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Graves: Systems more than Stages

30 August 2020

Psychosexual stages – graphic copyright © 2019 Chiranjibi Behera

Historically Psychology is full of stage theories. From Sigmund Freud’s (1905) Psychosexual Stages, through Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages, Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, Abraham Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs, Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1958) Stages of Moral Development, Jane Loevinger’s (1976) Stages of Ego Development to Michael Commons et al’s (1998) Model of Hierarchical Complexity, etc, etc, etc. Sociology has a fair few stage theories too – such as Max Weber’s (1922) Social Action Theory and Theodore Adorno et al’s (1950) Types of Prejudiced & Unprejudiced Persons.

A stage is a period in development – often, but not always, related to age – in which people exhibit behaviour patterns and establish particular capacities typical to that particular stage. Most stage theories have people pass through the stages in a specific order, with each stage building on capacities developed in the previous stage. This suggests that the development of certain abilities in each stage, such as specific emotions or ways of thinking, have a definite starting and ending point – ie: the stages are discreet from each other

The pros and cons of stage theories
Stage theories allow us to look at motivations, emotions, cognitions and behaviours that seem to cluster together to define a stage. For the purposes of research, this is highly advantageous as it allows hypotheses to be generated and tested. Generally, being able to characterise a ‘stage’ allows people to type and predict motivations, emotions, cognitions and behaviours which makes for more orderly interactions. However, predicting people’s motivations, emotions, cognitions and behaviours can be a risky business – and the schemas we form about others and our interactions with them aren’t always right. If it such predictions were more accurate, we would have a much more orderly society. So, the concept of stages might have face validity – ie: it seems to make sense – but does not always have ecological validity – ie: it’s not always true to real life.

Stage theories enable us to map development but they tend not to recognise context – ie: the ‘life conditions’ as Clare W Graves (1970) called them.  (Loevinger called them ‘pacers’ and they made up the pull element of Kohlberg’s (1963) ‘push & pull’ approach.) Stage theories usually fail to address the fact that someone can have a certain set of motivations, emotions, cognitions and behaviours in one context and a very different set in another context.

 Fiona White David Livesey & Brett Hayes (2005) and Bert Hayslip et al (2006) have queried whether stage theories rest on the assumption that development is a discontinuous process and can be contrasted with continuous theories which posit that development is an incremental process. Such views, however, may be an oversimplification, implying that development plateaus once someone has reached a stage. Clearly, from the graphic below of Piaget’s stages, there is incremental development within stages.

Piaget’s stages – graphic copyright © 2013 Kelvin Seifert

However, there is still the question of definite starting and ending points of a stage. How does someone know if they or someone else has moved from one stage to another? While stage theories tend to have fulsome descriptions of the central or nodal characteristics of a stage, few describe the transition from one stage to another. Steve Duck’s (1982) model of relationship breakdown is one of the few stage theories to attempt clear thresholds between the stages.

Then there is the question of emergence. Does someone always go through the stages in the same hierarchical order? While Kohlberg (Kohlberg, 1969; Lawrence Kohlberg & Anne Colby, 1987) found no variations in order of ascendance in cross-cultural studies, Maslow (1970) came to doubt whether everyone in every circumstance had to go through his levels in exactly the same way and Loevinger conceded that that other researchers found similar stages but sometimes in a slightly different order. Interestingly Graves never gave any indication that there could be flexibility in the order of emergence of vMEMES but Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck (2000a; 2002a) has queried whether some people might ascend the Spiral with more of a preference for the cool or the warm-coloured systems.

Graves is more than a stage theory
Although the stage theories offer great insight into various aspects of human thought and behaviour – and several are highly complementary to the Graves Model, providing potent additional information – they all lack the comprehensiveness and/or the sheer dynamism of Graves’ vMEME systems – and, thus, are weak in explanatory power.

Graves (1971/2002, p55) talks, not of stages but of ‘hierarchically ordered dynamic neurological systems’. Using his (pre-colour) original letter pairs, he says: “When man has solved the problems in the A condition, there ought be identifiable in the brain of man the O system which man operates under when he is trying to solve the B problems. And there should be in the brain the P system which somehow or another takes over and organises the behaviour of the organism after he has solved the B problems and is dealing with the C problem of existence.”

From his writings, it is clear that Graves prefers the term ‘level’ to ‘stage’. In his lexicon, a level of existence is achieved when the pertinent vMEME system is triggered to deal with the current life conditions. However, it is equally possible for an inappropriate system to be dominant when dealing with the life conditions. Thus, a student dominated by P RED thinking in a school classroom full of D BLUE rules – which is at the core of many problems in secondary schools, as discussed in A Downward Spiral…

Because Graves posits systems rather than stages, this creates 3 avenues of explanation stage theories can’t truly deal with:-

  1.  Multiple motivations at the same time – the vMEME harmonic in which 2 or more vMEMES collaborate to deal with the current life conditions. An example might be protesters on a demonstrator for human rights (a GREEN cause) having fun by goading the police (RED).
    Of course, vMEMES may be in conflict, with very different competing motivations – eg: RED wanting to indulge itself for pleasure while BLUE wants to sacrifice pleasure to do ‘the right thing’. Freud (1923b) had some of this with his Id vs Superego conflicts creating mental distress.
  2. Differing motivations in different contexts – the concept of the vMEME stack doesn’t just allow for different motivations in different contexts but also the strength of each active vMEME system in that context.
  3. Less complex needs don’t go away as someone achieves a higher level with more complex vMEME systems dominating. As the ‘Spiral Balloon’ shows, less complex systems continue to have needs and work to meet them even when someone’s consciousness is at a higher level. Thus someone’s T YELLOW could be operating in a highly complex abstracted discussion (G life condition) but when the A internal environment registers hunger, the N BEIGE system will start to make itself felt to make the individual think about food.

‘Spiral Balloon’ – copyright © 1996 NVC Inc

While stage theories are often very valuable and can help us map development, to truly understand human motivation it is necessary to see it as the workings of dynamic systems. Levels or stages only exist when the dominant vMEME or vMEME stack is appropriate for the life conditions. Such a level may be long lasting – it can even seem like someone is stuck in a stage – or they may be highly transitory as the life conditions change.

Gravesian theory requires us to see ourselves as having internal mental motivational systems with needs which interact with the life conditions, internal and external. It is a stage theory of sorts – in that it acknowledges the need for levels – but it is far more than a stage theory.


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