This article deals with the misunderstandings associated with generic criticisms of theories involving stages.  These criticisms are frequently misguided, but nowhere more so than in relation to the Graves model and the Spiral Dynamics applications, practiced correctly.

There are some understandable reasons why the notion of stages has been rejected, however I show that the past errors arise not from the fact that stages are present, but from value judgements which were mistakenly or even malignly applied to their existence. When an axe is used as a weapon, we don’t conclude that we should stop chopping firewood.
More than this, the argument against such sequences arises from a failure to understand the key message of this article, which is that we have to make a distinction between what is present here and now, and what takes place in developmental timelines, which is inevitably and functionally sequenced, whether or not this matches your preferred perceptual stance.
For many decades our view of social psychology existed in a flatland, a 2D mapping which lacked any sense of vertical contouring or altitude. That changed with Maslow, Loevinger, Graves and the Integral model. It is now apparent that 3D space is also inadequate and that we are in need of the time dimension in order to move from stasis to the kind of dynamic that is characteristic of both evolution and of living systems. In the absence of such time perspective we are prevented from taking a truly systemic view and misled into inappropriate semi-political or quasi-moral conflicts over the true nature and influence of stages in the current behaviour and forward trajectory of the system. It is essential that we find the next level of understanding that allows us to put such questions in proper perspective.

Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once; space exists so that everything doesn’t happen to you.

Often seen as humour, attributed variously to Mark Twain, Ray Cummings and, inevitably, Albert Einstein, and possibly conflating several separate thoughts, there may be something more for us in that saying than a smile.

Stage theories in social psychology have arisen because development happens. All of creation is subject to the general principle that one thing builds upon another, atoms on electrons on protons, molecules on atoms, organic compounds from inorganic components. We humans are here because there were algae, slime moulds and prawns somewhere deep in the four-billion-year emergence of organic life.

Our thinking and our societal existence are no different. As infants we begin by sensing our environment, observing those around us, bonding with family and emerging into individuality. These are not intellectual processes. They build on our animal origins and the considerable plasticity of our brains and nervous systems, each of us using pattern sensing and playful exploration to shape the uniqueness of our internal wiring.

Approximately coinciding with the emergence of our second sets of teeth, we then start the development of our thinking, analytical reason and logic, a process that keeps us engaged through the remainder of our childhood. This process varies greatly according to our culture, education and living environment; it may or may not develop to greater complexity because the necessary intelligences may not be available in the living context. Nevertheless, the core building blocks are laid down one after another in a largely predictable timeline and sequence. As with all natural processes there may be exceptions, but prodigies are noticeable precisely because they are atypical.

Arrows of Time

In our perspectives on the natural world it is easy to see two different relationships to time. One of them is evolutionary. We know that today’s world is an outcome of millions of years in which species came and went, that it is 65 million years since dinosaurs roamed the planet and that humanity as we know it emerged comparatively recently. The other perspective is located in present time, so we see the species that are present now; their behaviours, relationships and ecosystems. We observe changes taking place now or in short time spans. We can engage with these two viewpoints, the evolutionary tree and the living ecosystem simultaneously.

When we look at socio-psychological systems we need to make similar distinctions. We can view the changes that have taken place over the tens of thousands of years since humans first created cave paintings. Humanity has shifted from subsistence to agriculture and relatively recently made a rapid trajectory through towns and cities to mega cities and global connectivity. We can identify the key characteristics as stages on that timeline. Similarly, we can take a timeline view of children, observing the stages from helplessness to crawling/toddling and through the gradual development of cognitive and social skills. We can describe the potential growth of those later skills in psychological development terms and as leadership development frameworks.

At the same time we can see our activities as here-and-now living systems. We can observe the interactions, the resolution of tensions, the potential threats to a system and possible responses. We can recognise each of the stages that were identified in our emergent view now showing up as voices in the mix and interactions in the ecosystem. We can see them whispering or shouting in our social groups, our organisations and our nations.

The voices in today’s living systems are present because they have their roots and origins in our development. They are not imposed on people; rather they reflect what occurs naturally. They are within us as part of our socio-psychological potential, aspects of our big-brain evolutionary history awaiting activation by our living experience. Whatever we see now is in the map because it is in the territory. The hills and valleys are not simply constructs; they reflect tectonic upheavals, volcanoes and erosion patterns from the past. As without, so within.

The patterns we can see are repetitive and observable; however, they do not appear the same every time. Just as no two people are identical, no two organisations play out their development in the same way and each has its unique way of expressing that mix of characteristics and voices. Nations are no different. Today’s nations can be seen to have experienced the same stages, but in quite different ways. We can map the journey for the USA, for Western Europe, for Russia and for China using the same stage markers and keynotes even while they are markedly different in their journeys and their current outcomes.

As well as being repetitive, the patterns have a predictable sequence. Evolution could not go from squid to mammals without first producing bony fish. Foundations have to be built, connectivity has to be put in place and basic structures are required before increased scale is possible. Each of the stages that we identify arises as a response to the challenges created by its predecessors as well as exploiting the opportunities of a new baseline. Each of them deals with what would otherwise be liable to collapse the system and each makes use of newly available structures and energies, and may also apply exaptation — the development of prior structures for new purposes. In this context it does not matter which route is taken. In socio-psychological adaptation, the inherent tensors within living systems call forth the next perspective, the tensions between individual and collective needs and between outer world requirements and the mindsets that will deal with them. All living systems increase in complexity over time, so life will always throw up problems that are not solvable by the thinking that created them. The new thinking systems are a reflection of the nature of the problems to be solved. If you attempt to apply stage 6 solutions to Stage 3 challenges, they cannot succeed, because the intervening structures, as with the fish skeleton, are not yet in existence.

Snapshots in Time

All perspectives on existence suffer from a quasi-Heisenbergian challenge. Just as we can locate the particle and report on its properties providing we are not attempting to measure its motion, we can make static assessments of what is present NOW. Even with new technology such as MRI scanning, our ability to identify physiological change as it happens is limited. Medical knowledge advanced mainly by dissection and even now our ability to detect chemical or hormonal change relies on sporadic sampling of a few specific markers. We have to interpolate and guess at what is happening, or model specific processes in isolation, outside the body under laboratory conditions.

Psychological assessments and maps of societal conditions deal with the same challenge. I don’t know and cannot ever know the flow of your thoughts; more challenging still, neither can you. We know for sure that there is much happening that is beneath your conscious awareness. Even with heightened awareness you cannot freeze your thoughts to capture all that is present in any given moment. By the time you attempt to tell me what they were, they have moved on. Similarly, at the societal level our assessments of what is taking place is crude, reliant on surveys and questionnaires. Beyond that we are speculating and interpreting the behaviours that we see on the surface, unable to discern with any degree of subtlety what made you or your locality vote for a particular party or what drives your attitude and theirs to race or LBGTQ issues.

Our theories and our attitudes to them reflect this challenge. In fact, our expectations of a theory, of how we should use it and our discussions of the conclusions tend to demonstrate this repeatedly. Many of our psychological assessments are typologies. They avoid the challenge by assigning people to categories, giving them a label that is intended to help us know how to deal with them. They are Introverts or Extroverts, INTJ and ESFP, Enneagram type 5 or 8. Although such categories may have some capacity to flex, that is not typically how they are interpreted or used.

Developmental models are only a little better. A Kegan, Torbert or Cook-Greuter scale for leadership tells us that given enough time, an individual may expand their perspective, moving up the scale as they mature. Many coaching and leadership development interventions depend on this assumed openness. Nevertheless, when people are assessed as Expert or Achiever, the label defines who they are as well as what their next step might be or must be.

Used with care and awareness such models and categorisations can be useful. They add to our understanding of ourselves and others. However, the awareness and care are easily lost; instead of being helpful generalities they can become rigid labels. Some of the problems with this are generic — they are in the nature of such categorisation and they should be subject to health warnings: “Beware, these categories do not tell you who people are and are no substitute for individual conversations.” Some of the problems lie in a human tendency to decide that one type is inherently better than another and for whatever spurious reason of politics, organisational bias or social policy, to treat certain people as permanently inferior or unsuitable.

Similarly a developmental perspective may be taken beyond its context for applicability. We can lose sight of the reality that an Expert mind-set has value and a useful function in the system; it is a mistake to assume that it must change to something “better” and demand that it should. Today’s culture, focused as it is on being excellent, on celebrity and on visible public achievement, has intensified such perspectives into blind spots and fed into a developmental egotism. It generates a rush to be seen or to see oneself at the top of the ladder.

Earlier we recognised that new ways of thinking emerge because they are needed in order to solve problems created by their predecessors. This adaptive reality means that a later-emerging stage is better by definition in the functional sense that the new mindset can solve the same problems as its predecessor, plus the new ones. It has an additional capacity and a wider context of applicability. It is more complex. In that sense there is “better”. Even so, we are required to walk a fine line, recognising that evolution expands capacity, in the sense that you can do things that a prawn cannot, while simultaneously understanding that without all of the earlier forms of life we would never have come to be, and if they were not there now, we would cease to exist.

Time to Come Alive

However flexible such snapshots, none of them can capture the reality of a living system. When we talk in the language of stages, simplify our observations of people to a snapshot of “where they are now” or drop into categorisation, we are no longer seeing the movie. Some developmental models such as Integral Theory employ the concept of “transcend and include”, acknowledging that we retain the mindsets and values of prior stages. Yet they give insufficient attention to what continues to live and speak within.

We need to view the model differently. Individuals, organisations and nations are all more complex than that. I would like to offer a metaphor and a visual image. Typically we will describe an individual in terms of their most obvious features. This is akin to observing that Beethoven’s ninth symphony is in the key of D minor. At the very minimum, this ignores its opening uncertainty between A major and A minor and the core “Ode to Joy” finale being emphatically in D major. Taken overall, it is a vast distance from indicating the richness and complexity of a 70-minute experience. Static descriptions are inadequate.

Extend this metaphor to your own life — to perhaps a typical day. How many different thoughts do you have? What range of emotional responses? Don Beck, the pioneer of Spiral Dynamics, is known to say regarding stages that people are “chords, not notes”. I suggest that he is only touching the surface of our existence, because even that statement applies only to our static snapshots. In the movie version we are flowing in and out of all of the stages as we interact. Our mindset emphasis changes as we interact with bosses and friends at work or with a partner and children at home. The visual image I have is that at any point in time an array of stages “pops up”, piston-like, in varying proportions, to be replaced rapidly by another array and another.

These are our songs of existence and we can view their flow in the same way as seeing the keys of a player-piano depress and release.

The problem is not with stage models as such. They validly represent aspects of the territory (maps) and descriptions of the geological timeline (histories). The problem is with our mindsets. We are accustomed, habituated even, to scientific conversations that are about things; categorising things and describing their components. That approach extends to analysing the processes by which things come and go from existence, and how certain things change other things. The most advanced forms of that mindset raise that approach to an examination of how collectives of things behave as systems and sometimes, as with meteorology, we can simulate those behaviours, by gathering vast amounts of data and modelling what is happening in some very large and powerful computers. We can even model long-term trends, and without that we would not have our current awareness levels of climate shifts.

Such achievements may give us the illusion of some element of mastery. It appears that we have made the transition from snapshots to movies, thus encouraging the belief that other systems, including living systems, may reach similar levels of predictability. However, for all its complexity, and all the brilliance of the decades of work which now deliver some quite reliable medium-term forecasts, weather is an essentially mechanical system. It contains no conscious decision-making components and is, relatively speaking, a closed system. Even while the predictions may be disrupted by Mount St Helens volcano, by some unpronounceable Icelandic equivalent, and even while sunspots may challenge its boundaries, the success reflects largely definable parameters. Note also that where many scientists claim to deal in what is objectively measurable, meteorology deals with sample data and subjects them to hypothesised patterns of relationships from which it then extrapolates, refining the process over time.

Living systems are more difficult. Even plants contain in-built decision-making systems which can still be mysterious. We have some idea when daffodils will bloom, but not much. How does a tree choose where its next leaf-bud will appear, a process which may be described as genetically programmed but which is highly adaptive to its environment — exhibiting whole-system awareness while having no central nervous system or “brain”? Animals are very evidently more tricky still. They make decisions in the moment. Who knows which male a peahen will choose to fertilise her eggs? We know only with hindsight. Humans are several degrees of magnitude worse, both consciously choosing and unconsciously driven, with high levels of seeming counter-rationality. Our capacity to model this is limited, both to the extent that it is suggested that the only model of a human brain would be a brain and by the degree of its “black box” character. That is, we have little information about its inner workings and that which we have may not be reliable, as regularly signalled by the failure of voter surveys to predict electoral or referendum outcomes.

Living systems also raise many issues in regard to boundaries. They are filled with interfaces and they are multi-layered. Creatures interact with other creatures as consumers or food-sources, but they also affect their environment, like worms aerating the soil or birds as vectors for seeds. While living, they produce excreta and when dead, they decompose, acting as part of systems of organic chemistry. Living organisms also change in response to their environment, not only in the well-recognised potential for genetic change, but in the more recently recognised capacity for epigenetic change, where genes express differently according to their environment (context) without any alteration in the genome. All of these features impose a requirement to be very cautious regarding our ability to describe the interactions of a living system with any accuracy, and even our view of the separate entities in the system must be held lightly. Yet at the same time, we know that the forest has trees, bugs, birds, fungi and animals, all of which we can observe and describe as distinct elements.

More than this, when we look at human systems, we see individuals. We like to think of ourselves as individuals and we value our autonomy and see ourselves as having rights, which much of the time we believe must be extended to others. Beyond the individuality we see our families, our neighbours, our neighbourhoods, hobby groups, faith groups, working collectives, states and nations. We function as all of these with boundaries that both nest and overlap. Your company may sponsor a local activity and your nation determines tax liabilities and legal obligations for both. Once again boundaries are fuzzy, and the system populated by components that are simultaneously distinct and non-separable.

Any model for human thinking and behaviour can only be broad-brush, dealing only with high-level generalisations. Nevertheless our best model would have to satisfy the requirement of being more than a static labelling system, more also than a short-term indicator. It needs to be descriptive, but if it is to be useful, it must also be moderately predictive and to offer some degrees of strategic guidance, or ways of addressing problems with greater skill and effectiveness.

The Requirements for a Comprehensive Model

1. The model must have its basis in an understanding of the nature of change itself, why it happens (or fails to) and what forms changes take.

2. Such a model must have structure, but at the same time be fluid, open, and its boundaries porous. In that sense, it must resemble a mammalian body with its cells and membranes.

3. It must be capable of recognising the equivalents of organs (societal collectives and organisations) and the flows between them and the cellular components (individuals).

4. Its articulation of communication and control systems must be as varied and capable of functioning at different time spans in the way that growth processes, endocrine balances, homeostatic regulation or nervous systems do.

5. It must deal with the inbuilt tensions that living systems are subject to –

a. the needs of individuals, collectives and super-collectives, and

b. must have recognition of the relationship between human choice-making and the exterior conditions and contexts to which those choices are a response.

6. The way that individuals develop over their lifetime, their psychological ontogeny, must be identifiable.

7. It must be possible to map the growth path of organisations and collectives, their organisational ontogeny.

8. Its reflection of long-term human psychological and cultural evolution should be identifiable, sufficiently to provide an element of predictability.

9. It is required to be adaptive, capable of further change over longer time spans, but also able to preserve what has gone before, recognising the value of all components and their contribution to the life of the psychosocial system.

10. To cap it all, it must supply some potential basis for understanding what it is to be conscious and for being the type of creature that would produce such a model at all.

This combination of requirements will provide a view of human social psychology that is dynamic and consistent across all scales and all time spans. It will, in metaphorical terms, show not only notes and forms, but indications of the melodies and harmonies in the music itself.

What I am presenting here goes beyond what is conventionally thought of as a stage theory. In recognising that there are elements that must exist first in order for new features to be added, it acknowledges the existence of a sequence. Once present however, the elements become components of a living system rather than stages or levels. They can be used in both ways. As progress markers in an emergent process, they give indications of where a person or system is in terms of their developmental process, and those descriptions potentially become predictive indications of what may be possible next. They may even be cautiously extended as prescriptions of what may be worked on for intentional development. However, there are bigger benefits available when the voices in the living system are understood and when we begin to hear the song that they are singing. Elements such as balance, blend, tone and harmony can be recognised and worked with, orchestrated to greater purpose.

There is only one theory that I am aware of that fulfils the requirements listed above. Anyone familiar with my passions will know that I am referring to Spiral Dynamics, and its roots in the Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence model developed by Clare W. Graves. I don’t propose to describe the theory in detail here. I will offer some suitably authentic sources at the close of this article, though I should emphasise right away that the living systems expression of the theory that I am describing is largely undeveloped. The materials referred to are intended to supply a baseline for the theory that is not corrupted in the way that is frequently the case with a large number of publicly available attempts which are at best static and typological in emphasis, and at worst simply wrong.

Rather, what I will do now in closing is indicate the aspects of the theory, hopefully recognisable to those who know it moderately well, that satisfy the criteria I have given. I will also point out the significant ways in which it differs from the Integral model developed by Ken Wilber which partly incorporated the theory and which is sometimes mistaken to be the same.

1. A model of change
For the movement from one stage to the next to make sense, we need to know what generates a psychological shift. The changes that the theory identifies are not random or arbitrary. They have a functional impulse. This is sufficiently fundamental that it is the first thing we teach in our formal certifications because all the dynamics arise from the logic of that impulse.

2. Structural fluidity
The original Graves model took the form of a double helix and the spiral of the Spiral Dynamics presentation captures that motion. Its fluidity arises from three key aspects. First, as Graves emphasised in his reference to a “Never-Ending Quest”, no end to the development is envisaged. Second, while the Spiral is presented in terms of (to date) nine colour bands, it is by nature a continuum. Sometimes practitioners identify not only the stages themselves but the nature of the transitional spaces in-between. Third, all of the stages are potentially visible to one another and capable of intercommunication, as are all the individuals who are part of any collective view.

3. Organic components
The model operates at every scale of human existence, from individuals to nation-sized entities and global patterns. Within that encompassing scale, Spiral Dynamics recognises and can work with businesses, cities, territories and societal groupings of all kinds and degrees of structural definition or longevity. It is capable of revealing both the function of such components, the flows between them, together with the characteristic mindsets that they bring to the dynamics of their interrelationships. These interactions can be recognised by the system as part of its self-knowledge and thus provide a contribution to its self-organisation.

4. Communication and control systems
As a consequence of element 3, and in its awareness of both the present-time and emergent-time movements in the system, the model reveals the ways in which interactions create (or fail to create) inter-awareness between components. This allows system participants to work intentionally to eliminate blind spots and ensure that all components have the information they need for optimum choice-making and anticipation of what is likely to be next.

5. Tensions in living systems

a. All living systems deal with the need to balance the needs and growth potential of individuals against whatever is supportive of collective thrival. The Graves model builds this in with a basic recognition that a prime driver of change arises in the repeated need to rebalance such that the stages oscillate, with each individually-oriented stage succeeded by one that favours the collective.

b. Darwin’s theory of evolution is now well accepted in its description of genetic change over time as a process of adaptation. New characteristics persist when they increase the success with which an organism can respond to changes in its environment such as new food sources or predators. The Graves double-helix image is explicitly constructed to provide a map showing how new ways of thinking are internal responses to new pressures from external life conditions, and deliver adaptive change.

c. Living systems have a natural tendency to increase in complexity over time with a widening range of subsystems. The Spiral is an expanding model as new capacities and responses build on top of earlier ones, adding to the variety of available behaviours and responses.

6. Psychological ontogeny
The stages of development that are identifiable over historical time spans and in the more immediate changes as organisations and societies develop, are identifiable in the growth of human individuals from infancy to adulthood. The behavioural systems that we observe in adults have their roots in the progression and maturation of children and demonstrate the awakening of potentials in biological capacity.

7. Organisational ontogeny
The work of Ichak Adizes closely illustrates how organisational development parallels and exhibits the patterns of the Spiral stage map.

8. Long-term evolution and culture-level shift
As indicated at number 6 above, human psychological and cultural evolution can be shown to reflect the available capacities present in individuals when those responses are evoked and awakened by larger scale changes in collective conditions at societal and national scale.

9. Ongoing adaptation
Several of the features referred to above combine in the delivery of change at larger scales as an outcome of bottom-up shifts at more individual and small-scale levels. In contrast to our tendency to expect societal change to be driven and controlled from the top of hierarchies, the Graves model indicates our capacity to generate it through shifts in intelligence from within the living system, in a self-organising manner.

10. The expansion of conscious awareness
The stages of the Spiral display a movement from animal-like, instinctive, non-cognitive, somatic pattern-recognition forms of processing to more cognitive, analytical, self-aware and system-aware ways of thinking and being with higher intellect. Over time, the theory shows that we can be less driven by our emotions, developing increased EQ and increasingly capable of engagement with the widest possible contexts of existence and SQ awareness.


The concept of stages in development has been subjected to some fierce criticism, in some cases to the extent that the very notion of stages has been rejected. There are some understandable reasons why this would be so, however I have argued that the past errors arise not from the fact that stages are present, but from value judgements which were mistakenly or even malignly applied to their existence. When an axe is used as a weapon, we don’t conclude that we should stop chopping firewood.

More than this, the argument against such sequences arises from a failure to understand the key message of this article, which is that we have to make a distinction between what is present here and now, and what takes place in developmental timelines, which is inevitably and functionally sequenced, whether or not this matches your preferred perceptual stance.

For many decades our view of social psychology existed in a flatland, a 2D mapping which lacked any sense of vertical contouring or altitude. That changed with Maslow, Loevinger, Graves and the Integral model. It is now apparent that 3D space is also inadequate and that we are in need of the time dimension in order to move from stasis to the kind of dynamic that is characteristic of both evolution and of living systems. In the absence of such time perspective we are prevented from taking a truly systemic view and misled into inappropriate semi-political or quasi-moral conflicts over the true nature and influence of stages in the current behaviour and forward trajectory of the system. It is essential that we find the next level of understanding that allows us to put such questions in proper perspective.

Jon Freeman
October 2021


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