Spiral Dynamics and Positive Disintegration

We are living in chaotic times. Supposedly, it is the most peaceful time in known human history, yet it certainly does not feel like it.

We are living in chaotic times. Thanks to Steven Pinker, we know that it is the most peaceful time in known human history, yet it certainly does not feel like it.

Warfare is different today. More often than not, it is more of a culture war, a war of different worldviews, different ways of sense-making of our times.

TPD (the Theory of Positive Disintegration) was developed by Dabrowski in a time of great bloodshed during, between, and after the two most horrible recent wars. Looking at our situation in the West, I came to believe that there is ample possibility for similar reactions to the ongoing culture war as there was to physical war. The change of worldview is traumatic and stressful and includes loss just as war does.

Do not get me wrong: I am not belittling physical war. All I want is to show that TPD can help as much in overcoming PTSD from culture war as it did for many from physical war.

Culture War 2.0

Peter Limberg did a great treatise on culture war 2.0 in Welcome to Culture War 2.0

If you are more a visual type, you can see an interview about it here: Culture War 2.0, Rebel Wisdom and Peter Limberg.

There are three major sense-making strategies at work at the moment in the West. We usually call them traditionalism, modernity, and post-modernity.

Several models try to explain why there is so much friction between the three. I think of models from people like Robert Kegan, Ken Wilber, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Jean Gebser, and the one I want to have a look at today, by Clare W. Graves and Don Beck.

Their model is called Spiral Dynamics® and it states that humanity and individuals evolve through the same set of open-ended stages during their existence. For an explanation of the theory, visit the website of a partner of mine in the Netherlands, ValueMatch.

This much here to understand the main players of culture war 2.0:

Traditionalism has been coded Blue in Spiral Dynamics. It believes in absolute truth as seen in evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam. It is organized hierarchically by a higher power.

Modernity, Orange in Spiral Dynamics, doubts god-given absolute truth and replaces it with scientific search and power of the human mind, strives for individual success, and has set up a materialistic worldview.

But Orange with its idea of “everything is possible” did not think about the consequences. The exploitation of the earth, but also cheap labor, and the exclusion of the unsuccessful are direct consequences.

Post-Modernity, coded Green, differs from Blue in that it no longer believes in the only truth, neither in the sense of religion nor in the sense of Orange science. Truth is subjective.

Let’s have, just as an example, a deeper look into Green:

Teamwork, harmonious joint decision-making, self-fulfillment, personal growth, psychology, psychiatry, personality testing, ecology, NGOs, people managers, and tolerance towards everybody but the intolerant are keywords.

Green is often called the first trans-rational level, not solely relying on reason to solve problems. It is anti-hierarchical as well: while Red – an earlier worldview that we could dub “law of the jungle” – had power structures, Blue had its anointed ones, and Orange had meritocracies, Green abhors any kind of hierarchy.

On its dark side, mean Green, as it often is called with a term coined by Ken Wilber, develops identity politics and intersectionality. It de-platforms people with different views, as it sees speech and opinion as possible violence.

Interestingly enough, through intersectionality valuing victims over seeming oppressors, Green introduces a new hierarchy through the back door. The more groups of victims somebody belongs to, the more their understanding of truth is valued.

Mean Green is a poster child for the problems of all worldviews so far: once I have battled through leaving one and growing into the next, I find those values and worldviews I just left childish, simple, and limited. Why can’t they see?

Let us recap:

Blue developed from Red to handle the egotistical power struggle through god-given laws and order. Only that way even the king has to subordinate himself to the law.

Orange developed from Blue as it saw the problems Blue introduced in this world: a rigid system of law and order, not allowing for personal growth outside its parameters on one hand and stifling, even condemning all truth outside its own.

Green developed from Orange because its value for individual strive and meritocracy almost destroyed our habitat.

I wonder what kind of problems Green introduces it is not conscious of. Could it be said culture war, trying to push their values on previous worldviews? Just thinking aloud here.

Then, the question would be: what is next? But not in this article, sorry. If you are interested in my thoughts about that, let me know, and I will gladly write something about it. Just a hint: we need to see that those worldviews, though they show an evolution, are not any hierarchy. None is better than the other, and each has solutions fit for the problems it evolved to solve in the first place.

What I would like to look at is how it is that people grow from one worldview to the next.

Or, as Spiral Dynamics would put it: how do people evolve in their consciousness and ability for complex thinking?

The Change Process

As you might know from other blog entries here, I also work with the theory of positive disintegration TPD, of which I make only a short recap here. After that, I will introduce the Spiral Dynamics model of change and show the parallels.

Positive personal Disintegration

Dabrowski saw psychological problems induced by trauma as a possible chance for growth of a person’s personality.

Change in his theory is induced mainly by three thrives or factors:

  1. Factor 1: basic instincts like survival
  2. Factor 2: external influences from a social environment
  3. Factor 3: autonomous values

A person can undergo 5 steps of change:

  1. Primary Integration: This is integration driven by the first two factors. Integration is basically instinctual or social. It builds the platform the person will develop from.
  2. Unilevel Disintegration: Initial brief and more or less intense crisis leads to discomfort and ambivalent thinking. According to Dabrowski, from this level there are three ways to proceed. (The third option will require great energy.)
    1. Fall back on an earlier level
    2. Suicide or psychosis
    3. Proceed to the next step.
  3. Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration: Conflicts here are not only based on dis-ease with the former primary integration but with the hunch of a new paradigm. You start seeing things differently.
  4. Directed Multilevel Disintegration: This is the step beyond return. You now start to directly, consciously and deliberately review your interpretation of life instead of the involuntary spontaneous development at the previous step. This involves the conscious outworking of a new worldview or paradigm.
  5. Secondary Integration: At this step, one has found new harmony and integration and settled in a new paradigm.

The third aspect of the theory: some people are more prone to successfully undergo the process of disintegration and reintegration through those 5 steps. According to Dabrowski, those people share a strong third factor due to what he called over-excitability.

Over-excitability in short can be defined as a strong reaction or responsiveness to small triggers or stimuli. This can be true in five areas: psychomotor, emotional, sensual, imaginary, and intellectual over-excitability.

Such over-excitability will reinforce the factors driving change, especially the third factor, if it is available.

Spiral Dynamics Model of Change

Spiral Dynamics has a five-stage change process as well, just as we have the levels in TPD.

Level α: everything is pure sunshine. I share the values and worldview of my surroundings.

Level β: I experience certain disagreements and see some shortcomings in the sense-making of level α. For a while, I manage with small changes to go back to my former comfort, but at some point, that is no longer possible.

Level γ: I am deconstructing my former belief system, but hit a roadblock. To go further means to lose belonging as well as sense-making. The new is calling, but very distant and blurry.

Level δ: After breaking through, there is no way back. I have not yet arrived at a new stable worldview quite yet but broke free from the old.

New level α: I have settled in the new way of sense-making and found a new home.

If you compare the model to Dabrowski’s levels, you see the parallels very easily – it’s basically Greek letters for numbers.

To be precise, Spiral Dynamics has a shortcut from β to the new α called Flex. It is a rare route taken where somebody easily leaves the old and goes into the new.

Since the Spiral Dynamics model of change is applicable for small changes as well, the smaller the problem and the possible loss caused by a decision, the more likely somebody will take the Flex route.

It is very rarely taken in case of changes of worldview, with one exception.

We saw that all humanity evolves through the different worldviews of Spiral Dynamics. When you look at the medieval age, you will find but Blue and previous worldviews. The reformation and industrial evolution brought about Orange, and the sixties are the breakthrough time for Green.

If I, in my natural growth, change into a worldview that is already available for my surroundings, I might at times use the Flex route. To break through into something that my habitat does not yet have access to is much harder and will most probably involve the roadblock of γ, that is disintegration.

The Third Factor

Spiral Dynamics states that changes are brought about by life circumstances and instinctual drives. That maps to the first and second factors by Dabrowski respectively.

Spiral Dynamics allows for those two factors only because these factors are present at every change of worldview, even those before Blue, which we have not talked about apart from Red.

Dabrowski lived in Poland and later in Canada, was born in 1902. During his time in Poland, the country went through some drastic changes in sense-making.

Poland before WWI was a very traditional Blue society that had access to Orange scientific and industrial thinking. WWI had the country digress, along with almost all Europe, into what Spiral Dynamics calls Red, a worldview dominated by the laws of the jungles, and the same happened again in WWII. In between and after, we see the resurrection of Blue and Orange values.

In my opinion, Blue as the first rational worldview gives birth to a new drive Dabrowski calls the Third Factor. Jessie Mannisto in her piece Authentic Conscience: Unpacking Dabrowski’s Third Factor shows that the Third Factor can be likened to conscience. In the words of Dabrowski, quoting from said article:

I have come to understand the following: If the first factor is ego-centric; the second factor is ethno/socio-centric; then I would term the third factor as conscience-centric.

It is only when mankind has evolved to understand obedience and guilt that conscience is even possible. And though our modern interpretation puts this evolutionary step and revelation into the creation story, it does not show up there if read carefully.

Adam and Eve had no idea of right and wrong and thus did not make a moral or legal mistake when biting into the forbidden fruit. The result was not guilt either, but shame and consciousness: “their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked.” If you are interested, I wrote about this here: From Beige to Purple: Consciousness.

The apostle Paul in the New Testament tells us that guilt is made possible by the law. And the law was the big attainment of Blue. Only a law given by a higher being can tame the law-of-the-jungle tyrants of Red, as we previously mentioned.

Conscience has become a strong force in Blue. The third factor was born.

That fits into the observations of Dabrowski. Polish people had access to Blue before the wars, and had not lost it during, but had their center of gravity in Red for survival and protection. The big changes of worldview necessary in the time were such from resurrected Blue into Orange. Most of Dabrowski’s patients would have fallen into that category, and therefore, the third factor was available to them.

I now propose that the third factor is a major force for some in the change of all worldviews and sense-making systems past Blue, especially when somebody breaks through into a worldview not available to their surroundings.


Now is the time to have a look into the future.

Clare W. Graves and Don Beck in their research for Spiral Dynamics saw individuals that had evolved from Green into a new worldview called Yellow or integral.

The breakthrough of Yellow thinking? It for the first time sees the necessity of all prior complexities of thinking and toolboxes of solutions and combines them into integral sets of solutions for complex problems.

It is also capable of talking to proponents of each worldview in their language, from the Red Hell’s Angel chapter to the Blue evangelical Christian, the Orange scientist, and the Green climate change activist – and translating between them.

Clare W. Graves called this change to Yellow The Momentous Leap.

This leap will require individuals that have strong third factors.

The first people to undergo such change probably are over-excitable in one or the other fashion, as the stimuli for change are available and emergent, but not dominant. Stimuli for change of value systems are living conditions. Only dominant living conditions stimulate the first and second factors enough to undergo such a change.

Dabrowski, a friend of Maslow’s and contemporary of Clare Graves, has developed a framework for change that in my opinion can be mapped easily to the change framework of Spiral Dynamics, but sheds light on especially one period of development, the shift from Blue to Orange, as it was at play in Dabrowski’s time. Spiral Dynamics gives us a model to apply this for upcoming necessary changes, giving us a language to name the forces behind and solutions for the ongoing culture war.

There are further parallels between the two models which need us to dive a little further into Spiral Dynamics. And there are assessments and Tools if you want to see the mix of worldviews that drive you. I would certainly be interested in a dialog.