The Graves model – also known as Spiral Dynamics theory – is an evolutionary human development model based on research by US psychologist, Dr Clare Graves, carried out in the 1950-60s.
Back then, Graves sought to validate the theory of contemporary and friend Abraham Maslow – yes, that Maslow, who developed the Hierarchy of Needs.
Graves died before publishing his research, which is why his theory never attained the notoriety of Maslow’s (although Maslow acknowledged Graves’ theory to be superior to his own). Fortunately, the teacher and theorist Don Edward Beck made it among his life work to ensure that the Graves model was never forgotten – and Spiral Dynamics theory was born.
The Graves model established levels of worldviews that humans operate from – a sort of values system, if you like. Our worldview (or our ‘Graves model profile’) dictates the goals we set and the things we care about. During the course of our evolution, we move through each of the levels.
The Graves model, being a ‘vertical’ typology system (which I’ll explain below), fills in the blanks left by exclusively relying on horizontal typology systems, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator for self-understanding. It therefore transcends the problem of over-identification that can happen when people over-rely on such systems.
What follows is a brief description of the eight human developmental levels that have been observed.
The eight levels
Level one/Beige – reactive/survival level
At beige, the world is based on the biological imperatives of survival. We only really see this worldview in babies and very young children, and those people suffering from a severe degenerative condition (such as Alzheimer’s) or extreme drug dependency.
Level two/Purple – tribal level
At purple, our tribe and its chief (and ancestors) are the most important things in life. In today’s society, purple worldview is seen in a diluted form within some family units, football supporters and highly competitive corporate teams. The core values of a person operating from a purple worldview include safety and security.
Level three/Red – egocentric/warlord level
This is a highly individualistic level, often featuring anger and impulsiveness. The world is all about strength, aggression and selfishness – and success is about winning respect and avoiding shame. It is often a stage that we move through quickly.
On the positive side, the red worldview is also where people learn to stand up for themselves, as distinct from the tribe mentality of the preceding worldview. The core values here include power, immediate gratification, escaping from being controlled and being respected.
Level four/Blue – civilization/absolutist level
A person in the blue worldview views the world as a rational place, well-defined into distinct categories. The world is black-and-white when in blue! We’re less ‘me-centric’ at this stage, and go back to being ‘we-centric’. This worldview is observed in strict religions.
Level five/Orange – achievement/materialist level
At orange, the world is a playground of personal freedom, abundance, achievement, and enjoyment of material rewards. On a societal level, the birth of capitalism heralded an entry into orange (we may have since regressed).
On an individual level, this looks like a return back to a ‘me-centric’ focus. At orange, we discover there’s no reason to limit ourselves. Here, our core values are success, creativity and achievement.
Level six/Green – personalistic/ecological level
A person with a green worldview sees the material world as spiritual bereft. Green worldview individuals are those who have met their goals. They therefore start to think in terms that are ‘we-centric’ again.
Individuals operating from this level may have an ineffectual quality – they find it very challenging to accomplish their mission, because they’re concerned with listening to everyone’s perspectives.
Level seven/Yellow – systemic level
For the person who has ‘made the leap’ to this level, the world is an exciting, diverse and paradoxical curiosity that needs to be studied, analysed and understood. Though it goes back to an ego-centric focus, the concept of ego is expansive, including all of humanity.
Crucially, level seven people are able to communicate with individuals at their level, in order to get what they want in a faster and more productive way. They may set and work towards goals that are unlikely to bear fruit in their lifetime.
Level eight/Turquoise – holistic level
A person that has reached this worldview sees a world in danger of geo-political collapse as a result of adopting short term strategies. They also see life as diverse and paradoxical.
In common with yellow, turquoise values the pursuit of knowledge as a major driver. They can often see the bigger picture, and are willing to take a position that is contrary to popular opinion.
8 things to know about Graves model
We’ll begin with 3 practical applications:
1. It gives you a reference point/context from which to understand your motivations, behaviour and actions
As with Myers Briggs and the Enneagram, the Graves model helps explain why we do what we do.
So called ‘horizontal’ models of personality typing assume that people are at roughly the same level of development. Myers Briggs is a horizontal model: it compares/contrasts how people think, make decisions and behave, but it doesn’t really take into account their perspectives of reality.
Vertical models, such as the Graves model, specifically look at how people are at varying levels of development, and study the progress we make as individuals and as societies. (The Enneagram is a hybrid of the horizontal and vertical models.)
The Graves model’s primary interest is in your worldview, and just how expanded your awareness about life in general has become. Used in conjunction with the other theories, it gives us a more complete picture of a person. It may even be the ‘missing piece’ of the jigsaw, explaining why the same Enneagram types and MB types can appear so different.
2. It gives you a way of diagnosing the challenges of a whole society – and using that to instruct your own actions
The Graves model has societal implications. The individual is a microcosm of society; how we behave, and particular how those in leadership behave, can predict where on the whole we are headed.
Those at the highest level of society in the States currently appear to be in the red worldview. Emerging out of a predominately red worldview will require a blue worldview. The implications of that are massive. Recall that Graves theory states that neither individuals nor the whole of humanity can be forced to skip levels; we must all follow through the steps and stages of evolution.
As always, if we want to evolve on a global scale, we must always start with ourselves. And that means being honest about the levels from which we are operating.
3. It explains why it can sometimes feel like other people are on a different planet
The Graves model helps explain why we clash with people, even if we’re similar to them in other ways.
When we’re at different developmental levels to people, it’s challenging to see their points of view. It’s not that we’re necessarily disagreeing – it’s that we’re not even having the same conversation.
Here are 5 further points on Graves’ theory, that should help you to identify your current worldview:
4. Most of the world is in red, blue and orange
The Graves model is an open-ended one. As long as human beings continue to exist, new levels will always emerge as new problems are created by the prior level. The eight above are just the ones that humanity has got to (although a nine is beginning to emerge).
As a species, we’ve only really gotten to about seven (there are a couple of people that have reached it, so we know roughly how things would look). At this time period in history, though, the average level for the human species is four.
According to research, in the US it seems that levels four/five (blue/orange) make up roughly 70-80% of the population. Level six (green) comes out around 10% (and growing fast), and everyone else is either level three (red) or lower.
5. You can’t choose your color
We generally can’t choose our current level; there are just too many influences to contend with.
The only time we have a semi-conscious choice is when we’re on the cusp of going to the next level, and we start to resist it. Otherwise, unless we proactively choose a personal development path, our Graves level is arbitrary.
6. People operate out of the level where they get answers to life’s problems – and move out of that level when that no longer works
All levels have advantages and all create problems. However, Graves believed that for the overall welfare of humanity and over the long run, higher levels are better than lower levels.
Each level enfolds and incorporates all the levels that precede it. Say you are in a Green worldview. You’ve realized that materialism sucks, and you see the pain that arises from ego individuation, independence and competition inherent in an orange worldview.
But after a period of being lost in self-contemplation or being highly idealistic (typical of green), you realise that nothing is happening. This may prompt you to shift to yellow, where the green challenge of being too open-minded and harmonious is removed.
Yellow’s worldview acknowledges that equally distributing resources among all people, and expecting that all humans are equally good, creates more problems than it solves. Yellow has green’s accepting quality, but now becomes pragmatic about achieving the goal of unification.
7. Odd numbers tend towards individual orientation. Even numbers tend towards communal orientation
You may have noticed that as we progress through the levels, our focus moves back and forth from being individualistic, to being community oriented.
To help you to remember the focus of each, remember that odd numbers are individual orientations, and even numbers community. You may be able to use this to help you to identify your category.
8. Each level views each other level a certain way
Up to and including level four, it is very difficult to see (and appreciate the value in) any level beyond the one you are currently at. But all the levels have conscious or unconscious opinions of how people of the other worldviews behave.
Yellow might see everyone as ‘interesting’, for example. Greens see the good in everybody – they are rose tinted. Orange sees green as non-threatening, and yellow as making things too complicated.
I’m being a little bit simplistic here, but hopefully you get the gist.
The Graves model is a fantastic piece of information to have at your fingertips.
It helps you to understand what’s important to you and why, and gives you a sneak peak of where you are headed.
The theory also helps us to empathize with others outside of our own worldview. If you can see the level at which people are operating from, then you can find the language and ways to communicate with them that’ll mean something.
This theory also presents some provocative questions: what if we could consciously ‘change filters’, rather than unconsciously viewing the world through our own? And what if we could identify worldview-related areas of stress, strengths, potential? How would that inform the way we conduct ourselves in leadership positions and across our personal lives?
They are great questions to be asking.