Support And Criticism
- I don’t believe in the enneagram.
- I’m an 8, wing 7. My wife is a 9 with no wing. I’ve read all the top books on the enneagram. It has been a huge help to our marriage.
ON BREAKTHROUGHS AND REVOLUTIONS
Every new iteration tries to set itself apart from its forebears: Mary Kay isn’t just makeup; Atkins isn’t just a diet; Crossfit isn’t just a workout; and the enneagram isn’t a personality test. This claim happens either earnestly (for the true believers) or for marketing (for the opportunists and salesmen).
- Trump earnestly believes he can Make America Great again
- Fred Phelps (of Westboroough Baptist Church) earnestly wants to mend the relationship between God and “fags”
- Stalin earnestly wanted to elevate the poor Soviet to be a world super-power
- Ted Kaczynski earnestly wanted to fix society’s self-destabilization from the industrial revolution
- Politicians promise a revolution, even one they know they can’t/won’t deliver
- Dudes work to convince the bar hottie that he’s not like the other guys
- Every brand ever. It’s literally an entire genre of business books:
In some cases they are right. iPhone wasn’t just a phone. Jesus wasn’t just another prophet. The “horseless carriage” wasn’t just a better carriage. Except they all were. It’s true that they were all significantly different enough to start a new category, but like any evolved species, they are practically indistinguishable from their close ancestors.
This isn’t to say that there are no new things, just that the claim that something is in its own category might as well be thrown out since is provides little-to-no evidence that it is true. It’s far more frequently false than true. In fact, it’s almost always false. And even the truly revolutionary things are never as revolutionary as they claim to be. At best, they are different enough to create significant change several generations later. So the validity of the claim of a revolutionary product can’t even be substantiated until several iterations later, because the iPhone wasn’t the “smartphone” until YouTube spread; Jesus wasn’t “Christianity” until Paul; and the horseless carriage wasn’t the “automobile” until the assembly line.
Even in an actual political revolution with declared “winners” and “losers”, the outcome isn’t known until much later. So you threw out the dictator? Great! In 14 months the guy you just elected is going to declare himself dictator and rule you for the next 37 years – that is far more common than the alternative. Bottom line is, if you are alive when it’s happening, your prediction about how revolutionary it is 50/50 at best!
FIVE WARNINGS ABOUT PERSONALITY PROFILES
1) ANY CATEGORIZATION WORKS
The fact that people’s personalities can be grouped together is not inherently insightful or helpful. Over-specifically, there are about 100 billion different personalities – one for each person who has lived. Over-generally there 2 – male and female. Very generally there is 1 – homo sapien. So to get a desired number, all a person has to do is get more specific about the categories until it fits the desired number.
For example, “There are 27 different types of people,” …though that doesn’t sell well. To be marketable, it should be greater than 5 and less than 20, so it sits in the sweet spot between specific and memorable. The enneagram has 9. Meyers-Briggs has 16. You’ll find similar numbers elsewhere, not just in personality types, but in all marketed categories, sequences, or listicles. “The 10 steps to…” “The 7 things to remember when you…” “11 celebrities who…”
In marketing your own, revolutionary personality profile, keep in mind that the fewer types of personalities you identify, the less amazed your followers will likely be since the profiles will have to be more general. But more types of personalities you identify, the more specific you will have to be, leading more people to see themselves in more than one category, thus decreasing the legitimacy of your claims. Therefore, take a hint from all the personality profiles and claim, up front, that some people may lean heavily toward one type but still have characteristics from other types. If you can frame this flaw as a feature of your system, all the better.
Also, if creating a test for your personality profiles, be sure the questions use verbiage from your profiles. Asking repeatedly if a person gets “angry” in different circumstances will help in placing them in the “angry” category. But this is too obvious, so it is best to use a thesaurus when creating the test and the personality profiles. For example, ask on the test if they get “angry”, but then label them “high-energy” people.
Then – watch this trick – you can loop it back around without anyone noticing: you can ask if they tend to get angry, then label them high-energy. Then, in the profile of what you have called “high-energy” people, you can list that those people will have a tendency to get angry. They will read your description and exclaim, “This thing absolutely has me pegged! It’s like I could have written this about myself!” Um. Yeah. Actually. You did.
In the less magical, but more accurate profiles, people can place themselves in their own category after reading the descriptions.
2) HUMANS DRAW CONNECTIONS
As described in Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create A Mind“, this may be the single greatest differentiation between humans and the rest of the animals: the ability to see patterns and project them into the future. While it gets us skyscrapers, written language and the cure for polio, it also misleads us nearly as greatly. We see correlations everywhere and, naturally and often subconsciously trying to predict the future, conclude that there must be a causation or at least a connection. (see https://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations for a list of amazingly correlated things that seem like they MUST be related, but are just coincidence, like the fact that over time, as Nicholas Cage stars in more or fewer movies, swimming pool drownings always increase or decrease by the same percent at the same time.)
Our innate drive to make connections is unstoppable when not recognized and closely monitored. How else could rain dances have been a thing for so long? They obviously had no bearing on the weather. But each rainfall after a rain dance was “proof” that it worked and each time it didn’t work was “proof” that they hadn’t done the dance correctly. And we’re not much smarter than that today. We’re just dumb about different things. And a person who is not concerned about this tendency is almost surely falling prey to it on a more regular basis.
3) WE ARE BEST AT FOOLING OURSELVES
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. – Richard P. Feynman
We don’t know why we do what we do. Humans do not remember things well. We have terrifyingly little control of our actions, thoughts and emotions. We’re a rat riding a t-rex. We should exert all the force and guidance that we can, but the majority of our rationale of our being is a collection of post-hoc excuses made to convince ourselves that we choose rationally. When our actions make sense to ourselves but not to others, the others are probably right. Anyone who is not concerned that they are regularly fooling themselves are accidentally arrogant and are probably much more susceptible to their own self-delusion.
4) EVERYONE DESPERATELY WANTS MEANING & BELONGING
We want meaning for everything – the good, the bad, the future, the present, the past. This is what makes humans so susceptible to spiritualism, luck and silly ritual. And we equally all desire the love and acceptance of truly belonging. There are as many different personalities as there are people who have lived, and we want someone to fully see and know and approve and commend ours. Coupled with our ability to draw [un]meaningful connections and convince ourselves of their validity, this unquenchable thirst for meaning and acceptance leads us to accept wrong answers when they feel right.
Not that 100% of people have 100% wrong answers, but no one has 100% right answers. It’s probably not even close. We all have new things to learn even about ourselves and those around us – things that contradict the way we currently think and act and feel – because our perception of reality was wrong. Our wrong conclusions were the most convenient conclusion or safest conclusion or in some other way felt better than the alternatives.
We don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do, and that feels bad. So we’re all attracted to new, special insight into our purpose and belonging.
Entire genres of business are based on this. Magic is largely this, but the fact that it is a trick is known, except in the case of “mentalists” like Criss Angel or David Blaine, who do the same tricks but with the claim that they actually have special abilities. Take away the tricks and you’re left with fortune tellers. Take away the crystal ball and you’re left with modern psychics and mediums. Some are naturals at it and don’t know they’re doing a trick – they fool themselves into thinking they really are talking to the dead or God or your pet.
Others are more cynical, duping desperate people out of their paychecks in exchange for a little ratified suspension of disbelief. Still others just use the mental gymnastics as a part of systems like neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) or Dianetics to generally advance their lives, their careers and find favor with their superiors. When used interpersonally, it’s called cold reading:
5) HUMANS ASSIMILATE TO THEIR NARRATIVES
Humans become their environment – their thoughts, their norms, their habits. Kids who grow up with a parent who always tell them they’re dumb will tend to believe it and perhaps become it. Students whose teachers tell them they can achieve higher goals often do. People with gender dysphoria often have people throughout their lives encouraging their confusion (not that all – or even a majority – of sexual confusion is from the outside, but there’s plenty from the inside for any of us to be thrown off the rails pretty easily by key figures in our lives). What we tell ourselves about ourselves are literally self-fulfilling prophecies to a large degree. And, of course, who and what we allow to be key voices in our lives matters just as much if not more.
The danger of a personality profile is in taking it in un-skeptically. And the more we like a [personality] system, the less skeptical of it we will be. Thus, when a beloved authority or system tells us that because we are in X position or have Y personality or we remind them of Z, the more likely we are to see ourselves as X, Y or Z, and, in turn, become that thing.
For anyone who is not in immediate physical peril and who has a reasonable expectation of not starving, being known is every person’s deepest need. Which means it is also the most dangerous temptation the weakest point of exploitation. Unskeptically buying in to personality profiles, Christian prophecies, zodiac signs, or anything else that feeds the black hole of wanting to be known, for the soul-searcher, is what soap operas are for many women, or staring too long at a hot chick is for most men…
I mean, no one is actually cheating in the soap opera, and the hot chick isn’t hardcore porn, and it IS fulfilling a healthy, legitimate urge. In fact, in small enough doses, it might even help nudge some people in the right direction – women to start a new conversation with their significant other or men to go romance their significant other. But it is certainly not without its dangers. And the stronger the personal response, the more caution should be exercised.
When we positively and purposely use our ability to become our environment, we’re taking a page out of the Tony Robbins book Awakening The Giant Within. But to whatever degree our use of this superpower is negative or counter-productive, we have given it permission to rake some positivity out of our future in exchange for the temporary, warm feeling of belongingness and being known. And to whatever extent it is neutral (and this is my greatest concern), we are allowing it to shape our future instead of choosing for ourselves what we want our trajectory to be. We’re making the profile more true by seeing and creating the profile in ourselves. We’re not learning about our past and current selves as much as we are creating our future selves and projecting that new creation on our past, proving to ourselves that the projection was the real us all along.
BENEFITS OF USING THINGS THAT DON’T “WORK”
If the enneagram is truly revolutionary, it is obvious how it would be helpful. Maybe it is. But placebos also work. Medically. They have significant results. In lab tests. Even for people who know they are taking a placebo. Whenever possible, everyone should use placebos in place of active drugs because it would seem that the most significant experience-altering (enhancing or destroying) tool we have is our state of mind. Placebos are literally the miracle drug. If the Tylenol works, it doesn’t matter if it’s expired and has no active agents in it. In fact, no active agents would be better for the person’s health!
There is no need for a cure to be “real” for it to be effective. And the less “real” a cure is, the safer it is to apply. One does not need to prove that a cure is “real” in order to prove its use is legitimate. If the enneagram improves your relationships, state of mind, or self-exploration, you should use it for as long as (and to the extent that) it’s useful.
Enneagram numbers may be correct. Maybe 100% correct. The fact that they seem to be so revealing and so helpful for so many people in so many different circumstances is the strongest evidence in favor of it. Unfortunately, none of that actually proves its validity or revolutionary status. Mass Psychogenic Illness and confirmation bias are real phenomena that have the same exact effect, and happen much more frequently than an actual mass of people experiencing an actually revolutionary phenomenon (read “The Myth of the Rational Voter”).
In trying to evaluate whether the enneagram is real or made up – real and made up are the same thing. Especially in a tautology like a personality profile: People who tend to be X….tend to be X. Works every time! People who tend to be angry have a hard time being patient with their pets. These are different ways of saying the same thing.
But that is extremely helpful. Context is the way we learn – connecting and labeling. The sun is “yellow”, but “yellow” doesn’t mean anything until someone labels the banana “yellow” as well. Now “yellow” has meaning – a definition that will evolve, both expanding and contracting with new examples and counter-examples until we are eventually willing to embrace both sides: that there is really no such thing as “yellow”, and also, yellow-ness can be found in nearly everything.
This kind of pattern recognition is perhaps humans’ greatest superpower. It is how we make more sense of the world. It could be argued that all our scientific, spiritual, and emotional revelations can be boiled down to pattern recognition and association.
So, back to the example with the angry pet owner, it is likely that a person would identify with being an angry person, but hadn’t noticed they treated their pet badly. This kind of expanded definition of “being angry” may be helpful to that person and cause them to realize how that one trait ripples out into the rest of their lives. That still does not prove that the enneagram is any more revolutionary than a half-decent psychotherapist, good friend, or meditation session. But especially for those who have none or few of those, a personality profile could help explore a more complete perspective on themselves.
It has been proposed that the reason the word “blue” doesn’t appear until the 6th century is that blue, in its pure form is largely an unnatural color and was, therefore, not a recognizable color. People literally did not – could not – see it. Some people think we did not even have the receptors in our eyes to perceive it, even though it existed and was used. But once someone created a word for it, people started seeing blue everywhere.
Suddenly, we could see a “blue sky” instead of only a “gray sky” or “clear sky” or “dark sky” and blue clothing became a valuable commodity and purple berries became “blueberries” and blue was differentiated and named in the light spectrum. Like if today we found an entirely new, distinct color between blue and green. The blue existed, but it wasn’t seen as what it was – it was perceived, but filtered – because it wasn’t labeled.
The same has happened with other colors through the years as Crayola, appliance manufacturers, and interior designers have gotten more creative with their naming and application of colors. For example, why aren’t avocados the same color as your grandmother’s “avocado green” refrigerator? Is that what avocados looked like to people before we defined and used other types of greens?
That could be totally bogus. But true or not, it’s an interesting thought experiment (among others I can’t recall at the moment) that suggests that having the vocabulary to describe a thing draws it from its dimension into our realm and allows us to deal with it and manipulate it. Without a word to name it, a thought or feeling or habit can be like a dead man’s ghost, hoovering in another dimension, creating effects in our world for which we never suspect the cause. To the extent that personality profiles (or any education) do that, they can help us recognize, label, and control our beings and lives, as long as we are skeptical of their powers and respectfully aware of our human tendency to over-apply solutions.
Especially attractive to us are books, profiles, and fortunes (or prophecies, for the religious) that give us a deeper sense of being seen, valued, validated, and loved. These are all good things and legitimately fulfill-able. But just like the longing for beauty (which is legitimate, natural, and should be followed to a heathy extent) we must be aware that our deepest desires are always used against us by people with bad motives, and (sometimes related, but often a separate concern) those traits also lead us away from a realistic evaluation and appropriate application of the things which increase our hope of fulfilling them.
That outfit won’t make you pretty, that car won’t make you cool, and knowing everything about how you are a 5 won’t make you a better you. You’ll just be a better “5” in an overpriced outfit with a crushing car payment. The better “you” isn’t on a chart.
You are not an INTJ. You are not a number 5. You are not a point on the DISC. You are a “you”. And the only One who knows exactly what a “you” is in this moment – I hate to tell you – has chosen not to tell you. That’s your life-long discovery. And if you do it right, you’ll end up different than when you started anyway. You’re already a different you than when you started reading this. Maybe a little bit more like a 6…maybe a little bit more INTF…maybe just a more mature you.
- Any publication by skeptics (often magicians) like Harry Houdini, James Randi or Derren Brown, who dedicate large parts of their lives to exposing supernatural frauds
- You Are Not So Smart – Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself
- The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
- What It’s Like to Be a Dog – And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience
- Free Will by Sam Harris
- The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons – The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery
- Patient stories from neurologists like Oliver Sacks
- Any [auto]biography of a person with mental disorders, depression or gender dysphoria or a cult leader