Spiral Dynamics: Exposition & Diagnosis

Introduction to Spiral Dynamics
Matthew Eddy

Matthew Eddy

Matthew Eddy is an armchair theologian currently residing in Saint Paul, Minnesota with his wife, Jenna. He completed a BA in Biblical & Theological Studies from Bethel University and a year of the MDiv program at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. His areas of interest focus on Søren Kierkegaard, soteriology, criminal justice, and ethics of nonviolence. On a lighter note, he also loves beer, baseball, and Bruce Springsteen.
Matthew Eddy

Why can’t we understand each other?

The violence and racism in Charlottesville, VA, Donald Trump’s trigger-happy quips to North Korea, the endless healthcare debates, and the constant tension over immigration executive orders (to name only a few recent developments from the headlines) have highlighted events motivated by drastically polarized views of the world. As each news story emerged, one interpretation of the facts appeared practically the exact opposite of the other — simply compare how Fox News and MSNBC reports a story, or how CNN hosts a panel of people with simplified and contradictory points of view to spark contention.

Maintaining a constructive dialogue with someone who thinks differently about big picture ideas in this ‘post-truth’ era is becoming exceedingly complex, and choosing to disregard another’s perspective as “fake news” is now the easy way out, as demonstrated by the President of the United States.

Are we even speaking the same language?

Some of the tension I described might originate from general political, religious, theological, and generational differences, but how can we understand those differences in a comprehensive way? Our world is shaped and categorized by pluralities, so how do we live in the midst of them?

There is reason to believe that we interpret and act in a plurality of ways because of the influence of entirely different patterns of thinking that produce divergent behavioral motivations that ground our desires. Consequently, this deeply influences how we view authority, Scripture, politics, and basic facts about the world.

“Spiral dynamics” is a psychological model intended to decipher these broad patterns of behaviors and motivations. The model categorizes these patterns into stages, beginning from the least complex stage where biological drives determine wholly the content of consciousness, to the most complex, where biological drives have nearly vanished due to the prominence of concepts and the effects of socialization. The spiral dynamics model takes into account both biological motivations and conceptual frameworks, both instincts and consciousness. Spiral dynamics attempts to provide a measure of clarity to the incredibly complex reality of human consciousness. And if you have been watching the news at all lately, this complexity is playing out in drastically polarized breakdowns of communication. Using sociological and historical trends, spiral dynamics provides a compelling take on the way we think, act, and respond to people who think differently than ourselves.

As a way of classification, spiral dynamics categorizes by color, and the first color is BEIGE.

This category describes thinking patterns as shaped by very basic instincts of survival: food, sex, shelter – the pursuit for warmth and safety. Not only would you find this way of behaving in primitive persons, but also in infants, who are born into the world as BEIGE because infants simply live in the present and merely desire the satisfaction of basic needs.

Although it might seem as if we as a species have matured beyond these instincts through the formation of societies, an interesting precept of spiral dynamics is that while we move on to different stages, our former category of being never truly leaves us. We will always have BEIGE in us. For instance, if someone enters the room with a gun, you will turn BEIGE. The survival instinct kicks in, the limbic part of your brain turns on, and you experience “fight or flight.” Or even on a microscale, a heated argument in the comment section of a news article is often a painfully clear demonstration of people giving into a BEIGE reaction to a perceived threat.

The second stage is PURPLE.

As more primitive humans began to hunt in groups, we as predators could begin taking down larger prey. This newfound group dynamic enabled us to form communities. With this communal life, we created cultural identities using tribalism, learning to distinguish friend from foe. And with that tribal mentality, we established advanced food production in the form of farming. Yet if the rains would not come our only explanation was that there are some unknown forces at work. Thus, the PURPLE mindset heavily relies upon tribalism and mysticism.

This mindset is manifested today when we paint our faces and scream at the top of our lungs at sporting events. And it can also be seen in the way that children interact with imaginary creatures, friends, and worlds. Loyalty to tribe, family, and culture, as well as the awe of the world that is inherent to PURPLE, are incredibly important parts of what it means to be a human being.

Third is RED.

Sooner or later, the biggest and the strongest in tribal communities realize that all it takes to dominate others is to be the meanest and the toughest. RED typifies the “survival of the fittest” mantra, characterizing many early leaders of civilizations in the guise of monarchies and dictatorships. Certainly, we see such aggressive attitudes even in politicians today, and often, for better or for worse, this kind of action by a zealous few has brought significant changes to societies throughout history.

Even further, RED represents individualism in a profound way. Entering RED means you are saying that “I am my own person; I can do what I want.” A RED, rebellious attitude breaks one free to experience his or her own identity, but in the process it is all too often at the expense of others.

While beneficial for some, RED individuals caused many to feel marginalized and vulnerable. Therefore, BLUE emerges.

When people were tired of being pushed around by RED leaders, appealing to a higher authority changed the power structure. BLUE is the color of law and order, administration, and religiosity. No longer is the highest power some RED king – instead, everyone answers to the Ten Commandments or the Constitution.

BLUE is based on the notion that truths and laws come from a higher power. Most societies are established on a BLUE foundation. Adherence to the law is inherent, and pivotal, for this color. If you don’t follow the rules, you are punished. But if you do follow the rules, you are rewarded. And while BLUE certainly is more orderly, organized, and pious than many of the other colors, it is framed and motivated by guilt. Arguments for the literal and absolute authority of Scripture are more than likely a BLUE perspective. If that cornerstone is challenged, the risk is chaos and disorder.

But what if someone disagrees with such claims of absolute authority? What if they want evidence to support it? The next to arrive on the scene is ORANGE.

The color of modernity, the scientific method, and encapsulated by Enlightenment-era thinking, ORANGE seeks objectivity. No longer is truth or authority taken at face value; it must be evaluated and judged according to its merit. That is, the level of measurability and repeatability of something determines its validity and veracity. More concrete examples of ORANGE types of thinking can be seen in modernistic ideals like capitalism, free-markets, multi-party democracies, and scientific inquiry. These idealistic models strive for progress and objectivity. Yet the consequential benefits are only for the few who deserve them, which will strongly distinguish ORANGE from the next color.

What’s next? That would be GREEN.

In response to the individualism and evaluating nature of ORANGE, a new kind of outlook emerges. Once someone sees that his or her perspective about the world is only one perspective among many, and those experiences only capture life from a single point of view, what emerges is the realization that other ideas, thoughts, and views have inherent value because they offer an alternative lens. This requires a vulnerable openness to the ‘other,’ comprehending that every point of view is contextual, and admitting my own way of thinking might be a result of my background instead of fact. For GREEN, every voice has value and every person’s experience is important because they provide a view of the world that is unique. Others have value precisely because of just that – their otherness.

GREEN is the essence of political movements of the 1960s and onwards, arguing for acceptance, rights, and inclusion to minority groups that have been degraded. And I believe younger generations have accelerated to this point rapidly due to the advent of the Internet. In the digital age, everyone is your neighbor and you can learn from alternative perspectives like never before. There is a caveat to this mindset however. Immediately, one can see the shift GREEN makes towards communal thinking after a particularly individualistic ORANGE. And in many ways, how ORANGE represented modernism, GREEN typifies post-modernism. After all, at a certain point, when every voice has meaning, what defines what is meaningful anymore? Does every voice have validity? Truth is no longer just right or wrong, black or white; it is contextual.

There is a rhythm in the development spiral dynamics, specifically in how each set is answered by an inverted mode. And if you look even closer, when a color is more individualistic, it is countered by one that is communal, and vice versa:

BEIGE (Individualistic) -> PURPLE (Communal) -> RED (Individualistic)-> BLUE (Communal) -> ORANGE (Individualistic) -> GREEN (Communal)

I’m sure that you have already attempted to designate yourself to a color, analyzing your own day-to-day thoughts and figuring out which color you most align with – I sure did. But you don’t have your own color that drives every moment. Instead, you have a highest achieved color. That is, as your consciousness grows, you enter new stages, yet you never truly leave the others behind. You do have colors that you tend to gravitate towards once you have experienced them, so while it might be tempting to say, “I’m ORANGE!”, it’s really more accurate to regard that as your preferred state.

All of these colors together are known as the ‘first tier,’ which are all historically and psychologically verifiable in general terms. And while I have already pointed out the alternations between these sets in terms of individualism and communal centers, the interactions do not end there. And in fact, they come into conflict quite easily. Earlier stages look ahead at later ones with fear because entering something new brings fear of regression. But on the other hand, further advanced states look back at perceived narrow mindedness with disgust.

A profound example of how this tension erupted was actually exhibited on the campus of the University of Virginia. The kind of tribalistic mindset of white supremacy moving towards rebellion was clearly PURPLE transitioning to RED, but deeper than that, Trump has enflamed the fears that BLUE conservatives have towards ORANGE and GREEN liberals and leftists, pushing many to revert to RED in defense of their identity and order (or “heritage”).

And in response, GREEN has reacted in repugnance, seeing anyone who would identify as a white nationalist (or maybe just a Trump supporter) as being less than human. From a BLUE/PURPLE point of view, GREEN is contradicting its own claim that every voice has value. This is a microcosm of the societal-level breakdown in communication when someone says that “black lives matter” and the response is “all lives matter.”

Where do we go from here? Spiral dynamics certainly diagnoses the problem, but what of solutions? How can we discuss these kinds of issues without breaking down into dehumanization and violence? And it’s obvious that there are Christians that fall into different colors – how can faith speak into spiral dynamics?

Next month, I will introduce a ‘second tier’ of colors that could change everything. While this section of spiral dynamics uses speculative notions, these additional colors could encourage a unique way of dealing with communication breakdown, fostering dialogue instead of conflict. YELLOW and TURQUOISE create new opportunities for transforming hostile confrontation into friendship, as evidenced by the tactics of a black Blues musician befriending and changing the lives of members of the KKK. And further, they introduce a compelling state of mind to make truth claims that don’t fall prey to the weaknesses of PURPLE, RED, BLUE, ORANGE, and GREEN. With a little explication from 19th century Danish philosophy, the second tier of spiral dynamics speaks volumes to those who feel alien to the vicious cycles of the world.



Photo Credit:

Eli Bartz
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