DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 2: SPIRAL DYNAMICS
Updated: Mar 18
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for taking new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. Today, we will look at a new approach to conflict resolution.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH
“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it in perspective”
One of the great inherent challenges that exists within humanity at large is managing the differences between individuals when we all hold unique, personal perspectives. I do not believe that I have to provide any examples of controversial topics leading to problematic disagreement in modern day-- it is pretty clear at this point that differences in perspectives can result in large emotional reactions that create serious barriers to understanding.
This usually leads to an age-old query: “why can’t we all just get along?”
While this rhetorical question can easily be seen as a moot point or even anxiety-inducing when realistically considered, the data derived from Spiral Dynamics offer a novel perspective on the platitude: we DO all have completely different definitions of “getting along”, and therefore reframes the question to “how can we fuse our differences together?”
To thoroughly explain Spiral Dynamics would require dozens of pages of lengthy and exhaustive writeup, so I will summarize basics and include multiple sources for further reading at the end of this post.
What it is:
“Spiral Dynamics” refers broadly to a model of evolutionary development within both individuals and societies at large. The basic concept is that there are multiple levels of worldviews-- all of which are correct within their own constraints-- that humans can view as the “ideal route to success” from a psychological level. “Everyone is trying to get to the same destination from different paths”. These levels are notably not fixed-- we may progress through life and find ourselves advancing through worldviews, returning to prior worldviews, settling on one resonating worldview, or ideally utilizing all of our acquired worldviews. Conflict is then viewed as differences in ideologies rather than direct disagreement, and instead of arguing for a single dominant perspective to be seen as the “correct” one, the results suggest that integration of contrasting perspectives may be a more realistic and effective strategy in conflict resolution.
How the concept arose:
The model was developed over a 25-year period of ongoing studies around the topic, started by psychologists Don Edward Beck and Christopher Cowen based on initial work from a ‘systems theory’ begun by a psychologist named Clare Graves. As mentioned last week, what makes this study particularly intriguing is the strong validity of results. Within psychological studies, validity is determined by replication ability, application to real life, relevance to multiple cultures rather than just one, and minimization of researcher/participant bias on results.
The process by which Spiral Dynamics was derived cleverly avoided many of these pitfalls: As all of these psychologists were professors, information would be attained from students in classes that occurred on all 7 continents, and the study made conscious effort to incorporate the widest possible range of cultures, ethnicities and SES backgrounds. Students taking the class in the first semester of a year had one task: write a 25 page essay about what they believed to be an ideal psychological life. No further instruction would be given to prevent bias in hopes of getting the most genuine answers, and completion of the paper resulted in full course credit as to dissuade the idea of “wrong” perspectives. New students taking the class in the second semester were then assigned to read all of the essays written the months prior, and simply sort them into categories by similar worldview. This ensured that the study was continuously being conducted using new, unique individuals at all steps of the process.
After 25 years of this, clear patterns began to emerge in assessment of the full range of worldviews that humans seemed to gravitate towards. This information developed into the aforementioned levels of worldviews, and though a ranked list seems to suggest that one developed into the next, the “spiral” aspect of the nomenclature arises from the idea that there is no hierarchy-- all levels are intertwined and dynamic. The focus is that we can be at the same level of understanding/functioning yet have differing, conflicting, yet equally valid perspectives. While some seemed to connect to one level and essentially “master” the elements of that specific worldview, the current level of an individual is again not seen as a fixed fact of personality, but rather a fluid viewpoint with much potential for plasticity.
Though newer renditions have added alternative interpretation, these 8 levels were determined initially to broadly categorize the worldviews that were seen throughout the decades of study:
1-“BEIGE” (Instinctive)- the first level could be best described as ‘primal’: a psychologically successful life simply comes from surviving. Beige thinkers strive to rely on instincts, avoid harm, find resources and weather the environment. Individuals with this mentality are just trying to meet basic needs of food, shelter and sex, do not have strong desire for individual self awareness, and essentially ‘live off the land’ as we would in our most natural state.
Real-World Example: hunter-gatherer societies, living isolated from society
2-“PURPLE” (Tribal)- the second level is similar to the first, but incorporates hierarchy, group structures, and advanced awareness of surroundings. The key facets of a psychologically successful life in the purple level comes from banding together for safety, trusting elders/leaders for guidance, and respecting nature by giving mystical power to elements of life that we do not understand. Instead of simply trying to survive the harsh environment, individuals with this worldview seek to band together in unison and make harmony with it.
Real-World Example: A sun-worshipping society in ancient history best aligns with this level of worldview
3-“RED” (Egocentric)- the mentality of the third level can be described as “the world is a jungle of danger and therefore I must conquer it”. This ideology is centered around the idea that there are good and bad forces in the world, and one must overcome the bad at all costs. The focus is on chasing personal impulses, avoiding shame or perceived failure, and disregarding the guilt or consequences that may come from personal actions. Psychological success is then determined by one’s perceived reputation and success in ‘defeating the bad’ and achieving personal goals.
Real-World Example: the Ottoman Empire solely sought to expand their own territory and conquer as much land as possible without regard for impact on those they were conquering. This could also describe a general mentality of being at war.
4-“BLUE” (Purposeful): An interesting trend that was noticed within levels was how every other level alternates focus on either individuality or community. The fourth level worldview may be most prominently seen in 19th-20th century culture turn of the United States, as it put faith into systems of deindividualized unity. If we all operate as cogs to a larger whole, everyone doing their part and sacrificing individuality will result in a delayed, but greater reward. Order is key, and though good/bad is still seen as a paramount and prominent concept, this ideology moves away from individual values and respects a universal moral code, or a way that ‘everyone should act’. Under this worldview, impulsive actions and defying the system should result in guilt and punishment due to perceived selfishness and lack of compromise, and therefore a psychologically successful life can be attained by the individual “playing the game by the rules”.
Real-World Example: Corporate structures, team sports, service industry jobs, and similar structures rely on all working together under fixed expectation for benefit of the greater whole
5-“ORANGE” (Strategic): The orange level is essentially taking the same structural view as the blue level but applying a more individualistic perspective. This worldview still respects that there are a set of objective rules and order within the world, but reframes psychological success within the environment to come from how an individual manages to find ways to manipulate the structure in a way that creates individual benefit. Orange level strives for autonomy and innovation, values competition and hierarchy, and sees critical thinking and improvement on what already exists to be the most valuable part of societal advancement.
Real-World Example: Capitalism, and therefore entrepreneurial endeavors are a great example of this, but scientists, researchers, and similar professions also display these values.
6-“GREEN” (Relativistic): this worldview is centered around equality and respecting the value of every human life; the goal from this perspective is to move society away from greed, selfishness, and dogma and towards a more connected and unified one with consideration of our internal selves prioritized over a “dog-eat-dog” competition for resources. The ideology sees psychological success in attaining harmony, unification, and holding consideration for all other humans regardless of personal impact. Green level thinking strives for peace, non-violent communication, and consensus decisionmaking.
Real-World Example: The social justice perspective essentially aligns with this worldview, particularly with the ideals of maximizing human access to opportunities and resources to counter current environmental barriers.
7-“YELLOW” (Integrative): The first of two “second-tier” perspectives can be described as an individualistic abstraction that integrates all of the 6 levels preceding it. The view from the yellow perspective accepts that the world is a chaotic, ambiguous, and undefined place, and psychological success comes from discovering personal freedom in a way that does not overindulge self-interest nor harms others. This level accepts natural hierarchies, but also values and considers the benefit of how diversity on earth creates infinite dimensions of culture, ideas, and progressions to society at large. An ideal world from the yellow perspective uses open and integrative systems which utilize every color level at a position which they will be most comfortable and efficient.
Real-World Example: We can stretch to say creating a great movie scene requires yellow level thinking: proper integration of the actor’s skills with the writer’s creative vision and the director’s systemic process can result in the Hollywood magic, and could not exist without blending all three together.
8-“TURQUOISE” (Holistic): the final level has received the most skepticism for existence, likely because the ideals seem too perfect, unattainable, or unrealistic from the modern societal perspective. Essentially, this view is looking from a post-yellow society of integrated systems view and blends those integrated systems for one globally-connected network. Psychological success from this level sees not just harmony between all individuals, but also maximizes the good in every individual due to efficient integration creating a greater whole. This worldview sees humans as spiritually interconnected, and values minimalism approaches as well as expanding use of the human brain/tools to “tap into” further consciousness advancement.
Real-World Example: Holistic viewpoints, synergy, and conceptualization of entities or forces we have not yet discovered would be the best real-life comparisons.
Once these categories were assessed and solidified, the application of Spiral Dynamics (beyond just a posited psychological theory) activated a new approach to conflict: if we acknowledge and utilize our differences rather than evangelize and defend them, acceptance, integration and collaboration can turn a contrast into a compliment.
Clearly, we see some direct conflicts: a peaceful green thinker and a warrior red thinker see each other as a direct obstacle and threat to their own view. The systemic blue thinker sees the strategic orange thinker as immoral or a ‘cheat’ while the counter-perspective focuses on missing opportunities, not thinking autonomously, or lacking capability of reaching the level.
While we are quick to react to opposition, successful application of spiral dynamics also creates consideration that the green thinker may need the determination and commitment-directed attitude of a red thinker to more effectively implicate their own goals, and the red-thinker may find that adding others creates greater strength in mutual benefit. The blue thinker needs the orange thinker to keep systems from becoming stagnant and outdated, while the orange can only operate because of the very systems that the blue upholds. One of the most prominent actual examples of using spiral dynamics was in attempt to reduce gang violence, where perceptions of threats and attacks from one group to another were reframed as different motivations and survival techniques, and more empathy and commonality was indeed reported as a result.
At this point you may be curious why such an extensive and statistically diverse study does not have more recognition-- while there is no objective answer, a few factors may lead to explanation. While most criticism did affirm that the study resulted in very unique and valuable data, the proposed model was seen as extremely complex and convoluted, and no proposed method of application was determined to be effective utilization. The concept is obviously very abstract, and therefore subject to an oversaturation of interpretations and lacking of universal agreement on certain understandings. Additionally, the concept suffered from stigma after cult-like followings were reported to use Spiral Dynamic principals, resulting in a negative association.
I can’t speak for everyone else, but I certainly like being right. It’s not hard to see why we generally trend towards defending our views, and certainly we all SHOULD feel confident in the people that we are! However... there is also a tendency to see the aspect of being “right” having a natural implication of other perspectives being “wrong”.
Spiral Dynamics aims to essentially accept that yes, we all believe different perspectives to be right, but takes the caveat to say that this doesn’t mean that others are not also right despite a differing perspective.
Instead of challenging the correctness of our beliefs, the model reframes to ask how our two beliefs can compromise without feeling diminished, or even better, how can we integrate our differences into symbioticism that will result in greater value than either perspective could attain alone?
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
TERROR MANAGEMENT THEORY
Next month, we will cover another lesser known theory which posits that the driving force of life is the conscious awareness of mortality and the many interesting implications that can be observed based on this school of thought.
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