vMemes of Clare W Graves

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Clare W Graves was a professor of Psychology in New York and a contemporary of Maslow.  He developed a model of levels of human existence based on what he called vMemes. A meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Memes are cultural ideas or values that are imitated and spread from one generation to the next like genes in organisms. Some memes are very subtle – the idea of washing ones hand after going to the toilet is a meme.  Religious ideas are memes, and the idea that suicide bombers will be rewarded with virgins in heaven is a meme.  Men wearing trousers and women wearing dresses is a meme.  Working 5 days a week and then having a 2-day weekend is a meme.  Much of what many of us will regard as basic “truths” in life will in fact be found to be memes.  But that is a slight digression.

Clare W Graves vMemes are value-system memes.  These are broad paradigms for thinking patterns, which he has used to describe an evolutionary model of how humans think.  It categorises people by their thinking patterns and their underlying values and life themes.  These are shown in the table below and I’ll spend some time expanding on this.


Please remember that this is a model.  I find it a very good model because it helps explain many things.  But models are models and they can be superseded by better models as our understanding increases and we all start using our pre-frontal cortex to a greater extent.  I consider this model to be better than Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs.

Graves’ stated that as humans evolved they developed newer value systems and thinking patterns to which large numbers of society ascribed.  For a good description of these vMemes and how they are used, read Igniting Inspiration by John Marshall Roberts.  I will briefly summarise the main characteristics of each, noting that the colours and numbers are purely for convenience of identifying and communicating the groups.

#1 Autistic (brown).  Originally Graves said that early humans were concerned with survival.  Do what you must to stay alive.  We can imagine how life must have been on the African plains, where the average lifespan of a human was probably no more than 20 years.  People were nomadic and they could communicate and used simple tools, but life was about survival.  Today only autistic or mentally ill people would be found identifying with this state in adult life.  We all begin life at this level as babies, but quickly move through levels as we grow.

#2 Tribal (purple).  As early humans progressed, with an approximate period of 40,000 years ago, we began to live in groups or tribes and life became the safety and continued existence of the tribe.  It was important to adhere to tradition.  The world around them was full of unknown dangers, and appeasing the Gods or spirits was important, often through sacrifice.  There are very few tribes like this left in the world (perhaps in Africa or the jungles of South America), but some of these thinking patterns persist in Shaman traditions and superstitious thinking.  As a young baby, most of us quickly move through this phase to the #3.

#3 Heroic (red).  Each new thinking pattern emerges to gain freedom from some of the constraints of the previous one.  To be free of tradition, the Heroic meme appeared nominally around 10,000 years ago.  Life was seen as a battle and a show of strength and force to gain what they wanted with little regard for the consequences of their actions or past traditions.  Hence we read the myths and legends about great heroes and their adventures, such as Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Beowulf, Thor, Bran son of Febrail, etc.  A small percentage of the current world population identifies with this meme – mainly gangs, drug cartels, religious extremists and terrorists.  Despite their relatively small numbers they can have significant impact because they can be extremely destructive – to prove their strength, they will bomb a hospital.  Two – three year old kids often display this heroic stage, throwing tantrums and stamping their feet in an effort to get their own way with their parents.

#4 Absolutist (blue).  About 5,000 years ago the absolutist vMeme arose.  People were tired of all the fighting and heroism, and sought peace through authority, rules and morality.  This was the period of formation of the major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu) and is still a major part of society today where it provides a very stable platform for families and societies.  By adhering to rules (be they religious rules or the laws of the state), suppressing ones own impulses and sacrificing now, future reward is guaranteed (retirement, heaven, future generations or rebirths).  Nearly half of the current world population probably identifies with this vMeme.  Children typically reach this stage as they enter school, and many remain at this level for the rest of their life.  They learn that they can get what they want by following the rules, and this is better than throwing tantrums.

#5 Individualist (tan).  Around 1,200 years ago those unhappy with the Absolutist way of life sought escape by learning how to manipulate the rules for their own gains.  You can think of them as the the traders and merchants wheeling and dealing with the aim of making profit.  These individualists or capitalists represent a significant percentage of western populations. They see life as a game and attain success by manipulating it for maximum power and profit for oneself.  Modern United States of America typifies this vMeme.  Some children as they go through school learn that they can manipulate the rules to gain an advantage over their classmates.  They move from the absolutist to be individualists.

#6 Humanist (green).  Perhaps as a result of the appalling conditions of the industrial revolution in the west, around the turn of the 20th century a new Humanistic vMeme was appearing.  It is coloured green because these people are the “greenies”.  Seeing mankind as one big family and with core values of equality, relating and togetherness they seek happiness in the current moment by relating to a caring for other beings.  They want to stop the killing of whales, stop polluting the environment and return to a simpler way of life living in communes.  They can be activists but not as radical as the #3 type.  Humanists are constantly looking for alternative ways of doing things.  The old religions are no longer relevant.  The New Age movements arose from the work of early Humanist types.  It is still a minority of the current population, but probably a growing percentage.  A small number of teenagers adopt the alternative type lifestyle as they leave school and move on to higher education or other pursuits.

#7 Systemic (yellow).  More recently, perhaps around 1950, people were realising that the Humanist way wasn’t the answer either (there were some individuals ahead of their time earlier than this, such as Sri Aurobindo).  To the Systemic (or Integralists) the world seems to be complex and unbalanced, and they try to understand what is going on in order to put the world right for themselves and for others.  They are not self-centred like the Individualists – they care about others.  Sustainability is important because it is part of the global balance.  They are not afraid to use technology to help, but profit is not the main goal.  Their thinking is thus quite different from the greens who rejected technology, and from the Individualists who were only interested in making money for themselves.  Henry Ford (capitalist, #5 type) invented and sold cars to make money.  The greens want to return to bicycles and horse-drawn carts.  The Systemic technologists want to create cheap, self-drive electric cars that are community owned.  Google (a company displaying Systemic thinking) releases applications like internet search engines and Google Maps that most people can use free of charge.  The Systemics are a small but growing percentage of the population.  As a child, they will have moved through #4 and #5 levels quite quickly, and perhaps they have #6 parents so that they get early exposure to the alternative lifestyles.  They will have realised that this isn’t the answer and start looking for a better way through innovation.  They can emerge as innovators in their early 20’s.

#8 Holistic (indigo).  Only a very small percentage of the current world population would identify predominantly with the Holistic vMeme.  It is the 8th in the list of vMemes and the most recent one to emerge but there have clearly been occasional Holistic individuals through the ages (Buddha, Jesus Christ).  The Holistics are very spiritual.  They emerged from the Systemics that were trying to solve the problems of the world, by realising that the world was fine and to surrender to the will of “God“.  Their life theme is experiencing the wholeness of existence.  Examples of Holistics are people like Gandhi and Buddha.  Peace, humility and reverence.

There are 8 vMemes shown and the model anticipates that more vMemes will emerge as humans develop and some are trying to define a 9th already (the Coral vmeme).  It is also possible to view the first seven vMemes as an octave, with the 8th Holistic vMeme as the start of a second octave of human development.  Using this octave model (octaves are favoured by esoteric authors such as Theosophical society) it may be possible to define levels of development for animals below humans, with the base #1 Autistic on the human scale the ultimate goal at the top of the octave for a lower animal octave.  It sounds great in theory but the universe isn’t always that simple.  It is easy to create esoteric theories, but hard to find the proof to substantiate them.

Adopting a vMeme

So how do we pick a vMeme to identify with?  We will all have a vMeme that we primarily identify with, and which is the basis on which we live our lives.

We all arrive in this world at #1.  There are people who believe that avatars and saviours or Messiahs such as Krishna, Buddha, Christ, were born already enlightened and thus at a higher level – but we won’t concern ourselves with these possible exceptions.

Most of us go through the Heroic vMeme stage around age 2 – 3, throwing tantrums at Mummy in our best show of strength at that age to get what we want.  A couple of years later most of us have adopted the #4 or #5 vMeme and will adhere to those values and thinking patterns for the rest of our lives.  The Catholics were often quoted saying “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man“, recognising that the early years of life and teachings (and indoctrination) are very important for their future.

We don’t all have to stop at age 7 – we can continue learning and growing throughout our lives.  Some people continue to progress to #6 or #7 in their late teens or early 20’s.  It is uncommon for people to change their thinking patterns much once they reach adulthood.  When they do it often causes major disruption in their lives, especially to their marriages and jobs.  The things that you value as most important change overnight, so you discard the old ones and begin afresh.  After a successful business career (#5 level) some people turn their attention to a simpler way of life and conservation (moving from #5 to #6).  We will look further at changing levels in the section on spiritual growth and “initiations later.

Mapping to Hindu caste structure

It is worth considering briefly if these vMemes map to the Hindu caste structure which has been in existence four about 4,000 years.  The four main castes were:

  1. Brahmins – the priests and teachers
  2. Kshatriyas – kings and military rulers
  3. Vaishyas – merchants and traders, landowners and money-lenders
  4. Shudras – workings class, servants for the higher three castes

There was also a fifth class of untouchables, who for various reasons fell outside the traditional four classes and were subject to discrimination and rejection (they were below the working class).  The caste system is a distinct hierarchy, though there was ongoing dispute as to whether the Kshatriya or Brahmin class were the supreme rulers.

There isn’t any relationship or mapping between this system and the vMemes.  The Hindu structure was based on socio-economic factors and the family you were born into, whereas the vMemes are based on an individuals thinking value structures..

Physical, Emotion, Mental and Spiritual vMemes

The diagram below maps the vMemes to how we use our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies (and hence the faculties of the brain).


At birth we are only concerned with the physical body and we begin life as #1.  The emotional elements are added for the Tribal and Heroic vMemes in increasing amounts, and use of the mental faculties become increasingly important in #4 and #5 (Absolutist, Individualist).  The spiritual element enters in #6 (Humanist) and becomes increasingly important thereafter.  The model here is open-ended and spiral dynamics build upon Graves’ basic model to suggest the type of thinking patterns of emerging #9 individuals.  As we observed with Maslow’s model, as we make more use of our prefrontal cortex and higher brain functions, we progress further along the vMeme’s evolutionary path.

g-ab1Please remember that these types are not hard and fast boxes.  An Absolutist identifies predominantly with those core values, but also will have elements of #1, #2, and #3 within themselves and will also express those ideals at various times.  Similarly, they may still be predominantly an Absolutist, but also find some of the #5 and #6 ideas and values resonate within them (see graph on the right).  There are no hard boundaries, with a spectrum of infinite possibilities, and that is exactly what we see in the views of the millions of people in the world today.  Many people in the western world identify strongly with #4 and #5 ideas and this comes through in political parties and elections (see below).  In John Marshall Robert’s books and talks he points out that modern advertising, marketing, political campaigning, etc. need to recognise that there are four major population groups with different values and motivators that all need to be catered for.  For example, a newly manufactured item of technology must be innovative (#7), sustainable (#6, ie low power consumption, made from renewable materials), cheap and mass produced (#5), and adhere to international standards (#4, safety standards, radio frequency radiation regulations, interoperability standards).  When a political speech is written it must shows morals (#4), economic impact (#5), environmental consideration (#6) and simplification or restoring balance (#7).  It is necessary to take into account the views of all the major types in society if you want to be successful with your political or marketing messages.

vMemes in the population

An estimate of the proportions of the vMemes in the current western world population is shown below.  These are only estimates as it is hard to get actual data – I am not aware of any global surveys in this regard.


In these webpages I have been advocating that we should be developing our high brain functions, and you might conclude that I’m proposing that we should all be aiming to be #8 type.  This won’t work across society as a whole.  An ideal world distribution for vMeme types should probably be a bell-shaped curve not too different from the current situation (shown in the diagram above).  I think the world is pretty good as it is (or am I talking from a #8 viewpoint!!?)

The estimates I’ve seen for percentages of people of each type are actually very close to what is known as the Adoption bell-shaped curve (and Maloney’s rule), commonly used in marketing to gauge the market adoption of new technology.  This curve is shown below:


Reversing the curve, we would have the Heroic and Tribal in the 16% of “late adopters”.  Absolutist and Individualist are about equal at around 34% – 35%, as we observe in most western countries.  Then we have the Humanist and Integralist “early adopters”, about 16% ahead of the others.

There needs to be opportunities for people to learn, experience and grow and accommodate all vMeme types.  This unfortunately means that there are likely to be radicals of the Heroic and Absolutist types who will continue to cause disruption with shootings and bombings.  We need to find a way to cope with this instead of trying to annihilate them – we can’t have a hole in middle of a bell-shaped curve.

How do the various vMeme thinking types manifest in the world?  Here are some examples of how each group expresses.  These are generalisations but the overall trends should be apparent.  We can also see why it is important for constitutions to be democracies at this time.  Democracies allow for a spectrum of viewpoints to exist in society.  The Totalitarian regime in North Korea severely restricts personal freedom, and whilst it may suit people of types #3 or #4 (which may well be the majority of the current population of that country), it does impose limits on personal individual development which can’t be good for the nation long term.