When dynamics spiral out of control

21st December 2008: Since posting this blog entry, I have received email from Don Beck, one of the original authors of the Spiral Dynamics approach, addressing some of the issues raised here and, in particular, providing some more information on his work on world issues. I have appended his main message at the end of the entry.

21st December 2008: Anyone interested in the original work by Clare Graves, might also be interested in the site: www.clarewgraves.com. This site is managed by Chris Cowan, the other original author of the Spiral Dynamics model, but it does contain links to a variety of original resources, including audio clips, of Clare Graves himself.

Spiral Dynamics (R) is grandiosely claimed to be an all-encompassing model to understand the universe. It has 8 pretty colours arranged in a lovely spiral, some words to describe each, is dismissed by academics, and has a cult-like following.

Maybe it’s our search for meaning, but it amazes me sometimes how happily people project authority onto others. Without doubt one of the reasons I gave up being a ‘management consultant’ was that I had grown tired of individuals who had developed some kind of ‘model’ with nothing more than a simple acronym or a catchy diagram, and then peddled it as if it was going to win the next Nobel Prize for ingenuity.

Alright some models seem worthy of a little credit (the periodic table or that brilliant map of the London Underground come to mind) but most are merely a convenient way of categorising things or describing a sequence of events. Every now and then management media appear that have the latest of these convenient must haves (The One Minute Manager, Myers Briggs, Situational Leadership II, and SMART goals are all examples). There’s usually three clues that they are little more than marketing hype for one consultant or another – a conveniently packaged way of trying to differentiate themselves:

  • The first is that effort has gone into visual design – as if nature would have based itself on a model that needed CAD skills.
  • Second is that they always have a fixed number of stages, levels, steps, or phases of which there are two schools of thought – either keep it few so people can hope to remember them, or make it many so people are impressed by the complexity.
  • Thirdly, stick on a TM, (R), or (C) as a little suffix.
  • I wonder how many Nobel Prize winning theories had “12 steps”, were printed in colour with neatly overlapping pyramids or circles, and had a TM appended to their name? [ed: The answer is none.]

    Forgive my cynicism. It isn’t envy at their intellectual acuity. I am speaking with a modicum of authority here, and for once I can prove it, check out my books … and you’ll find a six step model for problem solving (PRIDEE) and the Rocket model of organisational change! (We even had printed stickers with that one on it.) Aaaargh!

    Well, I’m afraid I have just sat through two days of a conference in which we were invited to absorb the delights of a ‘biopsychosocial’ system model known as “Spiral Dynamics (R)”. Since its inception in 1996, Spiral Dynamics has catapulted into the world of management models, but what makes it different is that it doesn’t just explain how to cut costs, motivate monkeys, or perk up performance, this one explains everything. In case you didn’t quite catch that, the authors claim that this theory explains EVERYTHING, not just why you and I get out of bed in the morning, but why the sun rises and civilisations decline.

    The hype has been such that well-intentioned proto-devotees have burned up their redundancy cheques to fly to Texas or California to study it and be licensed to use it on their own. The flood has been such that proponents pop up all over and they gladly share their new found model. But all is not entirely rosy with this particular one…

    It neatly conforms to all my criteria for Nobel Prize winning status: it has a colourful pretty diagram, the acronym takes the form of the different colours (beige, purple, red, blue, orange, green, yellow and turquoise) and that lovely little (R) mark. But how does it stack up to more critical inspection?

    Criticisms of Spiral Dynamics

    The general discipline of memetics and especially its branch, Spiral Dynamics, based on the research of psychologist Clare Graves, proposes that individual thought patterns have a consistency, they are a coherent system, and that individuals can move from one system to another, from one level of complexity to another. These systems or levels have been variously described as ‘consciousness formations’ and ‘constellations of values’. It is these underlying value systems that make an individual ‘tick’, but Spiral Dynamics goes further, using these value constellations to explain the history of civilization in terms of societies moving from one ‘average value constellation’ to another.

    This is not a criticism of memetics as such (ie the general idea that thoughts can spread like viruses, from one mind to another). We live in an era of peer-to-peer network-based knowledge transfer in which the viral perspective of memetics has value and leads to useful hypotheses. Nor is it a criticism of the work of Clare Graves, which has largely been interpreted in this way some time after his death in 1986.

    Don Beck and Christopher Cowan collaborated on a book, entitled “Spiral Dynamics – mastering values, leadership and change”, which was published in 1996.

    By 1999, Beck had begun to expand the model aligning his thinking with that of Ken Wilber (termed Integrative Psychology), and by 2002 the two of them had launched the SD-Integral movement. Beck’s website is at http://www.spiraldynamics.net/.

    It is the application of the Spiral Dynamics school of memetics as propagated by Beck and Wilber (the so-called SD-Integral, or SDi model) that critics focus on. Their concerns are that the model’s implications are political as well as developmental and that while the terminology of the theory is seemingly inclusive, the practical implications of the model can be seen as socially elitist and authoritarian. They say that it has rapidly evolved into a political neoconservative movement using the (pseudo-)scientific basis of memetics as a cover.

    There is a large and growing body of criticism of Wilber and his theories. As a starting point you could try visiting http://www.integralworld.net/index.html .

    Cowan, on the other hand, formed a working relationship with Natasha Todorovic. Their work is described on their website: http://www.spiraldynamics.org/ . Cowan has tried to distance himself from the work of Beck and Wilber and if you want to read his substantial and clearly angry rejection of it, check out this link: http://www.spiraldynamics.org/faq_integral.htm .

    Clare Graves was at pains to say that his theory was not intended to imply that people cold be categorised into developmental boxes. He was also clear that we do not personally evolve from basic levels to higher ones. Cowan makes it clear that he follows the same viewpoint:

    “While it is an expansive sequence in some respects, this is not a hierarchy of wisdom or decency or even intelligences, much less happiness and worth. Instead, it delineates a series of different ways of prioritizing and framing those things as solutions to one set of problems create new ones which require new thinking to resolve. First congruence then, if necessary or possible, growth. There is an increase in cognitive complexity as we move through the systems, but not in intelligence. Different intelligences are valued differently at different levels, just as different levels have their own sense of the spiritual, of the social, and of the essential.

    To the extent that higher levels offer more degrees of freedom and consider a more expansive group of elements, they are ‘better than’ lower levels in the long run. However, the qualitative key to this point of view is appropriateness: using the brain which is there in ways that are constructively adaptive to the realities at hand with the openness to deal with the world to come.”

    This is very different from the way in which many people present Spiral Dynamics and especially those influenced by the SDi approach.

    The manipulation of lower tiers by the supposedly more evolved

    In their work, Beck and Wilber emphasize that one of the characteristics of what they call “tier two” individuals, also called “Spiral Wizards”, is their ability to make superior decisions for all parties concerned and to manufacture consent for their approaches at lower levels using resonant terms and ideas.

    As well as outlining an underlying developmental theory, SDi gives explicit suggestions to these “Wizards” for both consensual and non-consensual management of “lower-tier” individuals.

    One critic of SDi, Michel Bauwens, has argued that some conceptions of what it means to be “second tier” have come to resemble Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch [1].

    The emphasis SDi places on exercising power derived from greater developmental attainments has also been characterized as coming from a number of other past political theories emphasizing decision-making by a select elite, including Plato’s idealization of the philosopher king.

    Ostracism of critics

    Within its own model, SDi is characterized as a “second tier” concept, which implicitly flatters those who support the theory and potentially invites self-confirming bias.

    This is one of the defining characteristic of cults, and as the number of popular followers of Spiral Dynamics grew there have been people who have expressed concern that it is a mentally disturbing and socially alienating world view. Cowan has tried to put this in context, but largely does so by blaming people who use the model without understanding it properly.


    Public criticisms of SDi have simply been dismissed by its advocates as expressions of lower-level memes, particularly the “mean green meme” [2]. This internal refutation of external critiques was one of philosopher Karl Popper’s criteria for establishing that a system of belief is non-falsifiable and for distinguishing non-science from genuine scientific theory [3].

    Some critics dispute the universality of deeper linear or emergent transitions as proposed in Spiral Dynamics, due to the high degree of variation they see among the surface expressions of human cultures over time. The claim that humans have changed systemically on psycho-social dimensions, such as self concept or the human propensity and reasons for self sacrifice, over the time period proposed in Spiral Dynamics, is not currently supported by mainstream anthropology, the social sciences, or evolutionary biology.

    [1] Michel Bauwens, “A Critique of Wilber and Beck’s SD-Integral”, P/I: Pluralities/Integration, no. 61: March 23, 2005
    [2] Natasha Todorovic, “Mean Green Meme: Fact or Fiction” http://www.spiraldynamics.org/documents/MGM_hyp.pdf
    [3] Popper, Karl R. (1971). Open Society & Its Enemies. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01972-X.

    Best wishes

    Helping people achieve things they never dreamt they could
    t 07785 222380 grahamwilson.orginter-faith.netthefutureofwork.org

    “I teach at the Adizes Graduate School and use his [Clare Graves] Life Cycles model in our work along with Spiral Dynamics.

    I played a major role in the transformation of South Africa out of apartheid (63 trips) and since Clare Graves was alive until l986, we worked together on a major multi-layered strategy to deal with the unique complexity that existed in the land South of the Limpopo River.

    Much of my work, today, especially in Israel-Palestine and now with the Mexican Teacher’s Union to design education for that entire troubled society, grew out of the “tear gas days” in South Africa. Since I had worked for several years in the National Football League (Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints) I was able to aid the Springbok Rugby side in the l995 World Cup as a team psychologist, since Mr Mandela needed a nation-building euphoria.

    You might check www.buildpalestine.org for a real world application of the Gravesian theory.

    We are currently developing a major South American initiative (Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, and even Venezuela) as well as growing interest in Russia, Ukraine etc.

    My PhD work at the University of Oklahoma in the mid l960s was with Muzafer Sherif at the Institute for Group Relations where we were working with the auto-kinetic experiment and the Assimilation/Contrast Effect in Social Judgment, as a means of defusing major conflict in a bipolar context. We found this to be useful in the Netherlands, especially, in dealing with the threats of Jihad-inspired violence, resulting in a series of Dutch Summits om Fundamentalism. The third summit drew 900 Dutch leaders and has now resulted in a significant re-design of the Dutch government. I am quite aware of the problems all over Europe, especially in Germany and UK, with the integration of Islamic thought structures within the indigenous cultures.

    We have also developed what are called Vital Signs Monitors, data mining, web crawlers, and other software packages designed to identify the underlying dynamics in a society. The Government of Singapore was the first to embrace the technology and Iceland is following. Their name is RAHS – Risk Analysis Horizon Scanning — and it will become a major geopolitical piece to increase the quality of decision-making.

    My Dutch colleagues and I have now formed the Hague Center for Global Governance, Innovation, and Emergence.

    I broke any relationship with Cowan back in l999.

    While I did some work with Wilber, that all began to wane six years ago because of his constant distortion of the Spiral Dynamics/Gravesian model.

    Cowan put the TM and R on the concept which I bitterly opposed, wanting to keep the concept clean for academic applications, as you properly noted.

    Graham, there is no “cult” of any type; colors were first used in South Africa as a short hand code to replace skin pigmentation; there aren’t types of people; these complex adaptive intelligences spring from the interaction of humans with Life Conditions rather than a Calvinistic, pre-determined flow.

    We are now doing major mind/brain research at the Brain Research Lab at the University of Cologne and have announced what we call “Large-Scale Psychology’ as a new branch in academic psychology.

    Far too many people make huge claims about “Second Tier” but it was Graves who identified, in his disciplined research, the major shift between the 6th and 7th Level priority patterns and that platform does contain more expansive codes and ways of dealing with world problems.

    We just recommended to the US State Department that they fund a “cement factory” in Bethlehem because, based on the value-systems capacities, that would be a much better choice than a high tech factory that might disappear next year.”

    One Comment

    1. As I live in the Netherlands I would like to know in more concrete terms what summits mr. Beck is referring to? When were they held, where were they held, name several of the most important Dutch leaders attending these summits?
      I can't say that there has been "a significant re-design of the Dutch government" in recent years only that there has been some "social upheaval", because of the murder of a politician and director/writer/interviewer.

      Also, this "Large Psychology Branch"…well, the only sites referring to it are Dynamic Spiral sites , so the credibility of that sentence is quite meagre.

      Great article btw, Graham!

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