Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Is Racism Natural..?

Updated: 9 November 2015

In my past as a part-time teacher, teaching psychological and sociological approaches to prejudice & discrimination, every year I found myself confronted with this question from one or more of my A-Level students.

With posters on some Internet discussion forums making statements like: “I think they [British National Party, Britain First, etc] is only saying what most people think but are too afraid to say” , it seems appropriate to me to revisit the students’ question from an Integrated SocioPsychology perspective.

It was explaining Henri Tajfel & John Turner’s Social Identity Theory (1979) in relation to the formation of in-groups and out-groups that usually triggered the student’s question as to whether racism is natural. In essence, Tajfel & Turner say that, simply by identifying yourself with one group as opposed to another, your group becomes the in-group and the other becomes the out-group.

According to Tajfel & Turner, this basic act of social categorisation – one group has one identity label and the other group has a different identity label – is enough to bring about prejudice and discrimination. Because we invest something of our self in the groups to which we belong, we need our in-groups to be at least equal to and preferably superior to the out-groups (social comparison) for the sake of the self-esteem we have invested in our membership of our group. Even if our own group is deficient in some respects, there must be some ways in which we can demonstrate superiority over the out-group(s). Thus, for example, some of the worst violence amongst football fans takes place when the fans of a team in a lower division attack those following a team in a higher one. It’s almost as if, because their team is not superior on the field, they can at least try to be superior in a fight.

Tajfel & Turner’s ideas have been used to explain all manner of conflict. They help to understand:-

  • (obviously) violence amongst rival groups of football fans – eg: 2009’s murderous clash between Millwall vs West Ham
  • the lingering traces of hostility between Yorkshire and Lancashire more than 500 years after the Wars of the Rose
  • the easily-triggered antipathy between the English and the Scottish
  • in part, at least, the ‘Little Englander’ opposition to the ‘European project’
  • in part, at least, the resentment of northerners towards southerners
  • in part, at least, the antipathy of Catholics and Protestants towards each other and similar hostility between Shi’ites and Sunnis

and, of course

  • white skin vs black skin

How much our sense of identity is tied into the labels our groups have can perhaps best be illustrated by the fact that anyone with the name of Singh is usually assumed to be an Indian Sikh whereas someone with the name of Khan will be a Pakistani Muslim. Such labels are used to identify members of your in-groups and those who are in the out-groups.

Tajfel & Turner’s observations of the effects of identifying with a group and categorising yourself as part of that group have been supported by many other psychological and sociological studies. Sense of identity and the need to identify with a group are the critical elements in in-group and out-group structure. So it seems we have a need to categorise ourselves into groups and to adhere to the norms and values of the group (social identification). Thus, if the values and norms of the group include racism, the members of the group are likely to reflect that in their own avowed beliefs. Even when we may not be comfortable with some of the group’s beliefs, the need to belong can be so strong that we show compliance to the group and act as if we do. By adopting the norms and values of the group, we show normative influence.

Explaining the need to belong
What Tajfel & Turner’s model doesn’t do, however, is tell us why we have this need to belong to groups.

For that we have to turn to the work of Abraham Maslow and Clare W Graves. Maslow, in his famous Hierarchy of Needs (1943, 1970, 1971) – listed Belonging as the most basic need after Survival and Shelter. We display this need to Belong in the way we talk about ‘our family’, ‘our team’, ‘my mother’, ‘my father’s son’, ‘my wife’, ‘my wife’s husband’, ‘my cat’s owner’, ‘my employer’, ‘my employer’s employee’, etc, etc…these are all terms describing relationships in terms of belonging to someone or something…or of  them belonging to us. When I used to ask my students who they belonged to, they almost always said “No one!” – accompanied often with  the dismissive arrogance of 17-year-olds! However, once I started describing myself as “my father’s son…my wife’s husband…my stepdaughter’s stepfather…my cat’s ‘daddy’…your teacher because, in this respect at least, I belong to you”, they usually began to get it.

So, if at a pretty basic level we define ourselves in terms of who we belong to and who belongs to us, then clearly Belonging is fundamental to our sense of identity. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Maslow saw Belonging as a foundation for Esteem. An illustration of how critical Belonging is for Esteem is illustrated in the fact that many people go through a period of at least mild Depression, with accompanying feelings of worthlessness, when a relationship ends. That is, of course, unless they have someone else to move on to – ie: a new Belonging which often boosts self-esteem.

So, if Belonging, including self-dentification, is a foundation for Esteem, that explains the need to join with others – eg: groups – and the fact our self-esteem is then tied in to the success of the group.

Of course, not everyone commits to belong to someone. Clearly hermits prefer to live on their own! However, the numbers of such people in relation to the general population are very small indeed. Not everybody needs to belong to quite the same degree. People high in the temperamental dimension of Intraversion and those already high in self-esteem are less likely to need the social acceptance that comes from belonging to a group.

Graves (1978/2005), a correspondent of Maslow’s, took his ideas further through some 25+ years of painstaking research. Graves came to see Maslow’s ‘needs’ as being driven by motivational systems or coping systems responding to the ‘life conditions’ someone is experiencing. In the Spiral Dynamics construct (1996) developed by Don Beck & Chris Cowan from Graves’ work, these motivational systems are termed vMEMES and colour-coded.

Graves’ research led him to collapse Maslow’s second and third levels into one. This, in Spiral Dynamics, is the PURPLE vMEME which seeks safety in belonging. Thus, it is the need for safety which drives us to belong and to find acceptance from those we wish to belong with.

As Tajfel & Turner observed, when we identify ourselves with an in-group, we absorb their norms and values so that we become ‘like them’.

The ‘tribalism’ Desmond Morris (1977) famously wrote about is the result of this seeking safety in belonging. Effectively the PURPLE vMEME motivates us to seek and belong with those who are like us in some way so that we – banded together as a tribe, the in-group – can stand together against the out-groups. Whether as true Amazon jungle-type tribes or close families or gangs of football fans, tribalism is fundamental to all groupings of human beings. And, once you identify with a group, it very easily becomes our tribe vs your tribe.

Thus, to distinguish between your tribe and another tribe by whatever means, including colour of skin, religion or any other marker of difference is natural when the PURPLE vMEME is dominating the selfplex. You might call a particular form of demarcation – ie: by colour of skin – ‘racism’ and declare it illegal but the fact is that it is natural to differentiate your tribe from others. Racism per se is not the problem; it is the need to differentiate between who you belong to and who you don’t.

Paul Shaw & Yuwa Wong (1989)  propose that the mechanisms that promote suspicion and fear of those not-of-our-tribe would have been favoured by the processes of natural selectionDavid Sloan Wilson (1975) explains that such fears and suspicions would be adaptive as they would enable ‘our tribe’ to avoid or at least defend themselves from attack by the strangers’ tribe. Wilson writes that xenophobia has been documented in “virtually every group of animals displaying higher forms of social organisation”. If we work from an Evolutionary Psychology angle, then it is clear that PURPLE’ s drive to find safety-in-belonging is underpinned by BEIGE’s survival motif.

The biological workings of this suspicion and/or fear of difference have been demonstrated on a number of occasions in recent years – most notably by William Cunningham et al (2004). Through the use of fMRI scans, they found increased activity in the amygdala when white Americans went from seeing photos of white American faces to photos of black American faces. The amygdala can be loosely described as the emotional centre of the brain and is particularly tuned to sense threat. Hence, it seems our biology is adapted to see difference as threatening.

If differentiation is adaptive and natural – and sometimes manifested as racism – the challenge then is to find ways of managing the demarcation between the tribes in ways which benefit society as a whole and meet the needs of all as far as possible. That there is a distinct possibility of mediating this differentiation comes from the work of Elizabeth Phelps et al (2000) who found that elevated amygdala activity was significantly greater in whites viewing photos of black faces if they already held negative attitudes towards blacks. In other words, while there may be natural drivers to differentiate racially (tribally), there are cognitive and social factors influencing the degree of differentiation. Memes about ‘others’ become schemas and mediate (increase or decrease) the adaptive response of fear produced by that differentiation.

And this is the kind of answer I gave to my A-Level classes…who seemed to understand exactly what I was saying.

Why then the fuss about racism?
So why isn’t it obvious to everyone that it’s not really racism but tribalism that is the problem?

Here we have to look at the Gravesian sixth vMEME, GREEN – the Aesthetic level in Maslow’s (revised 1970; 1971) Hierarchy.

GREEN is the great equaliser. Its way of thinking is to see the worth of everybody and to treat them as equal. Historically, there was a great explosion of GREEN thinking in the 1960s – at its zenith in the hippie movements. Feminism, support for disabled people, equality for gay men and lesbians and, of course, anti-racism are all products of the GREEN way of thinking. The very concept of social comparison – my tribe is better than yours – is anathema to GREEN.

GREEN is a much more complex way of thinking than PURPLE; but, in its enthusiasm for egalitarianism, it tends to ride roughshod over PURPLE’s concerns for tribal safety. While it’s something of a rough and ready measure, this helps to explain why the intellectualised leaders of the Labour Party, often driven by GREEN in their thinking in these things, have so often been out of touch culturally with the PURPLE tribalism of a great many of the (traditional white) working class they ostensibly represent when it comes to the issue of race.

Thus, GREEN uses the BLUE vMEME to enforce its egalitarian ethos via legislation in as many areas of discrimination as it can. (Thank goodness that way of thinking is at last tackling ageism!)

Thus, GREEN’s values don’t allow it to see the tribal concerns: quite simply everyone is equal – whatever your colour, creed or nationality and we should all help each other to get the best out of life. Yet these values are simply mysterious and unfathomable to the less complex PURPLE way of thinking.

Racism, like homophobia, simply cannot be countenanced by GREEN’s egalitarian way of thinking; yet both racism and homophobia are endemic in many working class communities where PURPLE thinking tends to dominate. Quite simply: they’re not like us so they can’t be part of our tribe. Often the more deprived the community, the more extreme the racism and/or homophobia.

GREEN is determined to stamp out racism (and homophobia) because both state that people are not equal. (My tribe is superior to yours.) Yet it is fighting something which is natural at the PURPLE level of thinking.

Tribalism and competition
One of the ways Graves improved upon Maslow’s model was to link the emergence of the motivating systems (vMEMES) to the ‘life conditions’ being experienced – either internally as in your biology or what is happening in your external environment. Graves originally used letter pairs to denote the life conditions (A-M) being matched by the motivating system (N-Z) for psychological health.

So what happens when the life conditions become adverse to the tribe? How does that affect the functioning of the motivating systems? Muzafer Sherif et al’s Robber’s Cave study (1954/1961), in which 2 ‘tribes’ of young boys were artificially created by categorisation and identification – ‘Rattlers’ vs ‘Eagles – and then set against each other in competition, is probably the most infamous psychological study to look at such effects. When placed in competition for real resources, the already-nascent and marginally violent hostility between the 2 groups increased significantly. (William Golding reputedly took his inspiration for his acclaimed 1954 novel ‘LORD OF THE FLIES’ from Sherif.)

It was from Robber’s Cave that Sherif developed Realistic Conflict Theory – though Donald Campbell (1965) was the first one to use that term for the theory

When tribes are set against each other in competition, for resources especially, then you can reasonably expect the in-group/out-group effect to magnify. As the life conditions become more difficult, the threat to the welfare of the tribe consolidates the tribe’s sense of singular identity and hostility towards other competing tribes. Marilyn Brewer & Donald Campbell (1976), in their famous study of East African tribes, demonstrated clearly a strong positive correlation between the degree of competition for vital resources and the level of prejudice and discrimination experienced – eg: the closer another tribe was to a waterhole on which your tribe depended, the more animosity your tribe felt towards the other one.

PURPLE-driven tensions and frustrations, produced by threatening the safety of the tribe, are about as low on the Spiral and as fundamental as you can get!

One critical issue that has bedevilled efforts at regeneration and developing healthy communities ifrom the latter half of the 20th Century on is that policy-makers designed ‘solutions’ based on their values – often related to the BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN vMEMES – rather than those of the people the ‘solutions’ were meant for, particularly where the ‘problems’ were on large council estates or in inner city ghettos. While one must always be wary of generalisations, it is relatively safe to say PURPLE and RED tend to dominate in traditional white working class and ‘closed’ ethnic minority communities far more than BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN. Thus, the ‘solutions’, designed from a different value set, have tended to have little appeal to the people they were supposedly designed for. Thus, successive governments have poured huge amounts of money into community regeneration and cross-community integration efforts that made little difference.

These failures were mostly due to a values mismatch between what’s important to PURPLE and RED and what’s important to BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN.

A simple illustration of the complexity of these mismatches, highly relevant to this discussion, is that it’s the nature of PURPLE to believe ‘village gossip’ rather than official bulletins. Thus, the Government can put out all the information it wants about fair distribution of resources; but, if ‘Alf’ at the pub says “the Pakis get more benefits than us whites”, it will be Alf who is believed rather than the Government. In the same way many in the poorer/less-educated Muslim communities will believe the radical imam ranting about ‘institutional Islamophobia’ rather than the Equality & Human Rights Commission reports on success in tackling racism.

Managing Tribal Competition
To be sure of avoiding significant racially-motivated clashes, policy-makers need to adopt MeshWORK approaches, preferably using the 4Q/8L framework created by Don Beck (2000b, 2002b)  from the work of Ken Wilber. This will enable them to look at the health of each vMEME at a cultural level (Bottom Left) in a given locale as well as considering the impact of key individuals (Top Left). This analysis will enable policy-makers to prioritise appropriate resources (Bottom Right) to tackle vMEMETIC issues. A Maslowian principle, reflected in the Gravesian approach, is that, when lower levels get into trouble, attention needs to switch from the higher levels to resolve the lower level issues – and the lower down the Hierarchy/Spiral the more fundamental the needs are and the more troublesome the problems will be.

Thankfully, the Robber’s Cave study shows us a way forward in managing tribalism. Sherif et al cooled tensions and minimised conflict between the ‘Eagles’ and the ‘Rattlers’ by giving them challenges of such a critical nature and in such a way that the two groups came to realise that only by working together could they overcome the challenges. This idea has been developed by Samuel Gaertner et al  in their Common In-Group Identity Model (1993). Gaertner et al’s proposal is that, by creating a common threat, it is possible to bring together competing identities. Eg: gangs of Liverpool and Manchester United fans, who would normally battle each other on the slightest perceived provocation, will roar their support together as ‘Englishmen’ when England play Scotland.

Of course, any attempt to create a ‘common identity’ will need to be carefully managed and the memes developed which facilitate the concept of working together as the best – or, even, only – way of overcoming the challenges faced by all the relevant tribes. One way of doing this could be for, say, a local authority to convene a ‘gathering of the tribes’ on its patch, where representatives (‘elders’) of each tribe come together to discuss common problems, share ideas and formulate ways of working together. What would it do for community relations if representatives of a white working class community were able to openly ‘borrow’ successful tactics from a Pakistani group and a Bangladeshi group used ideas given them by Poles…?

The fundamental principle for any such gathering would, of course, need to be the recognition and acceptance of difference between the tribes…. It has to be OK for one tribe to have brown skin and a tradition for their women to wear the hijab headscarf…just as it has to be OK for the men of another tribe to drink large quantities of beer and display a preference for crude tattoos such as ‘Mum’.

Interestingly recent research by Eva Telzer et al (2012) al has shown that amygdala activity decreases in proportion to the amount of peer diversity one experiences. See the fMRI scan below which shows the fear reaction of whites to black (African-American) faces having a negative correlation to the amount of racial/ethnic diversity amongst their peers. In other words, experience of other races, cultures and ethnic groups tends to reduce fear of them.

One of the graphs from the Telzer et al study - copyright © 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

One of the graphs from the Telzer et al study – copyright © 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A personal annecdote: in September 2009 I had an in-depth discussion with Carolyn Wilkins, Assistant Chief Executive of Oldham Council. At the time Oldham, like so many towns and cities in the old  manufacturing North of England, was struggling with racial/ethnic tensions exacerbated by the recession. Yet, according to Wilkins, where whites and Asians were forced by simple demographics to live as neighbours ‘cheek by jowl’, that was where there was markedly the least tension. In other words, the tribes, via proximity, had become familiar with each other and that had dispelled much of the fear.

This is an application of Contact Theory, developed separately by the sociologist Robin M Williams (1947)and the psychologist Gordon Allport (1954).  This says that the more contact people have with outgroups, the more their prejudices will be reduced. This is called the ‘reconceptualization of group categories’. Miles Hewstone (reported by BBC News’ David Edmonds, 2015) describes a Contact initiative begun in 2010: “They took two pre-existing schools, Breeze Hill and Counthill, one of which was almost entirely white British, the other was almost entirely Asian British, and said, ‘We’ll take this pint of milk, we’ll take this pint of Guinness and we’ll pour them into a new quart pot [Waterhead Academy].’ What is interesting is that the data are going the way we would have hoped – slowly but gradually. There is an indication that the social networks of the Asian students and the white British students are becoming more mixed.”

Thus, it seems that exposure to difference in a safe manner – ie: meeting the neighbours who have some different customs to you – eg: having Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan as the primary festival rather than Christmas – but then realising you share many key values – eg: having good education for your kids – lessens fear of relative difference. Fred MacDonald (1992) argues exaggerating negative stereotypes about out-groups is adaptive because the overperception of threat is less costly than underperception – so the overperception needs to be reduced by a more accurate perception of the ‘others’.

A focus on difference, as described by MacDonald, seems to lock PURPLE into a xenophobic malaise; acknowledging minor differences in a context of majorly-shared values appears to liberate PURPLE to fulfill its basic needs and allow development up the Spiral.

We aren’t all the same!

Reducing racism
GREEN’s conceit that there aren’t differences really and that we are all the same needs to be replaced with increasing acceptance of diversity. And, while clearly, aggressive discrimination against another tribe has to be deterred, it also has to be accepted that one tribe will tend to be prejudiced against another unless the overperception of threat that comes from ignorance of the other tribe is reduced through familiarity.

Very close proximity and working together for the common good are ways of reducing the overperception. So, is education, both formal and informal. The memes children are exposed to have a major influence on PURPLE’s response to ‘other’s as characterised by amygdala activity. Another interesting finding from the Telzer et al study is that white children only start to develop increased amygdala activity when presented with black faces at around 14. While racial awareness and preferences have been found in children as young as preschoolers by the likes of Beth Kurtz-Costes et al (2011), it would appear from Telzer et al’s sample, that differentiation may not be a fear issue until puberty. So there is a real opportunity to work with younger children and limit the tendency to fear differentiation.

This means policy-makers accepting the unpalatable truth that racism (as a manifestation of tribalism) is natural to PURPLE thinking. Legislation may drive it underground and education may help some people move on to more complex ways of thinking…but, basically, prejudice against those ‘not of our tribe’ is fundamental to our belonging to our tribe (in-group) unless we have reason for it not to be. Else Frenkel-Brunswik (1951, p406) notes: “Some of the trends which are connected with ethnocentrism are thus natural stages of development which have to be overcome if maturity is to be reached.” The essential Maslowian principle is that, only when we are safe, can we move on to higher ways of thinking. So, to use Gaertner et al’s model and the work of Telzer et al, we need issues that mean safety can only be guaranteed by the tribes working together and becoming comfortable with each other.

It can only be a matter of time before some racist uses a defence in court of racism being natural at the PURPLE level of thinking, along with research such as that Cunningham et al, to insist that antagonism towards racial difference is biologically determined. We need to understand that, at that level, this is not inaccurate. However, the Gravesian approach and the work of Telzer et al shows us that this natural differentiation can be mediated and reduced through familiarity, education and maturation.

To answer the question, then: is racism natural…? The answer seems to be that tribalism, which can be acted out in the form of racism, is indeed a natural way of being for people whose thinking is dominated by PURPLE in their selfplex and, thus, are likely to overperceive the threat from somebody different from their tribe. However, the degree to which tribalism is acted out in unhealthy forms such as racism can mediated by social and cognitive factors. Critical to this process are familiarity with other tribes and a memetic focus on the common good. The more we can expose our children to such positive memes, the less they are likely to be frightened of ‘others’ as they grow up.


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9 Responses

  1. Keith E Rice says

    Trey, I’m not much of a neuroscientist either. About as far as I’ve got with the frontal cortex stuff you’re talking about is some stuff I ‘borrowed’ from Eric Chudler.

    It seems to me that dogs and cats do have developed frontal cortexes but nothing like as developed as primates and (very obviously!) humans. But there is no doubt that dogs and wolves do do group/pack behaviour.

    On the face of it, the 1973 ‘Triune Brain’ concept of Paul MacLean (referred to by Eileen) offers a such neat and very linear history of brain development that it has become very widely accepted and is known way beyond the neuroscientists’ labs. Only in the past couple of years I’ve come across the likes of Don Beck and Ken Wilber referring to it as though it is established fact. However, later researchers – especially Jospeh LeDoux (1992) – while not necessarily dumping the idea of stages totally – have challenged the Tribune Brain concept as being too simplistic. As said, I’m not a neuroscientist by any stretch of the imagination and am pretty much at the limits of my current understanding here – I refer to this briefly in

    We do have to be a little careful about assigning functions exclusively to one brain region. The brain is a learning organism which has some degree of ability to morph according to its circumstances. There’s been a fair amount of research into this in recent years – possibly the most well known is Maguire’s (2000, 2005) research into how the volume of parts of the hippocampus changes in London taxi drivers acquiring the ‘knowledge’ of the city’s streets, businesses, tourist routes, etc. (Rather loosely, this would support Graves’ contention that new neural systems (vMEMES) emerge to deal with changed Life Circumstances.)

    Based on LeDoux’s work on the limbic system, Jerry Coursen has postulated that the neural circuitry of the PURPLE and RED systems are centred primarily in the amygdala (the ‘emotional’ centre of the brain). If so, this would not seem to fit with Solms’ postulation that the Ego is in the frontal cortex. Obviously, it’s a bit more complex than simply saying this function is located *here*. The other big question here is: how much do PURPLE and the Ego match as concepts…?

    I’ve beginning to hack some thoughts out on these questions but I’m some way off being able to put them down into something that’s comprehensible, logical and might be supported by evidence.

    As to the RSA/Zimbardo video, I agree with Eileen about it. There are big issues around communicating with PURPLE/past, RED/hedonistic present and BLUE+/future. Zimbardo’s somewhat confused the issue by talking about types of people (rather than systems in people) but the issues are there. The thing that really got me, though, was the experience of computer games rewiring the brain. Similar direction to Maguire, I guess!

  2. Eileen Conn says

    HI Keith & Trey

    I offer you one of my favourite songs for a Christmas gift – follow the web link!

    Symphony of Science – ‘Our Place in the Cosmos’

    Also a short video on the human brain from Carl Sagan which is very useful: … re=related

    That points out that it is the reptilian brain that has our fight and flight response. The limbic brain which came after that has our feelings and emotions – what we need to be social beings I assume. So it is the reptilian brain which has our natural instinct to react against people who are different not the limbic brain. I imagine it gets transmitted almost instantaneously into the limbic brain where scary feelings from differences will occur, and then the cerebral brain which has the chance to reflect and discover that the difference isn’t a risk after all.


  3. Eileen Conn says

    Hi Trey & Keith

    i agree with all your comments. A really comforting conversation as it is SO rare. I love the video. Brilliant, and I like the idea of the three time zones. It feels right, and I wil be digesting the idea.

    PS I also like relating different models to each other and to see how and where they fit. I think some people frown on such action!

  4. Treymix says

    I know this is a bit of a tangent, but this is the speech that got me started thinking that there might be a marked barrier between RED and BLUE:

    It’s the RSA’s animated take on a lecture by Prof. Philip Zimbardo. Pretty powerful metaprograms.

    I’m so glad you wrote that Maslow revised his Hierarchy of Needs – I’ve never seen a pyramid with “Cognitive” and “Aesthetic” included. That helps complete the hierarchy quite a bit. I’d still say there’s something missing in the area of Purpose, and I have a few other issues (especially with the catch-all “Self-Actualization” segment), but that’s for another time!

    I too like to tie various theories together as much as possible until disproven. And thus, the separation between the Id/Limbic and the Ego/Frontal Cortex is definitely of interest. I know almost no neurology, but I’d be very interested to learn when our frontal cortex evolved, and how it compares to those of dogs/wolves and big cats, among other animals. Can there be group/tribal behavior without it? If not, then the split between Id & Ego would seem to be the split between Selfishness and Selflessness. But if group behavior CAN happen without a developed frontal cortex, then perhaps the Id covers the lower Needs/vMemes, and the frontal cortex allows us to move on to the more complex issues of human experience!

    I’d love to know both of your thoughts on the video as well! I don’t think Future-oriented thinking happens until we transcend our instincts, so this could have a lot to do with transcending Racism (and thus, I return deftly to the original topic!)

    Trey Harris, MNLP MTD MHt
    Washington, DC

  5. Keith E Rice says

    Thanks for this, Trey. You’ve really bought out the sense in Eileen’s post between what’s instinctual and what’s appropriate. I must confess I’d never thought of this particular issue in terms of limbic system (fears and desires) and the so-much slower frontal cortex thinking about it. What comes from the frontal cortex often tends to inhibit limbic intention – but the schemas the frontal cortex works from are a mixture of learning from the external environment (memes) and reasoned thinking.

    I’m also intrigued by ‘there are three “Instinctive” levels of values/needs available to all animals – Survival, Grouping, and Dominance. What makes us human is our ability to break through the “ceiling” and think in the complex ways that allow us to access Purpose, Achievement, and Equality.’

    I’ve often thought that the higher mammals sometimes seem to display something akin to PURPLE and RED. My cat certainly knows that she belongs to me and that I am hers. She will also try to bully me into giving her titbits off my plate – not because she’s that hungry but because she likes the smell of my food and she wants it. Years ago – she’s rather old now! – I went through a short-lived phase of feeding her titbits – so you could argue Operant Conditioning but the many intervening years I’ve not done that should have long ago made the effect extinct. So positive reward may have been the start of it but it’s something else now.

    And, no, Trey, we’re not the only ones going in such a direction! If you read Jerry Coursen’s article ‘A Spiral Perspective of Human Development…?’ –– in his view it’s the development of language that allows us to break that unacknowledged ceiling you talk about.

    And, although Graves doesn’t acknowledge such a jump between RED and BLUE – and neither, to my knowledge, do Beck or Cowan – Maslow sort of does. (If you’ve looked at my stuff much, you’ll know I map a lot of Maslow into my understanding of Spiral Dynamics!) In the revised Hierarchy of Needs (1971), Maslow lists Cognitive (which collapses BLUE and ORANGE into one) and Aesthetic (GREEN) as levels beyond Esteem (RED) but before Self-Actualisation (YELLOW). Maslow (1971) terms Cognitive and Aesthetic as ‘Growth Needs’ as against the lower ‘Deficiency Needs’ and the higher (2nd Tier) ‘Being Needs’.

    So I think your point about ‘What makes us human is our ability to break through the “ceiling” and think in the complex ways that allow us to access Purpose, Achievement, and Equality’ is potentially incredibly important.

    Returning to Eileen’s point about limbic instinctual and cerebral appropriate, Marc Solms (2000), using fMRI scans of dreamers, has linked Freud’s Id (RED?) to the limbic system while the learned inhibitors of the Ego and the Superego (the self-sacrificial/conformist side of the Spiral?) would seem to be in the workings of the frontal cortex. If you’re comfortable mapping elements of SD to Solms’ work on Freud – and I am (in part, at least!) – then it would seem that Eileen may be onto something.



  6. Treymix says

    Hi Eileen,

    You make some very good points here! And your differentiation between “natural” and “appropriate” is a wonderful addition to Mr. Rice’s great article, and an effective response to questions like, “I think Nick Griffin [British National Party] is only saying what most people think but are too afraid to say.”

    Nearly everyone has an instinctive drive to find people like them, and to stay away from people unlike them. But, as you say, we have developed the ability to think past our instincts, and to act in a way that exceeds our prehistoric capacities. However, as you also mention, in times of “fight or flight,” our minds are wired to revert to those earlier stages of development, to when we NEEDED to protect our tribe from the others, and wars are born.

    I would venture to say that it’s “natural” to revert in times of crisis. When an investor goes broke, he often finds solace in religion. When 9/11 happened, the USA found solace in nationalism (which it hadn’t felt so strongly since WWII). And, as you posted, when violence erupted in Yugoslavia, people found safety in their own in-groups.

    There’s an interesting dynamic going on in France (and many other places) at the moment: under the guise of GREEN egalitarianism, the government is enacting laws that take away PURPLE identity, trying to replace it with BLUE nationalism. However, I would say that this is simply a form of PURPLE that’s saying “If you don’t dress like us, you have to change or leave” (and perhaps BLUE, saying there’s only one true way to be French).

    In my view, GREEN would see that burqas and religion are just as valid and useful as lab coats and secularism. Open GREEN doesn’t say “everyone be the same,” but rather “everyone be different, and that’s okay.” But often, GREEN comes about in rebellion, and thus finds no point in PURPLE beliefs (or RED power or BLUE correctness or ORANGE achievement). This “closed” form of GREEN was the inspiration behind Marxism, which failed in the USSR precisely because of what it did not allow (expression, differentiation), rather than what it did.

    Does this make sense?

    I might go further and venture this hypothesis: there are three “Instinctive” levels of values/needs available to all animals – Survival, Grouping, and Dominance. What makes us human is our ability to break through the “ceiling” and think in the complex ways that allow us to access Purpose, Achievement, and Equality. It may be no coincidence that these are the first values levels that require us to think beyond the immediate future, and to plan for our own futures and those of our children. Perhaps our awareness of death is precisely what allows us to transcend it.

    This is the first time I’ve voiced this theory, though I’ve been testing it in my head for many months. I’ve never heard of anyone separating the first three levels from the next three – usually, the only “ceiling” comes after GREEN, when we venture into 2nd-tier, Integral thinking, but we can see Beige, Purple, and Red all in action in packs of wolves, or prides of lions…

    Has this been voiced, and I just missed it? Or am I off the mark with this?

    Trey Harris, MNLP MTD MHt
    Washington, DC

  7. Eileen Conn says

    I need to add a PS to this:
    **I suppose your associating tribal defensive/aggressive behaviour with purple, which I agree with, is also saying that in that condition the more evolved parts of the brain are not being employed as the instant limbic brain reactions are allowed to dominate behaviour without further reflection and analysis.**

    Of course in a situation where there are real risks from people who are different then this is still an appropriate response to those Life Conditions. For example in the break up of Bosnia, whatever 20th century identity a Sarajevo urban dweller had, within weeks they had to choose their tribe to survive in the warfare between the tribes of Serbs, or Croats or Muslims. But in our modern societies which are still capable of protecting us collectively then that is where the purple behaviour of instant reaction against people different is no longer an appropriate response to differences

  8. Eileen Conn says

    Very useful analysis and commentary. Discrimination is a natural characteristic connected to the need for the body to take instant decisions about fight or flight. That needs very fast perceptions of differences and risks, and the feelings of differences and belongings clearly will be very influential in the instantaneous decisions about risk.

    So we are all built like that. But we also have the potential capacity for overriding those instant judgements with a few more seconds thought from the more evolved parts of our brain which can assess the risk in a considered way. One of the difficulties in explaining this sequence of ideas is that generally the latter part isn’t heard and the fact that the ‘bad’ instant behaviour is natural is taken as that is all that is possible and is an excuse and justification for the bad behaviour.

    I suppose your associating tribal defensive/aggressive behaviour with purple, which I agree with, is also saying that in that condition the more evolved part of the brain are not being employed as the instant limbic brain reactions are allowed to dominate behaviour without further reflection and analysis.

    Maybe another challenge is how we can develop ways to help more people make those thoughtful journeys.

    • Brian B says

      This all sounds like an argument for open borders, or are there rational reasons to oppose open borders?