What Is… the Enneagram

multicoloured enneagram personality type diagram

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the enneagram.

The enneagram is a personality typology that includes nine different personality types, which are depicted in the 9-pointed figure shown above. A key influence in the development of the enneagram as it’s currently used was Bolivian Oscar Ichazo, who Wikipedia describes as a “psycho-spiritual teacher.” His work in the 1950s was built upon by Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo in the 1970s.

Enneagram theorists believe that by the end of childhood, one of the personality types has become the most dominant. This is influenced by inborn temperament and prenatal factors, and basic personality type does not change over time. The Enneagram Institute says that:

“Not everything in the description of your basic type will apply to you all the time because you fluctuate constantly among the healthy, average, and unhealthy traits that make up your personality type.”

While that may sound reasonable, it also makes the whole shebang very difficult to test. It’s the ultimate excuse, really. Oh, you say this doesn’t actually describe you? No need to worry, you’re just in an unhealthy traits frame of mind. Our system is still perfect! Yes, and the dog ate your homework, too.

Enneagram types

The nine types don’t have universally agreed-upon names. Each type has a stress/disintegration point and a security/integration point, as indicated by lines on the enneagram. These influence how a person acts at times of stress or relaxation. Each type has an associated ego fixation, holy idea, basic fear, basic desire, temptation, vice/passion, and virtue.

To view a chart with all of these details, have a look at the Wikipedia page. The type numbers and associated roles according to Wikipedia are listed, followed by the role descriptions from the Enneagram Institute in brackets:

  • 1: reformer, perfectionist (principled, purposeful, self-controlled, perfectionistic)
  • 2: helper, giver (generous, demonstrative, people-pleasing, possessive)
  • 3: achiever, performer (adaptable, excelling, driven, image-conscious)
  • 4: individualist, romantic (expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, temperamental)
  • 5: investigator, observer (perceptive, innovative, secretive, isolated)
  • 6: loyalist, loyal skeptic (engaging, responsible, anxious, suspicious)
  • 7: enthusiast, epicure (spontaneous, versatile, acquisitive, scattered)
  • 8: challenger, protector (self-confident, decisive, willful, confrontational)
  • 9: peacemaker, mediator (receptive, reassuring, complacent, resigned)

Let’s get complicated

Personality may be further influenced by the “wings”, the personality types on either side on the enneagram. Not all enneagram theorists use this concept of wings, though, and some say only one of the wings has an influence.

To throw one more element into the mix, each personality type has three instinctual subtypes: self-preservation, sexual, and social. All three are present, but one may be dominant.

You’ve also got a continuum of three levels of development – unhealthy, average, and healthy, and each of those contains three more levels.

Then you have three centres: types 2-4 are the feeling centre, types 5-7 are the thinking centre, and types 8, 9, and 1 are the instinctive centre.

That’s a whole lot going on.

My own enneagram results

There are plenty of enneagram tests out there online. I did the one on Truity.com, just because it was the first result on Google, and it gave me these results:

  • One (perfectionist): 38% match
  • Two (giver): 51% match
  • Three (achiever): 32% match
  • Four (individualist): 77% match
  • Five (investigator): 98% match -> my type
  • Six (skeptic): 60% match
  • Seven (enthusiast): 44% match
  • Eight (challenger): 79% match
  • Nine (peacemaker): 84% match

It tells me that “at their core, fives fear being overwhelmed by the needs of others.” Going back to the details Wikipedia gives about the personality types, it shows that my ego fixation is stinginess, my holy idea is omniscience/transparency, my basic fear is helplessness/incapacity/incompetence, my basic desire is mastery/understanding, my temptation is replacing direct experiences with concepts, my vice/passion is avarice, my virtue is non-attachment, my stress/disintegration point is type 7, and my security/integration point is type 8.

That doesn’t especially sound like me, and some of it, like the basic fear and basic desire, is so universal it’s unlikely to be type-specific.

Enneagram as pseudoscience

The enneagram system wasn’t developed within the field of psychology, and it’s sometimes dismissed as pseudoscience because it hasn’t been validated through research. Normally, the way these kinds of things would work in mainstream psychology (as opposed to pop psychology) is that someone would come up with a theory to explain a phenomenon. They would come up with a way to test that theory. Research would be done to see if the test is valid and reliable. Things could then go onwards and upwards from there.

The enneagram isn’t really conducive to reliability and validity testing, in part because there is just so much going on. Then you’ve got things like the Enneagram Institute’s get-out-of-jail-free card that even if the description of your type isn’t accurate, the type is still accurate. On top of that, enneagrammers don’t always agree on a variety of different things related to the enneagram system.

The enneagram tends to be used most often in coaching, business/management, and spiritual contexts.

Will some people find the enneagram helpful? Sure, why not. I suspect it’s the kind of thing that if you choose to believe in it, you’ll be able to work it around in your mind so that it fits. And if it helps to stimulate self-reflection, that’s probably a good thing. But personality type seems like the kind of thing where researchers who are highly trained in the field of psychology would be the most authoritative source.


You may also be interested in reading about the What Is… The Five-Factor Model of Personality (The Big Five).

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

29 thoughts on “What Is… the Enneagram”

  1. I like the enneagram. Typically people encompass all or most of the traits. The difference between people is registered with percentages. The test feels like a cushion, a springboard to understanding myself. Another perspective and sheds a wee bit more information on my mbti type. Im an infp, 4w5… which happens to be very typical of my personality. I know, some do not readily embrace this. Most of psychology borders on the creative side. An artful exploration of humanity. And as true as there are possible scientific explanations, if we sideline the spiritual/emotional tendencies of individuals, we risk damaging those who fill our world with beautiful souls. So I smile on the unscientific understandings (ambiguities) of us as much as appreciating the solidness of research. Great post as always Ashley.

  2. I don’t believe in this stuff, but for laffs I took the test. I got a 98% match as One, which is a perfectionistic rule-follower. But it also said I proselytize about rules, which I don’t ~ in fact, I answered several times I NEVER take stands and let others make decisions. So dumb. I received high scores in other areas too. I’m everything apparently!

  3. The enneagram was useful for self-reflection on my strengths and weaknesses. It’s not a be-all and end-all for me like it is for some of my friends (even though I find myself in lots of spiritual contexts), but it definitely gave me a better understanding of myself.

  4. Interesting! I agree with you that enneagrams are whatever you make of them. Like astrology, they can be useful to some people and unhelpful to others. I took the quiz, and got 99% peacemaker (unsurprising to me hahah).

  5. That is a difficult one, with the wings and so on! I am a 9 (98.%), 2 (88%), 6 (79%) and 4 (79%) As I believe it can be true I also found other points of security be true for me or just maybe for a lot of people.
    On the other hand, I see a lot of 9 here, could there be a specific audience in your comments? 😂

  6. I had friends who were really into this. They wanted to me to take the test, but I couldn’t really be bothered. To be honest, it sounded far too confusing. I can’t remember if I gave in eventually or if they just guessed how I would answer, but eventually they decided I was a four. To be fair, “individualist, romantic, expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, temperamental” does sound a bit like me (and not necessarily in a good way), but I think only if you read “romantic” in the sense of “romanticism” rather than Mills and Boon, and my expressiveness and drama tend to play out mostly on my blog; in real life I am the John Le Carre Englishman having a nervous breakdown so quietly no one else knows. And I’m not sure I’m temperamental so much as permanently depressed. So, probably not a great match overall.

  7. I’ve several friends who love the ennegram! I see it as a fun thing like the MBIT, pseudoscientific as well.

    I wish research validated personality tests were widely accessible, and not ridiculously expensive, because I feel people could learn a lot about themselves from them.

  8. The history of the actual types is disputed though, right, possibly dating back absolutely eons? Then there’s those that put the figure and then the teachings and understandings of the typology into place. I haven’t thought about this one in ages and it’s not one that was ever covered in my Psych a-level or degree, it was one I came across from my own interest years ago. It’s good to get a refresh! You’ve covered it really well, Ashley.
    Caz xx

  9. One of our Ts just suggested doing Enneagrams for our me’s. T said it’s a $12 test and T knows someone who can work with us on it (a friend of T’s who needs the practice because the training is complex). Then we wondered if this was the woo-woo you debunked, and here we are.

    This is a trusted T. Why would T push something if it’s suspect? T is kind of an ass-kicker: very tough, very caring, and open to woo-woo that seems real to T’s experience. Ugh. 💕❤️🤔😫

    1. I think some therapists do go for things that make sense to them even if there’s not a lot to back it up. You could always try it and then if if doesn’t add anything useful then just walk away.

  10. Ashley,

    Wow ! Just WOW !!

    I really enjoy the way you think and see the world, both the inner and outer kinds. Complex, ain’t it. Thanks for sharing.

    You’re my new hero and psycho-spiritual sherpa. You go, girl !!


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