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Is Vladimir Putin what CORAL looks like?

PROLOGUE  (04/03/22)
This post has undoubtedly caused a lot of offence amongst people who subscribe to Gravesian and developmental thinking.

Unfortunately, some people have assumed I’m saying Putin definitely does CORAL thinking. I wasn’t and I’m not. I’m offering it as a potential explanation for his outrageous and deadly behaviour. I’m saying: Maybe we should look at this as a possible explanation..? If we can understand Putin, then maybe we can deal with him. The post is meant to stimulate discussion amongst people who, quite frankly, understand 2nd Tier thinking a lot better than I do. It reflects none too well on me that I failed to anticipate just how badly it would be received.

So I’m sorry for the offence caused…but I have decided to leave the post up (for the time being). I’m hoping that, with this prologue, it can still serve to stimulate discussion which can help lead to greater understanding of Putin and the dreadful situation he has put the world in – and most especially the people of Ukraine.


I once wondered whether Vladimir Putin was a 2nd Tier thinker – and whether Barack Obama, for all his many laudable qualities, wasn’t.

As Putin’s war in Ukraine progresses with horrifying and increasing brutality – and while the West wrings its collective hands in despair as Putin ignores their ever more ‘massive’ sanctions – I’m beginning to wonder if Putin just might be the first major world leader to show thinking in the CORAL vMEME.

Over the past 20+ years and my involvement with the Graves Model – and especially its Spiral Dynamics ‘build’- I’ve generally been highly sceptical about claims of people thinking in CORAL. After all, the understanding of TURQUOISE is barely agreed, with so few people seeming to truly demonstrate that level of thinking – and that vMEME arguably is barely present on the planet. So much so that Lawrence Kohlberg (Lawrence Kohlberg & Anne Colby, 1987) withdrew his postulation that there was an equivalent Transcendental Morality in his Stages of Moral Development because he couldn’t find a statistically-significant sample who seemed to think in that way.

It must be remembered that Don Beck & Chris Cowan (1996) only added a CORAL level to Spiral Dynamics to reflect Clare W Graves’ belief that people would go on developing ever more complex ways of thinking to deal with ever more complex problems in living. As Graves held that the 2nd Tier would be a more complex 6 vMEMES reflection of the 1st, Beck & Cowan posited that the 3rd vMEME of the 2nd Tier would be a reflection of RED – and so termed it ‘CORAL’. It must be noted that Graves’ position of 6-upon-6 was more fanciful suggestion than evidence-supported theory. Beck in 2015 conceded that, for all he knew, the 2nd Tier might conclude with TURQUOISE and, if a more complex vMEME then emerged, it might be so complex it kicked off a 3rd Tier. In doing so, Beck not only rubbished his & Cowan’s notion of CORAL succeeding TURQUOISE but undermined Graves’ suggestion that the 2nd Tier would comprise of 6 vMEMES reflecting their 1st Tier counterparts.

The fascination of the CORAL vMEME
For all that there is no credible empirical evidence of the CORAL vMEME being active anywhere on the planet, there is much speculation about it in certain Spiral Dynamics and Integral circles. Sterling Cooley (2018), Warren Day (2018), Michael Carrano (2009; 2010) and Jon Freeman (2018) are just a few of the heavyweight thinkers who have attempted to explore CORAL. Their explorations are based on a mixture of logic applied to Graves’ and Beck & Cowan’s concepts, pure supposition and what they claim are personal experiences.

Such personal experiences are, of course, impossible to verify objectively at this stage of understanding. Claims of thinking in CORAL must always be suspect because achieving a higher and more complex level of thinking – and for that to be acknowledged by others – is so appealing to the goal-oriented and status recognition-demanding ORANGE vMEME. Following his split with Don Beck and Beck’s subsequent alliance with Ken Wilber, this was a major concern for Chris Cowan. He warned repeatedly – eg: Cowan, 2004; Chris Cowan & Natasha Todorovic, 2012 – of what he saw as ORANGE thinking in Integral circles trying to pass itself off as TURQUOISE.  Both Graves (James Killus, 2008) and Abraham Maslow (1971) warned about ‘Level 5’ wanting to be acknowledged as ‘Level 7′. So, if there are a number of TURQUOISE masqueraders out there and little agreement both on what TURQUOISE is and what creates the life conditions for the emergence of TURQUOISE, how suspect is any claim to CORAL thinking?

Personally, while I am confident I think in YELLOW a times, I’m not at all confident I get TURQUOISE. I feel I have experienced a sense of the ‘cosmic sadness’ Maslow refers to but I identify with little else in either Maslow’s or Graves’ descriptions. So what brought me to a point of suddenly speculating on whether Vladimir Putin might think in CORAL? It was Sky News’ Europe correspondent Adam Parsons criticising the European Union’s response to the first morning of the invasion of Ukraine, saying: “…it doesn’t know how to respond to a leader like Vladimir Putin.” Parsons then went on to say that Putin’s way of thinking was so different it went beyond the comprehension of Western leaders.

Listening to Parsons, I began to wonder.

Someone who claimed to think in CORAL once told me it was like “having the mind of God”. Someone else said it was RED with nuclear weapons. Yet another described CORAL as being a ‘cosmic warrior’. Certainly the warrior theme runs in large part through Carrano’s (2009) writing, as it is CORAL which drives his ‘ChaosAVATARS’. They have “a protean bravado that takes no prisoners, makes no promises and survives as the consolidating eye of a psychosocial vortex of mindsets that swiftly triangulates upon the leverage points of its life conditions…. with a swift execution of ruthless, preemptive efficiency that is all too characteristic of bronze-aged assassins – only now infused with the Information Age’s complexity of the cyberneticist’s knowledge of dynamical systems and the technotribal mystic’s ‘everything-effects-everything’ metaphysics of holism, by reinforcing subserviant life conditions and rewarding all those who contribute to the ChaosAVATAR’s cause of maintaining environmental supremacy.” Cooley also says CORAL “will be highly brutalistic”.

Freeman takes a softer line. Whereas Carrano focuses on CORAL’s rejection of TURQUOISE, Freeman emphasises how CORAL grows out of TURQUOISE and builds on it – in the sense of ‘transcend-and-include’ (Wilber, 1996). He says that CORAL will be “unconstrained in its quasi-heroic willingness to stand for itself and forge an independent path. But it does not seek power over others. When it leads it does so from authenticity; it does not care who follows and does not require enforcement except under exceptional conditions, because it knows that all enforcement brings its own backlash. (You can see this as ‘karmic’ or Newtonian mechanics in the psychological and energy-consciousness realms, it really doesn’t matter which.) Coral has learned on the way to this point the dangers of the hubristic belief that it (or anyone) can see all of the system and can make arrogant interventions with certainty of outcomes. At the same time it will push the system and observe the ripples it creates. It will adjust its choices, working from awareness of as much as it can see of “what is”, and without attachment to whether a choice was ‘right’ or wrong”. It knows that right and wrong are always contextual.”

Since I don’t really get TURQUOISE, I’m in no position to judge between Carrano’s and Freeman’s speculations about CORAL. In any case, according to Beck & Cowan, all vMEMES have ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ characteristics – the definition of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ often being related to time and context. When I speculated back in 2014 whether Putin might be a 2nd Tier thinker, I was criticised by a number of Integral commentators that he couldn’t possibly think from the 2nd Tier because 2nd Tier thinking is beneficent. In this they are following Maslow’s thoughts on his Transcendence equivalent to TURQUOISE – with some of them equating TURQUOISE to Buddhist Enlightement. However, Beck & Cowan (p289) state that TURQUOISE thinkers “will not be better, nicer or more intelligent creatures. What they (will) have is more expansiveness in thinking and a broader repertoire of behavioural options. That does not guarantee that they will be happy or virtuous, but they will be looking through a more powerful glass.”

So, if TURQUOISE can be multi-faceted – with some ‘healthy’ and some ‘unhealthy’ – then presumably so can CORAL…?

Putin and CORAL?
My critics back in 2014 tended to view Putin as a RED-driven gangster who had manipulated and murdered his way to acquire and maintain power. There is no doubt Putin is an arch-manipulator and there is no doubt he has used assassinations, unfounded custodial sentences and police suppresssion as tools to reduce opposition to him. But there is nothing to prevent Putin’s head runnning a RED/YELLOW vMEME harmonic.- thus appearing RED but actually operated from a far more complex level of understanding.

My argument for Putin operating from 2nd Tier is founded on 2 things:-

  1. His incredible strategic thinking
    Putin ran rings around Obama during 2013’s Syrian chemical weapons’ crisis. The following year’s takeover of Crimea – how ever heinous – was a masterstroke of strategic planning. Especially as only one Ukranian was killed in the actual military action. These events suggest the kind of problem-solving Graves (1971/2002) identified as typical of YELLOW – 4 x greater than GREEN’s problem-solving capabilities.
  2. His understanding of connectivity
    Putin was able to see how to rescue Obama from the trap of his own making – the infamous ‘red line’ over the use of chemical weapons. When the West sanctioned Russia over the annexation of Crimea, Putin took steps to reduce Russia’s reliance on foreign debt and investment as a way of partially mitigating the effects of sanctions. He also worked to make Europe more dependent on Russian gas and oil. 50% of Germany’s energy comes from Russia – which helps to explain the Germans’ reluctance to cut Russia out of the SWIFT international banking system. These actions may suggest that some degree of TURQUOISE is activated in Putin’s vMEME stack.
    His understanding of connectivity and how others would react to threats and provocations not only enabled him to get away with the annexation of Crimea but also the horrific obliteration of much of Aleppo durind Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war.

Of course, Putin is far from infallible. Although commentators such as Stephen Wayne Kasica (2014) state that Putin is determined to expand the Russian Federation to the borders of the old Soviet Union, it is yet to be determined just how true that is. It may be that the ultra-nationalists reported by Oliver Laughland, Conal Urquhart & Alan Yuhas  (among others) to be pouring across the border into Ukrainian cities with a large Russian population, like Donetsk, in the wake of the Crimean annexation were encouraged and facilitated by the Russian government. Or it may be that the Russian nationalism stirred up by Putin to justify Crimea got out of hand and not entirely under his control. Certainly the Russian government supported the rebels in eastern Ukraine once the violence began. However, given the play he had made of Russian nationalism, it might have been hard for Putin to do much else. So we can’t at this stage be sure whether Putin drove the beginnings of the rebellions in eastern Ukraine or was forced to support it once greater extremists started it.

Again the encirclement of Ukraine from November 2021 to February 2022 was a good play. Putin had presidents and prime ministers and hordes of diplomats rushing to Moscow to try and dissuade him from invading his neighbour. For a while it looked as though Putin was able to call the shots…but he never got the things he said he wanted most: Ukraine to be consitutionally neutral and the easternmost members of NATO to be effectively demilitarised. Putin could have saved face by negotiating for less extreme demands – eg: Ukraine recognising its eastern ethnic Russian territories as devolved administrations with both Russia and Ukraine having an interest in maintaining peace there (in a similar manner to the Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland). Instead Putin decided to invade. A mistake?

Certainly the Russian campaign seems not to to have gone anything like as well as anticipated and Putin appears not to have foreseen just how strongly the West would unite against him. But there is no evidence that someone thinks from a particular vMEME or vMEME harmonic all the time. There are no RED, ORANGE, GREEN people out there – rather people think in different vMEMES and vMEME harmonics at different times. Maybe Putin wasn’t thinking from the 2nd Tier when he took the fateful decision to invade…?

Putin, CORAL and mental health
Perhaps inevitably there has been speculation in Western media about Putin’s mental health over the past few weeks. Eg: The Guardian’s Julian Borger & Angelique Chrisafis question whether long periods in Covid isolation and burrowing ever more into Russian history have induced a alternate sense of reality in Putin. He is reported to have reduced his advisers to a small circle of ‘yes men’ – which would make Putin and his small circle vulnerable to groupthink. Shutting out other advisers and listening only to self-reinforcing arguments will have just heightened that alternate sense of reality. Certainly his long, rambling speech on Monday 21 February, denying Ukraine’s historical existence as a true sovereign nation, seemed to be that of a man who had lost the plot somewhat.

However, his speech on the 24th – see video below – was that of a cosmic powergod, threatening “consequences that you have never faced in your history” to any who tried to hinder or threaten Russia. And yesterday, of course, he put Russia’s nuclear force on high alert.


These indeed could be the words and actions of one of Carrano’s ChaosAVATARS, determined to bring the world to heel. Or it could be the vainglorious threats of a sick man who will shortly be removed by the Kremlin elite who have no desire to trigger MAD (mutually-assured destruction).

Or could it even be that thinking in CORAL and “having the mind of God” is too great a strain for all but the most robust of psyches…?

For Gravesians, the current situation in Ukraine and Putin’s apparent threats to unleash nuclear war, while terrifying, offer us the oppportunity to study what a CORAL-driven leader might be like.

Of course, this could all just be conjecture because we have so little idea of what TURQUOISE is like, let alone CORAL.



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10 Responses

  1. Julien Pujol says

    Version in english, sorry :

    Hi Keith
    I like your freedom to think beyond the margins of propriety and to try to read contexts other than through our reflexive filters, which then say much more about ourselves than about the contexts we try to interpret in doing so.
    I just wanted to point out how strongly Graves insists that, although the levels are not substantially better by being more complex, he concedes that breadth, complexity, humanity and human openness and empathy are quantitatively increasing with each new emergence. He even says in NEQ that it is finally better to live in a later level than in a previous one. And I also recall the qualitative leap, although denied by Cowan, that Graves and Beck recognize in their work from Yellow. The relation to having and to the possibility of missing no longer motivate behavior, and full consciousness seems to start in a singular turn, as Tom Christensen masterfully proposes when he suggests that the level of existence and the state of consciousness come together in the second turn, whereas they were clearly distinct in the first. This is to say that the essence of Red that Red prime has just succeeded in activating according to Graves’ intuitions, leads me to think that it is the impasses of the Red assertiveness energy that unfolds in Coral and not an evil human god. I am only resonating with a Gravesian intuition that is also consistent with the nature of his data and the coherence of the philosophy that he proposed to account for his initial work on the processual nature of human personality and group systems.

  2. Julien Pujol says

    Hi Keith
    J’aime votre liberté de penser au-delà des marges de la convenance et de tenter de lire les contextes autrement que par nos filtres réflexes, qui en disent alors beaucoup plus long sur nous-mêmes que sur les contextes qu’on tente d’interpréter ce faisant.
    Je voulais seulement rappeler comme Graves insiste fortement sur le fait que, bien que les niveaux ne soient pas substantiellement meilleurs en étant plus complexes, il concède que la largeur, la complexité, l’humanité et l’ouverture d’esprit et l’empathie humaine sont quantitativement progressant à chaque nouvelle émergence. Il dit même dans NEQ qu’il fait selon lui finalement mieux vivre dans un niveau ultérieur qu’antérieur. Et je rappelle aussi le saut qualitatif, bien que récusé par Cowan, que Graves et Beck reconnaissent dans leur travaux à partir de Jaune. Le rapport à l’avoir et à la peut de manquer n’y motivent plus les comportements et la pleine conscience semble démarrer dans un tournant singulier, comme Tom Christensen le propose magistralement quand il suggère que niveau d’existence et état de conscience se rejoignent en seconde spire, alors qu’ils se distinguaient nettement en premier tier. Voilà, pour dire que l’essence de Rouge que Rouge prime vient réussir d’activer selon les intuitions de Graves, me porte à penser que c’est les impasses de l’énergie d’assertivité Rouge qui se déploie en Corail et non un malfaisant dieu humain. Je ne fais qu’entrer en résonance avec une intuition gravesienne qui fait cohérence aussi avec la nature de ses données et la cohérence de la philosophie qu’il a proposé pour rendre compte de son travail initial sur la nature processuelle de la personnalité humaine et des systèmes groupaux.

  3. Bernard Duclos says

    Up to me, it was easy for decades to sweep TURQUOISE/CORAL under the carpet:
    · Life Conditions were not clearly identified,
    · Too much GREEN in the Landscape,
    · Assessments were (and probably are) not available,
    Today with Covid, , a war in Europe, probably a long period of Stagflation, a new relation to work, emergence of Metaverse, Global warning…a window on these 2 vMEME must be open. Thanks XXX for your Brillant and pioneering work.

    Seems me that neither Putin nor Russia are facing a survival issue then I quite agree on this: “there is nothing to prevent Putin’s head running a RED/YELLOW vMEME harmonic. thus appearing RED but actually operated from a far more complex level of understanding.”

    Don’t Know what CORAL is, just feeling CORAL vMEME will master Chaos Don’t know if Putin will be in such a position. But in the meantime, a Global Community against this war is Emerging and that’s Clearly TURQUOISE.

    • Keith E Rice says

      Thanks, Bernard. That would be an interesting twist: CORAL creates the life conditions for the emergence of TURQUOISE…? Hardly strictly Gravesian emergence sequence. But we know so little about the 2nd Tier, maybe the 1st Tier emergence sequences don’t apply in the 2nd…?

      • Bernard Duclos says

        vMEME working a pairs ? or TURQUOISE exist for some time. CORAL will/is emrginging

  4. Bernard Duclos says

    Thanks a lot Keith Rice for this brillant article. Nice conjecture Will read again to come with comments.

    This Sentence : “Someone who claimed to think in CORAL once told me it was like “having the mind of God”.” Reminds me my last Physical discussion with Don. He wanted to visit Notre Dame in Paris then we had a long discussion about Teilhard de Chardin With this issue, the more Humans are near Omega (“Top” of the Spiral) the less they are Humans the more they are divine…

  5. Max Soldatenko says

    Making this suggestion means you have no understanding of SD whatsoever. Speculating about second tier requires second-tier thinking which you clearly do NOT possess. RED is RED, at its very worst, and if you doubt it, you’re welcome to join us here in Ukraine, sheltering from shellings and air raids, losing friends and relatives every day. He’s a deranged psychopath, and your arguments are incompetent, immature and full of wishful thinking. Pray for this world while you still can

    • Keith E Rice says

      Spoken with heart, Max. And you’re right: I have no understanding beyond looking at video and hearing testimony like yours what “sheltering from shellings and air raids, losing friends and relatives every day” is like. I have allowed that Putin might be mentally ill. That’s one explanation. I’ve offered another potential explanation that maybe – just maybe – he has accessed CORAL thinking. The suggestion was/is – just that: a suggestion. And I’m by no means saying Putin being able to access CORAL is a good thing. Putin may well yet bring to the rest of Europe what he is doing to Ukraine. I may be completely wrong in offering Putin being able to access CORAL as a potential explanation…but I do think it’s an explanation worth consideration. It will be to our advantage to understand our enemy.

  6. David Burnby says

    An interesting hypothesis Keith, but my instinct is that it gives Putin far too much credit. I have no understanding at all about so-called ‘Coral’ thinking and found your explanation

    “it must be remembered that Don Beck & Chris Cowan (1996) only added a CORAL level to Spiral Dynamics to reflect Clare W Graves’ belief that people would go on developing ever more complex ways of thinking to deal with ever more complex problems in living”

    very helpful in jogging my memory. I struggle to see how invading Ukraine reflects anything more than RED impetuousness and an ORANGE desire for greater power and influence. Seems to me he’s playing the nationalist card to build his support and status in Russia (as did Thatcher and Galtieri with the Falklands etc.;) and resurrect the status of the old USSR as a global super-power .

    His strategy is risky, and it appears increasingly poorly thought out. If we ever somehow manage to elevate our thinking to the stratospheric heights that CORAL proposes, it’s hard to believe that decisions involving war (of the currently understood definition) would ever figure as an option. War in itself only benefits a very tiny percentage of the population (the armaments industry for example) and despite Cooley’s idea that CORAL thinking will be “Brutalistic” I always fantasised that thinking at that level would be benevolent and evolve highly sophisticated ways of resolving conflict. I struggle with the idea that CORAL could be ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ – for me it would recognise the desirable and more sustainable qualities of ‘healthy’ thinking to society as a whole and have the capability of acting beyond self or even national interest. Otherwise, isn’t it just TURQUOISE (or RED on speed?)


    • Keith E Rice says

      Dave, it’s Putin’s ability to problem solve – Graves found YELLOW to have 4 x the problem-solving capability of GREEN. Plus, Putin’s understanding of human connectivity – exemplified IMHO by his manipulation of Obama – might hint at smidgeon of TURQUOISE…? Unfortunately, unless you subscribe to Buddhist concepts of Enlightenment, there is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that more complex thinking has to be more beneficent. I only wish it were the way you suggest it should be.