Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Clare W Graves’ Research

Updated: 12 June 2018

The younger Graves (Copyright © NVC Inc)

The younger Graves (Copyright © NVC Inc)

Clare W Graves (1914-1986) was the psychologist on whose work Spiral Dynamics and several other powerful and practical conceptual models have been built.

Although he achieved the emminent position of ‘Professor of Psychology Emeritus’ at Union College, Schenectady, New York State, when he retired through ill health in 1978, he was not particularly well known outside of certain academic and management theory networks and he has been largely ignored since his death.

However, his model and the theory that supports it are without doubt amongst the most powerful and certainly the most cohesive and comprehensive of all attempts to map the development of the human psyche. Those who get to grips with Graves’ work tend to become decidedly passionate about it – such is the power of the model! His work is critical and fundamental to the aims of Psychology and the other behavioural sciences and is at the core of Integrated SocioPsychology.

Graves was an associate professor at Union when he began his remarkable project in 1952. (He became a full professor in 1956.) At the time Graves recognised the frustration of his students when trying to make sense of the differing theories of personality development and human nature he had taught them – often expressed in terms such as: “Okay, professor. Now we know Maslow and Rogers and Skinner and lots of others. Which theory is right?”

Graves felt as frustrated as his students and was on the verge of quitting Union when he resolved instead to carry out his own research project, starting completely from scratch – ie: he didn’t use any existing theory as a starting point. Effectively Graves started without a hypothesis and with only the broadest of aims! By collecting data without any preconceptions as to what patterns might emerge from its analysis, he was laying  the foundations for what the sociologists Barney Glaser & Anselm Strauss (1967) would come to term Grounded Theory.

In 1984, just over 30 years later, Graves gave his last major presentation (to the World Future Society) on what he had come to call the Emergent Cyclical Double-Helix Model of Adult Bio-Pyscho-Social Behaviour.

The methodology – an insight
Graves began by getting his students to write down their conceptions of the psychological health of biologically-mature human beings. He did this on an annual basis and then had the data collated, assessed and categorised by panels of independent judges (inductive thematic analysis). A different set of independent judges were used each year to maintain a double blind effect and ensure the current year’s categorisations were not influenced by the previous year’s.

He tested students in groups categorised according to the independent judges, using a variety of then-standard psychological assessments for measures including:-

○cognitive complexity   ○authoritarianism   ○deference   ○affiliation  ○rigidity  ○kindness   ○‘religiousness’  ○intelligence  ○dogmatism  ○autonomy   ○aggressiveness   ○honesty   ○self-control   ○loyalty   ○creating novelty   ○speed of attaining new concepts   ○integrating contradiction

Graves also worked on specific problem-solving exercises with the categorised groups.

He conducted biophysiological tests with light and sound on the categorised groups (Graves, 1971a/1988) and tested their galvanic skin response (electrical conductivity of the skin) (Graves, 1971b/2002). He even injected some of them with hormones to see what effect this would have on their thinking and behaviour in terms of his model (Graves, 1978/2005). Tachistoscope tests revealed a near normal distribution for perceptual recognition of terms associated with their categorisation. The nearer the term was to the values of the categorised group, the more quickly it was recognised; the further away it was, the longer it took to detect the term. As Rainer Krumm & Benedikt Parstorfer (2018, p36)) remark about these findings: “This demonstrated that one’s own value systems make a difference in the subconscious processing of information.” Clare W Graves, W C Huntley & Douglas LaBier (1965) confirmed these tachistoscope findings for the C-P to G-T systems.  Svenja Caspers et al had very similar results in 2012, showing how reliable they were.

Some of Graves’ methods would be regarded as rather dubious when set against the heavy emphasis on ethics by today’s research academics. He did not tell his students what his intentions were but allowed them to think the various tests and exercises were part of their standard curriculum. He also observed them through 2-way mirrors and secretly tape-recorded them.

The older Graves(Copyright © NVC Inc)

The older Graves (Copyright © NVC Inc)

In trying to make sense of the immense amount of data he was collecting, Graves initially tried to map it against Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943, 1956), with which he had been much impressed. Besides Maslow, he also conversed regularly with O J Harvey and David E Hunt (of Harvey, Schroeder & Hunt) – Hunt had been one of his students at Union – and Jack Calhoun, among others.

As news of his work and the conclusions he was drawing began to spread in the 1960s and 1970s, Graves received invitations to work in industrial situations, educational institutions and with prison populations which enabled him to collect data from new and quite different population groups.

Unfortunately Graves appears to have entertained some short-sighted C-P (RED) in his own thinking as he threw out a large amount of the original test materials, retaining only the collated results. This has created difficulties in replicating and validating Graves’ project – already daunting due to its 30-year length and the sheer amount of data he collected.

The results – an insight
Early on Graves and his judges identified two basic values-oriented systems and 2 sub-systems of each system. Note: Graves did not use the letter-pair combinations of A-M for life conditions and N-Z for systemic/motivational response (vMEME) until 1970. The initial terms used were variations of those included in the 1966 publication – see below. The 1970 letter pairs and descriptions are used here for ease of understanding.

System:                              Express Self…                                                            Deny/Sacrifice Self…

Higher sub-system:         …but not at the expense of others (G-T)              …to get acceptance (F-S)

Lower sub-system:         …calculatedly for self-gain (E-R)                           …for reward later (D-Q)

Graves identified what he later termed the G-T (YELLOW) level with the characteristics of Self-Actualisation, as described by Humanistic psychologists such as Maslow – especially – and Carl Rogers (1959). (Rogers also used the term ‘Full Function’ for this level.)

In 1959 Graves found for the first time a very small number of his students identifying a level clearly beyond G-T as a superior conception of the psychologically-healthy human being: Deny/Sacrifice Self to existential realities (H-U).

In 1966 Graves published the first version of his 7 levels of thinking model:-

  • Pacifist Individualistic (later, H-U)
  • Aggressive Individualistic (later, G-T)
  • Sociocentric (later, F-S)
  • Aggressive Power Seeking (later split into C-P and E-R)
  • Awakening & Fright (later, D-Q)
  • Animistic (later, B-O)
  • Autistic (later, A-N)

Clearly, in attributing individualistic characteristics to what he would later term H-U – though he was working with a very small sample size – Graves had yet to realise the cycling between individualistic and collectivistic motivations. The Autistic (A-N) and Animistic (B-O) levels were sketched in, drawing from the work of leading anthropologists; these levels did not show up as such in the studies Graves conducted.

By the time the first version of his model was published, Graves had identified an Express-Self level less complex than Awakening & Fright (D-Q) yet containing some of the cruder elements of Aggressive Power Seeking. Express Self impulsively at any cost (C-P) became the missing level. Graves correlated this discovery with the arrival of significant numbers of students from blue collar/working class backgrounds at Union due to changes in the funding and admission regimes. (It was the identification of this level which led Hunt in 1966 – terming it ‘Type Sub-1’ – to break from colleagues Harvey and H M Schroeder who were reluctant to acknowledge a level below ‘Type 1’ (D-Q). (The Comparison Map illustrates how the work of other developmental psychologists and behavioural scientists like Maslow and Harvey, Schroeder & Hunt (1961) maps to the Gravesian levels.)

By the late 1960s Graves was making substantial revisions to his model from the ongoing collection of data. The basics of the full theory were in place by 1970 when he published a paper on it in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Several key factors had become clear to him by this time:-

  • The systems developed in an upward hierarchical manner, cycling between Express Self and Deny/Sacrifice Self – in the cycling back and forth between Express Self and Deny Self, Graves was very much reflecting the earlier work of András Angyal (1951) who used the terms ‘autonomy’ (self-determination) and  ‘homonomy’ (self-surrender) for opposite poles of a ‘biosphere’ of interlocking systems’
  • In the relationship between the internal motivational systems(notated N-Z) and the life conditions (notated A-M) which could be either internal (biological/psychological) or external (in the environment), the Deny/Sacrifice Self systems work to adapt to the life conditions while the Express Self systems work to overcome them
  • Characteristics of transitions between levels were identifiable
  • The B-O to F-S (GREEN) levels in their peak manifestations defended their worldviews as being ‘right’ in a rather absolutist sense while G-T tolerated other worldviews and H-U regarded less complex worldviews as self-deception

Though he admitted he personally couldn’t find enough reliable and significant evidence for it, Graves thought it likely there were relationships between the levels and intelligence and temperament.

The freaky stuff!!!!
In over 30 years of research Graves discovered some fairly startling information about the way the systems he had identified operated:-

  • The O system is stimulated by smooth gradations in light and sound – eg: a sunset – while the P system is stimulated by pulsing light and sound – eg: in a disco
  • In terms of hormones, noradrenaline is higher than adrenaline when the P system is active and adrenaline higher than noradrenaline when Q is active
  • The T system has 4 times the problem-solving capacity of the S system
    Graves was so struck by these discoveries he wrote an article ‘Human Nature prepares for a Momentous Leap’ (published in The Futurist, 1974), describing the significant difference in complexity of thinking engendered by the move from S to T
  • Fear and compulsion are absent when the T system is activated
  • Galvanic skin response varies between systems and increases dramatically when the U (TURQUOISE) system is activated
    “Oh, my God, it becomes so high you can’t hardly get it. I’m talking 2-3-4 standard deviations. This thing has really jumped.” (Graves, 1971/2002, p68)
  •  Graves also said of the eighth level: “The H-U person can turn off other levels of consciousness at will. He can go out of this world and go off into other levels of consciousness and come back at will. Instrumentally you have that…” (Graves, 1971/2002, p67)

It seemed to Graves that there was a qualitative difference between the first 6 levels – of subsistence – and the seventh and eighth – of being. (In this he paralleled Maslow’s distinction between the lower needs (deficiency and growth) and being needs.) It also seemed to Graves that the seventh and eighth levels were far more complex reflections of the first and second. From this he began to speculate that the systems developed in tiers of 6, each a more complex reflection of the previous tier. By the early 1980s he preferred to annotate G-T as A’-N’ and H-U as B’-O’ in accordance with his idea of repeating tiers. (It needs to be stated that the concept of repeating tiers of 6 seems to have been pure speculation on Graves’ part; there is no known evidence for this.)

Artefact held by Winconsin University

Artefact held by Winconsin University

Graves and Maslow
 As Graves collected his data, he tried to make sense of it through mapping it to Maslow’s Hierarchy. This clearly influenced his teaching as the page of student notes (left) shows. However, he came more and more to the conclusion that there were several discrepancies between his evidence and Maslow’s construct. Arguably, the most critical of these was finding a more complex level, H-U, than G-T which Graves equated to Maslow’s Self-Actualisation.

This led to some theoretical debate with Maslow. How much Maslow and Graves communicated and how much they influenced each other is a matter of some conjecture. However, Graves is known to have sympathised with a tearful Maslow at a mid-1950s American Psychological Association (APA) conference after Maslow had been heckled and barracked by a hall full of Behaviourists; and, in May 1965, when Maslow was ill, Graves stood in for him and presented his paper in New York City. Maslow drew the attention of British writer Colin Wilson to Graves’ work and introduced them to each other – Wilson’s 1972 book on Maslow’s life and work being one of the first to take Graves’ theory beyond the USA. Shortly before his death in 1970 Maslow finally acknowledged ‘Transcendence’ (H-U) as a way of thinking beyond basic Self-Actualisation. Graves claimed it was his data depicting H-U that finally compelled Maslow to recognise this mode of thinking. (However, Maslow had been pursuing an interest in spirituality for several years and was one of the founders of the Transpersonal Psychology movement.) The more knowledgeable students of Maslow tend to place Transcendence as the highest level in the Hierarchy, though Maslow died before he could formally revise its structure himself.

A lingering difference between Graves and Maslow, however, was that of the ‘ultimate state’. Maslow saw the stages of development as forming a pyramid, with Self-Actualisation – later, succeeded by Transcendence – forming the apex. Graves, on the other hand, came to believe in the brain-mind’s ability to ever expand its repertoire of coping mechanisms by creating new thinking systems as circumstances demanded. This is illustrated in Spiral Dynamics by both the nomination of the hypothetical level I-V (CORAL) beyond H-U (TURQUOISE) and the Spiral ‘balloon’ graphic – the latter showing how the succeeding mindsets are greater in complexity, thus forming an ever-expanding spiral. (However, there is yet to be any scientifically-credible evidence of anyone thinking in a way beyond H-U.) Self-Actualisation was, for Graves, a never-ending process, not a (final) state and Maslow was mistaken to think of the meta-level of thinking he described in 1956 – which Graves equated to G-T – as Self-Actualisation.

Graves (1971a/1988, p13) does claim that Maslow and he eventually reached agreement on this issue:  “You should know that Maslow came around to my point. If you look at some of his later writings, you will see that he accepted both (1) the cyclic idea that there were more than one kind of expressive system and more than one kind of belonging system and (2) that the system is open ended. We finally, after fighting this over for eight years, came to a fundamental agreement along that line.”

The Graves legacy
Although severe ill health forced his retirement from Union College in 1978, Graves continued to carry out research and to make presentations as best he could. His health problems effectively brought to an end his attempts to write a book about his work and the theory he had developed from it.

‘The Never Ending Quest’, published in 2005, was an invaluable completion of the abandoned manuscript by editors Chris Cowan & Natasha Todorovic, using other Gravesian materials.

Not particularly good at promoting himself in academic circles, Graves had relatively little material published in psychological journals during his lifetime – although he did have several pieces published in management/business-oriented periodicals. Cowan & Todorovic, in their introduction to ‘The Never Ending Quest’, attribute (piv) a reluctance in Graves to publish in psychological journals being due to witnessing Maslow’s experience at the afore-mentioned APA conference. “The memory of an icon being lambasted and emotionally crushed by  colleagues stuck with Clare Graves who seems to have vowed that he would never put himself in Maslow’s position. Instead he would conduct rigorous research and release his findings only when the theory was ripe and defensible in the face of the harshest criticism.”

Graves and Beck at Union College (Courtesy Laura Frey Horn)

Graves and Beck at Union College (Courtesy Laura Frey Horn)

However, by the time of his retirement, Graves’ work was being taken very seriously indeed by a number of small networks across the United States. One particularly important pocket of support was in Texas where Scott & Susan Myers at Texas Instruments introduced the concepts to colleagues Charles Hughes & Vincent Flowers. Hughes & Flowers soon became the Center for Values Research – but not before Flowers had taken up a position at North Texas State University where he interested Don Beck & Chris Cowan (who eventually became the National Values Center) in Graves’ work. Together and separately they championed his ideas both within academia and in applications to industry & commerce and education.

When Graves died in 1986, Beck had already established his own remarkable project of applying Graves’ model to the deteriorating situation in Apartheid South Africa. Graves and Beck consulted closely during the mission’s first few years. (See: Don Beck & South Africa.)

Don Beck & Chris Cowan, of course, developed Spiral Dynamics (1996) from Graves’ model.

Cowan, Graves and Beck at Graves’ farm (Copyright © NVC Inc)

Cowan, Graves and Beck at Graves’ farm (Copyright © NVC Inc)

However, while it is arguably the most powerful development of Graves’ work, Spiral Dynamics is far from being the only ‘build’ on his work. Eg: Charles Hughes & Vincent Flowers (1978) set up their Value Systems Analysis model to apply Graves’ concepts to industry & commerce. Aiming for a similar market, in 1989 Dudley Lynch & Paul Kordis launched what would become, in Lynch’s hands, a whole series of Graves-derived books and assessment tools using the metaphor of ‘ dolphin strategy’.

In recent years, before their deaths in respectively July and September 2015 – see the Blog post Fare Thee Well, Christopher Cowan! – Cowan worked closely with Bill Lee, the self-described ‘Graves Archivist’, to recover, preserve and publish original Graves materials – both online and paperbound. Much of their work is available at

Graves’ model and his theory have yet to be validated to academic standards. However, hundreds – if not thousands! – of Gravesians are actively using the model to make a difference in the ‘real world’.


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3 Responses

  1. Laura Horn says

    Let’s talk soon…

  2. Said E. Dawlabani says

    Thanks again Keith for bringing clarity and historic accuracy to Graves and his legacy. We’re all thankful for the hard work you do.

  3. Gernia says

    Thanks for sharing.