Spiral Dynamics

Spiral dynamics is a model of analysis of the development of humanity based on the predominant values ​​in different human societies and repeated throughout history, as well as the “visions of time or time” (zeitgeist) associated with each one of them. [Regarding human values, see the Hall-Tonna model in our post on value-based motivation]


Spiral Dynamics is an elaboration of the value system proposed by Clare W. Graves (1914-1986) from his research and presented in 1996 by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan in his book “Spiral Dynamics: Mastering, Values, Leadership & Change” “Spiral Dynamics: Mastering, Values, Leadership & Change” with the idea of ​​promoting the application of this knowledge in organizational, social and cultural spheres.

This model analyzes the different ways of thinking of people considering their wide diversity of ideas and ways of existing, identifying common patterns in a model with different strata and levels that runs through the historical process of humanity, from its beginnings to the present, attending to the proposed forms from the so-called “theories of ”complexity” [See also our article on Theory of Complexity].

That the model has the form of spiral cycles is congruent with:

  1. The sacred books like the Bible or the Popol Vuh (K’iche’/Mayas)
  2. The Hindu Cyclical View of History (Cyclical Model of Breeds)
  3. Various authors ranging from Heraclitus of Ephesus to Giambattista Vico, to name a few thinkers from different eras

More recently: “There is a theory that history moves in cycles. But when, like a spiral staircase, the course of human events completes a circle it does on a new level … Ian Stewart in”Does God Play Dice?: The New Mathematics of Chaos“(2012).

From the perspective of spiral dynamics, the different stages of human development correspond to 8 stages of the memes and 8 systems of values ​​or modes of existence.


The term meme was introduced by Richard Dawkins to describe the unit of cultural information (a political ideology, a fashionable trend, a use of language, a musical form or an architectural style: see the theories about cultural diffusion). What genes represent for biochemical DNA, are represented by memes for our psychocultural DNA. They are units of information in our collective consciousness and transport their visions through our minds, from one individual to another, or from one mind to another, or from one generation to the next.

According to Richard Dawkins, who coined the term meme in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene,” we have two different types of information processors:

  • The genome or genetic system located in the chromosomes of each individual and determinant of the genotype. This DNA constitutes the biological nature vital in general and human in particular. Through replication, genes are transmitted hereditarily for generations.
  • The brain and the nervous system allow to process the cultural information received by teaching, imitation (mimesis) or assimilation, divisible in idea, concept, technique, skill, custom, etc., and nominated “memes”.

Dawkins’ most important thesis is that cultural traits, or memes, are also replicated. By analogy with the genetic grouping in chromosomes, it is considered that memes are also grouped into cultural dimensions, which can be increased with new cultural acquisitions. The big difference is that, while the chromosomes are natural units independent of our actions, the cultural dimensions are our constructions. Thus, culture is not so much a set of behavioral forms, but rather information that specifies them.

In his book “The Evolving Self”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term memes in contrast to genes to identify the origins of human behavior as opposed to physical characteristics.

For the purposes of spiral dynamics, a system or meme of values ​​(a meta-meme) is a determined wave of development of consciousness that corresponds to a certain way of seeing the world. Changing living conditions modify the most suitable level of existence for each environment. These values ​​memes are organizing principles that bring together the original memes. The memes of values ​​establish the rhythm and the process of agglutinate beliefs, structure thought, political forms and visions of the world of entire civilizations.

Back to the dynamic spiral of Beck and Cowan

The spiral dynamic is a model of the expressions of the memes of values, memes that circulate in human systems and “laten” in the decision-making centers of people, organizations and societies.

The work of Don Beck and Chris Cowan on Spiral Dynamics is based on the fact that the development of consciousness is determined by the growth of waves called memes. They talk about 8 memes in the waves of 1st (from 1 to 6) and 2nd grade (7 and 8). These memes are described by colors:

  1. Archaic / Instinctive / Survival: Satisfaction of physiological needs: food, water, heat, sex and safety; without self consciousness (beige)
  2. Magic / Animist / Tribal: Security within the tribe; rites and traditions; kinship and lineage; spirit of the ancestors cohesive the tribe (violet)
  3. Gods of power / Egocentric / Impulsive: Immediately satisfy impulses; strength and courage; mythical spirits, dragons, beasts and powerful people; dominant and dominated; the self is at its widest without restrictions of any kind (red)
  4. Hierarchical / superior sense of life: There is an ultimate truth that gives meaning to life; it is necessary to accept each one his site and to follow the rules; code of conduct based on absolutist principles; rigid and paternalistic social hierarchies (blue)
  5. Scientific / Strategic / Progressive / Materialist Achievement: Freedom of action to obtain personal success and enjoy material progress; hypothetical-deductive, experimental, objective, mechanical and operational level; benefits and commercial alliances (orange)
  6. I sensitive / Community / Equal: Harmony and peace with others; community and interior life; ecological networks and sensitivity; dialogue, relations, conciliation and consensus; spiritual, harmony and enrichment of human potential (green)
  7. Integrative: Independence and knowledge, flexibility, spontaneity and functionality so that all life can continue; the rank, power, status and dependence of the group are replaced by knowledge and suitability (yellow)
  8. Holistic: Connected to all life; restore global harmony. Knowledge and spirituality for all present and future life; conscious and living universal order; it warns the interaction between multiple levels and detects the harmonics, the mystic forces and the flow states that permeate any organization (turquoise)

Each wave of existence constitutes an essential ingredient of all subsequent waves, and all must therefore be properly respected and included. In addition, each of the waves can be activated or reactivated in response to the different circumstances of life. Thus, emergency situations stimulate the red impulses of power; the chaos reactivates the blue meme of order; the search for a new job encourages the orange impulses of achievement and marriage and friendship sets in motion the green meme of intimacy. All memes, then, contribute something extremely important.

The memes of the first grade consider that their vision of the world is the only one suitable and, therefore, they react negatively every time they feel threatened.

This state of affairs begins to change with the emergence of “second-degree thinking,” a fully conscious modality of the inner stages of development that recognizes and understands the role they play-and, consequently, the need-for the rest of the memes.

Second-grade thinking is relatively rare nowadays and constitutes an authentic “vanguard” of the collective evolution of the human being. Beck and Cowan illustrate this type of consciousness with items ranging from the noosphere of Teilhard de Chardin to the emergence and expansion of transpersonal psychology, the theories of chaos and complexity, integral holistic systems thinking, the pluralistic integrations of Gandhi and Mandela affirming with all clarity that a process of updating even more elevated memes is underway …

The integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

The philosopher Ken Wilber, founder of the Integral theory, develops from the Spiral Dynamics “A theory of everything”, a model within the integral paradigm, denominating it then: “Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi)” that integrates the line of “values” within the OCON / AQAL model (omnicuadrante / omninivel – all quadrants / all levels).
Wilber presents a model of four quadrants. The vertical axis collects the individual versus the collective and the horizontal axis the subjective interior versus the objective observable. According to this author, the four quadrants evolve together and affect each other in a complex and retroactive way. The lines of development par excellence of the interior quadrants are those of consciousness understood in a broad way, whether individual or collective. The lines of development par excellence of the exterior quadrants are those postulated by the theory of evolution for the individual and the modes of production for the collective or social. But it places multiple lines of development for each quadrant: spiritual, moral, psychosexual, interpersonal, emotional and cognitive. To reach them, it is based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences [See our post on “Learning in different ways. Part Two“].


If you want to know a little bit more …


Wilber, K. (2006) Introduction to the Integral Approach (and the AQAL Map).


Guénon, R. (1984) Formas tradicionales y ciclos cósmicos. Obelisco. Barcelona.

Stewart, I. (2012) ¿Juega Dios a los dados?: La nueva matemática del caos. Boojet Ciencia. Drakontos. Ed. Planeta.


Aunger, R. (2004) El meme eléctrico. Una nueva teoría sobre cómo pensamos. Paidós. Barcelona.

Beck, D. y Cowan, Ch. (2005) Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change. Blackwell Publishing. October, 1rst. 2005.


Graves, C.W. (1970) Levels of Existence: an Open System Theory of Values. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 1970; 10; 131.



Other web pages of interest in the subject: