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.
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 has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.