The Enneagram— It’s Popular, But Is It Valid?

The personality typology that doesn’t come from psychology

Wikimedia Commons

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 is 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.

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.

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:

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.

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)

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 is an influence.

To throw one more element into the mix, each personality type has three instinctual subtypes. These instincts are 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.

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 -> this was identified as 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
  • holy idea is omniscience/transparency
  • basic fear is helplessness/incapacity/incompetence
  • basic desire is mastery/understanding
  • temptation is replacing direct experiences with concepts
  • vice/passion is avarice
  • virtue is non-attachment
  • stress/disintegration point is type 7
  • 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.

The enneagram system was not developed within the field of psychology and it is sometimes dismissed as pseudoscience because it hasn’t been validated through research. Normally, the way these kinds of things would work in mainstream 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.

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.

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Originally published at https://mentalhealthathome.org on January 31, 2020.

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle | mentalhealthathome.org