Spiral Dynamics III — Reevaluation
I have previously written about Spiral Dynamics here and here. In both of those articles I was skeptical of the extent to which changing social conditions has created new forms of personality. The inter-relationship between social progress and individual change is essential to Spiral Dynamics, as indicated by the “Double Helix” model:
One way of phrasing my critique of Spiral Dynamics is that the organization of society can change a lot faster than the human brain, which is limited to the speed of natural selection (and which might even be stalled).
However, two ideas I have been exposed to lately provide a mechanism for how changing society can impact personality. The first, which I have mentioned before several times, comes from the book The Secret of Our Success, by Joseph Henrich. The idea is that humans have evolved to be able to adopt changing cultural norms and behaviors, and that this ability is what sets humans apart from other animals.
The second idea comes from the book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. The idea is that the mind contains certain hard-wired modules (he focuses on moral modules like fairness, loyalty, and disgust), but that culture enables us to rewire the kinds of things that trigger these modules.
Ok, so using these two ideas as inspiration, here is my story. The human mind has a hardwired capacity to exhibit certain personality traits. But how these traits are expressed depends on our social context. In other words, our innate personality gets wired based on our social context. This process not only changes what kinds of things trigger our different hard-wired behavioral patterns (i.e., what kinds of things we are disgusted by, what kinds of things we consider high status, what we consider beautiful, etc), it also changes the extent to which certain basic processes get triggered (or suppressed). The interrelationship between our natural hard-wired brain chemistry and our cultural feedback is what determines our personality.
I still feel it is useful to characterize personality in terms the Big Five personality factors: (Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism). However, how each of these personality factors plays out, and the extent to which different factors get manifested depends on our cultural context. Thus, our brain has essentially been pretty much the same for all of human history, but culture adapts, and our personalities adapt to our cultural context within the constraints of our wiring.
Ok, so that is the basic story, but now I want to talk a little more about some specifics of cultural adaptation and how that impacts personality. I basically think that society has undergone two major transitions (and we are still in the middle of the second transition). The transitions are determined based on changes in technology.
The first transition was the agricultural revolution (which took thousands of years, and happened very unevenly). Before the agricultural revolution, people lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. Strong relationships between small groups were essentially the only form of wealth.
After the agricultural revolution, people lived in cities and villages (i.e., in larger settlements) and the main forms of wealth were land and position in the hierarchy. The impact of this change on culture (and hence, on personality) was enormous. Up until about the 1800’s about 80% of humanity worked in agriculture. I would characterize some of the main that came as a result of this transition as:
- With more people living together, hierarchy became more important, so the ability to navigate hierarchy became important (either by taking charge, or by submitting). This results in increased importance of Assertiveness (a facet of Extroversion) in some cases, and Politeness (Agreeableness) in other cases
- The emergence of wealth (land and hierarchical status) lead to the increased importance of long term planning, or Industriousness (Conscientiousness)
- The ability to pass on wealth to your heirs lead to increased importance of control of sexuality (i.e., strict monogamy), which is also associated with a redirection of Volatility (Neuroticism) and Orderliness (Conscientiousness) toward infidelity
All in all, I think Conscientiousness is the big winner of the agricultural revolution from a personality standpoint. It helps accumulate wealth and navigate the hierarchy. It is also important to note that with the argicultural revolution there is also a divergence between personality traits that make sense for people at different levels of the hierarchy. Extraversion becomes more important for upper classes, and more dangerous for the lower classes.
In terms of spiral dynamics, I would associated the agricultural transition with a change from Beige/Purple to Red/Blue. But I am not sure there is a transition from Red to Blue. It seems like these two cultural norms co-exist with Red being more important at the top (i.e., among land owners and warrior classes) and at the fringes (i.e., among criminal elements). But by and large, I view Blue (i.e., Conscientiousness) as the rising trait for most of humanity.
After the agricultural revolution, the second major transition is that of Information revolution. We are still in the midst of this transition. A few things that have really triggered this transition include the invention of books and, eventually, the printing press, telecommunications, mass media, universal education, etc. With the Information age, wealth is primarily held in money and human capital (i.e., education). Some of the changes that seem to be happening with the Information revolution include:
- People interact with (work with, get their ideas from, etc) a much larger community, so the value of tolerance is greatly increased, which makes Politeness and Sympathy (Agreeableness) more important
- The ability to engage in a positive way with many different people also increases the value of Enthusiasm (Extraversion)
- The ability to develop, process, and incorporate new ideas is greatly increased, which places more value on Openness
- Physical and social mobility are increased, so our relationships change more frequently. Thus, the value of loyalty and commitment are decreased, which devalues Neuroticism
So, in the Information age, I see Openness, Extroversion, and Agreeableness as the big winners, and Neuroticism as the primary loser. In terms of Spiral Dynamics, I view Orange as being associated with Openness (esp. intellectual openness) and Green as associated with agreeableness. But again, I don’t really view them emerging in a particular order. I see them as both simultaneously gaining prominence as the world transitions to a global economy based on money and information.
In any case, the Agriculture/Information model does align pretty well with Red/Blue and Orange/Green stages in Spiral Dynamics. So what about the last three stages? Honestly, I’m not really sold on Yellow/Turquoise/Coral.
In my last critique, I compared these upper levels to a form of mysticism. In other words, these levels are the promised knowledge that will help us transcend human nature. But I see humanity as still right in the midst of the Information revolution, and there are things on the horizon that could completely disrupt the whole model of interaction between culture and personality under the constraints of a brain with certain hard-wired modules.
The disruptors are things like artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering (GE). When these technologies really come to fruition, all bets are off. Culture and personality will no longer be limited to the bounds of our evolutionary brain, and there is really no telling where things will end up.
So while I now feel like I have a better understanding of the concept behind the Spiral Dynamics double helix model, I am not sold on the upper levels, and I think they will be made obsolete by some kind of unpredictable AI/GE transition before they really take hold.