The following overview of the Spiral Dynamics framework was excerpted from a 2006 keynote speech given by Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey. Click here to view a transcript of Mackey’s keynote, which applied the Spiral Dynamics framework to the Food industry and global agricultural system. Mackey has since mobilized his company around the heroic purpose of creating a global sustainable agriculture system, improving world health, ending poverty and promoting conscious capitalism, which is a testament to the power of this model to promote disruptive change in business.

Spirals_0_380-1Based on decades of research starting in 1952, psychologist Clare Graves developed a theory of human evolution, which posited that the psychology of human beings transitioned throughout time base upon an ever increasingly set of complex life conditions. Graves classified a total of eight levels of increasingly complex human value systems (or vMemes) consisting of sets of world views, preferences, and purposes. Through these value systems, groups and cultures structure their societies and individuals integrate within them. Each distinct set of values is developed as a response to solving the problems of the previous system. His theory was further developed by prodigies Don Beck and Chris Cowan into a structured evolutionary model of adaptive intelligence called Spiral Dynamics.

Note that I have adapted various aspects of the framework to be consistent with my use of the model. In particular, I view the model as circular and not in hierarchical levels. The model has been criticized as elitist in that the higher value systems (levels) can be viewed as characteristic of more advanced human beings. I view the model as circular as Graves referred to the vMemes as awakenings, not levels. I interpret this to mean that everyone can awaken these values within themselves depending upon their own life conditions and priorities. I also believe there are positive aspects of each vMeme that are essential to one’s ability to enjoy a fulfilling and meaningful life experience.

The First Tier vMEMEs (Subsistence memes)

Beige “Survival” vMEME

The first is the Beige “Instinctive” vMEME. This first arrived on the scene, or “awakened,” 100,000+ years ago. Its basic premise is: Do what you must to stay alive. The characteristic beliefs and actions of the Beige vMEME are:

  • An individual uses instincts and habits just to survive
  • The distinct self is barely awakened or sustained
  • Food, water, warmth, sex, and safety have priority over anything else
  • Beige individuals form into family survival bands to perpetuate life

Where do you find the Beige vMEME expressed? Here is a representative list: The first peoples, newborn infants, senile elderly, late-stage Alzheimer’s victims, mentally ill street people, starving masses, bad drug trips and “shell shock.” This vMEME is well described in anthropological fiction like Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.

The Beige vMEME includes approximately 1/10 percent of the world’s adult population and zero percent of the power.

Purple “Safety” vMEME

As human consciousness evolves, it next goes into the Purple “Safety” vMEME. This second “awakening” occurred approximately 50,000 years ago. The basic theme for the Purple vMEME is: Keep the spirits happy and the tribe’s nest warm and safe. The Characteristic beliefs and actions of the Purple vMEME are:

  • Thinking is animistic; magical spirits—both good and bad
  • Obeying the desires of spirit beings and mystical signs
  • Showing allegiance to chief, elders, ancestors, and the clan
  • Preserving sacred objects, places, events, and memories
  • Observing rites of passage, seasonal cycles, and tribal customs

Although some of this sounds benign, it wasn’t all good, because this was where slavery and human sacrifice came into the picture.

Where do you find the Purple vMEME expressed? Here is a sampling: belief in guardian angels and Voodoo-like curses, animism, blood oaths, Native American Indians were living primarily in the purple vMEME when the Western peoples arrived on the continent, chanting and trance dancing, good luck charms, mystical ethnic beliefs and superstitions, New Age beliefs—crystals, tarot, astrology, and Harry Potter’s magical world.

The Purple vMEME includes 10% of the world population, and only 1% of the power. The following provides more detail about the typical qualities seen in the Purple “Safety” vMEME:

  • Characteristics: Mystical spirits, signs; Safe clans and nests; Powerful elders; Our people vs. “them”
  • Decision making: Custom and tradition; Elders’ counsel; Signs or the shaman; Clan gets the spoils
  • Education: Paternalistic teachers; Rituals and routines; Passive learners; Family-like learning; oral history to pass down the stories
  • Family: Extended kinships; Rites of passage; Strict role relations; Protects bloodline
  • Community: Respects folk ways; Honors ethnicity; Lets group be itself; Guards magic places
  • Life space: Old country ways, Focus on subsistence; Fearful, mystical, superstitious; Full of spirit beings

Just to explain the rhythm, the vMEMEs tend to alternate between individualistic and community-focused. The Purple vMEME was community focused. The next level is individualistic.

Red “Significance” vMEME

The Red “Significance” vMEME, the third “awakening,” occurred about 10,000 years ago. Its basic theme is: Be what you are and do what you want regardless—”Nobody tells me what to do.”

Many teenagers are at the Red vMEME. The characteristic beliefs and actions of this vMEME are:

  • The world is seen as a jungle full of threats and predators
  • The individual breaks free from any constraints to please self as self desires
  • The individual stands tall, expects attention, demands respect, calls the shots
  • The individual enjoys himself to the fullest, right now without guilt or remorse
  • The individual conquers, out-foxes, and dominates other aggressive characters
  • An overly developed ethnic identity can lead to genocidal wars, slavery, and racism
  • The individual believes that: “I am special, I’ll live forever, I am immortal, not like the others.”

Where is the Red vMEME expressed? The following sample provides an overview: the “Terrible Twos,” rebellious youth, frontier mentalities, feudal kingdoms, street gangs, James Bond villains—the guys that conquer the world, epic heroes, soldiers of fortune, wild rock stars, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Sauron in Lord of the Rings, Voldemort in Harry Potter.

The red vMEME includes 15% to 20% of the world population, but only 5% of the power.

When adults are residing at the Red vMEME, we often think of them as “spoiled.” But you need Red energy to overcome restrictions and boundaries put on you by other systems.

The following provides more detail about the typical qualities seen in the Red “Significance” vMEME.

  • Characteristics: Raw power displays; Immediate pleasure; Unrestrained by guilt; Colorful and creative
  • Decision making: Tough-one dictates; What gets respect; What feels good now; Powerful grab spoils
  • Education: Rewards for learning; Tough-love tactics; Work on respect; Controlled freedom
  • Family: Gang-like battles; Builds us vs. them walls; Tests of worthiness; Struggles with the system
  • Community: Predators in control; Danger to the outsiders; Forms fiefdoms; Turf wars and vendettas
  • Life space:Unconstrained; Might makes right; Winners and dead losers; Attention-seeking

Blue “Order” vMEME

After the very individualistic Red vMEME, the next level goes back again to the more community-focused orientation. The Blue “Purposeful/Authoritarian” vMEME, as the fourth “awakening,” began about 5,000 years ago. The basic rules for the Blue vMEME are:Life has meaning, direction and purpose with outcomes determined by an all-powerful Other or Order. This vMEME brings discipline to the spiral because you are now “following a higher order.”

The characteristic beliefs and actions of the Blue vMEME include:

  • Sacrificing of the self to the transcendent Cause, Truth, or righteous Pathway.
  • Allowing the Order to enforce a code of conduct based on eternal, absolute unvarying principles of “right” and “wrong”—there is one right way to live and deviations from the path are punished.
  • Following the right path produces security now and guarantees future reward; if you don’t follow the path, well, you’ve made your choices.
  • Displaying missionary zealotry, which can be short on evidence and long on belief and faith, as well as closed minds. When you run into people with very rigid thought structures, you are dealing with someone who is residing at the Blue vMEME.
  • Engaging in pleasurable acts is seen as frivolous; humor is rare; actions are based in judgment not compassion, although there is a lot of talk about compassion.
  • Operating from a fundamentalist, conventional, traditional, and conformist worldview.

Where do you find the Blue vMEME expressed? The following provides a sample:

Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, Puritan America, Dickensian England, Singapore’s strict discipline, witch hunts, codes of chivalry and honor, the Spanish Inquisition, the caste system in India, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Boy and Girl Scouts, and patriotism.

The Blue vMEME includes 35% to 40% of the world population, and 25% to 30% of the power. The figures are somewhat lower in the United States.

The following provides more detail about the typical qualities seen in the Blue “Order” vMEME.

  • Characteristics: Only one right way; Purpose in causes; Guilt in consequences; Sacrifice for honor
  • Decision making: Orders from authority; Do right, obey rules; Adhere to tradition; Righteous earn spoils
  • Education: Truth from authority; Traditional stair steps; Moralistic lessons; Punishment for errors
  • Family: Seat of truths and values; Proper places for all, respect for parents; Codes of conduct; Teaches moral ways
  • Community: Peace-and-quiet; Cautious and careful; Tidy, green, and neat; Born into society
  • Life space: Law abiding citizen, Places for everybody; Seeks peace of mind; Rewards to come

The Blue vMEME is one the core constituencies of the Republican Party and comprises the “moral majority” in the United States today.

Orange “Prosperity” vMEME

The Orange “Prosperity” vMEME, the fifth “awakening” began only 300 years ago. Its tagline is: Act in your own self-interest by playing the game to win.

Some of the characteristic beliefs and actions of this vMEME include:

  • Strongly expressed individualism; Orange breaks away from the “herd” of the Blue vMEME.
  • Developed human rights, legal freedoms, free markets, capitalistic democracies
  • Strong faith in science and rationality, which eclipse superstition
  • Seeking to live the “good life” with material abundance
  • Believe that optimistic, risk-taking, and self-reliant people deserve their success
  • Play to win and enjoy competition; very success driven
  • Basing principles on ethics, not religion
  • Ignoring of inner spirituality to a high degree; the subsequent loss of the sacred

The Orange vMEME is expressed in ways such as the following: The Enlightenment, “success” ministries (such as Napoleon Hill and Tony Robbins), American “Founding Fathers,” Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Wall Street, Rodeo Drive, The Riviera, the cosmetics and fashion industries, breast implants, emerging middle classes around the world (in India and certain parts of China), Chambers of Commerce, corporate America, Forbes magazine, materialism, and the stereotypical yuppies.

The Orange vMEME includes about 25% to 30% of the world population. In the United States, the figure is closer to 50% of the population. Worldwide, this vMEME wields 45% to 50% of the power. Orange is the dominant vMEME in the U.S. today.

The following provides more detail on the typical qualities seen in the Orange “Prosperity” vMEME.

  • Characteristics: Competes for success; Goal-oriented drive; Change to progress; Material gain/perks
  • Decision making: Bottom-line results; Test options for best; Consult experts; Successful win spoils
  • Education: Experiments to win; High-tech, high status; How to win niches; Mentors and guides
  • Family: Upwardly mobile; Demands attention; High expectations; Image conscious
  • Community: Caters to prosperous; Displays affluence; Buys into society; Security for the elite
  • Life space: Wants to prosper now; Competition always; Leverages influence; Seeks material things

Green “Community” vMEME

The response to the somewhat singularly driven Orange vMEME is found in the Green “Community” vMEME, the sixth “awakening,” which first appeared nearly 150 years ago. The basic theme for the Green vMEME is: Seek peace within the inner self and explore, with others, the caring dimensions of community. Another way to think of this vMEME is as “The Sensitive Self.”

Some of the characteristic beliefs and actions of the Green vMEME include:

  • Becomes more aware of the suffering of the world, of other sentient beings
  • The human spirit must be freed from greed, dogma, and divisiveness
  • Feelings, sensitivity, and caring supersede cold rationality
  • Share the Earth’s resources and opportunities equally among all
  • Reach decisions through consensus processes
  • Anti-authoritarian and against hierarchy; establishes lateral bonding and linking
  • All values are pluralistic and relativistic; no one should be marginalized
  • Environmentalism becomes a socio-political movement
  • A fundamental belief is “All people are good; it’s society that makes them bad.” Highly idealistic.
  • Can create cults of victims and censorship through politically correct thinking; can also be politically dogmatic.

The Green vMEME is seen in the following: John Lennon’s music, deep ecology, Greenpeace, animal rights, Woodstock, single payer health care, ACLU, humanistic psychology, diversity training, multiculturalism, Boulder, Colorado, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream company, The Body Shop, politically correct thinking, deconstructionism, postmodernism, The Utne Reader, Paul Ray’s Cultural Creatives, and the natural/organic foods movement.

The Green vMEME comprises 10% of the world population, and holds nearly 15% of the power; in the U.S. you can double these numbers. The Green vMEME now has more power in the U.S. than the Blue vMEME.

The following provides more information on the qualities inherent in the Green “Community” vMEME.

  • Characteristics: Seeks inner peace; Everybody is equal; Everything is relative; Harmony within the group
  • Decision making: Reach consensus; All must collaborate; Accept any input; Communal spoils
  • Education: To explore feelings; Shared experiences; Social development; Learn cooperation
  • Family: Grouping of equals; Participative activities; Highly accepting; All feelings processed
  • Community: Social safety-nets; “Politically correct”; Open for insiders; Invests in self
  • Life space: Thrives on belonging; Needs acceptance; Sacrifice feels good; Renews spirituality

The Second Tier vMEMEs (Being memes)

Consciousness continues its upward flow. None of the First Tier vMEMEs can fully appreciate the value of the other vMEMEs. Each believes that its worldview is the only true perspective. However, a qualitative leap in consciousness occurs when a person moves past the Green vMEME into Second Tier, which is also termed “Integral.”

Individuals who operate from the Second Tier can fully appreciate the value and necessity of all the vMEMEs. They comprehend that the health of the entire spiral, or all vMEMEs, is essential. At the Integral level, fear and anxiety largely disappear from consciousness. At the Second Tier, systems thinking becomes the norm, and mental activity consists of joining, linking, and synthesizing in pluralistic systems. Individuals who have achieved the Second Tier find a greatly increased capacity for love and compassion. This is the “Self-Actualizing and Transpersonal” level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Yellow “Interdependence” vMEME

The first level within the Second Tier is the Yellow “Inter-dependence” vMEME, which is the 7th “awakening,” and it occurred about 50 years ago. The Yellow vMEME’s basic tenet is: Live fully and responsibly with authenticity.

Some of the characteristic beliefs and actions of the Yellow vMEME are:

  • Pursuit of learning for its own sake.
  • Systems thinking.
  • Viewing life as a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies, systems, and forms
  • Valuing the magnificence of existence over material possessions
  • Prioritizing flexibility, spontaneity, and functionality
  • Valuing knowledge and competency over rank, power, and status
  • Integrating complex systems with ease

The risk at this level of the wave is what Darth Vader from Star Wars or Sauruman from Lord of the Rings faced, which is the risk of the fall downward.

The Yellow vMEME is expressed in the following: Carl Sagan’s astronomy, Peter Senge’s learning organizations, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, chaos theory, appropriate technology, eco-industrial parks (using each others’ outflows as raw materials), Fred Alan Wolf’s “new physics,” Deepak Chopra’s Ageless Body, the movie What the Bleep Do We Know?, Wired magazine, Gandalf the Grey from Lord of the Rings, and Dumbeldore from Harry Potter.

This is a recent vMEME, and only 1% of the population is found in the Yellow, but it holds 5% of the power world-wide.

The following qualities typify the Yellow “Inter-dependence” vMEME.

  • Characteristics: Big picture views; Integrative structures; Naturalness of chaos; Inevitability of change
  • Decision making: Highly principled; Knowledge centered; Resolved paradoxes; Competent get spoils
  • Education: Becomes self-directed; Whole-day package; Tuned to interests; Non-rigid structure
  • Family: Shifting roles; Expects competence; Takes each as is; Information base
  • Community: Does more with less; Appropriate technologies; Power is dispersed; Integrated systems
  • Life space: Life is learning; Intrigued by process; Freedom to just be; Rarely fearful

Turquoise “Harmony” vMEME

Beyond the largely individualistic Yellow vMEME, the Turquoise “Harmony” vMEME, as the 8th “awakening,” began expressing about 30 years ago. This vMEME’s basic premise is:Experience the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit.

Some of the characteristic beliefs and actions of the Turquoise vMEME include:

  • Experiencing the world as a single, dynamic organism with its own collective mind
  • Acknowledging the Self as both distinct and a blended part of a larger, compassionate whole
  • Viewing everything connected to everything else as incredibly beautiful ecological alignments
  • Experiencing energy and information as permeating the Earth’s total environment
  • Thinking that is holistic and intuitive, with an expectation of cooperative actions
  • Synthesizing science and religion into a universal spirituality

The Turquoise vMEME is seen in: David Bohm’s theories, McLuhan’s “global village,” Rupert Sheldrake and morphic fields, Gandhi’s ideas of pluralistic harmony, Ken Wilber’s “Spectrum of Consciousness,” James Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis,” transpersonal psychology, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere,” the White from Lord of the Rings, and Dumbledore fromHarry Potter.

The Turquoise vMEME currently has around .01% of the population, but already holds about 1% of the power in the world.

Some of the differences to note are that the Yellow vMEME figures things out on an individual basis, and is very good at figuring out paradoxes on a one-up basis. The Turquoise vMEME goes back into the community orientation. It begins to connect to other organizations and individuals that it harmonizes with to magnify the good we can do.

The following qualities define the Turquoise “Harmony” vMEME.

  • Characteristics: Scans the macro; Synergy of all life; Safe, orderly world; Restore harmony
  • Decision making: Blend natural flows; Look up/downstream; Plan for long-range; Life gets spoils
  • Education: Access to world; Blends feelings and technology; Bring past to life; Maximize the brain
  • Family: Global awareness; Grows consciousness; Broad interest ranges; Seeks outreach
  • Community: Interconnected; Highly diversified; Not isolationist; Information rich
  • Life space: Belong to universe; Fit into chain of being; Do something here; As one with life-force

Are there any vMEMEs beyond Turquoise?

New vMEMEs will continue to be created as the evolution of human consciousness so requires. Beck and Cowan claim that a new vMEME, Coral, exists but that it lacks a sufficient number of people to be statistically meaningful. Likewise, Ken Wilber believes that vMEMEs beyond Coral also exist. He calls this the “Third Tier” of consciousness. He states that fully realized beings such as the Buddha and Jesus evolved to this Third Tier. Non-dual consciousness and universal love and compassion characterize this level of consciousness.

2 Comments
  1. Excellent Synopis David of Graves Work!!

    I think most modern interpretation of the Spiral see it as a Holonarchy versus Hierachachy simular to your circular analogy. the key thing is that the three first vMemes are the Pre Conventional Mindset, 5th thru 6th Conventional set, 7th thru 9th Post conventional mindset.

    The key aspect is why it is interpreted as a holonarchy versus Hierachy is that we are made up of all these levels and that the post conventional vMemes are an integration of the previous plus their additional awakened level. What this means is someone who operates out of a yellow mindset sees all the levels as integrated into one integral holonarchy where the elements of each healthy part of the previous vMemes. However, the conventional and pre-conventional mind still sees them as fragments.

    Holonarchy is like the human body where all the constituent parts are apart of the greater good of the body, if one of the organs fail then the whole body suffers.

    An additional element to take into consideration is that when individual takes a spiral dynamics assessment it isn’t those things that an individual relates to the most that defines which levels their mindset is operating out of, it is those elements that they resist in other vMemes that defines the mindset. For example, someone whose propensity towards the orange meme for success, reward, materialism, science, objectivity, may be resistant to the blue vMeme, structure, serving all, that stops them from integrating at a yellow level.

    All individuals have the attitude to develop themselves, however the important element is do they have the aptitude, ie to awaken to other levels they have to develop a deeper understanding of those thoughts and behaviours they resist that holds them back from the awakening.

    The reason that some see it as an elitist model is that elitism has a whole contentation associatated with it that everything is relative, which is a green vMeme value, however nothing is relative and so our mindset to believe it elite in itself is flawed.

    Great write up, look forward to reading more.

    1. “to awaken to other levels, they have to develop a deeper understanding of those thoughts and behaviours they resist”

      This is the proverbial “facing your demons” or “getting out of your comfort zone” like Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena.

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