So a friend of mine asked for my thoughts on the hierarchical nature of Spiral Dynamics.
After spending hours drafting a reply, Facebook wouldn’t allow me to comment as it was too long, so here I am turning my response into a blog post.
If you don’t know what the Spiral Dynamics model is, the video below provides quick glimpse into the model.
Is Hierarchy Bad?
The concept of hierarchy itself isn’t ‘bad’ by default — it depends on context.
We see hierarchy in nature, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it’s often a natural consequence of human endeavours.
Someone who has spent 10 years teaching English will naturally be more experienced than someone just starting out.
They’ve had more time to see how to deal with certain situations better, different ways of more effectively explaining something clearer or more efficiently, etc because they’ve simply been exposed to the concept of teaching English a whole lot more than the person starting out.
What is Spiral Dynamics?
Spiral Dynamics is a data-based, psychological approach to understanding worldviews or systems of thinking held by individuals, organisations and societies.
While Maslow was formulating the hierarchy of human needs, psychologist Clare Graves was examining what makes people different in their behaviours, values and worldviews.
Over 20 years of research, Clare Graves discovered there were specific stages of development in human values.
It’s important to note that each stage doesn’t define an individual, instead it defines their ‘center of gravity’ when it comes to a dominant worldview.
As a person accumulates more information and experiences in life, these provide them with newer language and frameworks to conceptualise and expand their worldview.
Aristotle was a brilliantly complex thinker, however an undergraduate today would outsmart him in physics, maths and psychology and thus automatically be able to comprehend and analyse things in ways which Aristotle couldn’t — simply because they were born in a time where further studies, research and technology were more developed and provided people today with newer frameworks and language to better understand things than in the past.
This is a natural result of our evolution as a species.
A person who grows up in a tiny village, has never traveled outside of their village, has never been exposed to different cultures, traditions, concepts and discussions, etc beyond what happens in their village will generally have a limited scope and understanding of themselves and the world around them compared to say someone who has traveled the world, been exposed to various cultures, traditions, concepts that may challenge their world views, etc.
In NLP there’s a teaching which tells us to think of your mind as a vast map that’s mostly greyed out when you’re first born. As you begin exploring, interacting more with the world around you, accumulating new knowledge, perspectives, frameworks and language, more areas of this map becomes visible — expanding your ability to understand and conceptualise things which you previously couldn’t.
This is not to say that a person born in the West is ‘better’ than or even more advanced than a tribes-person living in the Amazonian jungles.
There is however a higher likelihood that the person born into the western world may have a broader and more complex understanding of themselves and the way the world works since they have been introduced to concepts such as psychology, different perspectives thanks to the internet and access to a larger society whereas those in the tribe may be limited to only the understanding and belief systems of those in the tribe.
Breaking down spiral dynamics with relevant examples:
I’ll start at blue since from this stage upwards is where a larger portion of the world population operates from.
Common tendencies of someone in the blue stage would be to follow the rules, do what you’re told and follow what everyone else is doing because it’s safe and predictable.
You’ll notice that many Baby Boomers and those in Gen X will operate from this stage, wanting their kids to go to school, get good grades, find a good job, get married, buy a house, have kids then retire.
This kind of ‘follow what everyone else is doing because it’s safe’ mindset dominates a large portion of their worldview and how they approach life in general.
Before people have a shift to this stage, they’re following the traditional path that their parents laid out for them, but they realise something is wrong — they’re not fulfilled, they’re stuck in a 9–5 rat race, realising that if they continue down this path they’ll be slaving away until they are 60+ and have wasted their lives.
The begin questioning the traditional path and decide to break away, paving a new path in order to thrive and ‘succeed’ in life.
This is the stage where a lot of entrepreneurs are birthed from with the general focus being on thriving as an individual, material gains, making lots of money for financial freedom, etc.
As those in orange continue on their path of accumulating wealth/individualistic gains, some begin to realise a lack of deep, meaningful fulfillment again and may start to become aware of the environmental or consumerist impact their endeavours have left on the planet and society.
They begin to become more aware of the suffering and injustice in the world.
Fighting for justice and making the world a better place provides more fulfillment, meaning and impact than individual gains.
A lot of self-love, self-development, inquiries into understand the self better along with a desire to improve the world happens here.
Green is where most of the -ISM movements are born from — veganism, feminism, environmentalism, etc.
Here people are fighting for what they believe in and want others to ‘wake up’ and can often feel frustrated because others do not understand or care enough to support what they are supporting.
Protesting, debating, unintentional or sometimes even intentional shaming of others and arguing with those who disagree can be common in this stage.
As those in Green begin working on improving and understanding themselves more, they begin to realise and acknowledge their flaws, traumas and shadows.
They begin to realise and integrate the idea that everyone else is also riddled with flaws, traumas, shadows and things they don’t know about themselves which affects their perspective of the world.
This leads to the transition from Green to Yellow.
They begin to realise their way of fighting for injustice and change may not be the most effective strategy.
At this stage of development, the core worldview is trying to find understanding, by finding a middle ground that takes in perspectives from both sides of an argument.
Arguing and shaming those who disagree with us transforms into listening and trying to understand why a person holds a certain perspective, recognising the humanity in others and that people are the way they are due to their conditioning and information they’ve been exposed to so far.
Each stage progresses upon the previous stage, learns from it’s flaws and discovers a new way of viewing the world that serves them better.
Studies suggest that it often takes 3–5 years of a person being regularly exposed to these different ways of thinking in order to integrate the next paradigm shift in their worldview.
This is why being part of communities is such a fascinating concept as people are constantly exposed to new ideas and perspectives that challenge and help expand their understanding of the world and themselves over time.
As humanity continues to evolve, we’ll undoubtedly see flaws within the current stages of development and new stages will emerge.
I do want to note that these models are tools for people to use to better understand themselves as well others in order to have more effective and healthy communication and engagement.
As the saying goes “love begins with understanding and ends with misunderstanding”.
By understanding this model, you can get an idea of the level of psychological development a family member or friend are operating from, and this allows you to see that the way they see things is simply because of the level of development they’re at and this affects their awareness and perspective on things.
You’ll realise that if you had that same conditioning and were operating from the level of development they are at, you’d most likely think and see things the same way!
We do however need to be careful not to fall into mindsets of Us v Them, feelings of superiority, competitiveness when it comes to these models.
Like with any tool, it can be used in healthy or unhealthy ways.
- A hammer can be used to build a house but it can also be used to hurt someone
- Fire can be used to cook food, but it can also be used to burn down a home