The Principle of Reinforcement — SD and Society


Pyramid Peak, Gospel Mountains, Idaho

Last post, I discussed a blueprint for SD and the individual.  We started off as an infant, and ended up close to the top as a fully realized human, connected to the larger world, with meaning and purpose.  Most humans don’t get there on a large scale, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice?

In a similar fashion, so also can we look at societies.  See the figure below:


Before we go any further, I want to establish a huge debt of intellectual authorship to Don Beck and his little ad flyer, as well as my general web reading and Ken Wilber.  No plagiarism here — for the most part, this part of SD is well-explored.

It’s also, at some level, a controversial subject.  The minute you start saying that one type of system is more evolved than another, you really get people going.  Enviros come out and say “look at tribal societies.  They haven’t wrecked the Earth.    Aren’t they better?”  Right Wingers come out and say “Don’t tell me about those European socialists.  Everyone knows what a bunch of crackpots they are — borderline commies they are with their health care systems and government pension plans!”  Inevitably, everyone starts applying their moral judgments (typically, but not always, a very legalistic/blue v-Meme concept) to whatever the contrasting system is.

As such, one needs a different way of understanding the evolution of societies.  And that’s where empathy — or really types and levels of connection comes in.  Societies higher up the Spiral have more evolved empathetic traits.  More people are connected to more people (or other sentient actors, like dogs), with different types of relationships.  As societies move up the Spiral, there is an increasing relational diversity and definition.

Once we understand that, it’s not surprising that the more evolved societies have more safety nets.  If you’re truly connected to other people, for example, wouldn’t it make sense to care about their health?  That level of connection would directly affect how your own health was perceived.  Lower on the Spiral, we see more pronounced In-group/Out-group dynamics.  Life during wartime (a very Tribal/Authoritarian v-Meme) consists of demonizing the enemy, to a point where after the fact, even leaders of more advanced nations can distance themselves from decisions made.

One of my favorite examples involved the fire-bombing of Germany by the Allied Powers during WWII.  Though one can certainly argue about the fire-bombing, the war was one we had to win — Hitler would have enslaved a continent given the opportunity.  At the same time, because of the ineffectiveness of high-altitude bombing of factories in Germany, Churchill gave the nod to Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, to drop thousands of incendiary bombs over civilian centers in Germany, to light them on fire.  (Incendiary bombs, for those so interested, were basically bundles of automobile flares designed to catch stuff on fire.)  Dresden was the most famous of these, but far from the only one.  Harris was known as “Butcher” Harris by his own men.  And not because of what he was doing to the Germans.  It was his own disregard for bomber crews’ lives that gave him that moniker.

This campaign led to firestorms that incinerated entire cities, and their civilian inhabitants — a war crime , with Arthur “Bomber” Harris as the architect.  After the war, Churchill was slow to bring Harris back into the fold of acceptable personalities, though Harris was not tried for war crimes.  In post-war, communitarian England, one didn’t quite know how to process the obvious savagery that we as the Good Guys committed.  It seems kind of trivial to say something like we were completely empathetically disconnected from the German population (as well as the Japanese population) during WWII, but it does explain well how we were able to execute the last part of the war in the fashion we did.

Which leads to what I call the Principle of Reinforcement.  Societies (and the cultures and leaders that drive them) will reinforce certain v-Memes (and through extension, the levels of empathy) in the populace due to circumstances in the world, as well as their own worldview.  And people will also reinforce their societies with their changing social/relational evolution.  It goes back and forth — what we in engineering called a ‘coupled system.’  Which came first?  Totally dependent on the circumstances and context.  This is not simply a chicken-and-egg question.

Takeaways:  Societies evolve along the Spiral, just like people, going back and forth between the I- and We- v-Memes.  Certain historical circumstances will trigger that nested nature of the Spiral, so it’s not just how far you’ve come.  There are other things buried inside of us that come out when circumstances are right.  Finally, the Principle of Reinforcement gives insight on how both societies, organizations, and the people in them evolve.  Neither is always the leader in driving change, for good or ill.

Further Reading:  In Jorg Friedrich’s book, Der Brand (The Fire) he describes the destruction of the German homeland in excruciating detail, for those so interested.  It’s a pretty traumatic read.  Friedrich himself is a pretty interesting fellow, one well worth contemplating his own v-Memes.

The Meaning of the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything

firesnags2When you’re dealing with something like Spiral Dynamics, most folks get caught up either in a.) a superficial understanding of surface-level definitions (perilous, when one considers the nested, emergent structure of SD — remember how once you get up to a particular level, you’ve got all the stuff underneath you at some level of your disposal?) or an attitude that it simply can’t be understood.  Both views aren’t very useful.  But SD really is.  You simply have to start thinking evolutionarily.  That’s a mouthful.

What does that mean for you?  You have to realize that any system, or person that you’re looking at, both has the place it is at currently, and then the forces or dynamics that create change.  If you want to make progress understanding either the system or that person, you draw a boundary around either/or, and you don’t worry so much about someone screaming at you about the fact that what you’re talking about is connected to something else.  Because everything is connected. Unless, of course, you want the input.

Let’s consider an ideal person in the U.S. and apply the SD paradigm of growth to a person. Slide01 See the figure above.

Survival mode is at the bottom, and few will argue that a baby is in a big-time ‘I’ mode!  Magical thinking is Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  If you ask a 4-year-old how Santa gets all those presents to all those kids, she will tell you ‘reindeer’! And then get pretty mad when you start pulling out those ‘Santa burning up on re-entry’ calculations.

I think that most folks are in agreement that young people need appropriate authority, and good rules.  Following all that is the need for performance, mastery and achievement, followed by community.  After that, being around other unique people hopefully drives self-awareness — that we really different than others in a meaningful way.  The final step (on this chart) is ‘Global Holistic’ — and the interpretation on the slide is as good a way as any in coming to terms with it.  How do you fit into the larger world?  How big is that world?

One way to tell if your own world is positively evolutionary is to look at if the current v-Meme you’re at is backed up by the level above.  Does your authority follow rules?  Or do they lie?  Are your rules targeted toward producing benefit, or control?  Does what you produce benefit the community as well as yourself? Does your community encourage you speaking out on issues? (development of personal agency.)  Or do they just want you to follow the rules?

Additionally, there’s a very important concept that comes up, that I call scaffolding.  Remember that any v-Meme not only contains the new information in it, but is nested with all the stuff below that.  Let’s say you’re pretty performance-oriented and want to make a lot of money.  But you had a bad relationship with your father, the authority figure, and his rules.  Are you going to rebel against authority, or cheat on your taxes?  It depends on the individual, the other v-Memes, and how they affected your empathetic development.  One of the interesting things I’ve observed is what I call v-Meme acceleration (you’re more empathetically advanced for your age) or devolution (you’re at a place where you might be very performance-focused, but in the end all you want to do is buy fancy cars — pretty egocentric.)  Naturally, these things apply to human communities as well.  Which is the subject of our next blog post…

Takeaways:  SD can be mapped to numerous parts of human social evolution.  The slide above is one example for a typical person living in the U.S.  But SD is trans-cultural.  One can apply this to any person in the world, with shifts in ages and growth dependent on their culture.  Scaffolding is a big concept — what we are now is built on our past.  If we skip stages, odds are the holes will show up sooner or later.

Further Reading:  While prepping for this blog post, I was trying to figure out how to escape the recursive trap implied in the title sentence.  That made me remember the famous story about the world being on the back of a turtle, and then that turtle being on the back of a turtle, and so on.  Turns out I’m not the only one looking to use that analogy.  Read here about Turtles all the way down!

The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything


About 60 years ago, one of the great thinkers of the last century, Clare W. Graves, a psychologist at Union College, developed a theory of adult human development that he called “The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory” (ECLET).  This theory, which states that humans, and societies made up of these individuals, pass through a self-similar transformation on the way up, in an open-ended format. The chart above shows eight levels, but Graves wanted it to be open-ended because he believed that there was no ‘uber human’ that could be perfectly realized.  Don Beck, who was Grave’s lifelong student, further advanced the theory, and named it Spiral Dynamics (SD).  His chart is above, and if I could pick one thing to put on a plate very similar to the one on the Voyager spacecraft, it would be Beck’s chart.  Don Beck worked with Chris Cowan to further develop the theory, and was followed by one of the great philosophers of our time, Ken Wilber, and his own variant of the theory, Spiral Dynamics Integral, and Integral Theory in general.

One of the big ideas that Graves had was that human beings, and the societies they inhabited, would traverse the different levels as the needs of the people and the culture demanded.  There was to be no static assessment — just a fluid interpretation moving up and down.  The way I like to understand this is that Graves, while talking about human values, wanted that conversation to be mostly perceptual — free of moral judgment.  That’s the spirit that I follow when I use his theory.  And a simple example might be in order.

Let’s say you’re this incredibly evolved person, from top to bottom. One of the key elements in SD is that once you evolve to, or past a certain level, you have not just the mode you have evolved to. You also have access to the lower levels, or ‘Value Memes’ (v-Memes for short) of the other levels.  In a simple example, you might be invited to a sharing dinner for a retirement of a dear colleague.  There might be several independent relationships (or friends!) that matter to you at the dinner, and you also might have brought something special as a gift for the person or the group.  All very communitarian.

But if the building caught on fire, and you didn’t know the exit, you’d be pretty happy to hear some authoritarian yell ‘Get out over there!’

I’ve spent the better part of the last six years thinking about Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics.  There are some elegant thoughts in the chart above, and they’ve really helped guide my own thinking.  But I’m not prone to much mysticism.  Mysticism generally exists to explain big stuff that we can’t wrap our minds around in cause-and-effect.

Much is made in the SD literature (as much as there is out there) regarding the Tier 1 – Tier 2 transition.  The idea is that upon gaining self-awareness, there is much that can be gained as far as insight goes.  I pretty much agree with that.

But my contributions to SD mostly focus around understanding how the Spiral got put together in the first place.  What drives the thread that moves societies and people along up the Spiral?  How do we create the conditions so that people will naturally become more balanced, data-driven thinkers, while reflecting on past lessons?  What ties it all together?  That’s where empathy comes in.  When you add that key ingredient of understanding, then things start falling out and getting simpler.

If you want to follow along, it really helps to memorize the titles of the v-Memes, as well as the dominant social structures at the bottom of the chart.  I’ll go through a v-Meme description of my own devising for the various modes as well.

But the real secret is you have to read, and think about this stuff.  Empathy is about connections, and if there is a key to understanding, certainly some of the most important connections are the ones in your head.  They’re your own gift to yourself.

Takeaways:  Spiral Dynamics is cool.  It explains both the development of human communities, as well as the development of human beings themselves, back and forth in a never-ending climb.  Well, for some of us.  The other big thing is you have to think about it.  SD is a true meta-structure for sentience, and tied together by empathetic development.  That’s the real story of this blog.

Further Reading:  I kinda seized up thinking about this, because the reality is that the reading out there on SD is mostly not-so-hot.  But then I remembered one of my favorite books from my young adulthood — The Foundation Trilogy — that profiles the fall and rise of the Galactic Empire.  If you want to be Hari Seldon, you gotta start with Spiral Dynamics.

Culture and Empathy — Sidebars, or Why the Two Lovers in a Chinese Movie have to Die

Wedding picture 2

Wedding day, Alicia, me, Conor and Braden

It’s not easy to pigeonhole culture. But we can start with the British Dictionary’s definition: “the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge that constitute the shared bases of social action.” Cultures  dictate aggregate societal views of relationships, as well as various mores, and as such are inextricably wound up with the levels of empathy in a society.  More tribal or authoritarian cultures are less empathetic, and more belief-based.  More evolved cultures tend to be more empathetic, and have more space for reason.

As such, cultures state what relationships are externally defined, as well as what space exists for independently generated relationships.  My preferred concept for this is that cultures provide the sidebars for the fundamental organizational principles in a given society, and as such, can bring reinforcement for certain types of lower-empathetic behavior, as well as provide ladders for higher-level modes of empathy that may not be widespread in a given society.  Cultures can bring out the best or worst in us.

One of my favorite ways of figuring out how empathy works in a given society is to look at their literature, or even more fun, their movies, and see how people interact.  Or rather, how they’re allowed to interact.  Great works of literature, of course, are signs of the times.  Reading Homer’s Odyssey lets you know that life in Chthonic transition Greece was not very empathetic, and certainly no picnic.  When Odysseus returns home, his son Telemachus hangs the various servant girls in the suitors’ court.  Can you imagine how the press would cover a mass hanging of women today?

Current cultures in transition also show empathy levels in love stories.  In the U.S., for example, it’s not enough to have formal roles for the various family members.  In the movie Meet the Fockers, everyone in two families — one very traditional authoritarian, and one more of the peace-and-love hippie variety — have to form independently generated, trust-based relationships.  Of course, this is very difficult, if not impossible, for reasons that we will cover (if you want to hold on to a term, the problem is what I call v-Meme mismatch) and some version of uncomfortable hilarity ensues.  Well, sort of.

Movies out of China are particularly fascinating.  In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonyou know that the main character, Li Mu Bai, is gonna die when he falls in love with the daughter of the governor, and that there’s going to be even more carnage when the other beautiful woman in the film, Shu Lien, falls in love with Li Mu Bai.  The plot is complicated, but the bottom line is that even 15 years ago, Chinese society didn’t allow people to fall in love and get married.  In fact, for that transgression of independent relational generation, pretty much everyone gets killed, and no one gets laid.  Things are changing — but the fact that the movie is an icon in China tells you something.

One can also see devolution of cultures as well.  For those film buffs, contrast the typical current puff fare of ‘girl meets boy’ with the usual ‘they have a crisis’ and then ‘they get married and live happily every after.’  In relational terms, that would be usually some impulsive, magical connection, followed by independent relational generation, and finishing up with external relational definition and approval by society (husband and wife).  Everyone has to get a title to be bona-fide.  Contrast that to almost 50 years ago, and the movie The Graduate.  Dustin Hoffman sleeps with his potential mother-in-law, and gets the girl.  How about that?

Takeaways:  Culture is core to how empathy both manifests, and evolves in societies.  Watching movies and monitoring relational health, as well as physical health of the characters, is a great way to see how much latitude folks get in picking who they hang out with, as well as how things are changing over time in that culture.

Fun to watch:  Cinema Paradiso — what does this tell you about conflicting empathetic levels in post WWII Italian society?  (and hey — it’s a fun, great movie!)

So How Does Empathy Synchronize Time?

Jumeirah Station

Jumeirah station, Dubai, UAE

One of the more interesting thoughts that I’ve had about empathy is how it has to work to both generate and synchronize time scales in the brain.  Why?  Or rather how does that work?

If one understands that empathetic connection, at whatever level of the pyramid we’re at, is the bedrock of how the communication channel between two people (or more) works, then one starts realizing that the context of the relationship must also provide cues on how time is processed.  It is, in many ways, similar to how two computers have to be synchronized in order to talk to each other on the Internet.  There are protocols that must be followed — from external (like a meeting time) to independent sources (watching someone’s face in a round of poker.)

Except it is learned from the outside — different social structures and cultures have different senses of time.  And if you’re put inside one, you either have to adapt or be ignored.

Consider a tribal social structure.  Anyone who’s worked in these situations know the meaning of ‘Indian time.’  It can be used in a derogatory fashion.  But it is also insightful, and for someone that has worked in parallel with tribal cultures, a useful construct.

The short version is that there are two time scales in tribal societies — a long time ago, and somewhat in the present.  One can add perhaps a nature-based, animistic trigger to some of this (the Lakota had a ‘Moon of Popping Trees’ for the middle of the winter, when things were so cold the trees would literally freeze.)  A friend of mine doing work in Mongolia told me of a story once where she was told to meet someone ‘tomorrow’ — but tomorrow turned out to be a week later.  In Barry Lopez’s classic book, Arctic Dreams, he talks about walking with Inuit hunters and have them calibrate time in terms of distance, blurring the two variables.  Looking across the horizon, they would pronounce the distance in terms of some time in the future.

Other social orders have other time scales.  Survival-based social structures only have the now.  Authoritarian structures have the Now where the boss is.  Before the railroads, the clock in a town was set by high noon in the town square.  After the railroads, which required a legal hierarchy in order not just to make sure the trains ran on time, but also that they didn’t wreck into each other, the government gave us time scales.  Time is self-reinforcing along many self-similar orders.  It’s no surprise that the British Empire established Greenwich Mean Time as the time where the day starts.  That’s the advantage of having a map of your holdings that stretches around the world.

Since relationships are where we practice the vast majority of our information processing, it should come as no surprise that the various social orders affect the way we view time — or if we view time (or consequentiality) at all.  And that such repetition should beat down in our fundamental neural circuits?  Why do you think we use expressions like ‘we just didn’t click’?

Takeaways:  Empathy and social connection directly create and calibrate our brain’s notion of time, as well as our ability to think consequentially.  Reflecting on our own temporal scale will tell us how much are able to care about both the small stuff (our next dental appointment) and the big stuff (like global warming)  which will all be tied back to how we construct relationships.  Which is all about empathy.

Further reading:  neuroscience plods along, failing to account for our connectivity — but this fine scale stuff is still interesting. 

Independently Generated Relationships — What does Having Friends Really Mean?


Chuck on a high-water Lochsa River, Idaho, Spring 2011  (Allison Thomas photo)

For those that like to guess, you might think that writing down a complicated line like ‘Independently Generated Relationships’ is a complicated, professor-ese way of saying that you’ve got some mates.  And at some level, this is true.  But it also reflects on the neural process that one goes to pick those friends.  Do you pick friends based on position or status?  Or do you pick friends because they’re nice to you, or you find them funny?  One is belief-based, status-oriented thinking.   The second is extremely data-driven.

Likely, you might have met someone with whom you share a label with.  For me, in my youth, that would have been associated with the term ‘kayaker’.  I was a passionate whitewater buff from about 17 to 46.  I was fascinated with wild country, and those that also loved wild places.  But in the end, because of the inherent danger of the sport, for the most part, I ended up paddling with people I trusted and knew.  When your life is on the line running Class V, you need people that you know what they’ll do in a given situation.  And the only way you can build that is with strong, rational empathy.  You have to assess the information stream coming from that individual.  Labels don’t work.  It’s the type of  relationship that maximize validity — you’ve shared an experience with someone.  You know they can do it because you — no one else — watched them do it before.  It’s in your own brain.

Very often, independently generated relationships are performance-based.  If you’re crunching on a big project, and you need a critical part machined, if you’re an engineer, it doesn’t help to take a hierarchical position with your machinist — that somehow, they’re a lesser person than you.  If you’ve developed a strong trust relationship with that person, it’s very likely that you’ve seen their work.  You know their sense of timescale.  Likely that you’ve also treated them in an egalitarian fashion.  And if you’ve done the empathetic relational work, it’s also almost certain that the person, if they spot an error you’ve made, will communicate back to you what that error is.  One of the key signs of relationships that maximize validity is duplex communication and confirmation.  Both parties know the relationship is data-driven, and actively provide data in both directions.

That’s the thing about independently generated relationships — because of their duplex nature, they are fundamentally error-correcting.  You can’t make significant, complex technology without them.  If you’re building something like a commercial airplane, with a minimum of 300,000 parts, there is an inherent error rate that exists in its assembly.  And without a constant stream of feedback on what goes together and what doesn’t, you simply can’t get the bugs out.  The rareness of existence of that rational empathetic culture globally is one of the main reasons that commercial jets are built in only a handful of locations in the world.

And here’s the other thing.  In order to have a team of individuals design a plane, on a very basic level, they must also be rational.  At some level, every plane is different.  You need the lower levels of scaffolding: expert knowledge of materials and components; advanced algorithms for stress analysis and propulsion;  codes and inspections by the FAA.  All matter.  But without duplex information flow, it’s all for naught.  Too many exceptions.  Too many heuristics.

As one relates, so they think.  If you want rational people, they have to have rational relationships.  That describes a situation where some level of agency is required in order to develop the people to fulfill tasks requiring complex thinking.

Takeaways:  Independent relationships are built on data exchange, which leads to trust, differentiation (I’m good/not good at something someone else is good/not good at,) and agency — someone’s fundamental responsibility to themselves, that gives them the ability to act independently.  Friendships are a key type of independently generated relationship — but they’re not the only one.

Independently Generated vs. Externally Defined — Trust vs. Loyalty

Huangshan stairs

Endless stairs, Anhui Province/Huangshan, Anhui Province, China

One of the things that starts happening once you set up the relational dichotomy of independently generated, trust-based, data-driven relationships vs. externally defined relationships is that certain behaviors, thoughts and actions also clearly start falling in the various bins associated with these two fundamental empathetic/relational types.

One of the biggest is the difference between trust and loyalty.  Trust is inherently associated with something inside yourself, and ties itself back to data you’ve collected on the other person.  One can march down through the various idioms — trust is earned; trust is fragile; trust, once broken, is hard to regain.

Loyalty, though, is completely different.  No surprise that members of the military or government take loyalty oaths.  They are asked for explicit declarations of faith in institutions, or the people who are placed in authority by those institutions.  There’s many an infantryman who might have felt loyalty to their country, but did not trust their commanding officer.

It’s also interesting how it’s quite easy to pull up temporally dependent definitions of trust — as trust is fundamentally based on a data collection exercise.  It’s what we in the sciences call a time series — a fluctuating variable charted out over time.  Contrast that to loyalty — it’s what scientists and mathematicians call a binary scalar value.  Either you’re loyal to your country or not.  A loyal friend or not.  Loyal fan or not.  You can’t be sorta loyal, just like you can’t be sorta pregnant.

Words like this give insight and clues into how the brain processes different empathetic modes, and how different relational types either develop, or don’t develop timescales in the brain.  In the land of externally defined relationships, time seems not to have as much meaning to the individual.  Relationships, defined by the outside, elude control of a person.  Friendships, though, depend on time — calibrated by that time series of data known as trust.  And that creates interesting synchronization potentials in the brains of people that engage in that kind of relational development, that don’t exist at all in individuals immersed in organizations immersed in external definition.

One of my old girlfriends was Chinese.  She had lived an amazing, but tumultuous life, passing through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tian’namen Square Incident (she was there) before emigrating to the United States.  “I am a very loyal woman,” she would tell me.  But I never felt she trusted me at all!

Takeaways:  There are many traits that naturally fall out under the Independent/External relationship dichotomy.  Trust and loyalty are just an example.  Trust depends on data and some rational process, loyalty depends on belief and emotion.  All corollaries can tell us important things about how the brain processes time — and that has enormous consequences for how we synchronize actions with others.

Further Reading:  Nothing better than the life of Musashi — a samurai turned Zen monk, who swings back and forth between both relational types.