Are we misreading development a bit

This is a thought I had yesterday and wanted to see what anyone else thought about it. The red stage of development doesn’t have a 4 quadrant “existence” in the western world. Amber has churches religious culture, and the military, orange has universities and Wall Street, green also has universities and NGO’s etc. Red is disembodied, so it floats and attaches to other stages because it doesn’t have cultures or institutions to rest in.

Most examples I hear of “toxic green” I feel are not actually green, they are red attached to green. Same with orange and amber. Red is developmental sticking point that I can never get around. I can integrate the other levels easily, but red just seems to suck (unless it’s in really small amounts).

Red is the leaving of the magenta garden… is it actually the “root of all evil”. I think Western Culture got this so we tried to get rid of it but in reality it just kept attaching to the next level and got more clever, and more destructive.

Somehow this seems important to me. I think we end up tearing apart the values of amber, orange, and green when it’s really red causing the problem. Do we need to get better at seeing it separately from the level it is attaching to so we can control it’s wild impulses while not diminishing the value the higher level is bringing us?

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I think I understand what you are saying and are getting at. Let me clarify your last paragraph. Are you saying that “unhealthy” versions of higher stages are actually just stages “contaminated” by Red?

In terms of integrating Red and trying to find the values and virtues in it, I recommend 2 interesting books: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and Why Honor Matters by Tamler Sommers. The ladder is one of my favorites – he has a section called “The Virtue of Revenge” why I found quite funny and insightful.

I think unhealthy development exist. I think some of what we are calling unhealthy development is actually red development interacting with a stage. I heard a podcast about how college students are now using outrage as a way to leverage themselves and gain opportunities. As I was listening to this, in a context of how awful post modernism is, all I could think was, that’s not PM, it’s opportunistic, it’s red. It seems important to call out opportunistic behavior for what it is and separate it from the system it is using to get the opportunity, whether it’s religious leaders, corporations or the woke.

I wouldn’t say contaminated (although I maybe did:)). I liked Hillbilly Elegy. I get it’s value in small doses, but I cant see it having a full culture and institutions to support it, but Red exist, so it has to have 4 quadrants, so how does the opportunistic person function other than attaching themselves to another stage? It seems when it happens to focus the critique on the opportunistic behavior instead of the stage it’s functioning in is important.

I guess the unhealthy development comes in when the person at the stage positively supports the opportunistic behavior. So republicans who are solidly amber supporting Trump is unhealthy. Corporations supporting predatorial business practice is unhealthy. College students supporting the destructions of teachers careers is unhealthy. But seeing where this is often triggered by opportunism may help us build keep the stages healthy.

IMHO red does have its culture and institutions, they just aren’t too visible to the eyes of those who aren’t red or who aren’t looking for them. I work in family courts and get to spend time with people whose existence is centred in red. They will tell you, for example, that prisons are their physical, social and cultural institutions. (Not in those exact words though!) They will say thanks very much for building them for us. Specifically, one of my clients was having a bad time of it from his former partner’s family so he committed a few offences knowing he’d get sent to prison. He spent some time there whilst things cooled down and then went back to his life again. My take on it is that Red is alive and well and is embodied within our society.


That’s fascinating and very illuminating. That’s heartbreaking that there is a population so in need of red structures they actually commit crimes to find it. I wonder if there are groups who work with building tribal structures instead of rehabilitation directed to amber/orange.

There are a couple of homeless men I have been helping for years; one is young with a family. I have reached out to social worker friends and they have given me a lot of info on great work force development programs for the homeless, but I don’t think he will ever be able to really integrate into working society as far as I can tell, he is not interested in the programs I give him for sure. I haven’t really thought about the healthy red aspects of these issues and how some people probably have so much need for that tribal bond they cant easily move into the higher stages required to navigate modern life.

Thank you, that helped me to see red very differently. I still wonder what’s happening with the red I see that shows up in other levels and really “overtakes” them. I wonder if there is a connection between these conditions even though the population I work with appears to function better than prison populations. Your insight feels very important:)

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Hi, thanks for the interesting post. My thoughts is that the 4 quadrants in red might only contain the individualistic, (intra)personal area of that individual: the body of the person (UR), cognition focussed on self (UL), the concrete environment that person lives in (LR) with some friends, family (LL) he engages with. Paul

A great thread on the value and downsides of Red stage. It’s a normal part of human development, and shows up in 'the terrible two’s" of impulsive behaviour. I want, I can… so I do! Historically it was leading edge probably in the late Bronze Age, c 1300 BC. and the first great empires. For most societies—that are not in disintegration mode due to war or collapse—it is now lagging edge. Social institutions such as prisons are built to contain it, not nurture it. Schools and most families are designed to move us at least into Amber, with these impulses regulated by collective norms.

For sure it can show up as personal shadow material—your point about Red contaminating other levels. And there is a place for healthy expression of Red in each of us; think of the entrepreneur or social justice warrior who draws on that passion and risks all, of the “I can so I will” attitude it takes to leave an abusive relationship… My personal fave is Red is some great dance music, tho I don’t usually like the lyrics!!

Hi Michelle,

Catching up on this after some time away. I can give you my perspective your original thread idea.
I work with youth in the juvenile system. I have attempted to introduce integral theory into our behavioral management system. I actually attempt to identify where I think their center of gravity is to illustrate where their thinking is at. I’ve done it now for a couple of years and primarily I identify youth at Red and Amber. I have had one at Orange and one at Purple. The youth we work with our ages 17-24, but mostly 18-20. Red are youth that are acting out of the norms of the program or rules of society (not going to work, using, mouthing off to staff, a “me” first mentality). Amber are following the rules for the most part. They might have some of the struggles of getting up on time, finding a job, etc. The youth at Orange is more independent. He doesn’t need help getting up, he is going to community college. The youth that was at purple was pretty entrenched into the gang lifestyle.
I was challenged to make sure I was not labeling them as “bad” and attempted to identify the good in red. I point out that this is when the self emerges from the group. So, if a bunch of friends said, “hey, let’s go rob a bank” and you think it’s a bad idea then you being assertive and saying “I am not going to go with the crowd” is an example of healthy red for me.
I would agree with @Andrew_Baines about how “three hots and a cot is ok by me” thinking is passed down amongst families with a criminal history. It’s a me first mentality. When I attempt to discuss empathy towards others a common response I hear is " I am here to do me". As you can imagine, it can be quite a challenging group!


I’m wondering if the distinction here is that there are institutions that have a certain center of gravity (universities at green, corporations at orange, military at amber, etc.) and that within every institution there will always be people at different stages of development. The center of gravity is just that - the stage where enough people reside that creates the institution in its image. So it’s less about red itself “attaching” to various other stages, but rather how people at red interact with institutions at later stage centers of gravity. The result is often a function of them being “in over their heads” as Kegan would say. So, people at red trying to navigate the academic world or corporate world produces the predictable opportunistic (red) reaction within that context. And those institutions, not being fully integral, don’t have a way to integrate red in a healthy way.

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Hi, Michelle. I think there are a few Red institutions out there, though they are kind of hidden.

Street gangs are generally Red, though they can have tinges of Amber. Antifa is often Red, as are violent movements on the right.

Sports teams can also offer a kind of “play Red” or “pretend Red” for people at higher levels of development.

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So many good points and examples throughout this thread!

What I would add is that I think lines of development are key here, in the sense that one can be at, say, orange or green in their cognition or professed values even, but have a self-sense that is at red. So it can show up as the “underbelly” (to use the KW term) of someone at practically any 1st tier stage.

If one thinks of red as me-centered (egocentric) and self-absorbed (narcissistic), and also impulsive, opportunistic, and power-driven, to name a few traits, then it’s easy to spot the red underbelly in individual people at even the highest levels of power/status in society. I don’t think of red as “attaching” to other stages (although that’s perhaps a less personal and less affrontive way of speaking of this subject), but rather, as a developmental dysfunction or pathology of one kind or another for some people (e.g. fixations/addictions, disownings/allergies, which creates shadow material; and mental illness such as personality disorders).

Some might say our entire culture is basically egocentric, lots of red underbellies, some more unhealthy and fight-oriented than others.


@pkrulitz @LaWanna @lxvythrs

I think you guys are exactly right, so why are we, the US, still developing so many people at red? Something is going wrong right at this point it seems to me. Then there seems a phenomena that happens where once red enters the institution people like it, because they perceive it as giving them an advantage they cant give themselves, so they don’t work to develop it out of the institution, no matter if it’s churches, corporations, universities or the presidency. What is missing in our culture/systems that makes this happen so much?

I get lines in the UL, but I cant tease them out as easily in the LR or LL to a lesser degree. What collective lines are we not developing that leaves us so vulnerable to the persistence of red. Is it as simple as ethics?

I think an important thing to distinguish is that all of us develop through these stages. So it is important to recognize that red is a necessary rung in the ladder of development. The question I think we are asking is, “Are more people having their development arrested at red?”. @LaWanna brings up a good point about the different development lines. I thought about how we could objectively measure if this hypothesis true. One thing I thought about was “Are people incarcerated more often?”. I am not sure if this is the best indicator given some of the background info on incarceration but still a possibility. A better one might be the rate of violent crimes, which I think have been trending downwards since the early 90s. Maybe it is just the appearance that people are having their development arrested at red?
Kind of making my way back to the first point is that there is nothing wrong with healthy red as long as you’re incorporating it with higher levels. Regarding your questions on LL and LR, I think the Integral Life Practice book has a wonderful chapter on integral ethics. The book points out key questions for each quadrant: Lower Left is “How should we treat one another?” and Lower Right is: “How does my behavior affect the system?’ and 'How should we organize it?”.
Lastly, reflecting on the question you propose about what is happening where there is a persistence of red…simple answer: I don’t know. My fallback answer would be something Mr. Wilber brings up in his last book about how Western spirituality has been stuck in the mythic rung for the last 2,000 years and has created a spiritual crisis in our collective development. I think something that I heard about in the last election cycle is that people were tired of Washington and just wanted something different. Well, preconventional and postconventional can look eerily similar to the untrained eye and I think we are all feeling the effects of that in our ethos.

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Thanks to all who have added their thoughts, its made for an interesting and thought provoking thread.
What this thread has triggered in me is some thought about “lines” in the lines of development. As a way into understanding a person so as to better be with them I find it helpful… But it does seem to me that a line is too linear a concept when considering a person’s development in day to day real life. So, for example. if I’m dealing with a mother who has recently escaped from an abusive relationship I’ve got an integral map in my head as the basis of a structure for our conversation. Her lines of development seem to be more of a smear than a set of discreet lines. So, she’s at red when it comes to protecting her children - that’s how she got out the relationship, she’s at purple when she talks of the good times she and father had together, she’s at amber when she’s looking to the courts to protect her and her children, she’s at beige when I ask her to clarify aspects of the abuse she has suffered. In one conversation these lines intermingle and affect each other. After the conversation when I reflect upon the work we’ve done in the hope that such reflection will inform our next conversation it is helpful to pick out the individual lines, states and stages. But I think they have no more reality than points on a graph. During the conversation when I witness what is going on, I see that there are no lines, no states, no stages, just me being me , my client being she.

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Good insight. You can still have an evaluation/assessment (carrying the map in your head) and not mistake the map for the territory, which allows you to stay present.

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That’s what I was getting at. Succinctly put!

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What you are doing is seeing her compassionately then dropping the detail and holding her fullness. I am sure you are amazing for people to work with:)

The other thing this conversation has been making me think about is the way the masculine and feminine sides of development have to work together to stay healthy. Red alone is pretty intense, very helpful in moments, but not grounded in either tribal community or church communities, it’s a challenge for modern society. Really the same for orange. It needs either traditional boundaries or PM purpose to keep it from tipping to greed, materialism etc.

I see how people would need either the lower or upper stage to support it and Western culture, modern cultures everywhere don’t have much magenta. I wonder what pulling magenta into American society would look like, not just drops here and there but full systems?

I chatted with a woman yesterday who spent some time in a West African tribal community. She had all the wonderful stories you can imagine of what healthy magenta looks like. For her and myself this would be a lovely retreat, but suffocating to “live” there. But I’m sure there are so many people who really need this always, possibly…interesting to think about what a real multi-system society would look like, instead of one that’s goal is to get people to amber/orange modern life.

That’s a very interesting idea. I see unhealthy red driving so many things. I believe that because it tends to remain more unconscious it goes unacknowledged too often and remains in the realm of shadow. Having traumas directly related to Red in my life that I’ve worked to heal for decades has given me an opportunity to delve deep and understand how red can drive one’s mind without even knowing it. During my formative years I experienced everything from physical violence thrust upon me to food insecurity in which most of middle school and high school years I didn’t have enough food every month and going to bed without a proper dinner was common.

Healing unhealthy Red is very, very difficult! It can require years of hard, vulnerable work because it’s a visceral journey not an intellectual one. That, I believe, is why so many at higher levels are unaware of their Red pathologies. You can’t “think” your way out of unhealthy Red you must “feel” your way up!
Ken’s work has helped me tremendously with this. Integral Mindfulness allowed me to effectively work through my traumas with food and today I “own my hunger” it doesn’t “own me!” I’m still working on the unhealed traumas from the violence I’d experienced in my younger years. My “fight or flight” response became “cocked & loaded” and anything that my mind perceived as a threat would activate it. I’ve come a long way and continue to heal it everyday. When the unhealthy Red arises I can see it more clearly now. All I can do sometimes is breath through it. I always attempt to bring my mind back to my breath, over and over and over again. The healing is a slow process but I can see the growth!


I’ve been AWOL for a while, but I figured I’d chime in. Thanks for posting this Michelle!

#soapbox: I highly, HIGHLY recommend reading the actual Spiral Dynamics book. Beck and Cowan cover this much better than Integralism does (and I’ll admit that my own Red bits of ego are a little annoyed that Wilber doesn’t give them credit where credit is due, he basically appropriated their system and then changed some colors around while losing a lot of the detail). Even Clair Graves’ original research on which Spiral Dynamics is based is more comprehensive and gives a better context on how the system came about.

Spiral Dynamics states clearly that every stage has healthy and unhealthy ways of expression, and also goes into great detail on what methods can be used to foster healing, IF that level is actually open. One of the biggest things (and this isn’t just Spiral Dynamics, but is a basic idea of psychology and spirituality) to keep in mind is that nothing can change if the person who needs to heal isn’t open. The United States has been trying to “orange” the world for almost a hundred years now, and we all see how that has worked out. The European colonialism before the US was founded is another great example of trying to “Blue” the “Red / Purple” savages. The only person who can evolve one’s self is one’s self, and there has to be a willingness there. And if there isn’t evolution or stability, life conditions can actually pull one down to the worldview that seems like it will “work,” and we can devolve.

Red, in short, is the ego. Purple prior has a hard time distinguishing itself from the rest of nature: the best evidence of this are the shamanic religions (which historians believe to be the very first religions), where the tribe doesn’t see itself as separate from nature around them, and literally believe that if they eat an animal (or are eaten by an animal), they gain that animal’s power and become that animal. Ancient shamans would put on the still dripping wet carcass of an animal they killed and the tribe would believe they became the deer, or the bear, or the wolf.

Red develops when we make it past Lacan’s “mirror stage” and recognize both who we are, physically, and how we are separate and different from the world. It’s the birth of a “subject / object” experience for us, psychologically speaking. This usually happens during very early childhood, but as we see with people like Donald Trump, the environment in which we’re brought up greatly influences whether or not we make it past Red egotism being the primary stage. I think one must be presented with at least a semi-healthy Blue society in order to see the benefits of upgrading one’s worldview while also better understanding where Red is limiting. Additionally, Red is very family oriented; the family tends to be an extension of one’s ego (again, take a look at Trump and his family). Maybe this is because it’s much harder to feel “separate” in the context of a family, and there might be some Purple going on (this is pure conjecture on my part).

The best example I’ve seen of healing unhealthy Red is in Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who almost single-handedly transformed the gang problems of Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s. He effectively created an incredibly healthy Blue community that became an alternative to the Red “every man for himself” gang mentality at the time. He wasn’t able to help everyone, but he transformed his community drastically and created real opportunities for the ex-gang members who found their way to his church. The book is incredibly moving, and clearly illustrates how love and acceptance are very powerful tools in helping to create an environment where Red can evolve.

John Bradshaw’s work with shame in the 80s and 90s is also an excellent reference on how to heal dysfunctional Red (I hesitate to mention Brene Brown even though I am grateful for her work in making shame as an issue known, but compared to Bradshaw her work tends to be very superficial and a little too self-helpy). Healing the Shame That Binds you is a book I think every human should be required to read, as it comprehensively teaches one where their blindspots are, where they came from, and how to heal them. Basically, most parents are pretty terrible at parenting since most tend to lack the self awareness to know when they’re projecting their unresolved issues on their children, and those issues turn into defenses that help prop up the unhealthy ego Red clings to to feel safe. Because of all the unresolved, unhealthy shame (there is, in fact, healthy shame–again, look at Donald Trump as an example of a man who appears to be shameless), unhealthy Red clings to their ego, their sense of self, at all costs. Anything that might disrupt that immediately generates cognitive dissonance and the person either shuts down or lashes out in defense. The ego quite literally believes it is going to die.

And so, the challenges with unhealthy Red in adults (because one should expect unhealthy Red in children while they’re still developing) are that typically the bad behavior becomes a defense mechanism to hide one from past trauma, likely experienced as a result of the first developmental expressions of the Red ego. When I’m a child and I act out as a fresh expression of this new ego I’m feeling, I may get smacked down (literally) by my parents. That creates shame and if the unhealthy behavior from the parents continues, I’m going to build all sorts of defenses to protect that Red ego from feeling that shame. If Red doesn’t develop past its blindspots, it turns into narcissism, or one becomes a psychopath / sociopath. Once a person reaches that level of automatic defenses, all bets are off because there likely isn’t much of a desire to change. The Red ego runs on autopilot and it’s very hard to actually get to any sort of authentic “self” behind all the bluster, and that self is where the healing lies (check out Jay Early’s book “Self Therapy” where he details the Internal Family Systems method and how one needs to get to their “witness” self before they can heal these type of defenses).

It can be very tempting to look at any one stage of development as the “problem,” but I don’t feel that’s Integral. All stages are valuable and have something to contribute, and we have to be careful in singling any one out as the source of the world’s problems (I’m preaching to myself on this one since I love to beat up Green and Blue!). There is plenty of responsibility to go around for Blue, and Orange, and Green, and even the Integral levels (after all, if we were truly being the “Spiral Wizards” that Beck and Cowan describe, would we be seen as such intellectual elitists, divorced from the world? Wouldn’t we find more effective ways to connect with the prior stages on the Spiral?). We all have these stages in us, and they all express to different degrees depending on the context. Our work, I think, is finding and healing our own blindspots, and then doing our best to create the environment and atmosphere to encourage evolution in others. That can’t happen with blame as Father Gregory shows, but rather happens with love, acceptance, and an authentic desire to understand those around us.