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What is Spiral Dynamics?

By Adam Hill
Updated May 16, 2024
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Spiral dynamics addresses issues of human nature and development, as put forth in Don Beck and Chris Cowan's book Spiral Dynamics, released in 1996. The National Values Center Inc. also owns Spiral Dynamics® as a registered trademark. The theory holds that human nature is not constant or unchangeable, but that people as a group can strategically adapt to new situations when the need arises. They do this by creating a more complex conceptual model of the world, that even while it contains the previous one, still transcends it. In basic terms, spiral dynamics is about human motivations, opinions and reactions and why they differ. Spiral dynamics aims to understand and explain human affairs.

Spiral dynamics is based on the research of Clare W. Graves in the 1930s which was called "The Theory of Levels of Human Existence." Don Beck expanded on the original theory and brought it into the limelight. The reason behind the present name "spiral dynamics" is to visualize human movement through various stages of development. If we imagine a spiral that encompasses an ever-wider circumference as it progresses, and yet keeps the same center with each revolution, this holds many similarities to the theory explained in the book by Beck and Cowan. Each new conceptual model is organized around a system of core values that can apply both for individuals and entire cultures. These value systems are known as vMemes, with the "v" standing for "values," because they express themselves as memes that propagate themselves throughout society.

Supporters of this theory claim that its experienced application allows someone to analyze both the collective and individual aspects of behaviors and cultures. The vMemes described by Spiral Dynamics® are color-coded for organization, and describe the prevailing systems of values that have governed people and cultures at different times in the history of the world. Each new system of thought modifies and builds on the previous one, and seeks to solve any problems created by the older ways of living. The theory also states that each vMeme can be applied in both positive and negative ways. This pattern continues up to today.

There are also critics of Spiral Dynamics®. Some critics argue that the theory may lead to authoritarianism and elitism. They may mention how the theory categorizes individuals into various tiers. Supporters of Spiral Dynamics® also sometimes disagree about the specific meanings and implications of the theory.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By anon990900 — On May 14, 2015

Spiral Dynamics is no a hierarchy of better or smarter but of complexity. The layers or adaptive codes are a function of the Life Conditions which, clearly are different. Second Tier thinking is not authoritarian or would not be Second Tier, neither does it breed elitism; it does just the opposite. All developmental models, even pre-modern, modern, and post-modern suggest stages or differences. These are not types of people nor types of societies; rather, they are modes of thinking within both. I suggest the book-- The Crucible: Forging South Africa's Future for documentation.

By anon989810 — On Mar 23, 2015

Beck and Cowan's book is based on 25 years of academic research done by Prof. Clare W. Graves and acknowledge by people such as Maslow.

Spiral Dynamics gives insight into what cultures have in common despite the diverse nature of their outward expressions.

Unfortunately, the theory is often misrepresented as it requires much study to understand its true nature and many don't look further than the colors of the Value Systems.

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