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Graves' Levels


Explanations > Learning Theory > Graves' Levels

Physiological | Safety | Power | Belonging | Self-esteem | Information | Understanding | Beauty | Self-expression | Discussion | So what?


Clare Graves described a nine-level model about how people constantly seek to achieve goals, and then when they achieve them, they find they need to move on to higher levels and goals.


At the basic level the needs of the body are of primary importance, including health, food and drink.

This is the level of the hunter-gatherer who lives in the open or temporary shelters, moving to where the food is and away from colder seasons.

This can be a comfortable existence as long as there is enough food and shelter, but in cold, barren winters it can be quite miserable.

A factor at this level is that there is no buffer against natural disasters and anything from hurricanes to diseases can prove hazardous to existence. There is also no protection against wild animals or attacks from other people.

In modern times this is something akin to the life of the homeless person, sleeping under trees and bridges, eating wild produce or scrounging for scraps of food at the edges of society.

This precarious existence is a key factor in pushing people towards a higher level.


After the hand-to-mouth existence of the previous level, the focus now is on building a safe environment where the person is in control rather than being at the mercy of natural forces.

At this level people band together into tribes where they can collaborate to build houses and create safe environments in which to raise a family. This is also the level of the farmer, who clears land and grows crops, as opposed to eating what nature provides.

Living in a society does not come without its price, which is primarily living by social values. At this level these are quite basic, requiring people only to act in ways that sustain the safety and survival of the group and offering little in terms of an organized social system.


Once you have health and safety and are living in a basic society, thoughts turn to acquiring power and self-statement that asserts and supports one's sense of identity as well as leading to greater control over others.

In the tribal context this is where leaders assert themselves and where courageous people are admired as heroes. This leads to increased importance of status, where others admire you and hence cede power to you.

This is still early days for a caring social system as people are still quite selfish as they focus first on their own needs, ceding only that which they must. From this, there is still a principle of 'might is right' in sorting out the social order.

In some ways, this level is less safe than the previous level as, while external threats are still held at bay, the previous collaboration and focus on safety gives way to power struggles and individual positioning.

People with high levels of power are able to flout rules and may do so as a part of signifying their power. This results in 'us and them' divisions within the society.


Living in a system based only on power is fine for those in power, but for many it is oppressive. This provides the force that moves people towards a more equitable approach, where people feel a sense of ownership of the whole system and work to make equality a reality.

In consequence, at the fourth level a better society starts to take shape, forming itself into a more equal and fair social system. This includes the emergence of democracy, laws and policing that protects the vulnerable and reduces corruption.

At the personal level, this means greater self-control is required and greater consideration of the needs of others is necessary. This leads to a polite society with strong values about helping others.

Even stronger people may see the benefits of gaining power through agreement rather than the constant battle of force and deception.


As people become comfortable with a powerful social system, they can take their attention away from more immediate threats.

The freedom that is now available gives scope for explorations in art, science and the self. Industry also can be built on success through merit rather than domination.

This freedom does not come without price or social consequences as people can get lost in personal success and development to the point where the attention to others decreases.


When the self-focus of the previous level becomes damaging to society, when capitalism creates yawning inequalities, then people start to question the system, seeking information about what is really going on and finding pleasure in exposing corruption.

The question of too much freedom may also be challenged at this level and laws appear that curtail activities that are deemed to be unhealthy or antisocial. This can create an oscillation of innovations for freedom and subsequent control, with abuse at both stages that sustain the cycle.


Eventually, the struggles and abuses in the previous level are themselves seen and understood as systemic problems.

With this knowledge, people can now begin to avoid the traps into which they have been falling and find a more stable place where they can find personal integration and sustainable self-development.

At this level, people find greater pleasure in giving and loving others. They are open-minded to new ideas and are less quick to judge others.


At this level, words begin to fail as people appreciate the beauty of the world all around them, directly experiencing senses rather than interpreting them through mental filters.


Finally, with a deep understanding appreciation, people are able to express their true selves rather than speaking through the masks that we all wear to project what we think others want and which help to protect our fragile inner selves.

Self-expression at this level is less about the inner person as an integration of the inner and the outer where the me-you of previous levels is finally dissolved.


Graves developed his model in the 1950s while studying Maslow's Hierarchy and produced this stage theory about levels of human development.

The first to fourth levels are largely about subsistence. The next four levels are more about existence, with the final level about ontological being.

There is also a level below the first level, which is called 'Animalistic', where people live instinctively like animals, without even any real sense of self.

Where Graves differs from Maslow in particular is that Maslow's model is about needs and is approximately hierarchical, in that needs may be significant at several levels at the same time. Graves, on the other hand, sees the model less as a set of needs and more as a set of levels of existence, where goals and perceptions change as people transition between levels, with each succeeding level being superior to previous levels.

Graves' summary of this is as follows:

"At each stage of human existence the adult man is off on his quest of his holy grail, the way of life by which to live. At his first level, he is on a quest for physiological satisfaction. At the second level, he seeks a safe mode of living, and this is followed in turn, by a search for the heroic status, for power and glory, by a search for ultimate peace; a search for material pleasure, a search for affectionate relations, a search for respect of self and a search for peace in an incomprehensible world. And when he finds he will not find that peace, he will be off on his ninth level quest."

Graves viewed human development as an unfolding, emergent process rather than a planned set of moves.

At each level the values that people follow change, based on their understanding and social concern. 

So what?

You can use these levels to help understand yourself, other people, social groups and the wider society. If you can see the level at which people are existing, then you can find the language and ways to communicate and persuade them, and perhaps help them find their way to the next level.

See also

Maslow's Hierarchy, Relationships, Learning Theory, Identity, Needs, Values

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