Hard and Soft, Objective and Subjective

Mario Sikora
May 16, 2013

This blog is a response to an email about my recent article in The Enneagram Monthly.  Here is an excerpt from the email: “I would have loved to hear more specifics on what your ideas on what you’d like to discuss with more rigor (science, critical thinking) where the Enneagram and the Enneagram community are concerned. I also felt a bit of sadness… thinking about any rifts that may emerge. My thoughts on the matter: not everything can be come upon through science and rational argument. For example, my work as a therapist–there’s a lot of “art” involved (though gaining the skills as a foundation is critical.) I think the same is true with a lot that has been arrived at in the Enneagram community…. I’d love for someone to look into the biochemical basis of type. What would you like to see studied and discussed?” 
Dear ______,
Thanks for your email; you pose some great questions. There are two lines of thought in your comments that I’ll explore here: 1) the hard science around the Enneagram and 2) the value of critical thinking and rigor in the use of the Enneagram (this latter also, I believe, has a subtext of not conflating the objective and the subjective).
   Regarding the first, I think we’re a long way off from understanding any biological correlation to Ennea-type and I see some significant obstacles to a true understanding of any relationship to biochemistry. For starters, personality is extremely complex and I don’t think we know much in general about biology and temperament (see, for example, Robert Burton’s “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves” for a good overview of how many overstate what the science can truly tell us). Correlating Ennea-type and biology faces the additional obstacle of accuracy of type assessment. I meet far too many people who have not clearly identified their Ennea-types, or change their types upon further reflection, to trust most attempts to draw conclusions from a given sample of people. In order to draw any useful conclusions, one would need a pretty large sample size and I wouldn’t trust the accuracy of the participant’s assessed Ennea-types enough to put much credence on any results drawn from it.
   However, I don’t think that such hard scientific proof is necessary. (Has any such research correlating biochemistry and the MBTI or Big Five been done, for example? Not that I’m aware of but it doesn’t seem to undermine the credibility of those systems.)
   I am a pragmatist at heart, and while I love science I don’t need a full “scientific” explanation for everything. When assessing a system such as the Enneagram, the first thing I look at is plausibility, the second is the evidence. The more plausible something is, the less concerned I am about the detailed explanation of the mechanism as long as the evidence that the model works is solid. The idea underlying the Enneagram that there are x number of classifiable personality patterns (in this case, nine), is plausible to me because as a social species we humans would naturally display differential expression of traits. Such a differential is useful because when we all have different strengths we don’t all have to be strong at everything and thus can function better as a group. That is, if you are good at this and I am good at that we can work together rather than both having to be good at everything. However, such differential is useful only if it is relatively predictable and does not have infinite variation. Thus, it makes sense that, while we are all unique, we must be predictable enough to be able to function together and a limited number of basic personality types is evolutionarily useful.
   So, since it is plausible, I then look at the evidence for whether the Enneagram works or not, and for me it does. (I won’t go into the rationale for that now, but after 20 plus years of studying the system and 15 plus years of using it with critical corporate execs, I feel comfortable about the evidence.) For me, again coming from the pragmatic philosophical perspective in this situation, the Enneagram is “true” because it works in the environments in which I use it.
   Thus, while hard scientific proof might be interesting, it is not necessary for me.
   We could compare this with my view of, say, astrology, which is premised on the idea that celestial bodies affect human affairs. I don’t see any reasonably plausible mechanism for such an effect, meaning that the standard for evidence would need to be pretty high to get me to take it seriously. Non-anecdotal evidence for the accuracy of astrology that I have seen is not very compelling. The lack of a plausible mechanism and the weak evidence combined lead me to disregard astrology until a mechanism is identified or the appropriate standard of evidence is met.
   The bigger issue, for me, is the second: The lack of rigorous, critical thinking and the conflation of objective and subjective “ways of knowing” that seem to haunt the Enneagram world.
   For starters, too many people seem embrace pseudoscience and conflate it with the Enneagram, or conveniently distort good science that would undermine their metaphysics. Wilber does this with evolution, for example, and such practices get a lot of promotion in the Enneagram literature (see here for the discussion of another example). I recently read something by an Enneagrammer claiming to be scientific in his approach and then launching into a discussion of the auric correlations to type (yes, as in “auras”). Is it fair to outright dismiss talk of auras? Given the twin lack of plausibility and credible evidence, I would say yes; as the saying goes, “that which is proposed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Do I trust the “science” and critical thinking skills of someone who espouses such things? Absolutely not. Does such talk undermine the credibility of the Enneagram? I believe it does.
This is not to say, however, that there is not an intuitive element when working with the Enneagram. For example, at my certification program in Santiago last week there was a woman who did not know her type. As she did not speak English, it was difficult for me to get a read on her and I thought, maybe Seven, maybe Two, but wasn’t sure. On the third day, I looked at her shoes and had a flash of intuition that told me she was a Three, probably a “navigating” (i.e., social) subtype. During a break, I took her aside with a translator and asked her some very specific questions. We ultimately discovered, over the next two days, that she was actually a Preserving Three. So my intuition was useful and got me close, but I confirmed it with data and a more-rigorous process (combined with her self-assessment, of course). I did not simply rely on my subjective interpretations, but I used a subjective impulse to get me in the right direction and then sought to confirm or disconfirm my hypothesis with more objective means.
Intuitions are powerful and useful, but there is a whole industry in the cognitive psychology world showing us that they aren’t as reliable as we think they are. Kahneman, Dobelli, Trivers, Tavris et al make this very clear.
I think in the Enneagram world too many people let their subjective impulses limit their ability to see other people’s type accurately, allowing an emotional response to someone trap them into seeing a person in a particular way rather than understanding that, while intuitions are necessary and useful, they must be used in conjunction with objective methods, and in some cases, subordinated to the objective assessment of the facts.
So, in short, I don’t really think the Enneagram is or ever will be a hard science, but I would like to see its proponents develop a more scientific mindset–honoring intuitions (as all good scientists do) but checking their intuitions with attempts at disconfirmation, an objective analysis of the facts, applying appropriate standards of evidence, and a willingness to let go of their beliefs and biases when they are found to be flawed.

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