Criticisms of Spiral Dynamics

I’m actually a major fan of Spiral Dynamics, but I’m more of a fan in terms of serious intellectual interest which still allows for plenty of room for doubt.  I’m a curious guy and Spiral Dynamics is just one theory, one possibility.  I love models that bring order or demonstrate a pattern to some realm of human experience.  I do intuitively sense that there is some truth to Spiral Dynamics.  However, I’m always a bit wary of broad generalizations.  And so…

Criticisms of Spiral Dynamics (from the Wikipedia article on Spiral Dynamics)

Critics point out that the model’s implications are political as well as developmental and that while the terminology of the theory is self-consciously inclusive, the practical implications of the model can be seen as socially elitist and authoritarian.[2] In their work on the subject, Beck emphasizes that one of the characteristics of “tier two” individuals, also called “Spiral Wizards“, is their ability to make superior decisions for all parties concerned and to manufacture consent for their approaches at lower levels using resonant terms and ideas. In addition to outlining an underlying developmental theory, Spiral Dynamics gives explicit suggestions to these “Wizards” for both consensual and non-consensual management of “lower-tier” individuals. One critic of Spiral Dynamics, Michel Bauwens, has argued that some conceptions of what it means to be “second tier” have come to resemble Nietzsche‘s idea of the Übermensch.[3] Co author Cowan no longer supports the ideas of his ex-partner Beck.

The emphasis Spiral Dynamics places on exercising power derived from greater developmental attainments has also been characterized as derivative of a number of other past political theories emphasizing decision-making by a select elite, including Plato‘s idealization of the philosopher king.[citation needed] It should also be noted that, within this paradigm, Spiral Dynamics is itself characterized as a “second tier” concept, implicitly flattering those who support the theory and potentially inviting confirmation biases.[citation needed]

Further, some criticisms of Spiral Dynamics have been dismissed as expressions of lower-level memes, particularly the “mean green meme.” This internal refutation of external critiques was one of philosopher Karl Popper‘s criteria for establishing that a system of belief is non-falsifiable and for distinguishing non-science from genuine scientific theory.[4]

Some critics dispute the universality of deeper linear or emergent transitions as proposed in Spiral Dynamics, due to the high degree of variation they see among human cultures over time. The claim that humans have changed systemically on psycho-social dimensions, such as self concept or the human propensity and reasons for self sacrifice, over the time period proposed in Spiral Dynamics, is not supported by mainstream anthropology, the social sciences, or evolutionary biology.[5]

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10 thoughts on “Criticisms of Spiral Dynamics

  1. Nearly everything many individuals have come to learn about the insightful spiral values theory of Dr. Clare Graves comes heavily filtered by the worldviews of the individuals named and sometimes criticized in this blog posting.

    There are views of the Graves theory available from the other side of the spiral. Probably the two best known expressive-side discussions (as opposed to sacrificial-side discussions like Spiral Dynamics and Ken Wilber’s treatments,) are discussed in my work with Dr. Paul L. Kordis, “Strategy of the Dolphin: Scoring a Win in a Chaotic World,” and my book, “The Mother of All Minds: Leaping Free of an Outdated Human Nature.” More information on both works is available here:

    Best wishes,
    Dudley Lynch
    President
    Brain Technologies Corporation
    Gainesville, FL

  2. Dudley – I removed the link because the website looked like one big advertisement. I looked around at all of the pages and didn’t see any actual information. Spiral Dynamics was only briefly mentioned on the page advertsing the book.

    I’m open to new perspectives, but your website gives me no evidence that your offering innovative insight. I need some substance. If you’re really trying to sell your product, then you need to explain in more detail what you’re actually offering.

    Your mentioning expressive-side and sacrificial-side discussions sounds interesting, but I have no idea what you mean by it in this context. In what way are Spiral Dynamics and Ken Wilber sacrificial-side? Do you mean because Wilber often looks at the big picture of society and the possibility of collective improvement? So, are you basically just saying in a roundabout way that your own books are of the self-improvement variety?

    I’ve known many people interested in both Wilber and Spiral Dynamics. There seems to be plenty of people interested in both the individual and the collective. And Wilber has even been involved in various programs that are about self-improvement.

    I’m not sure I understand where your coming from.

  3. ”Spiral Dynamics gives explicit suggestions to these “Wizards” for both consensual and non-consensual management of “lower-tier” individuals. One critic of Spiral Dynamics, Michel Bauwens, has argued that some conceptions of what it means to be “second tier” have come to resemble Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch\”

    I think this is a common misunderstanding about Spiral Dynamics. Absolutely in management terms \”wizards\” have been thought of as a way to manipulate individuals to work together in a corporation which still has an underlying motive of \”profit for its shareholders.\” In a sense, they have PREDATORISED Spiral Dynamics.

    But this commercialization is not a reflection of Spiral Dynamics itself. Because the entire idea of \”Second Tier\” is that when you get to this point you can actually STEP INTO THE SHOES of different people coming from a worldview specific to different memes.

    The problem – and largely the conflict in the world – with First Tier is that one particular meme set refuses to, or cannot see where a person from a different meme is coming from. A green meme postmodernist, for instance, cannot see where a Red meme terrorist is coming from…

    The moment a person starts experiencing different memes, and working to INTEGRATE them together, figure out where they all stand and are able to mediate between them, he\’s thinking becomes wholistic.

    It\’s no longer an \”us and them\” format. Perhaps the validity of the criticism is in \”why should you have a Second Tier, as if they are somehow better?\” But on a scientific level I can understand why this distinction was made, because the REASON for the differentiation is that there IS a key difference between first and second tier.

    Second tiers have begun thinking in open-spaced systems and models. They basically know how to step into your shoes to know where you are coming from.

    Second Tier is the beginning of the truly Emphatic individual. That is not elitist.

    • Hello!

      I suspect we are more or less in agreement. Taken on its own terms, I understand where you are coming from. But as one broadens the scope it becomes increasingly complex. The problem I see is twofold.

      First, there is description vs prescription. The former often is easier than the latter. Also, the former doesn’t necessarily prove the latter. Spiral Dynamics simply describes a pathway that human development has taken. It hasn’t, however, proven that this is the best or only path of human development.

      Every culture that was destroyed or disempowered throughout history represents a possible alternative pathway. History could have taken a different route which means there might have been an alternative version of Spiral Dynamics.

      Second, in describing Second Tier, people often end up just describing their own central beliefs and ideals. This often comes with many unquestioned assumptions and unconscious biases. This is inevitable. Of course, this relates back to the first point for cultural differences underly these assumptions and biases. So, it depends on who is doing the describing. More importantly, it depends on from what paradigm or reality tunnel the description is coming from.

      None of this undermines your overall point. I’m just emphasizing how tricky it is. Many people may claim to be Second Tier, but most making such claims probably aren’t. Who is to decide who is or isn’t Second Tier?

      To make such a claim is to claim to be in a position of superior knowledge and vision and hence deserving of superior authority and power. It reminds me of how some of the elite in early America spoke of a “Disinterested Aristorcracy” that would stand above the various interests and interest groups. It’s a nice ideal in theory.

  4. Some very interesting points potent for discussion. Before I respond in full, would you give some examples of unconscious biases and assumptions within people describing themselves as Second Tier:

    “Second, in describing Second Tier, people often end up just describing their own central beliefs and ideals. This often comes with many unquestioned assumptions and unconscious biases.”

    • I fear I may dissapoint you. I’m not sure that I can clarify much further my thoughts at the moment. No examples are popping up in my mind, but l’ll keep it in mind and see if anything comes to me.

      The challenge is that I’m part of the Western culture out of which Spiral Dynamics arose, the same culture that would include most people interested in Spiral Dynamics. So, I’d probably share many of the same or similar unconscious biases and assumptions as many others studying this subject. I wouldn’t claim the ability to objectively analyze others in this particular area. Someone from another culture would be more likely to give perspective.

      I wish I had more insight to offer, but I think intellectual humility is the only helpful response for the time being. I don’t feel like judging the unconscious biases and assumptions of others according to my own unconscious biases and assumptions. If I felt more knowledgeable about this complex area of study, I might be more willing and able to clarify further.

      If I did try to act like I was in a superior position of knowledge and insight, I’d expect you would feel suspicious of my opinions… as you should be. This is the crux of the problem. Claimed certainty too often doesn’t originate from certain knowledge. I honestly don’t know who would be in a position to make a judgement on claims of Second Tier attainment. I would rather leave it to scientists to study, but as far as I know Spiral Dynamics hasn’t been further studied by any scientists (I’d be fascinated to learn about a scientific study of those claiming Second Tier attainment). There is a whole lot of theorizing going on, yet the evidence is still shaky.

      I’m left with a sense that Spiral Dynamics is very interesting and holds great potential. At the same time, the present state of knowledge doesn’t allow for clear conclusions to be made about it. Time will tell, hopefully.

  5. Perhaps the point isn’t to consciously self-identify at any particular level, but to explore, understand and embody its inherent potentials? To describe the spiral is to stand outside it, an observer or witness position, but to situate oneself inside it (even as a model) as a first person changes things. I would say that second tier values / thinking would be likely to develop an growing understanding of the constructed nature of all knowledge, including its own, and also the influence of non-conscious processes and biases, and therefore be more likely to display the intellectual humiilty that you describe with regards to one’s own level of development.

    That nowithstanding, this growing understanding language, values and perceptual positions does begin to confer an ability to influence others in different ways more easily and consciously than might previously have been possible. People are right to be concerned about the ethics of exercising this kind of power. In the political world, politicians are starting to consciously understand the power of narratives and values, and using them to win power. This is a dangerous development in my opinion, wowever, it seems that the genie is out of the bottle now.

    My own guiding question whenever I’m thinking about influence is for whose benefit am I doing it? Is my intention to in some sense liberate, i.e. expand choice without attachment to any personally beneficial outcome, or is it to use these skills for my own ends, or a paymaster who wishes to benefit. I have to more sceptical of my own motives, biases, distortions etc. than I am of anyone elses, and I cannot let up. If you’re mythically inclined, you could even describe it as the difference between black and white magic, although that might be a little melodramatic (for emphasis purposes only, of course)!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I love comments like yours. You bring up some great points. But I’m not sure I can add much.

      I really like your comment in the second paragraph. Changing consciousness directly relates to changes in political power and rhetorical persuasion. Those with greater understanding can use that to manipulate entire populations.

      It reminds me of books I’ve read about the bicameral mind. When a new kind of internalized self-consciousness developed, a new elite formed who were able to use it to build new societies:

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/on-being-strange/#comment-19027

      There is an interesting related aspect. In the post-bicameral societies, development of individuality allowed new forms of thought, specifically an internalized mental space. This allowed not only independent thought but also persuasive language. It was the birth of rhetoric, and it was initially feared.

      Rhetoric stole the power of the gods, and those trained in rhetoric had god-like powers. They could understand how people thought and so they knew how to manipulate them. As many people (still with traces of bicameralism) hadn’t yet developed intellectual defenses against rhetoric, this power could be used to a greater extent than is possible in our society. The population was defenseless against the new intellectual demagogues, conmen, and ruling elite.

      The ancient philosopher was a respected and feared figure. These great men helped wipe away any remaining traces of bicameralism. But the transformation must have been violent at times, as the old bicameralism erupted to challenge the new authority. This probably played out in full-out wars where the last remaining bicameral societies tried to survive. Bicameralism didn’t end easily. All the way into the late Axial Age, you can still hear echoes of it, including in the New Testament.

    • I did a web search. I found the same thing on a different Wikipedia article. I guess it was moved from one article to another. I corrected the link above. It now opens to the correct article.

      I must admit that, even all these years later, I still am fascinated by what appears like large-scale patterns of change across societies. When we look at the Bronze Age/Bicameral Mind, Axial Age, and modernity, we see changes that happen to many different societies.

      We often think of the Enlightenment as a European phenomenon, but even it built on the changes happening in the societies of Arabs, Persians, and Asians. Most of the early technology, science, and math that promoted the Enlightenment didn’t come from Europe and yet made the European Enlightenment possible. Then the changes in Europe fed back to those other societies. These are dynamics of change that do seem to genuinely transcend single societies and no single society can take credit for them.

      I think we have to be careful, though. Bicameralism didn’t just end on its own. The last of the bicameral people were oppressed, banished, and slaughtered. The same thing happened with the rise of monotheistic religions of the Axial Age that became dominant worldwide through mass force and violence against other religions. The same happened with the Enlightenment through imperialism, colonialism, genocide, and slavery. So, these stages of ‘development’ don’t entirely happen naturally and willingly for all involved.

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