Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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The Process of Change

Updated: 5 April 2019

A French translation of this article by Luc Taesch is available at

What is it leads us to change? Do we just suddenly wake up one morning and decide to change? Do we change because we want to or because we have to?

Don Beck & Chris Cowan (1996), co-developers of Spiral Dynamics, identified 7 factors which are part of the change process. Beck (2009) later identified another 3 factors; and this article will use Beck’s 10 factors to set a broad frame for understanding change and how and why it takes place.

1. Potential
The individual – or, for that matter, the organisation – has to have the capability to change. Beck & Cowan, from the seminal work of Clare W Graves, identified that someone could be in one of 3 states:-

  • Open to the possibilities of change – they are ready for something new. The Open state is often characterised by the acceptance that change is inevitable and a relatively non-judgemental tolerance of differences.
  • Arrested – caught up so much in their present way of thinking and being that change – without the introduction of dissonance – simply will not occur. This is particularly so if the way of thinking the dominant vMEME  suits the individual’s temperamental mix.  I call this a centre of gravity – eg: a Phlegmatic individual is kept safe and secure by PURPLE; or RED’s need for excitement is fuelled by the impulsivity of Psychoticism. Organisations can get trapped in an Arrested state when there are not the resources (people, finance) to enable change. The Arrested state can be changed; but it will often require considerable intervention into whatever life conditions are facilitating the person or organisation staying in the Arrested state. If some dissonance is introduced but not enough to bring about a major change in thinking, then some degree of 1st Order Change may be possible.
  • Closed to change, with serious ‘blockages’. The ‘blockages’ could be emotional – some excruciating trauma quite possibly repressed – or physiological – eg: neural damage in the brain or out-of-control hormone and/or neurotransmitter fluctuations. Closed thinking is often characterised by inappropriateness and an inability to adapt to changing life conditions, the unwillingness to accept any other viewpoint and over-the-top reactions to frustration.

2. Current problems resolved
Beck & Cowan state, that for change to new ways of thinking to take place to resolve a new problem, the existing problem set facing the person or organisation needs to be resolved. In other words, for a new vMEME to emerge and exert its influence on the selfplex, the vMEME currently dominant in the vMEME stack has to have done its job in terms of those life conditions it was emerged to deal with. This principle of needing to deal with current problems before being able to tackle new and more complex problems was first articulated by Abraham Maslow with the original Hierarchy of Needs (1943). However, Graves (1970) and Beck & Cowan emphasise the importance of context. Clearly we can deal with multiple problems of different complexity provided they are in different contexts.

The idea that you have to resolve the current problem set in one context before being free to engage fully with a further problem set is reflected in Fritz & Laura Perls’ Gestalt Cycle – documented by Fritz Perls, Ralph Hefferline & Paul Goodman (1951). Only when the current problem set is resolved, are your senses free to withdraw from that issue and take on further issues. In Maslowian terms…if you are starving to the point where you are distressed, the quality of friendships available to you will matter little until your hunger is abated.

Gestalt Cycle

Graphic adopted from a format by Christopher Cooke

3. Dissonance
There has to be dissatisfaction with the present mode of existence. That dissatisfaction could be of the negative type – ie: you’re under threat and you will suffer if you don’t change – triggering a Move Away From meta-programme. Or the dissatisfaction could be of the more positive type – ie: you’re made aware of something that appeals to you sufficiently for you to change to get it, triggering a Move Towards meta-programme.

To take the issue of dissonance from the start, let’s work with concepts from Richard Atkinson & Richard Shifrin’s (1968) Multi-Store Model of Memory.

Through our 5 senses information hits the sensory memory stores at a phenomenal rate. This data is lost almost immediately unless we pay attention to it – which causes it to enter short-term or working memory (consciousness). (The Multi-Store Model is discussed further in the NLP+ Communication Model.)

In terms of the Gestalt Cycle, Perls states that we are programmed to notice difference more than sameness. From an Evolutionary perspective, it would be adaptive to pay attention more to something different than something familiar – in case that ‘something different’ is either a threat or a desirable opportunity. So the data in the sensory memory stores is paid attention to and enters consciousness more if it is different. Thus, Sensation becomes Awareness.

Graphic copyright © 2016 Target Health Inc

Graphic copyright © 2016 Target Health Inc

The entering of consciousness affects us both physiologically and cognitively. Awareness creates a Mobilisation of Energy, leading to Excitement. Biologically, as the sensory relay station of the thalamus has a neurological ‘hot wire’ to the amygdala, perception of either threat or something desirable will produce some degree of stress reaction, resulting in arousal of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Thus, we experience ‘fear’ or ‘excitement’, perhaps accompanied by a faster heartbeat, more agitated breathing, greater muscle tension and feelings of ‘nerves’, etc. As the limbic system has a much faster reaction than the evaluative circuits of the frontal cortex, if the amygdala’s reaction to the data entering consciousness is extreme, then there may well be physiological reaction – eg: running or fighting – way ahead of the cognitive evaluation being completed.

Richard Lazarus (1976) is just one psychologist who has looked at the cognitive aspects of the stress reaction from a transactional point of view, with 2 factors:-

  1. How great is the threat or opportunity?
  2. How capable am I of dealing with the threat or seizing the opportunity?

How great the stress reaction is, according to Lazarus, will depend on the balance between these 2 factors.

Going back to the Gestalt Cycle, Lazarus’ evaluative measures bring us to the Cycle’s 2 mains stress points:-

  1. Do I know what to do? (Can I take Action?)
  2. Knowing what to do, am I able to do it? (Can I make Contact with the issue?)

Sticking at either point will result in more dissonance and, therefore, more stress.

And if there is no dissonance…?

In his Logical Levels of Learning model, Gregory Bateson (1972) identifies that at Level 0 there is no learning. The existing response is sufficient in the context. In other words, there is no dissonance to bring about change. So nothing is learned. There is no dissonance involved with the task to produce the stress that induces learning.

An example of this might be driving the same way to work at the same time each day or taking a repeat order from an established customer. Unless something goes wrong, you can pretty much do this kind of thing on ‘automatic pilot’.

One of the reasons people tend to make mistakes on routine tasks is that, because it is mere repetition, there is too low a level of physiological arousal.

The role of dissonance is vital to change. Beck & Cowan refer to this dissonance as the Beta State in the Spiral Dynamics model of change, having moved from the ‘comfort zone’ of the Alpha State.

SD Change

4. Insight
If insight into causes of the problem and what to do is/becomes available, then change is possible. To change requires learning.

If change is possible within the existing paradigm – Bateson calls this Learning Level 1 – and it leads, according to Beck & Cowan, to 1st Order Change. Beck identifies 3 basic types of 1st Order Change:-

  • Fine Tune – tighten things up – eg: if goods inward test sampling lets in an unacceptable number of defective supplies, increase the sampling rate.
  • Reform – find a different way of doing what you’re doing, to see if that is more effective.
  • Upgrade – improve your means of doing things with better resources.

In many instances 1st Order Change will be enough to resolve the dissonance, taking you from Beta into the New Alpha.

Failure of 1st Order Change means there needs to be a paradigm shift. Typically this involves going up or down the Spiral in terms of which vMEME dominates in the vMEME stack. More often than not, first try is lower down. For example, when the police fail to impose order – thus, failing BLUE’s needs – RED will get stronger to compensate and take the law into its own hands. (See: When BLUE fails, call for Clint!)

When going down doesn’t work because the situation is too complex for it, then going up the Spiral is the way to go. Beck & Cowan call this ‘Upshift’.

2nd Order Change may involve ‘stretching down’ or ‘stretching up’ to use the language and behaviours of the vMEME which is not usually dominating the selfplex in that context. Sufficient stretching up or down to use the language of and behaviour of another vMEME can result in settling into that vMEME’s way of thinking and behaving so that it becomes dominant in the vMEME stack.

This is Bateson Level 2 learning – challenging mindsets – which produces 2nd Order Evolution.

If someone experiences stress as a result of dissonance but cannot see how to respond satisfactorily in the situation – the first of Perls’ sticking points – then that stress will become acute. This, according to Beck & Cowan, is the Gamma Trap.

This is a horrible state to be in and can lead to Clinical Depression, psychoses and complete mental breakdown – with even the risk of suicide. At an organisational level, this can lead to dysfunctionality and failure – even terminating in liquidation.

No one yet understands yet quite how it happens but sometimes the sheer stress of the Gamma Trap will cause people to change dramatically and access vMEMES that weren’t previously available in their stack. It’s almost as if dormant neural circuitry were switched on suddenly! (An example of epigenetic modification?) All of a sudden, you can see how to do it – the insight is there and you can ‘Break Out’ in a ‘Delta Surge’ (Beck & Cowan) to go to the New Alpha. Bateson calls this kind of learning Level 3 and acknowledges that the change in thinking may be unlanguageable… mystical in nature, even. Beck & Cowan term the results 2nd Order Revolution. In some cases the change may be so violent that a person could access 2 or more new vMEMES at once – ie: a ‘Quantum Leap’. (There is some disagreement here between Beck (2000a) and Cowan (2000), with Cowan’s position being that the multiple vMEMES are not actually accessed simultaneously but in very rapid succession.)


Bateson Learning Levels mapped to the Gravesian approach

5. Insertion of energy
In talking of the need for energy to power up people, systems and resources for change, Beck (2009) is reflecting what Fritz & Laura Perls (1951) identified in the Gestalt Cycle, in that attention to difference Mobilises Energy to create the Excitement necessary to power people – either as individuals or as an organisation – into the Action necessary to bring about change.

Certainly huge amounts of energy are necessary to break out into 2nd Order Revolution.

6. Mapping change: from What to What?
In her speech to the Democratic Party National Convention in July 1992 Congresswoman Barbara Jordan raised the big question: “Change: from what to what?” Don Beck caught this and has used it since to query those who are perhaps too enthusiastic for change, not being exactly sure of either the present state or the desired state. In a sense, the 6th factor is a corollary to the 2nd. But it is particularly important for those who are supporting and facilitating change, whether at an individual or organisational level.

The Present State-Desired State Planning schematic, a form of gap analysis shown below, was popularised by Robert Dilts (1983). It can prove an invaluable tool for those facilitating change. First the present state (good and problematic) is outlined. Then the desired state is developed. Looking back from the desired state, milestones on the journey to it from the present state are determined and internal changes required and external resources needed identified.

7. Leverage Tipping
What are the defining moments, the leverage points that finally make change inevitable? They will be different for different people in different contexts – but, once the point is passed, change of some kind is inevitable. The 7th factor relates to the 3rd. How bad does the dissonance have before it can no longer be sustained and the person or persons submit to the inevitability of change…? All too often people recognise intellectually the need for change but cannot get to grips with it emotionally until the dissonance reaches the tipping point.

(My case study, ‘Susan’, tells the story of a lady who came to me for therapy but who took several months to build up enough dissonance to reach a tipping point for change.)

8. Removal of Barriers to Change
Of course, knowing what to do and actually being able to do it, bring us to the second of Perls’ sticking points on the Gestalt Cycle. If you know what to do but you can’t do it …what sort of stress can that create? Perhaps even a return to the Gamma Trap!

So it may be that to effect the change, you need to acquire resources or new skills and/or knowledge – or you need the help of others. Alternatively, getting rid of barriers may mean physically removing them – like a smoker, who has decided to give up, throwing away their remaining cigarettes. So it may be that you need more insight into how to get these things to facilitate the change to be made – and/or you need to decide which things – sometimes which people! – need to be removed from your life.

9. Consolidation
A much parroted saying is: “Old habits die hard!” – and all too often they do…. While new insights may exist, with the mental capacity and determination to put them into action, old associations will still lurk just below the surface in many cases. These old schemas need to be challenged assertively and either destroyed or changed. It can be hard work retraining your brain to think in new ways.

In part at least, this is because new neural circuits lack myelination – a fatty sheath around the axons (tails) of the neurons) whereas older, more used circuits may be heavily myelinated. As commentators such as Daniel Hartline (2008) have concluded, the myelin accelerates the action potential (charge) of the neuron, making the charge travel much faster. In very frequently-used circuits, the myelin sheaths may have nodes of ranvier cut into them. These enable the charge to jump from node to node (salutatory conduction), making the travel almost instant.

Graphic copyright © 2009 Pearson Education Inc

Graphic copyright © 2009 Pearson Education Inc

If we again use the example of someone giving up smoking cigarettes. The new ‘non-smoker’ identity (barely myelinated circuits) will conduct that much slower than the old and unwanted ‘smoker’ identity (heavily myelinated with nodes). Thus, the non-smoker could go into a smoky room, be offered a cigarette and find it lit between their lips before they have time to think: “Hang on, I don’t do this any more!” 

Thus, during the consolidation phase, it is critical that people are patient with themselves…. Because you’ve changed at the core, you know that you see yourself differently, with different values and beliefs. Unwelcome thoughts and behaviour from the past are simply left-overs that must be got rid of. To use a gardening analogy, like a weed with its roots removed but the stem still in the ground, the stem will put down new roots unless it is taken out too.

Fortunately therapies like NLP and CBT offer a number of ways of challenging old ways of thinking. These range from meta-modelling (cognitive dissection of your thinking) to timelining (walking your timeline, restructuring your beliefs as you go) to affirmations (regular and rhythmical talking to yourself in positive terms).

Of course, temperament is a sub-cognitive factor and temperamental dispositions in change require some slightly different, Behavioural techniques. Reward yourself well for the thoughts and behaviours you want to have. (Do not punish yourself for slips in thought and/or behaviour – you will undermine your self-efficacy. Besides which, pioneering psychologists from Edward Thorndike (1932) to B F Skinner (1938) to Graves himself (1978/2005) were all of the view that punishment is usually ineffective as a stimulus to positive change.)

In the consolidation phase, it is also important to take into account other people’s reactions to the changes in you. If those changes are perceived by others to disadvantage them, you may well find new barriers to change being erected and that having a negative effect on you (Reciprocal Determnism). (I remember clearly being so energised by my first major exposures to Spiral Dynamics that my enthusiasm for generating new business was simply overwhelming for one of my colleagues who began to delete my emails without even opening them!)

Once the change is embedded , then the new thinking and behaviour will be second nature to you and most likely accepted by others.

10. Anticipation of New Problems
As both Perls and Beck & Cowan (1996) state, once the crisis is over, then your system is ready for the next challenge. It’s all too natural, after the trauma of change, to want to enjoy the comfort zone of the New Alpha. However, it’s important to avoid becoming complacent; new problems are always just around the corner. All too often the New Alpha itself is part of the next problem – as the old axiom has it, today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems!


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