Summary of Spiral Dynamics

Summary of Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan
by Steve Dinan, Esalen Institute

This is really a terrific book once the reader gets past the capital letters and color-coding scheme. It presents, in fascinating detail, a spiral developmental model of worldviews. Beck and Cowan call these patterns of thinking vMemes (short for values-attracting meta-memes). vMemes can be thought of as broad orienting paradigms, a schema through which we interpret the world. These vMemes fall into a series of eight levels, with the potential for higher ones emerging as we speak. Each level also has entering, peak, and declining phases. They avoid the most common pitfall of stage models by introducing a great deal of fluidity. First, situational factors encourage different vMemes to “light up.” We might rely upon one vMeme in the religious domain and another in intimate relationships. In times of intensive stressor war, previously submerged vMemes often come to the surface. Furthermore, Beck and Cowan argue that the healthy expression of each vMeme is essential to the health of the entire spiral of development. In this way, they allow for the kind of structural analysis that is so useful from stage models without the rigid (and alienating) process of just assigning people to boxes, stages, or roles. We can be encouraged or assisted to use more complex and evolved paradigms, but the goal of what they call “the spiral wizard” is to meet people, situations, and cultures where they are at, creating organizational and political models that are, at most, a ½ step ahead of the individuals involved. The spiral wizard recognizes that the health of the overall spiral is paramount and that change can generally happen only by small increments. Beck and Cowan are more interested in lubricating change effectively than rejecting and overthrowing old structures.

Each vMeme leads to certain beliefs, social groupings, motivation patterns, organizational dynamics, and goals. If we try to impose solutions or structures that are too far ahead of the curve (that reflect or engage inappropriate vMemes) the result is alienation and rebellion rather than transformation. In this way, Beck and Cowan model a way of being in the world that is eminently practical, sensitive and oriented towards transformation. Too often, we intuit a “better” or “higher” mode of being without respecting the stages of change and development that must happen before large numbers of people in an organization or society can enact such a mode. Beck and cowan actually avoid use of the terms “better” or “higher,” sticking with, at most, “more complex” vMemes. There is a hierarchy involved, but it is more factual than evaluative. The eight dominant vMemes today are listed below with a range of factors that reflect such a worldview. Each vMeme has emerged historically in response to the needs of new, and more complex, life conditions.

1. Beige: Semi-Stone Age not generally that active today, dominated by nature and basic survival instincts, acting much as other animals. Results in loose, clan-based survival groups. Famine might result in large numbers of people arrested in this mode. (newborns and senile elderly, mentally ill street people, people in starvation, late-stage Alzheimers, .1% of population)

2. Purple: Tribal animistic, magical, spiritistic, close to the earth and cyclic in outlook. This leads to tribal groupings, focus on rituals to appease ancestral spirits. Blood bonds are strong. Management of PURPLE demands respect for clan rules and allegiances, respect to the clan “leaders.” Rewarding someone too visibly can break the group bond with negative consequences. Change must be embodied in rituals, traditions, and symbols. (guardian angels and voodoo-like curses, blood oaths, lucky charms, superstitions, athletic team bonding, 10% of world population, 1% of power)

3. Red: Exploitative Rough and harsh, rugged authoritarianism, finds expression in slavery or virtual slavery, exploitation of unskilled labor. Generally run by a Top Boss and series of proxies, strict division of have’s and have not’s. Assumption is that people are lazy, must be forced to work. True leaders must suppress natural human tendencies. Currently evident in street life and gangs in inner cities. Motivated by “heroes” and conquest. Feudalism. (Terrible Twos, feudal kingdoms, soldiers of fortune, many rock stars, Power Rangers, rebellious youth, 20% of world population, 5% of power)

4. Blue: Authoritarian Loyal to Truth, which is defined by social grouping. Purposeful and patriotic, leads people to obey authority, feel guilty when not conforming to group norms, try to serve the greater good through self-sacrifice. Works very well in industrial economies. Discipline is strict but usually fair and often public (flogging in Singapore, e.g.). U.S. has shifted away from BLUE industries, which have moved to Mexico, Taiwan, Malaysia, and elsewhere that this BLUE is now strong. BLUE industries will eventually move to Africa, in Beck’s opinion. Moralistic-prescriptive management techniques. Organizational structure is pyramidal. (Boy and Girl Scouts, Billy Graham, Puritan American, Confucian China, Islamic fundamentalism, 40% of world population, 30% of power)

5. Orange: Entrepreneurial Personal success orientation, each person rationally calculating what is to their personal advantage. Motivations are largely economic, people are responsive to perks, bonuses, money rather than loyalty, group belongingness, or life employment. Rational capacities allow people to test many options. Competition improves productivity and fosters growth. This is probably the dominant vMeme in America today. Main concerns are autonomy and manipulation of the environment. Usually results in free market economy and multi-party democracy. (Ayn Rand, Wall Street, Rodeo Drive, cosmetics industry, Dallas, trophy hunting, Hong Kong, GQ, Mediterranean yachts, 30% of world population, 50% of power)

6. Green: Communitarian Sensitive and humanistic, the focus with green is community and personal growth, equality, attention to environmental concerns. Work is motivated by human contact and contribution, learning from others. Being liked is more important than competitive advantage, value openness and trust, fear rejection and disapproval. Leaders become facilitators, less autocratic. Hierarchies blur in the move towards egalitarianism with a resulting tendency towards inefficiency and stagnation. Can become so bogged down and ineffectual, though, that people revert to go-getter individualism of orange. (Rogerian counseling, Esalen, GreenPeace, Jacques Costeau, Jimmy Carter, John Lennon’s music, Doctors without Borders, ACLU, Ben & Jerry’s, animal rights, deep ecology, 10% of population, 15% of power)

7. Yellow: Systemic This is the first vMeme of the second tier (described below) in which there is a quantum shift in the capacity to take multiple perspectives in life. YELLOW is motivated by learning for its own sake and is oriented towards integration of complex systems. Change is a welcome part of the process in organizations and life; YELLOW likes the challenges. It is characterized by systems thinking, an orientation to how parts interact to create a greater whole. Unique talents and dispositions are honored as contributing something valuable to the whole. YELLOW likes engineering complex systems and dealing with ideas. It is also ecologically oriented, but in a more subdued, behind the scenes way. YELLOW thinkers often work on the periphery of organizations, quietly fine-tuning situations and procedures, much to the bafflement of the first tier vMemes. (Hawking’s Brief History of Time, chaos theory, eco-industrial parks, Wired magazine, 1% of world population, 5% of power)


8. Turquoise: Holistic Focused on a global holism/integralism, attuned to the delicate balance of interlocking life forces. Synthetic and experiential, emerging focus on spiritual connectivity. Work must be meaningful to the overall health of life. Feelings and information experienced together, enhancing both. Able to see and honor many perspectives, including many of the “lower” vMemes. Structured in multi-dimensional ways. Conscious of energy fields, holographic links in all walks of work and life, urge to use collective human intelligence to work on large-scale problems without sacrificing individuality. (Gaia hypothesis, Ken Wilber’s work, Teilhard de Chardin, David Bohm, McLuhan’s ‘global village,’ Gandhi’s idea of pluralistic harmony, not very influential yet, .1% of world population, 1% of power)

Beck and Cowan denote transitional stages with the predominant vMeme in capital letters and the less influential vMeme in lowercase. BLUE/orange is thus the exiting phase of a predominantly BLUE colored worldview, mixed with emergent orange. blue/ORANGE is the entering phase of true orange. ORANGE is the peak of a worldview. Generally, the higher levels emerge like waves at a beach: swelling from insignificance, peaking, and dissolving again. Each wave is a bit higher (more complex) than the last. This process of successively more complex waves of vMemes is not inevitable, though. Changing life conditions must generate sufficient problems for the predominant worldview to be motivated to change. A corporation, for example, might cling to the bedrock of BLUE, while the information economy forces entirely new ways of doing business. Many illustrious corporation thus end up on the rocks as the next wave of change reveals their incapacity to adapt to new economic circumstances.

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