Jerry Coursen on Clare W Graves
Jerry Coursen PhD has been on my perceptual radar since shortly after I was first exposed to Spiral Dynamics in Spring 1998. An irregular but highly-thought-provoking contributor to the SD e-lists, his postings struck me as being of a far deeper structure than many others. Over the years we’ve occasionally exchanged thoughts both off- and on-list; and, in Spring 2001, I was privileged to see Jerry make a presentation at Don Beck’s First Annual Confab in Dallas, Texas. His postulation that C-P/RED assumes leadership in the B-O/PURPLE tribe to begin the transition to a C-P/RED power-based system was something I’d not heard before yet fitted with my own experiences in PURPLE/RED organisations. From there on in, I was more than convinced of the calibre of the man’s thinking!
The following interview was conducted with Jerry by e-mail during May and June 2004 after he agreed to let me publish A Spiral Perspective on Human Development…? , a piece he wrote about the way he understands the biopsychosocial model of Clare W Graves. The views he expresses in the interview about the need to ‘debug’ and revise Graves in the light of today’s science may be contentious to some; to me it’s good Psychology and good science. Chris Cowan has talked about the need to update Graves’ “neurology stuff” and Don Beck has stated regularly how we mustn’t freeze Graves but develop his work further.
For the past 5 or so years, Jerry has been back where he started. That is, he’s returned to university teaching. Earlier, his career had taken a sharp turn when he left education and moved into industry. Although his training had been in Neuroscience, Zoology and Embryology, he became the executive in charge of organisational development for a healthcare organization with a billion dollar annual revenue and about 10,000 employees. It was there he learned about Graves’ ideas. He once told me that it was Graves’ model, along with social insect theory, to which he attributed any success he might have had in his career in healthcare administration.
Keith: I’ve met quite a number of people that have an interest in the work of Clare Graves, but I think you may be the only person with this interest that I know who teaches what I’d call ‘hard science’ for a living. Why aren’t there more people like you with an interest in Graves?
Jerry: To start with, Graves is pretty much unknown in academic circles. He didn’t publish much and he didn’t mentor others who became successful for their achievements in academia. In fact, I don’t think there’s any mention of him in the literature of the biological or physical sciences.
K: Then maybe the right question is not why aren’t there more physical scientists aware of Graves. Maybe I should be asking how it is that you heard of his ideas?
J: I left the university environment quite some time ago and returned only a few years ago. I worked for over a dozen years in the healthcare industry. So, I learned about Graves’ ideas while I was away from academics.
K: You were the corporate director for human and organisational development in a very large non-profit healthcare system, right? Why would Graves’ ideas be of interest there?
J: The person that was in charge of human resources, my boss, had come from regular industry and had spent a lot of his life dealing with issues involving unions. He’d been introduced to Graves’ ideas by a consultant group that specialized in union avoidance. When he moved to the healthcare field, he continued to use Graves’ concepts for a variety of organisational and management purposes. Since I’d never heard of Graves, he saw to it that I got the appropriate training.
K: And from there the rest is history? You found Graves’ ideas to be fascinating?
J: No, not really. Actually, I didn’t particularly care for the underlying implication of Graves’ theory that there is no ‘real’ reality. The thought that everyone lived in a different world of their own making just didn’t fit with what I believed, and it was certainly nothing I’d been taught. And at that time, I hadn’t paid much attention to the different nuances associated with scientific paradigms.
When I went to college and graduate school, most of the Physics and Chemistry I was taught had ‘practical’ application. It turns out that what was meant by ‘practical’ was that you could see a cause-and-effect relationship. So, basically the science I’d been exposed to was Newtonian. Quantum mechanics and phase transitions and that sort of stuff were considered useful for theoretical bantering but somewhat hard to apply to the ‘real world’. Basically, we ignored it.
K: If I’ve got this straight, you were educated in American universities and did your doctoral work in the basic sciences departments of a medical school there. So, what you’re telling me is that what they’re teaching is from what we in the Gravesian community would call the D-Q level.
J: I agree with all that. At least, that’s been my experience.
K: And in that D-Q teaching mode, there’s a kind of underlying belief that we’re all experiencing the same thing, that there’s one reality out there, that anybody who doesn’t see things in this one ‘realistic’ way is missing the boat?
J: I know I certainly was of that mind before I knew about Graves’ model. And, like I said, even after I knew about Graves’ ideas, I pretty much held with things being the way you just described.
K: What changed your mind?
J: My job. Part of my job was to teach Graves’ ideas to management personnel. I was fortunate to have about 2 1/2 hours of video tape that I could use that was prepared by CVR, a consultant firm that sold products based on Graves’ ideas. Anyway, I ran interactive 8-hour workshops on Graves’ theory and its application to various aspects of healthcare management. As a part of those workshops, I watched the 2 1/2 hour video tape probably a hundred times or more. And I watched the people who were enrolled in these workshops. Almost no one ‘got it’ right away, but there was definitely something that deeply resonated with almost everyone in attendance. I’m not prone to accept anything that’s in any way ‘airy-fairy’, but I became convinced there’s something important in what Graves created.
K: What’s been your history in terms of interacting with key figures in the development of the Graves Model and ‘builds’ like Spiral Dynamics?
J: I’m aware of 3 groups beside Don Beck & Chris Cowan that have sold products based on the ideas of Clare Graves. The first was Scott & Susan Myers who are credited with creating the first of the ‘values questionnaires’ – through which one’s ‘value system’ could be determined. There was also the Center for Values Systems Research (CVR) that was founded by Charles Hughes & Vincent Flowers and staffed by, among others, Debra Heflich. And there was Dudley Lynch and his dolphin-thinking version of Graves. I had contact with the second group for about 10 years. I attended a number of their trainings in Dallas, and later, after CVR split up, in Pottsboro, Texas. I liked everybody I met connected with CVR. Charles and Vince were among the most intelligent/most creative people I met during my years in the corporate/business world. Subsequent to that, while I was still a healthcare executive, I met Don Beck through one of his former students. The organisation I worked for contracted with NVC, and Don did several trainings for us as well as some facilitation of executive retreats. Through Don, I also met Chris and Natasha Todorovic. Although during that period, my interaction with Chris was minimal, I had a good deal of contact with Don. Like the people at CVR, I found Don and Chris to be extraordinarily creative and intelligent. Those traits seem to be characteristics of people who are attracted to Graves’ model.
All of the products these groups developed were marketed and sold to purchasers of business consulting services. In that regard, it seems to me that Graves’ ideas have been most successfully introduced to an E-R community.
K: You’ve given me the impression at times that you’re concerned to protect and preserve the integrity of the Graves model from potential distortion and pollution…?
J: I think you’re confusing me with Bill Lee. If there is an archivist dedicated to the preservation of Graves’ ideas as Graves stated them, that’s Bill Lee.
I’d like to see Graves material revisited and developed in light of what we now know from science as opposed to what Graves knew of science when he proposed his model. In some respects, what Bill Lee is trying to do is preserve Graves 1.0. I’m solidly supportive and most appreciative of his efforts. Having access to authentic writings and lectures of Graves in which he details his ideas and provides documentation of how and why he developed them is invaluable. But I’m also of the opinion that we need to do two more things.
First we need to debug what we might call ‘Graves 1.0′. Some of the claims Graves made could have been debunked at the time he made them using knowledge that was available to him; but Graves apparently worked pretty much alone and his model was not given the scientific scrutiny that – at least I think – it deserves. Beyond that, Graves did not reference, and, thus, maybe wasn’t aware of and didn’t consider, a lot of other research occurring simultaneously with his. Graves’ model could have had impact on the theoretical framework on some of that research. And, the available research could have been used by Graves to refine and develop his model.
So, I think we ought to try updating to a Graves 1.1, and then clean it up again with a Graves 1.2, etc. For example, Graves made a point of his model being ‘biopsychosocial’ in nature. During that same time period, George Engel and others were using that same term within the medical community as they tried to look beyond conventional medicine toward a psychosomatic approach. Engel’s seminal article was published in Science in 1977 and cites some 50 references. Although Graves had published articles in 1966 and 1970, Graves is not included in Engel’s bibliography. At the same time, in Graves’ reference lists that Bill Lee has provided us with, there’s no mention of Engel. And maybe more importantly, the ’66 and ’70 papers of Graves were his only publications in academically ‘reputable’ journals, and all total, they have been cited less than a dozen times. By comparison, the Engel Science article alone has been referenced over 1500 times. Does the biopsychosocial model of Graves have potential impact on the biopsychosocial ‘new medical model’ that Engel’s paper calls for? I think yes, and Graves 1.1 could, 27 years belatedly, attempt to demonstrate why and how it does. If the case is convincing, then potentially Graves’ model could bootstrap into the demographic Engel has created. If Graves’ model turns out to be valid, interest in it could soar.
Then there are the things that the scientific community now knows that weren’t even part of the speculation when Graves was active. So, in addition to creating a 1.1, then a 1.2, then a 1.3 version of Graves’ model, we could begin on a Graves 2.0. Is this interesting? You bet! Graves studied 7 ‘levels’ of individual/societal awareness. He speculated on the existence of more levels that would emerge in the future. So, Graves 1.n is limited to what he labelled as systems A-N through G-T. Graves 2.0 might include two more systems. Additionally, Graves considered A-N to be a single system. The advances in Cognitive Neuroscience that began in the 1980s suggest that A-N may be several to many inner/outer directed levels. Since this couldn’t have been a part of Graves’ original model, I’d put it in Graves 2.0. Graves 2.0 could also be presented using complex, nonlinear theory which would change it substantively. Graves 2.0 could not be presented using the ladder-rung metaphor Graves used. Sequential inner- and outer-directed rungs no longer make sense given what we know now, although the validity of inner- and outer-directed ‘level’ remains.
Revisions of Graves 1.0 as Graves 1.1 and Graves 1.2 would continue to be easily understood by anyone with D-Q or ‘higher’ awareness. Graves 2.0 would be less accessible.
K: Can you expand on what you’ve said about rungs no longer making sense but to think in terms of levels being OK?
J: Graves described his ‘value system’ levels as being sequential. He also acknowledged that each new ‘value system’ alternates as to whether it is considered ‘inner directed’ or ‘outer directed’. And from a linear perspective, this all does look continuous. This is the way Graves saw things. But when you reconsider this from a different non-linear scientific paradigm, the need for sequentiality (to coin a word) no longer is important. What’s more, if you think from within the paradigm of Complexity Science, you can consider Graves’ observations without the baggage that the term ‘hierarchical’ brings into things. The so-called ‘hierarchy’ on which Graves built is historical, and it is not a necessary condition for the emergence of the various ‘value-systems’ (or whatever we end up calling them).
To anybody who has followed Graves’ ideas, this may seem like heresy. It may seem like Graves’ model is one and the same with a sequential emergence of hierarchical value systems. But it isn’t.
With any theory, there are always things that don’t seem to fit that theory advocates chose to either explain away – these explanations can sometimes be quite ingenious – or to simply ignore. You and I and probably almost anyone who has ever conducted a Graves’ theme workshop have experienced such issues when we were presenting Graves’ ideas to the uninitiated. For example, during the management training I referred to earlier, one of the common arguments was whether one could move from one inner directed value system to another inner directed value system without passing through an external value system. In particular, in the business settings where I’ve conducted Graves’ workshops, it is not unusual for a person to feel that he/she has G-T awareness but at no point in their life do they recall having F-S characteristics. They can envision moving from E-R to G-T but not passing through F-S. Typically, we ‘experts’ say either that, if they’re truly G-T-ish, that they somehow just don’t recall their dabbling in F-S, or we invent some sort of explanation that says that there are different forms of F-S some of which don’t have the characteristics Graves described as F-S.
If you look at people as having an inherent capacity to perceive reality through either an ‘internal locus of control‘ or an ‘external locus of control’, you can see that this capacity rests in the individual. The shift is in the cultural paradigm through which they’re filtering. The first one of these paradigms is shared by B-O and C-P, the second by D-Q and E-R, and the third by F-S and G-T. These paradigms correspond to what I’ve referred to as ‘levels’. What I’m just now beginning to realise is that they are not obligatorily sequential in their emergence. The stratification Graves assigned leads neatly to what we perceive to be the social evolutionary reality we have in Western civilization. But, again, this is a historical reckoning. It may well be the way it happened, but it’s not necessarily the way it had to happen. In fact, it may be that in other social milieus that you find in ‘non-Western’ parts of the world that the emergences have indeed occurred in a different sequence.
So, what do we call these filters? Value systems, paradigms, perceptions of reality, levels of awareness? Actually, what we end up calling them will depend on the group of people that winds up working on the validation of Graves’ ideas, if such a group ever comes about. The terminology is less important than the shared understanding of the concept the terminology conveys.
So, I’ve rejected the term ‘rungs’ because it implies necessary sequentiality. But your confusion as to why ‘levels’ would be any more acceptable is well taken. When I use the term ‘levels’ I’m thinking, levels of awareness’, but the term ‘levels’ does imply that there’s something above and something else below. That is not what I want to convey. Okay, I’m willing to forego the term ‘levels’, too. But, then I don’t know what language to use. The term ‘values’ can be volatile. At times it seems to trigger an emotional response by people who are offended that their values might be being questioned, so I am not particularly comfortable using it. And in my experience, ‘paradigm’ is a word that just isn’t well received (if I had a quarter for every time someone’s objected to the use of that term by saying that they understand ‘paradigm’ to mean the same thing as 4 nickels….well, I’d have at least a couple bucks. Sorry if this pun doesn’t translate into an economic culture based on the pound! )
K: I’ve just started skirting around the edges of Neurobiology – at least enough for me to teach A-level Psychology! – so I’m a little in awe of a real neuroscientist who can cross-relate to Graves. When Bill Lee’s transcript of Graves’ 1971 seminar at the Washington Institute of Psychiatry came out last year, you told me that Graves’ comment “In a childlike manner the individual progresses through the first six systems in the first year” was an interesting one….that there was nothing you were aware of in the Neuroscience literature at the time Graves was writing that would lead to this conclusion. However, within the last couple years brief-in-time neuroendocrine ‘windows’ that alter the capacity and functioning of the brain have been noted in the development of the very young infant brain. While you pointed out that this still isn’t an equivalent to progressing through the 6 systems thing, it does point out how intuitive Graves was in making what appeared to be unsubstantiated comment….Substantiated or not, you said you tend to take Graves’ ideas seriously – that you saw him as a kind of an H G Wells in this respect. Presumably, as a neuroscientist, you’re inclined to think Gravesian concepts will hold up?
J: You’re quoting me as well as Graves? I’m kind of surprised.
I’d forgotten my H G Wells/C W Graves comparison, but I like it still. In some ways Graves was an intuitive fictionist. However, futuristic creative ability serves the scientist well. And the science Graves took on, Psychology, had a tradition of advancing through creative intuition. Certainly Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung would fall in this category.
While Bill Lee’s the archivist, I do have an anecdote that was conveyed to me by one of my colleagues here who began his academic life at Union College while Graves was winding down there. He said that Graves’ colleagues found him bombastic on issues he felt strongly about. One of those issues was the fragmentation of the field of Psychology into multiple disciplines like Anthropology and Sociology. Graves thought the discipline of Psychology was better served as a unified entity. I’m of the opinion that this is great intuition on Graves’ part, but, even today, it still bucks the reductionism trend of science.
To your question about a child cycling through the first 6 levels in the first year of life, that seems absurd. Graves’ levels beyond A-N require what we’re now calling ‘reflective consciousness’. One of the requirements for that seems to be the human genome. Another requirement is for brain development sufficient enough to allow cortical memory.
The infant has the genome but not the brain circuitry. The latter doesn’t develop until sometime around the third year of life. You can easily prove this to yourself. Ask anyone what his or her earliest memories are. It’s rare for anyone to remember anything before they were two. This is because the outer, cortical layers of the cerebrum are actively growing, establishing interneuronal connections, and remodelling during early infancy. It’s only after the cerebral cortex stabilises that consciously accessible memory becomes possible. (As an aside, but one that could have meaning for Gravesian models, after this first cortical development, the cortex is actively pruned and restructured for the next 15-20 years. One of the major contentions of Graves was that early in their lifetime a person develops a ‘primary value system’ that is traceable to the whole of their childhood experience. Thereafter, to move from this value system – this filter through which the individual perceives the world – requires a ‘significant emotional event’. The final result of the 20-or-so year cortical development may correlate with the establishment of an individual’s ‘primary value system’.)
About the early life developmental windows to which you refer: There are some interesting postnatal genetic-hormonal interactions which result in ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ neuronal functioning thereafter, but I don’t see these as being related to the cycling through the first 6 stages Graves spoke about. We could talk about them, but I see this whole thing as a red-herring in our Neuroscience discussion about Graves’ model. I think Graves got hung up on his notion that there was a cyclic nature that was fundamental to his model, and he tried to force-fit that notion wherever he could. I also think he was completely wrong about there being cycles in the model he was proposing. I think that if today’s concepts of ’emergence’ and ‘fractacality’ were a part of his thinking then, he might likely use these ideas rather than opt for cycles. (Of course, those concepts were unheard of when Graves was creating his models.)
K: Graves was consistently explicit in his postulation that G-T signalled the commencement of a 2nd Tier. In varying degrees you’ve expressed reservations about the 2nd Tier concept. Care to explain why?
J: Without the emergence of a new scientifically generated social paradigm, any behaviour beyond G-T would have to be explained using existing paradigms. Thus, it’s not hard to appreciate that what lies beyond G-T might well have looked to Graves like variations on what had come before. Graves couldn’t understand what he was observing using scientific concepts that had not yet emerged – science that we now have. So, he defaulted to D-Q thinking and postulated cycles.
With the advent of Complexity Science, we now understand the mechanism underlying emergence quite differently from the way it was envisioned by Graves and his colleagues. They saw things in a linear fashion. Graves’ model even employed a ladder or staircase as a metaphor for the linear, step-by-step nature of his model.
From the cycles found in nature Graves concluded that ‘what goes around comes around’. So, it seemed reasonable to him that there’d be cycles in the model he was proposing. Since he was already using a ladder metaphor, he could model the cyclic nature he believed to be a part of his model with a second ladder.
Emergence doesn’t come about that way. The surprise that is the emergent event comes from interactions of the components that give rise to it. The cycles that seemed reasonable to Graves are not a part of the way emergence works. On the other hand, intuitively, before Complexity Science arose, Graves identified his model’s ’emergent’ nature. This is one of the things that separates Graves’ model from every other similar model (at least, that I’m aware of.) And to be fair, initially, Graves’ ladder metaphor included only a single ladder with steps labeled ‘A’ through ‘M’. I’m told by some who knew him that Graves was never convinced as to whether his model was better served by one or multiple ladders. Current science pertinent to emergent systems supports only a single line of sequential emergences.
Another factor that could have swayed Graves toward tiers was the success he had with this concept when he shared it with his constituency. While Graves was never particularly embraced by academia, he found a welcome reception for his ideas when he took them to the business world. What the business world was looking for was control. Graves’ idea that there were ‘higher levels’ of thinking to which ‘lower levels’ of thinking should be subordinated resonated with the purchasers of business consulting services. A second, higher tier to which the purchasers of Graves’ services believed they belonged made Graves’ model all the more saleable.
K: A sub-text to my agenda in taking on teaching Psychology is to spread Graves into British academia. As a notable academic yourself, what do you think it will take to get academia to take Graves’ ideas seriously and give them the rigorous exploration and testing they deserve?
J: Thanks, but except to a few students, I’m not that notable. But the question you’re posing is a good one. There are a lot of problems to overcome before Graves’ ideas might be taken seriously by the academic establishment. These problems seem to break up into 2 categories. First are the problems that Graves himself created. For whatever reasons, he was not a diligent scientist. He didn’t pursue research the way successful researchers do. And he didn’t publish a great number of papers – that would have helped. And, worst of all, from time to time he’d lay claim to something that was just patently untrue. So, to overcome these issues: do the necessary research, develop a body of literature, and make revisions of ‘Graves 1.0’ so as to get the ‘bugs’ out.
The second issue is tied to the way Graves’ material has been developed since Graves died. The objective has often been sales and revenue generation. The result of this has been the branding of various competing products built on Graves’ model. Despite Graves’ claim that his model was the result of his attempt to apply the scientific method towards the reconciliation of the plethora of psychological theories, there has been no application of the scientific method towards the validation and development of the model he created or to any Gravesian model that came thereafter. There is no scientific Graves’ model. But, competing in the marketplace, there are a number of widely divergent models based on Graves’ ideas.
So, to have it taken, as you say, “seriously” – there must be people who are willing to do the necessary work. First Graves 1.0 needs to be debugged and updated within the framework in which it was created. And this needs to be done in the framework of the scientific method.
So, where do you find people who are willing to do the work? Actually, you almost have to ask first why anybody’d be willing to work on Graves’ model. And here’s where anyone who has had experience with Graves’ model, in any of its various forms, becomes important. Despite the problems I’ve mentioned, Graves’ model has yielded predictable, desired results when it has been used as the theoretical basis from which to formulate strategy in several instances. It is this unique power of Graves’ model to produce predictable, desired strategic outcomes that causes us to believe it is worth further investigation. If the people who have successfully used Graves’ model will not or cannot do the necessary work, they are still very important in that they bear testimony to the demonstrated effectiveness of Graves’ model in formulating strategies that consistently yield expected results. Such models are rare and of value to science.
The successful uses of Graves’ model of which I’m aware primarily reside in the business world, although it has also been used in the political arena. One instance uses Graves’ model as a tool for improving organisational communication vertically. For example, it can be and is used to teach upper level managers how to communicate with entry level employees. Among other uses, this has formed the basis for successful union avoidance campaigns. The results of those campaigns have been extraordinarily successful, plus they have yielded win-win results for employees and management. Graves’ theory has also been used in similar fashion to improve organisational morale and employee retention. And it has been applied in the creation of more efficient work unit design and hiring strategies. Graves’ model has also had success as a political tool for understanding ‘value’ demographics from which successful marketing strategies have been developed based on improved one-way communication. Reform of an entire nation, South Africa, has been attributed to such use of Grave’s model as have successful election strategies. The bottom line to all this is that Graves’ theory has yielded repeatable, predictable results despite our lack of scientific understanding of the model.
Understanding, validating, and developing Graves’ model should allow for its wider application to other disciplines. In this regard, Graves’ model has hardly been explored at all. I’ve mentioned its potential connection with medicine. Graves himself thought his ideas could be used to improve the educational process. He also suggested its use for prison reform. With appropriate scientific study and revision, a Graves 1.1 model could provide a useable tool from which a great number of biopsychosocial problems could be ‘explored’ and ‘tested’.
K: It’s critical what you say about consistently yielding expected results. In the run-up to 2000, the Arlington Institute was on a commission from the US Defence Department to scenario-plan for potential fall-outs from the so-called ‘Millennium Bug’. As part of that, they did 10,000 Spiral Dynamics assessments – both in the US and abroad – and found “no significant deviations”.
On a micro-level, around about 6 months after my first Introduction to Spiral Dynamics & Related Models of NLP course, I went for a beer with one of my ‘graduates’. He told me he’d spent that 6 months testing SD and totally failed to find any instance where it didn’t describe accurately his and others’ experiences.
J: I can go that one better. I’ve been at this for nearly 15 years testing to see if I can find an instance where Graves’ theory wouldn’t fit. That’s the essence of the scientific method. The way you validate a theory is to look diligently for exceptions. Graves’ theory seems to always fit.
K: You’re way beyond me in terms of Neuroscience and Complexity Science but I can understand situations in terms of vMEMES….Finally, thoughts on the future of Jerry Coursen, the Gravesian concepts, Neurobiology, Psychology, etc, etc…?
J: I have no idea of how the future will unfold. Graves’ choice of the terms ‘evolutionary, emergent, biopsychosocial model’ give us a clue, though.
K: Many thanks.
J: Thank you, too.