Clare Graves on his Levels of Existence Psychology

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The powerful and charismatic voice of Clare W. Graves, pioneer of the Gravesian levels of existence psychology, which denies that psychological maturity is anything that can be achieved 'for ever', that it is rather, a function of how humans adapt to evolving social conditions.



Marcel van Marrewijk


"With respect to ‘emergent’, Graves concluded that mankind has gradually developed eight levels of existence or core value systems, so far. A value system is a way of conceptualizing reality and encompasses a consistent set of values, beliefs and corresponding behaviour and can be found in individual persons, as well as in companies and societies. With these statements, Graves confronted Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. He agreed to the ranking of the needs, but the image of a pyramid cannot express the emerging capacities of human beings in meeting higher levels of complexity, thus creating different manifestations of personal and collective self-actualisation. Graves’ successors, Beck & Cowan, created the image of a spiral, emphasising the open ended and ever expanding nature of their approach. Human development is an emergent, oscillating evolutionary aspects that subordinates older, less complex ways of thinking/being to newer, more expansive, more complex ones. Older systems do not disappear, but are subsumed within the more elaborate ones and can be reactivated when older problems resurface. Each new emerging system ‘transcends and includes’ the previous ones. A second notion regarding emergence lies in the intangible aspects ‘below the surface’ that influence human behaviour. The core question according to Beck and Cowan is “how does the mind process reality”. The framework structures thinking systems within people, not types of people. Each value system is associated with a specific ‘world view’, thus generating multiple ‘truths’.


The development of value systems occurs in a fixed order. The value systems can be tagged as follows: Survival; Security; Energy & Power; Order; Success; Community, Synergy and Holistic Life System. These systems brighten or dim along with changing life conditions and one’s capacities. Each new value system includes and transcends the previous ones, thus forming a natural hierarchy (or holarchy).The value systems alternate between I-oriented and we-oriented systems, with a respective focus to changing the world outside and coming to peace with the world inside.

Double Helix

Value systems develop in reaction to specific environmental challenges and threats: the systems brighten or dim when life conditions change. These Life Conditions (LC) consists of historic Times, geographic Place, existential Problems and societal Circumstances. As with the double helix in a DNA-string, Graves’ model distinguishes LC as one of the two determining factors that cause the existence of prevailing and emerging contexts. The other one is Mind Capacities [MC’s]. Their interactions produce the thinking systems, mentioned above. Transformations to more complex contexts actually occur when life conditions have build up a sufficient level of urgency among entities to leave behind their proven patterns of behaviour and challenge their world view. They have to experience that current solutions are no longer adequate. In order to cope with the new life conditions, entities must have a supportive mind capacity to be able to match the new challenges life conditions offer and generate new adequate behavior and subsequent institutional arrangements. Entities such as people and organizations will eventually have to meet the challenges their context provides or risk the danger of oblivion or even extinction. If for instance societal circumstances change, inviting corporations to respond and consequently reconsider their role within society, it implies that corporations have to re-align their value systems and all their business institutions (such as mission, vision, policy deployment, decision-making, reporting, corporate affairs, etcetera) to these new circumstances.


Graves restricted the outcomes of his theory to ‘healthy adults’ only. In practice one can observe that Spiral Dynamic thinking can also be applied to the development of children, all be it with some adjustments. As a third generation researcher, with Graves being the first and Beck and Cowan the second generation, van Marrewijk applies the theory also to groups, organisations and even societies and economic systems, as this paper will demonstrate.


People tend to change their biopsychlogicalsocial beings as their Conditions of Existence change. With respect to the biological appearances, it obviously applies to the pre-historic Cro Magnon, the Pygmies, Inuits and Bedouins, as well as contemporary Salarymen. Over time mankind was able to alter his DNA information to adjust to changing circumstances and support new generations with a better constitution to cope with prevailing circumstances. Also psychologically and socially people change along with their life conditions, creating new cultural patterns and institutional arrangements that facilitate adequate behaviour. Psychologically, people alternate between an inner locus of control with a focus on changing and controlling the world outside (the I-systems) and an outer locus of control with a focus on coming to peace with the world inside (we-systems).Due to the ability to match MC with LC, people centralized in a value system are psychosocially congruent with components of that system. On the other hand, a person may not be equipped to move to a more complex system, even if the Conditions of Existence demand it. Psychologically, these people remain ‘arrested’ towards future needs or even ‘closed’ to less complex value systems that, naturally, should have been included in their repertoire. Individuals and groups develop and apply values and supporting institutional structures, in order to cope with the prevailing challenges. A person may stabilize at one or at a combination of value systems if the Conditions of Existence are stable. When LC warrants, a person or group may regress to a previous value system. As with an uphill ride, people back shift to a lower gear to get more power.

Systems Development

Each value system includes a range of positive and negative characteristics and behaviours, adaptive and maladaptive elements. A system can become healthy and unhealthy, supportive and destructive, energizing and frustrating, sowing the seeds of change. It offers linkages to change management, what to do in order to improve performance. It is important to understand that NO value system is inherently “better” or “worse” than another. It is all about adequateness or appropriateness to the milieu and conditions of existence. As higher value systems normally include the previous contexts, a higher system is not simply better; it offers more grades of freedom to match particular challenges. If a response can be made adequately in a basic context, there is no need to do it more sophistically and waste time and efforts. Moreover, complex value systems are much more vulnerable, or more difficult to sustain."


More Information

Clare Gaves website,

Spiral Dynamics,