What Is Spiral Dynamics Integral?

By Don Beck

© 2003 – 2004 Integral Naked, Integral Institute. All rights reserved.

Spiral Dynamics is based on the original work of Clare W. Graves, who taught at Union College for a number of years. He was quite upset in teaching psychology because he would teach on each of the theories from Freud to Watson/Skinner behaviorism to humanistic approach of Maslow and Carl Rogers and at the end of the course his students would say, “Fine, Dr. Graves, which theory is right?” Well, that just about drove this man crazy because he didn’t have an answer to that question.

So from that type experience he began a longitudinal research activity designed to try to figure out why people think in different ways about virtually everything from politics to religion to sports to architecture to economic theories to sex and marriage to a host of other kinds of issues. And what he discovered was that these different theories, rather than being contradictory of each other are simply different stages of psychological development.

So from that original research that lasted over about 30 years he finally reached a state of being able to describe what today we call Spiral Dynamics.

The basic concept is based on a spiral, which means that as a spiral unfolds, it moves to greater complexity. While it is, in a sense, a single line because if you lay out a spiral it will be a line, yet each of the turns of the spiral represents a different worldview, a weltanschauung, a way of understanding reality, a bottom line and what today we’re also calling a meme, a value system meme. We’re able now to demonstrate what lies beneath the surface in relationships, in issues, in controversy, even in warfare, are these different core adaptive contextual complex intelligences.

Let’s look quickly at the nature of these intelligences. Basically, there are three components that we need to understand. The first component would be the life conditions, the problems of existence that people are encountering. These, of course, are different in terms of culture and of time and a number of other factors.

So life conditions for most people can become more complex or, in case of crisis, can regress into being less complex. But first we need to recognize that these systems that we’re trying to describe are not innate in people, not like IQ intelligence or EQ emotional intelligence. Rather, they are adaptive intelligences to these life conditions. So first we have life conditions.

Second, we have the memetic code. That is to say, the way that we deal with those life conditions.

Now there isn’t a single, one-to-one relationship between life conditions and a code. A person might be overwhelmed by certain life conditions like a deep-sea diver who gets the bends and the coping mechanism designed to deal with those life conditions may or may not be awakened. There is no guarantee of that.

Further, a person may, in an altered state kind of experience, begin to contemplate different memetic codes before they reach a threshold of replicating themselves and so they are, in a sense, from a less complex system in an altered state beginning to contemplate the more complex ways of thinking but have yet to reach a threshold where they become part of their every day life and part of their particular realities because those life conditions in which they’re functioning simply don’t support them.

So we have life conditions and then we have the awakened systems, and then third we have the way those codes are being expressed in real life, whether in a host of topics like religion, politics, lifestyles and so forth. Once again, no direct connection system between the awakened code and its surface-level manifestation and so this means when we look at these systems in just a moment the orange code, achievement and modern, doesn’t always produce capitalism. Those are simply historic manifestations of the code.

So here are the three components—life conditions, awakened systems to deal with those life conditions and then the particular way that that code is being expressed in that person’s repertoire of adaptations to those life conditions. So if we look quickly at these codes you can begin to get a sense of why they are what they are. Each one, then, is designed to deal with certain conditions in the environment and when the new one is expressed, the older codes don’t disappear. Rather, they continue because those life conditions that gave them birth are still two paychecks away from a person.

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