as Turquoise as confusing level with their non-SD dimensions of development, state and depth. They also warn that attempts to build Turquoise communities are, in their view, likely to lead to the development of "abusive cults" as a result of trying to make the Turquoise level real when (in their view) it is not.[47]

Influence and applications[edit]

Spiral Dynamics has influenced management theory, which was the primary focus of the 1996 Spiral Dynamics book.[42][48][49]

It has also influenced integral philosophy and spirituality, and the developmental branch of metamodern philosophy. Both integralists and metamodernists connect their philosophies to SD's Yellow VMeme.[23][46] Integralism also identifies with Turquoise and eventually added further stages not found in SD or SDi,[32] while metamodernism dismisses Turquoise as nonexistent.[47]

SDi has been referenced in the fields of education,[50] urban planning,[51] geopolitical conflict resolution,[35] cultural analysis,[52] and economics.[34] Specific examples of use include economic development in Ghana,[53] and corporate leadership at Whole Foods.[54]


  1. ^ a b c Butters (2015), pp. 68-69
  2. ^ a b Viljoen, Rica (29 May 2018). "Back to the Future – The South African Crucible Revisited". In Beck, Don (ed.). Spiral Dynamics in Action: Humanity's Master Code. Chester, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1119387183.
  3. ^ Beck and Cowan (1996), p. 3
  4. ^ Cook (2008), p. 46–47
  5. ^ Beck and Cowan (1996), pp. 47, 197, 203, 215, 229, 244, 260, 275, 287
  6. ^ a b c Butters (2015), pp. 69, 71–73
  7. ^ Christianson (2015), "Orienting Details"
  8. ^ Butters (2015)
  9. ^ a b Lee, William R. (2002). "Preface". In Lee, William R.; Cowan, Christopher; Todorovic, Natasha (eds.). Levels of Human Existence: Edited Transcription of a Seminar at the Washington School of Psychiatry, October 16, 1971. Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing. pp. vii–viii. ISBN 0-9724742-0-X.
  10. ^ Beck et al (2018), p. 15
  11. ^ a b c Todorovic, Natasha. "About Us". NVC Consulting. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  12. ^ Cowan, Christopher C.; Todorovic, Natasha (2005). "Editors' Foreward". In Cowan, Christopher C.; Todorovic, Natasha (eds.). The Never Ending Quest. Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing. p. v. ISBN 978-0-9724742-1-4.
  13. ^ a b "National Values Center, Inc". Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. Retrieved 4 February 2021. (search for "National Values Center", click "details" then "Public Information Report"; results cannot be bookmarked)
  14. ^ "[Archive Document 74R SR00901F]". Senate Resolution 901, Act of 3 May 1995. Texas State Senate. (Notes Beck's resignation from UNT)
  15. ^ "In Memoriam..." The Concordiensis. Union College, Schenectady, NY. 16 January 1986. Retrieved 2 August 2020.
  16. ^ Reitter (2018), pp. 42–43]]
  17. ^ a b c d Butters (2015), p. 71
  18. ^ a b U.S. Service Mark 75,477,781
  19. ^ Cowan, Christopher; Todorovic, Natasha. "FAQs: Integral". Spiral Dynamics Online. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  20. ^ Visser, Frank (1 September 2003). Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion. SUNY series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology. SUNY Press. p. 229. ISBN 978-0791458150.
  21. ^ Wilber (1999)
  22. ^ Cook (2008), pp. 300, 344
  23. ^ a b MacDonald, Copthorne. "Review Of: A Theory of Everything". Integralis: Journal of Integral Consciousness, Culture, and Science. 1. Retrieved 12 August 2020.
  24. ^ "About Us". Integral Institute. Archived from the original on 10 December 2004. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  25. ^ Beck (2001)
  26. ^ Hampson, Gary P. (June 2007). "Integral Re-views Postmodernism: The Way Out Is Through" (PDF). Integral Review (4): 131. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  27. ^ Graves, Clare W. (2002). Lee, William R.; Cowan, Christopher; Todorovic, Natasha (eds.). Levels of Human Existence: Edited Transcription of a Seminar at the Washington School of Psychiatry, October 16, 1971. Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing. ISBN 0-9724742-0-X.
  28. ^ Schuitemaker, Lisette; Merry, Peter; Voorhoeve, Anne-Marie (31 October 2012). "The Case of the Center for Human Emergence Netherlands". In Zoeteman, Kees (ed.). Sustainable Development Drivers: The Role of Leadership in Government, Business and NGO Performance. Edward Elgar. p. 258. ISBN 978-0857934895.
  29. ^ "Organization: Key Personnel". Center for Human Emergence. Retrieved 25 August 2020.
  30. ^ Lessem et al (2016), p. 114, 119
  31. ^ Combs, Allan (April 2007). "Book Review: The Never Ending Quest". Review. Journal of Transformative Education. 5 (2): 192–197. doi:10.1177/1541344607303850.
  32. ^ a b c d e Visser (2017)
  33. ^ U.S. Trademark 85,125,521, U.S. Service Mark 85,125,521
  34. ^ a b Frey Horn, Laura (January–February 2014). "Said Dawlabani, MEMEnomics". Book Reviews. Integral Leadership Review. 14 (1). Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  35. ^ a b Volckmann, Russ (August–November 2014). "Elza S. Maalouf, Emerge! The Rise of Functional Democracy and the Future of the Middle East". Book Reviews. Integral Leadership Review. 14 (3). Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  36. ^ Rice, Keith E. (20 August 2015). "Fare Thee Well, Christopher Cowan!". Integrated SocioPsychology. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  37. ^ Mummery, Graham (January–February 2014). "Secular, Sacred, Scientific". Book Reviews. Integral Leadership Review. 18 (2). Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  38. ^ Wilber (2000), pp. 145–146, 149, 151
  39. ^ Maalouf, Elza. "Large Scale Psychology presentation at The Engaging The Other Conference in San Francisco". Center for Human Emergence Middle East. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  40. ^ Rice, Keith E. (4 October 2015). "Assimilation-Contrast Effect". Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  41. ^ McTaggart, Lynne (May 2011). The Bond: Connecting Through the Space Between Us. New York, NY: Free Press. p. 187. ISBN 978-1-4391-5794-7.
  42. ^ a b Reitter (2018), p. 47
  43. ^ Cook (2008), p. 44
  44. ^ Frey Horn, Laura (21 May 2006). A Phenomenological Study of Individuals at Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi) Theory Second-Tier Levels of Development (PhD). The George Washington University. Retrieved 21 Aug 2020.
  45. ^ Butters (2015), pp. 75–76
  46. ^ a b Freinacht, Hanzi (10 March 2017). "Effective Value Meme". The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One. Metamoderna. pp. 305–325. ISBN 978-8799973903.
  47. ^ a b Freinacht, Hanzi (10 March 2017). "Major Implications §Death to Turquoise". The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One. Metamoderna. pp. 327–330. ISBN 978-8799973903.
  48. ^ Cook‐Greuter, Susanne R. (1 December 2004). "Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective". Industrial and Commercial Training. 36 (7): 275–281. doi:10.1108/00197850410563902.
  49. ^ Laloux, Frederic (20 February 2014). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. Nelson Parker. ISBN 978-2960133516.
  50. ^ Nasser, Ilham (June 2020). "Mapping the Terrain of Education 2018–2019: A Summary Report". Journal of Education in Muslim Societies. 1 (2): 3–21. doi:10.2979/jems.1.2.08. (non-paywalled updated version)
  51. ^ Weichelt-Kosnick, Kristina (2020). "Alternative Ways to Promote Sustainable Consumer Behaviour—Identifying Potentials Based on Spiral Dynamics". In Planing, Patrick; Müller, Patrick; Dehdari, Payam; Bäumer, Thomas (eds.). Innovations for Metropolitan Areas. Berlin: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-662-60806-7_12.
  52. ^ Viljoen, Rica; Laubscher, Loraine I. (1 June 2015). "African Spirituality: Insights from the Cradle of Mankind". In Spiller, Chellie; Wolfgramm, Rachel (eds.). Indigenous Spiritualities at Work: Transforming the Spirit of Enterprise. Information Age Publishing. ISBN 978-1681231556.
  53. ^ Viljoen, Rica (2015). "Navigating Transformation in a Purple Country". Inclusive Organizational Transformation: An African Perspective on Human Niches and Diversity of Thought. Gower. ISBN 978-1472422996.
  54. ^ Mackey, John (1 May 2006). "The Upward Flow of Human Development". Whole Foods Market. Retrieved 19 August 2020.