Dr. Clare Graves(1) (and many researchers since) proposed that human values systems emerged in alternating stages of Individualistic expression and Collectivist embrace. He had the insight to propose that evidence would be found in the biological domains (as well as psychological and social) long before technology like fMRI scanning had been invented.  Graves proposition is fundamental to the framework (developed by Dr. Don Beck) that has become Spiral Dynamics integral.

Now Dr. Marc Lucas and his research colleagues in Cologne Germany are proving Dr. Graves’  propositions were quite correct. In a just published article they summarize their findings, showing that distinctive brain patterns can be associated with Individualistic versus Collectivist preferences .  With permission, we have reprinted the Abstract below. Click on the title to access the full article.

Moral Concepts Set Decision Strategies to Abstract Values


Persons have different value preferences. Neuroimaging studies where value-based decisions in actual conflict situations were investigated suggest an important role of prefrontal and cingulate brain regions. General preferences, however, reflect a superordinate moral concept independent of actual situations as proposed in psychological and socioeconomic research. Here, the specific brain response would be influenced by abstract value systems and moral concepts. The neurobiological mechanisms underlying such responses are largely unknown. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with a forced-choice paradigm on word pairs representing abstract values, we show that the brain handles such decisions depending on the person’s superordinate moral concept. Persons with a predominant collectivistic (altruistic) value system applied a “balancing and weighing” strategy, recruiting brain regions of rostral inferior and intraparietal, and midcingulate and frontal cortex. Conversely, subjects with mainly individualistic (egocentric) value preferences applied a “fight-and-flight” strategy by recruiting the left amygdala. Finally, if subjects experience a value conflict when rejecting an alternative congruent to their own predominant value preference, comparable brain regions are activated as found in actual moral dilemma situations, i.e., midcingulate and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Our results demonstrate that superordinate moral concepts influence the strategy and the neural mechanisms in decision processes, independent of actual situations, showing that decisions are based on general neural principles. These findings provide a novel perspective to future sociological and economic research as well as to the analysis of social relations by focusing on abstract value systems as triggers of specific brain responses.

Citation: Caspers S, Heim S, Lucas MG, Stephan E, Fischer L, et al. (2011) Moral Concepts Set Decision Strategies to Abstract Values. PLoS ONE 6(4): e18451. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018451



(1) Graves, C. (2005). The Never Ending Quest: A Treatise on an Emergent Cyclical Conception of Adult Behavioral Systems and Their Development. Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing.