Updated: 22 December 2020
PURPLE (B-O) thinking works on emotion, security, rituals, tokens, sense of belonging (my family, my friends, my workplace) and is very responsive to peer and family pressures
RED (C-P) thinking is assertive (aggressive!), energetic, powerful, indulgent, self-centred and wants to dominate/be the best
BLUE (D-Q) thinking is concerned with procedures, routines, order, quality, the correct way of doing things, is highly responsive to the ‘correct’ higher authority and punishes ‘sinners’
ORANGE (E-R) thinking is strategic and future-focussed, wants to achieve and improve, loves technology and innovation, and marks progress – eg: with status and wealth
GREEN (F-S) thinking values people – all are equal and to be treated correctly, with decisions made by consensus
In which of these ways do you think – at what times and in what contexts/circumstances?
These vMEMES or modes of thinking form the second (PURPLE) through to the sixth (GREEN) ‘levels of existence’ in the Gravesian approach, arguably the most advanced map of human needs and motivations developed to date. vMEMES can be thought of as ‘value systems’, ‘core intelligences’ or even ‘mini-selves’. They each have their own way of thinking, sets of needs and motivations, and contextual strengths and weaknesses.
The colours applied to the levels of existence come from the Spiral Dynamics ‘build’ developed by Don Beck & Chris Cowan (1996) from the work of Clare W Graves (1970, 1971b/2002), himself an admirer of the work of Abraham Maslow and influenced substantially by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943).
Beginning in the early 1950s, Graves collected data on human motivational systems for nearly 30 years. His work is outlined in the page on Graves’ research. Eventually what emerged was his model of 8 ‘levels of existence’ – the 5 most prevalent levels (in the Western world), with their Spiral Dynamics-derived colour-coding, are described very briefly and basically above. Slightly fuller descriptions follow below.
Graves’ first A-N (BEIGE) level is Maslow’s Survival level while the seventh G-T (YELLOW) – which he believed initiated a qualitatively-different 2nd Tier of thinking systems – he equated to Maslow’s Self-Actualisation. The eighth H-U (TURQUOISE) level Maslow later (1969; 1971) considered ‘Transcendence’.
Characteristics of the Spiral
Graves and Maslow weren’t the only psychologists theorising about emergence and development in the second half of the 20th Century. See the Comparison Map of the Gravesian approach with other key models. Of what are arguably the other 3 most important Stage Theories of Development, Jane Loevinger’s Stages of Ego Development (1976) most closely matches Graves’ 8 levels. Loevinger’s model incorporates 7 nodal stages and 3 transitional stages. However, Graves described 2 vMEME transitional states between each peak level – providing in total 22 identified thinking modes. He also theorised that the human brain was capable of developing new modes of thinking when new life conditions (in the environment) emerged which presented new problems of existence to be faced. The 8 peak levels – along with a theoretical ninth – are represented graphically below (in what has become known as the Spiral Dynamics ‘balloon’!). See also the Learning & Education feature: How the Brain develops the Mind.
One factor which makes Graves’ model different from any other is not only its accuracy and its sheer comprehensiveness but the degree to which it emphasises how the brain develops new systems of thinking and coping – signified by N-U in the Gravesian letter pairing of the level of existence – in symbiotic interaction with changing circumstances (life conditions) – signified by A-H. This mind-environment interaction – in terms of the external environment, at least – is described by Albert Bandura (1977) as Reciprocal Determinism. Loevinger captures some sense of this in talking of external ‘pacers’ stimulating growth in cognitive complexity, to move from one stage of ego development to the next.
Another factor is how Graves tracks emergence as oscillating between the individualistic self-expressive – Spiral Dynamics’ ‘warm colours’ – and the collectivistic conformist/sacrifice-self – the ‘cool’ colours. Loevinger captures a sense of this in her use of the concepts of ‘ego integration’ and ‘differentiation’ – though it is not as explicit as Graves nor as structural to her theory.
However, perhaps the key factor which makes Graves’ the most insightful of the developmental models is that it is about more than levels and stages. As Beck (2002a) says: “It’s about systems in people.” vMEMES are systems which emerge in symbiosis with life conditions. Where a vMEME perfectly fits the life conditions – eg: E-R (ORANGE) – then a level, a stage or an ‘existential state’ has been achieved. However, as life conditions are often complex and multi-faceted, the Gravesian approach allows consideration of multiple vMEMES ebbing and flowing in influence in any complex and multi-faceted set of life conditions. Thus, the importance of vMEME stacks. Using the analogy of music, Beck has talked of ‘chords’ rather than ‘single notes’. Relative to the life conditions, vMEME systems have needs – which are more or less broadly described in Maslow’s Hierarchy – and they ebb and flow in strength according to variations in the life conditions.
Beck & Cowan hypothesise a 9th level: I-V CORAL. This is to reflect Graves’ view – on which he differed from Maslow – that the human brain is infinitely capable of developing new modes of thinking to cope with ever more complex life conditions. However, there is yet to be any known scientifically-credible evidence of anyone actually thinking at a 9th level or beyond.
Recent neurobiological research into the neural plasticity of the brain – ie: its genetically-endowed ability to adapt to external stimuli and form new neuronal networks – offers much support for Graves’ theory. The concept of new physiological development taking place in response to changes in the environment is, of course, an example of epigenetic modification.
However, errors in understanding how vMEMES work can occur if the concept of ‘life conditions in the environment’ is taken only as referring to external stimuli. There is much evidence that our thinking is influenced by internal factors, not least fluctuations in neurotransmitters and hormones. Certainly Sigmund Freud (1923b), whose concept of the Id can be mapped to RED while elements of his Superego match BLUE and GREEN, believed from his observations that the mind was driven largely by maturational forces. ‘Interior Environment’ is a recognised medical term for what is ‘inside the animal’ – so life conditions can be what is going on both inside and outside the body. This would fit with Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1963) ‘push & pull’ approach in that different stages of moral development can be seen as outputs of vMEME emergence. Kohlberg saw it as a case of maturational factors working to push the development from the inside but how fast and in what way emergence took place was influenced and shaped by external factors. Beck has addressed this maturational element explicitly in his concept of the prime directive. This is the code which facilitates the emergence of vMEMES in hierarchical order and in many ways reflects the idea of the actualising tendency put forward by Carl Rogers.(1959).
Beck also bases this idea on Graves’ (1971b/2002, p81) conclusion that: “In a childlike manner, the individual progresses through the first six systems in the first year.” From the work of Michel Jouvet (1978), supported by much other research since, it is likely that neural templates for the vMEMES are laid down during REM sleep in the first year of life. Babies can spend around 80% of sleep time in REM which Jouvet postulated from experimental work is concerned with programming the brain and central nervous system. Environmental experience (life conditions in the environment) will later activate the vMEME templates via epigenetic modification.
It is important to note that lower vMEMES don’t cease to exert their influence on the selfplex as more complex vMEMES emerge. As Maslow recognised, lower level needs are no longer prioritised but the vMEMES which emerged to cope with them are working away in the background and their needs still have to be met. This is illustrated in the ‘Spiral Balloon’ graphic where lower vMEMES appear almost ‘ghostly’ behind emerging and dominating higher ones. Loevinger’s successor Susanne Cook-Greuter (1985; 2005) has made explicit the notion that earlier levels become ‘subsets’ to the current one in line with Ken Wilber’s (1996) “transcend and include” motif. By doing this, she acknowledges that needs pertinent to earlier levels are still there but are subsumed in the complexity of the current level of thinking.
An important Maslowian principle carried forward by Graves is that, if a lower set of needs is no longer being met, the individual will re-prioritise those needs and the pertinent lower vMEMES will dominate until those needs are met again. Maslow (1970) took the view that there is unlikely to be a permanent regression to those ways of thinking. Eg: a goal-oriented business person driven by ORANGE, who is diagnosed with cancer, will spend a great deal of time concentrating on his health (BEIGE survival needs), but will continue to value his work performance (ORANGE achievement needs) and will likely return to work during periods of remission. However, Graves does not rule out the possibility that regression to a lower level of thinking could be permanent – or, at least, for a substantial amount of time – depending on the individual’s neural capacities and the life conditions. Evolutionarily it could be adaptive to stay regressed, depending on what threats and opportunities there were.
Kohlberg had problems accepting that some of the individuals he observed had apparently undergone moral stage regression. (Regression was, in fact, supported by James Rest (1983) who found that 1 in 14 school participants moved back to an earlier stage of moral development.) Faced with the option of either conceding that moral regression could occur or revising his theory, Kohlberg (1976) chose the latter, postulating the existence of sub-stages in which the emerging stage has not yet been fully integrated into the personality.
Ascending the Spiral
As briefly discussed, there are 2 tracks of emergence in ascending the Spiral – to use meta-programme terminology: self-orientation as enacted by the ‘warm-coloured’ vMEMES and others-orientation as enacted by the ‘cool-coloured’ vMEMES.
Through his association with Wilber, Beck (2000a; 2002a) has come to query whether every individual ascends the Spiral in exactly the same hierarchical way. This is an echo of Maslow (1970) who also came to doubt whether everyone in every circumstance had to go through his levels in exactly the same way!
Interestingly, Jenny Wade (1996), whose Mindsets system is substantially modelled on Graves’ research, has postulated that there is a generalised gender difference in the way men and women ascend developmentally, with women being more communal/others-oriented and men more self-oriented. This, according to Wade, means that women tend to go from Conformist Consciousness (BLUE) through Affiliative Consciousness (GREEN) to Authentic Consciousness (YELLOW) – effectively missing out Achievement Consciousness (ORANGE). Men, according to Wade, tend to hit Achievement Consciousness from Conformist Consciousness but pass over Affiliative on the way to Authentic Consciousness. Wade’s views are more than a little interesting but they are based primarily on small group research so the findings may be peculiar to her samples (sample bias). If there is a gender difference in the way males and females ascend the Spiral, then it may due to where they tend naturally to locate on the Psychoticism dimension of temperament. According to the research of Hans J Eysenck & Sybil B G Eysenck (1976), men generally score much higher in Psychoticism than women – which the researchers attributed to the male sex hormone testosterone. While there is, as yet, no published research to support this concept, it does appear to make sense – ie: it has face validity. Wade’s findings have yet to be supported by any other Gravesian or Maslowian-based research but her findings do seem to fit loosely with Carol Gilligan’s (1977; 1982) criticisms of Kohlberg’s model and her attempts to create an alternative gender-oriented model of moral development. Gilligan’s model too, it should be noted, is not widely supported by other research. However, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility that compelling evidence of gender differences in ascension of the Spiral may emerge at some time in the future
Graves, like Loevinger, Kohlberg and, initially at least, Maslow , was insistent that research indicated the systems and their levels/stages emerged in a definite, hierarchical order. However, Loevinger did acknowledge that other researchers found similar stages but in sometimes in slightly different order. On the face of it, her Conformist → Conscientious Conformist → Conscientious → Individualistic sequence presents at least a little contrast and arguably some conflict with the Gravesian orthodoxy of RED → BLUE → ORANGE → GREEN. However, a longitudinal study by Michiel Westenberg & Per Gjerde (1999) on ego development with adolescents and young adults reveals the sequence may not be anything like as fixed as Loevinger (and Kohlberg and Graves) postulated. They cite examples of Self-Protective → Conscientious alongside the expected Self-Protective → Conformist. Clearly, since the differences between the models of Graves, Maslow, Kohlberg and Loevinger are relatively small, findings relating to one will almost certainly have implications for the others.
Though there seem to be some not-insignificant documented variations in ascension of the Spiral if the models are cross-correlated, overall it does seem that, for most people, the evidence seems to favour an every-vMEME-must-be-experienced view. Beck has come to acknowledge that some people do ascend the Spiral with a preference for one particular track – the self-expressive (‘warm colours’) or self-sacrificial/conformist (‘cool colours’) – but insists they do need to experience the emergence of each vMEME on the non-preferred track to get the ‘energy’ to reach the next vMEME on the preferred track. Thus, for example, RED, ORANGE and (hopefully!) YELLOW will still emerge in someone with a preference for the cool colours but PURPLE, BLUE and/or GREEN are more likely to dominate in their thinking in most circumstances.
In insisting that levels – even if experienced only marginally – cannot be skipped, Beck is reflecting Kohlberg. The latter stated that stages cannot be skipped because each provides a new and necessary perspective, more comprehensive and differentiated than its predecessors but integrated with them. It represents a more equilibriated form of moral reasoning, resulting in more logically consistent reasoning. However, Loevinger does have some evidence on levels/stages seemingly being skipped in her samples – which shows that our understanding of emergence is far from complete.
While it is an area requiring much more investigation, my own reading of the work of William Moulton Marston (1928) – whose behavioural types are a mix of motivational and temperamental factors – has found a degree of association between another dimension of temperament Extraversion and the lower vMEMES. This would go some way towards providing a non-gender explanation for ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ preferences. It would seem that extraverts are more likely to favour the self-expressive route while introverts would be more comfortable with the conformist route. It should be stressed that this should not be seen as deterministic. According to the life conditions being experienced, introverts may well find themselves enjoying RED’s indulgence dominating their selfplex – eg: the shy, retiring type who lets it all ‘hang out’ at a party – while extraverts could find it expedient to let BLUE’s readiness to submit to authority guide them – eg: the loudmouth new army recruit who finds himself on the wrong side of his drill sergeant.
However, it may be that ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ preferences are hard-wired, according to research by Svenja Caspers et al (2011) – see A Biological Basis for vMEMES? This would chime with Julian B Rotter’s (1966) assertion that whether an individual’s locus of control tends towards the internal or the external is, to some extent at least, innately determined.
Certainly, in Evolutionary Psychology terms, it would be seen as adaptive for whichever vMEME was appropriate to the life conditions in the environment to emerge next, regardless of its place in a hierarchical sequence. However, until future research brings us much more understanding of the nature of vMEMES and how they emerge and transform, we can only note these variations to the basic model of hierarchical emergence and transformation.
vMEME harmonics and vMEME conflicts
Sometimes vMEMES may work together (vMEME harmonic) – ie: their motivations coincide – bringing a sense of unified purpose to the selfplex – or their motivations may be in conflict, causing chaos, confusion and anguish in the selfplex.
An example of a vMEME harmonic might be someone going on an anti-Fascism demonstration, driven by GREEN’s abhorrence to such philosophies, but whose RED indulges itself by goading the police officers escorting the demonstration. Such a harmonic would be annotated as RED/GREEN.
A vMEME conflict many teenagers experience several evenings per week is being torn between BLUE demanding they do their homework (the ‘right thing’ to do in terms of the Superego’s Conscience) while RED wants to indulge itself Id-like on the X-Box or go (underage) drinking on the street corner with friends.
The teenager’s dilemma is a straight-forward express yourself vs sacrifice-self/conform motivational conflict. However, another factor which can lead to vMEME conflict is their perception of time.
The graphic left shows how the vMEMES relate to time, with RED living in ‘the moment’ while PURPLE looks back to the past to help define its sense of safety in belonging. These 2 vMEMES struggle to have a sense of future beyond the present carrying on. However, ORANGE is so focused on the future, it pays little attention to the past. Thus, PURPLE and RED will have difficulty comprehending what ORANGE has to say about the future; ORANGE in turn will despise PURPLE and RED for their inability to grasp the importance of anticipating the future. Erik Erikson (1968) refers to this inability to anticipate the future and the passing of time as diffusion of time.
The time potentials for misunderstanding and conflict between vMEMES are discussed in greater detail in Marcus P Barber’s Article, Value Systems as Foresight Frameworks.
vMEME conflicts can also involve vMEME harmonics. Eg: the teenager whose BLUE demands the homework be done may also be conscious of ORANGE pointing that future goals such as going to university need good qualifications to be achieved; on the other hand, the RED desire to go off drinking on the street corner may be supported by a real sense of PURPLE belonging to the gang the teenager drinks with.
As any aspect of the life conditions being experienced shifts, there may be an equivalent move as to which vMEMES dominate in the vMEME stack. Thus, vMEMES may ebb and flow, harmonising and conflicting, as the experience changes.
Freud attributed mental health conditions such as neurosis (in part at least) to such motivational conflicts getting out of hand. This is discussed in Can vMEMES cause Clinical Depression..? Interestingly Beck & Cowan speculate that Dissociative Identity Disorder may be the result of vMEME conflicts becoming so intense the individual cannot cope and so dissociates who they are (their sense of identity) from one or more of the conflicting vMEMES. In extreme circumstances, this might even result in Multiple Personality Disorder…?
With regard to differentiation in qualities of thinking, Graves and Maslow certainly agreed that emergence of the 7th level instituted a new much more complex way of thinking which they both thought of as ‘being’. However, while Graves (1970; 1971b/2002) categorised the first 6 levels as subsistence, Maslow (1956; 1970) split his first 6 into ‘deficiency’ and ‘growth’. Loevinger (1976) draws no absolute difference between qualities of thinking – although she is clear that the higher stages show increased complexity in thinking. Interestingly Cowan (2000) has queried whether the difference between the 6th and 7th levels is really great enough to warrant describing the 7th as initiating a completely new ‘tier’ of thinking systems. Others, such as Jerry Coursen (2004-2005), have also queried this distinction. Cook-Greuter (2005) clearly allocates Loevinger’s stages into the Pre-Conventional, Conventional and Post-Conventional structure used by Wilber (1995) – though the concepts have long been used by other developmentalists, including Kohlberg (1963). Cook-Greuter’s distinction between Pre-Conventional and Conventional roughly parallels Maslow’s distinction between deficiency and growth needs. However, her assumption of Post-Conventional starts much earlier in the Spiral/Hierarchy than Kohlberg or Maslow’s and Graves’ identification of ‘being’.
What follows is a vMEME by vMEME brief description of the tiers, as per the full the 22-point Gravesian construct, with 8 vMEMES and 16 transition states.
Pertinent insights are added from Maslow’s Hiearchy of Needs (1943; 1956; 1970; 1971), Loevinger’s Stages of Ego Development (1976) – including Cook-Greuter’s modifications (1985; 2005) – and Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development (1963; 1976; 1984; 1986; Lawrence Kohlberg & Anne Colby, 1987; Lawrence Kohlberg & Clark Power, 1981).
Readers are, of course, encouraged to go the original sources – see the Bibliography – to develop a fuller understanding.
The graphic below shows how vMEMES emerge in waves.
Each emerges, peaks and recedes. As it recedes, the next one in the Spiral hierarchy emerges. When the receding vMEME is still stronger than the emerging one in the psyche, the receding vMEME is said to be in the exiting phase – eg: Exiting PURPLE. This is annotated with the receding vMEME in capitals and the emergent one in lower case – eg: PURPLE/red (B-O/c-p in the original Graves coding). Once crossover has occurred, then the stronger, emergent vMEME is said to be in the entering phase – eg: Entering RED. This is annotated with the receding vMEME in lower case and the emergent vMEME in capitals – eg: purple/RED (b-o/C-P).
Some points for consideration when reading about the tiers:-
- The transition states are relatively under-researched but the declining influence of one vMEME as another emerges clearly has major implications for the way motivations shift and change. This is especially important when a transition process is lengthy. Some people can even appear to be ‘stuck’, the transition process can be become so elongated. Yet transitions can also be incredibly quick – to the point where there seems to be no transition states in process. On occasion people have seemed to progress 2 or more levels up the Spiral at once – termed a ‘Quantum Leap’ by Beck & Cowan. Beck (2000a) has expressed the view that the Qantum Leap up several levels at once is instantaneous. Cowan (2000) is more of the view that the emergence happens in very rapid sequence but that each vMEME has its own distinct emergence process
- Loevinger acknolwedged that her transitional stages might be another researcher’s nodal stages and vice versa
- TURQUOISE/coral and beyond are included by Beck & Cowan in Spiral Dynamics purely to illustrate Graves’ conjecture that the human mind-brain would continue to develop new systems of thinking to cope with new problems of existence (life conditions)
- There is some speculation that Maslow’s Cognitive could be mapped to be elements of YELLOW while Aesthetic could be mapped to both YELLOW and TURQUOISE. It is also worth noting that some of his writings on self-esteem imply goal-oriented strategic thinking – which would mean an element of ORANGE
- In the Gravesian approach Maslow’s Safety and Belonging levels of need are absorbed into PURPLE’s safety-in-belonging motif while Cognitive is opened out into BLUE and ORANGE
- Loevinger’s Symbiotic could be argued as matching the transitional state of beige/PURPLE, rather than nodal PURPLE. Impulsive might seem ostensibly to be a match for RED but there are elements of PURPLE in Loevinger’s description. Integrated seems to contain elements of both YELLOW and TURQUOISE, with YELLOW arguably the stronger element. Cook-Greuter divided Integrated into Construct-Aware (roughly, YELLOW/TURQUOISE) and Unitive (fully TURQUOISE)
- Reading across Kohlberg’s works, Stage 5 sometimes appears to incorporate 4.5 – ie: with elements of BLUE thinking. In other writings, it appears more GREEN
- Maslow’s concept of needs can be seen as what drives the vMEMES while Kohlberg’s stages of morality, the degrees and types of prejudice found by Theodore Adorno et al (1950) and Max Weber’s (1922) ‘actions’ are different outputs of vMEME activity. Loevinger’s ego states can be seen as the mindsets which form when the vMEME or vMEME transition state is matched to the life conditions in the environment.