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The Enneagram System: Pseudoscience or Valuable Insight?

10 min read

The Enneagram is a well-known yet complex model of human psychology. Over the last few years, the Enneagram has gained significant attention for its distinctive approach to exploring personality types. In this article, we hope to demystify the Enneagram by providing a clear explanation of what it is, detailing the specifics of the Enneagram test, exploring the meanings behind its nine distinct personality types, and assessing its scientific background. We offer insights into how this tool is perceived and utilized in the realms of personal development and psychology. Which Enneagram type are you? Let us know in the comments below if you take the test linked at the end of this article.

Historical Background and Development

The Enneagram’s origins are somewhat obscured by history, with roots traceable to ancient spiritual traditions. It is believed to have been influenced by mystical aspects of Christianity, Islam (particularly Sufism), and Judaism. The symbol of the Enneagram itself, a nine-pointed figure, is thought to have been used in various spiritual contexts for centuries, representing the interconnectedness of certain spiritual principles or ideas.

Its modern psychological framework was developed in the 20th century, with significant contributions from George Gurdjieff, Oscar Ichazo, and Claudio Naranjo. These figures transformed the Enneagram from its spiritual roots into a tool for understanding personality, integrating it with contemporary psychological theories.

Under their guidance, the personality theory transitioned to a more psychological focus, with Naranjo and others mapping specific personality types to the nine points of the Enneagram. Since then, the system has been further developed and adapted, finding a place in contemporary psychology as a tool for personal growth, understanding personality dynamics, and even in organizational settings for team-building and leadership development.

However, it’s important to note that while the Enneagram is popular in some circles, it is also viewed critically by some in the psychological community, who question its scientific validity and empirical support.

Intro to the Enneagram System

The Enneagram is represented by a nine-pointed diagram, a geometric figure that maps out nine distinct personality types. Each point on the diagram corresponds to one of these types, and the lines connecting the points indicate potential pathways of growth (integration) and stress (disintegration) for each type.

This structure not only categorizes different personality traits but also suggests dynamic interrelationships between them, offering insights into how individuals may evolve or respond under varying circumstances.

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The Nine Personality Types

The nine Enneagram types are each characterized by distinct motivations, fears, and behavioral patterns. Type One is often called the Reformer, driven by a desire for perfection. Type Two, the Helper, is motivated by the need to be loved and needed. Type Three, the Achiever, is success-oriented. Type Four, the Individualist, seeks identity and personal significance.

Type Five, the Investigator, is characterized by a need for knowledge and self-sufficiency. Type Six, the Loyalist, is driven by the need for security. Type Seven, the Enthusiast, seeks pleasure and experiences. Type Eight, the Challenger, desires self-control and strength. Lastly, Type Nine, the Peacemaker, aims for internal and external peace.

Each type has a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and ways of viewing the world, providing a comprehensive framework for understanding human psychology and behavior.

The Enneagram Test in Detail

Enneagram figure

The Enneagram test is a self-assessment tool designed to identify which of the nine personality types an individual most closely aligns with. Typically conducted as a questionnaire, it consists of a series of statements or questions to which individuals respond. These responses are aimed at gauging attitudes, behaviors, and emotional patterns that correlate with the Enneagram’s nine distinct personality profiles. The format and length of these tests can vary, but they usually involve rating the extent to which certain statements apply to the individual or choosing between different ways of reacting to a situation.

The primary purpose of the Enneagram test is to help individuals identify their dominant personality type and gain valuable insights about themselves. Enneagram test results can help reveal a person’s core motivations, fears, desires, and behavioral tendencies. Understanding one’s Enneagram type can lead to greater self-awareness and can be a starting point for personal development. It enables individuals to recognize their inherent strengths and areas for growth, and can also facilitate improved understanding of others, enhancing interpersonal relationships and communication.

Taking a Closer Look at the Nine Types

Type One: The Reformer

Type Ones are principled, purposeful, and perfectionistic, often driven by a strong sense of right and wrong. Their strengths lie in their integrity and ethical standards. However, they can struggle with resentment and impatience. Ones strive for improvement, which can lead them to be overly critical of themselves and others.

Type Two: The Helper

Type Twos are empathetic, sincere, and altruistic, motivated by a need to be loved and appreciated. Their strengths are their caring nature and ability to support others. Their weakness can be a tendency to become overly involved in others’ lives and a need for approval.

Type Three: The Achiever

Type Threes are adaptable, excelling, and driven, motivated by a desire to be successful and to avoid failure. They are typically confident and goal-oriented, but they can struggle with authenticity and may become overly focused on their image.

Type Four: The Individualist

Type Fours are expressive, introspective, and self-aware, often feeling unique and different. They are creative and emotionally honest but can be prone to melancholy and self-indulgence. Fours long for understanding and identity.

Type Five: The Investigator

Type Fives are perceptive, innovative, and secretive, driven by a need for knowledge and competence. They are insightful and curious but can become isolated and detached from emotional experiences. For reference, our Editor-in-Chief received a Type Five result after she took an Enneagram personality test.

Type Six: The Loyalist

Type Sixes are engaging, responsible, and anxious, driven by a need for security and support. They are reliable and hard-working but can be indecisive and overly cautious, often struggling with doubt and suspicion.

Type Seven: The Enthusiast

Type Sevens are spontaneous, versatile, and acquisitive, seeking happiness and avoiding pain. They are enthusiastic and adventurous but can be scattered and undisciplined, often trying to maintain their freedom and happiness.

Type Eight: The Challenger

Type Eights are self-confident, strong, and assertive, motivated by a need to be independent and resist weakness. They are resourceful and decisive but can also be confrontational and domineering.

Type Nine: The Peacemaker

Type Nines are receptive, reassuring, and agreeable, seeking peace and harmony. They are supportive and stable but can be too willing to go along with others to keep the peace and may neglect their own priorities.

Interaction Among Types

Enneagram types interact with one another in complex ways, influenced by their adjacent types (wings), and their paths of integration and disintegration. For example, a Type One might exhibit characteristics of Type Two (the Helper) or Type Nine (the Peacemaker) depending on their wings.

Under stress, a Type One might show characteristics of an unhealthy Type Four (the Individualist), whereas growth might bring out qualities of a healthy Type Seven (the Enthusiast). Understanding these interactions provides insights into how individuals can grow and adapt, and how different types can relate to and complement each other in personal and professional relationships.

Secondary Elements of the Enneagram System

The Enneagram system includes several dynamic elements that describe how individuals can exhibit traits of different types under various circumstances. Two of the most significant concepts in this regard are “wings” and “intertype movement,” which include integration (growth) and disintegration (stress) paths.

Wings

Each Enneagram type is situated between two other types on the Enneagram diagram, known as its “wings.” An individual’s primary Enneagram type is often influenced by one or both of the adjacent types. For example, a Type Three might have a “Two wing” (3w2) or a “Four wing” (3w4), meaning they display some characteristics of Type Two or Four, respectively. Wings add depth and complexity to the primary type, explaining variations within each type.

Intertype Movement: Integration and Disintegration

Intertype movement refers to the tendency of each type to take on characteristics of other types in times of growth (integration) or stress (disintegration). During growth or integration, individuals tend to exhibit positive traits of a different type. For example, a Type Nine in growth might display qualities of a healthy Type Three, such as becoming more assertive and goal-oriented.

These dynamic elements of the Enneagram system emphasize that personality is not static but fluid and responsive to an individual’s environment and internal state. They provide a nuanced understanding of how people adapt and change, offering insights into personal development and emotional health.

Versions of the Enneagram Personality Test

Multiple versions of the Enneagram test have since been created by different authors and organizations, each with their own interpretation and methodology, rather than a single, universally recognized official Enneagram test. Perhaps the best respected of the Enneagram tests is the test offered by the Enneagram Institute, which is known as the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI® version 2.5). This test is designed to help individuals discover their Enneagram type and is widely recognized in the study and application of the Enneagram system​​. Those interested can purchase the test here.

One of the most popular versions is the Integrative Enneagram Questionnaire (iEQ9). This is a dynamic and adaptive assessment tool designed for identifying Enneagram types. Developed by Integrative Enneagram Solutions, it stands out for its sophisticated approach that encompasses various aspects of Enneagram theory, including the 27 subtypes, centers, wings, and levels of integration. The iEQ9 is recognized for its accuracy, reliability, and comprehensive approach to personality assessment, making it a popular choice among Enneagram practitioners globally. For more information, you can visit Integrative Enneagram Solutions.

Psychologists’ Perspectives on the Enneagram

Psychologists have diverse opinions about the Enneagram. Some see it as a valuable tool for understanding personality dynamics and fostering self-awareness. They appreciate its depth and the nuanced view it offers of human behavior and motivations. The Enneagram’s emphasis on personal growth and development is also seen as beneficial in various psychological contexts.

Validity and Usefulness in Therapy

Regarding its validity, the Enneagram has been met with both acceptance and skepticism. Some psychologists acknowledge its usefulness in therapeutic settings, particularly in building rapport with clients, enhancing self-understanding, and exploring relationship dynamics.

It is often used as a supplementary tool for personal development and self-discovery. However, others caution against relying solely on the Enneagram for psychological assessment, citing a lack of empirical research and standardized testing to support its efficacy.

Potential Limitations

Critics of the Enneagram point out its potential limitations, emphasizing the need for more rigorous scientific validation. Concerns include the risk of oversimplifying complex human behaviors into nine categories and the potential for the Enneagram to be used in a deterministic or prescriptive way.

Some psychologists also note the possibility of bias in self-reporting during Enneagram assessments, which can affect the accuracy of type identification. Despite these concerns, many agree that the Enneagram can be a useful tool when used appropriately and in conjunction with other established psychological frameworks.

Enneagram in Modern Psychology

In modern psychology, the Enneagram is increasingly being utilized as a tool for gaining insights into personality structures and motivations. While not a primary diagnostic tool, it is used to complement other psychological assessments and therapies.

Psychologists and therapists sometimes integrate the Enneagram into their practices to facilitate deeper self-awareness in clients and to understand their interpersonal dynamics and coping strategies.

Applications in Personal Development and Therapy

In the realm of personal development and therapy, the Enneagram is valued for its ability to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding personal strengths, limitations, and core motivations. It is often used to aid in the exploration of emotional health, self-identity, and behavior patterns.

In therapy, it can assist in addressing issues related to self-esteem, relationship dynamics, and emotional growth, offering a pathway for individuals to understand and transform their behavior.

Use in Workplace Dynamics

The Enneagram has found a significant place in organizational settings and workplace dynamics. It is employed in team-building exercises, leadership development programs, and conflict-resolution strategies.

By understanding the diverse personality types within a team, leaders and managers can better address communication challenges, foster collaborative environments, and leverage the unique strengths of each team member. The Enneagram’s focus on growth and adaptability also makes it a useful framework for professional development and enhancing workplace relationships.

Critiques and Controversies

The Enneagram system, while popular in certain circles of clinical psychology, faces criticism from some quarters. One of the primary critiques is its origin and lack of a clear, empirical foundation. Critics argue that the system is overly simplistic and reduces the complexity of human personality into nine categories. There’s also concern that the Enneagram’s reliance on self-assessment can lead to inaccuracies, as individuals may lack self-awareness or answer based on aspirational rather than actual traits.

Debates on Scientific Validity

The scientific validity of the Enneagram remains a subject of debate. Skeptics highlight the lack of rigorous, peer-reviewed research supporting the system’s efficacy and reliability. They point out that the Enneagram, despite its use in various contexts, has not been validated to the same extent as other psychological assessments, like the Big Five personality traits. This lack of empirical evidence leads some in the psychological community to question the Enneagram’s validity as a tool for personality analysis.

Potential Misuse

Another concern is the potential misuse of the Enneagram, especially in contexts like the workplace or therapeutic settings. Critics warn that the Enneagram, if not used carefully, can lead to pigeonholing or stereotyping individuals based on their type. There’s also the risk of the Enneagram being used as a definitive guide for personal and professional decisions without considering the nuances and complexities of individual cases. These criticisms underscore the need for a cautious and informed approach when applying the Enneagram in any formal setting.

So, Is the Enneagram Personality Test Pseudoscience?

each type has a different basic fear and basic desire

The Enneagram is a personality typology widely used for understanding personality and interpersonal patterns. However, its validity has been a subject of debate.

A systematic review of the literature on the Enneagram, which examined 104 independent samples, found mixed evidence regarding its reliability and validity. Some factor analytic studies partially align with prior theorizing, and Enneagram subscales show theory-consistent relationships with constructs like the Big 5 personality traits. Additionally, several studies have found the Enneagram useful for personal and spiritual growth.

However, factor analytic work typically discovered fewer than nine factors, and no study has used clustering techniques to derive the nine Enneagram types. Moreover, there is limited research supporting secondary aspects of Enneagram theory, such as wings and intertype movement​​. There are so many different types of tests that it is difficult to determine which is the most accurate Enneagram test.

Final Thoughts

In fostering self-awareness and self-development, the Enneagram can be a powerful tool for personal growth. It helps individuals identify their core strengths and areas for improvement, offering pathways for personal transformation. Despite debates over its scientific grounding, the Enneagram’s role in promoting a deeper understanding of oneself and others remains a key aspect of its enduring appeal and usefulness. Curious? To take a free test, click here, but understand that not all tests are equally accurate or robust.

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