Our Instinctual Biases: Three Patterns of Attention and Values and How They Shape the Way We Work

Awareness to Action
Sep 5, 2021

By Mario Sikora

This article is a brief description of the three instinctual biases of the Awareness to Action Enneagram. For more information, visit us at www.awarenesstoaction.com or read my book, “Instinctual Leadership.”

We humans are complicated creatures living in a complex world.

At the same time, there is a logic to human nature: Find actions that can help us meet common, predictable problems and automate our responses to them through the development of habitual patterns.

While these habitual patterns make life easier in many ways, getting stuck in our patterns can cause us to struggle if we are not adjusting the patterns as circumstances change. Learning to recognize our patterns (and the patterns of others) and change course when necessary is the first step to becoming more effective in all walks of life.

Each day we must manage a variety of life challenges—some quite mundane (such as eating our breakfast in the morning); others more complex (such as dealing with organizational politics). In order to manage these tasks more efficiently, nature has endowed us with drives that spur habitual behaviors to help us make it through the day.

The impulses can be grouped into three domains or clusters—“Preserving,” “Navigating,” and “Transmitting,” and while we all pay some attention to all three domains, we each have a bias toward one of these domains more than to the other two. This “instinctual bias” creates distinct patterns of behaviors in people and these biases can be the source of our greatest strengths and most challenging weaknesses. They can also be the answer to why we effectively interact with some people but not others.

Becoming aware of the tendencies and learning to manage them intentionally and skillfully, rather than be managed by them, is at the heart of all Awareness to Action International’s programs.

The Three Instinctual Biases

The instinctual biases are deeply ingrained tendencies to find certain aspects of life more important than others and to focus our attention accordingly. In short, they are at the heart of our systems of values—the fundamental biological needs that matter most to us. Let’s look a little closer at the three biases:

  • Those with a dominant bias toward Preserving tend to focus on ensuring that they, and those they care about, have sufficient food, shelter, and all the other resources that not only sustain life but make it comfortable. They are attuned to needs related to their health and well-being and they are often collectors or cultivators of the traditions and artifacts that create a sense of continuity with the past. They can fall into the trap of over-doing their preserving tendencies, never feeling that they have quite enough of what they need, that something may disrupt their comfort or well-being, or believing that resources are scarce even when they are not.
  • Navigating. Those with a dominant bias toward Navigating tend to focus on the workings of the group and their (and others’) status in it. They want to understand the group hierarchy, the interrelationships of the members of the group, and how they can fit into it better. They are “soft networkers” who don’t push themselves on others but maintain connection with a broad and loose network that allows for a flow of information about trust and reciprocity issues. (It is important to note that Navigators are generally more interested in collecting information that may be useful in the future than they are in talking about themselves.) They can overdo their navigating tendencies and become gossips, or become overly concerned with how others perceive them. They may tell people what they want to hear (rather than the whole truth) or seem like snobs who look down on those who don’t meet their criteria for inclusion into the group.
  • Transmitting. Those with a dominant bias toward Transmitting tend to focus on demonstrating their charm, charisma, and accomplishment. They are both broadcasters and narrow-casters—they non-consciously transmit signals that attract attention and then home in on individuals who are receptive to the signals, establishing intense connection with specific individuals, even if only for a short time. The transmitting bias also drives them to leave an impression on their world, creating a legacy that ensures that part of them lives on. They can overdo their transmitting tendencies and draw too much attention to themselves, taking up all the “space” in the room and leaving others feeling unimportant or ignored or, conversely, smothered by the intensity of the transmitter.

The instinctual biases have a profound impact on our work and personal lives. They influence what interests us and, accordingly, what we spend our time on. They influence what skills we develop and what skills we tend to neglect developing. They influence who we tend to get along with and who we often come into conflict with.

Learning to become aware of these habitual patterns and learning how to manage our behaviors related to them is the critical first step to becoming more effective in all aspects of life, including sales and sales leadership.

A Closer Look at the Biases

While we each have a dominant instinctual bias that drives our behavior, humans can be complicated and contradictory. As we explore the instinctual biases we start to see the logic behind some of these complexities and develop a more-nuanced understanding of how our patterns work.

Contradictory Behavior

Our biological adaptations are sometimes contradictory because they have evolved to meet unique-but-similar needs, leading to the contradictions and dissonance often seen in people regarding the biases.

For example, in the Preserving domain we have adaptations that drive us to crave sweets and fats and we have other adaptations that drive us to attend to our health. Thus, we want that ice cream but feel guilt for eating it. We want to share, but we also want to ensure we get our own needs met first.

In the Navigating domain, we want to reveal good things about ourselves to others to gain acceptance from the group but we want to hide those qualities or behaviors that could lead to ostracism. As a result, we are never really sure how much information is too much to share. We want to be open and connect to people, but we are also internally judging them and placing them into evaluative categories that exist in our head.

In the Transmitting domain, we want to connect deeply with someone who interests us, but we also don’t want to cut off our options. Thus we are constantly caught between sending signals out into the ether in the hope that someone will notice us and a desire to focus on that one special person who captures our attention. We want to connect to others by remarking on how special they are, but once contact is made we end up talking about ourselves.

Our behaviors when acting out of these domains is often contradictory, but there is a logic to the contradictions and understanding the logic helps us understand ourselves and others much more clearly.


Each of the three instinctual domains can be divided into three loose subdomains of behaviors and focuses of attention. Each of these subdomains is refined further by identifying three additional refinements of clusters of behaviors.

In the Preserving domain, our behaviors and attention are focused on:

  • Security—attempts to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our resources safe from harm. This includes safety, supportive relationships, and risk-management.
  • Well-being/Resources—attempts to be comfortable and healthy and to acquire “enough” resources without risking those we already have. This includes comfort, supply, and health.
  • Maintenance—attempts to fix and improve those things that make the first two possible. This includes “feathering the nest,” traditions, and repair.

In the Navigating domain, our behaviors and attention are focused on:

  • Trust/Reciprocity—attempts to understand who is trustworthy and can be safely transacted with. This includes information exchange, group coherence, and trade.
  • Status/Identity—attempts to understand where everyone (especially oneself) fits into the social order. This includes pecking orders, role clarity, and reputation management.
  • Power/Influence Dynamics—attempts to understand who has power and who can be used to promote your agenda. This includes group politics, social intelligence, and hierarchy management.

In the Transmitting domain, our behaviors and attention are focused on:

  • Broadcasting/Narrowcasting—attempts to send attention-getting signals to the broadest group; once a signal is received by someone the attention goes to that individual. This includes signaling, seduction, and intense “one-to-one” relationships.
  • Asserting—attempts to get what one wants, often with little inhibition. This includes needs satisfaction, low inhibition, and ambition.
  • Impressing—attempts to “leave one’s mark” so one is remembered or leaves a legacy. This includes charm, impact, and the desire to leave a legacy.


Why Conflicts and Miscommunications Arise

Most conflicts and miscommunications arise out of a mismatch of values—I think this is important, you think that is important; I start to see you as an impediment to getting my goals accomplished, you feel the same about me; tension grows accordingly. When we understand the patterns of the Instinctual Biases and learn to step outside of our automatic patterns, empathy increases and collaboration becomes much easier. Below we will look at the specific patterns of assigning “value” to our world as shown in our patterns of expression.

No one acts only on the impulses of one instinctual bias; you don’t have to be a Preserver in order to know enough to come in out of the rain or to eat when you are hungry. While we tend to have a bias toward one of the instinctual domains, we are driven to act upon impulses from all three to a greater or lesser extent.

But we do show patterns in how we relate to each domain. That relationship to all three instinctual domains is predictable and it becomes easy to recognize once we figure out our dominant bias.

The best way to see these patterns is to think about each of the three domains as a zone of attention and understand that we each react to the three zones in distinct ways. I’ll describe how this works with Navigators as an example:

  • People with a dominant bias toward the Navigating domain (i.e., Navigators) get a charge from and pay most attention to matters related to understanding and orienting to group dynamics. Thus, we refer to the Navigating domain as their Zone of Enthusiasm.
  • Navigators are, to a lesser degree, also drawn to matters related to the Transmitting domain, but often feel insecure, uncertain, or not sufficiently skillful while performing Transmitting behaviors. Further, they may even feel antagonistic or critical when they see the Transmitting behaviors in themselves or others. Thus, we refer to the Transmitting domain as the Navigator’s Zone of Inner Conflict.
  • Navigators often find it difficult to pay sufficient attention to or place proper value on activities related to the Preserving domain. They often report finding that domain to be unimportant uninteresting and can’t figure out why others talk so much about it unless they absolutely have to. For Navigators, we call the Preserving domain their Zone of Indifference.

A similar pattern occurs for Preservers and Transmitters.

  • For Preservers, Navigating is the Zone of Inner Conflict and Transmitting is the Zone of Indifference.
  • For Transmitters, the Preserving is the Zone of Inner Conflict and Navigating is the Zone of Indifference.


These patterns are shown in the table below:

Zone of Enthusiasm Zone of Inner Conflict Zone of Indifference
Preserving Navigating Transmitting
Navigating Transmitting Preserving
Transmitting Preserving Navigating


We act on the impulses coming from the zones of inner conflict and indifference, but we typically do so for two reasons:

  1. Acute or significant life circumstances require that we address a particular need. When we are hungry, ill, or don’t have enough money in the bank, nature kicks in and even Navigators and Transmitters will become focused on needs related to the Preserving domain. Transmitters and Preservers will often become more Navigating when faced with a new social environment, and Preservers and Navigators will become more Transmitting when they feel the need for attention for themselves or their ideas. This is on vivid display as we experience the COVID-19 epidemic—even Navigators are finding themselves spending an unusually high level of energy focused on the Preserving domain—focusing more on their finances, habitually cleaning and organizing, focusing more on their health and fitness, etc.
  2. Deliberately or not, we use behaviors in our non-dominant domains to reinforce our sense of satisfaction or comfort in the domain we really care about.

Here is how the second dynamic tends to work:

  • Preservers will express Navigating behaviors more than they realize, and often in a way that directly or indirectly supports their preserving needs. However, the often experience either internal stress or ambivalence about it. For example, they ensure that they have a handful of close friends that serve as a support network, but they don’t let that circle become so large that it starts to require a lot of effort to maintain. They will seem to have little interest in the Transmitting domain, though when they do express it, they tend to do so in support of Preservation.
  • Navigators will express the Transmitting domain more than they realize, and often in a way that directly or indirectly supports their Navigating needs and, like often experiencing either internal stress or ambivalence about it. For example, they like attention but feel shame for seeking it and may awkwardly or inappropriately seek attention if they feel they are being overlooked and losing their position or status in the group. They rarely express interest in the Preserving domain unless it supports their ability to Navigate.
  • Transmitters will express the Preserving domain more than they realize and often experience the same internal stress or ambivalence the others experience in their secondary domain. For example, they will talk about their diet and exercise habits or lack thereof, their homes, etc. in a way that both helps them dominate the conversation while expressing a feeling of charming inadequacy or self-deprecation. Transmitters often see themselves as highly “social” and may confuse this as a tendency to be “Navigating.” However, this is often an impulse to seek an audience to transmit to and it is not the same as being interested in the nuances of the social dynamics of that audience, which is what Navigating is really all about.*


Why This Matters …

When we understand the underlying dynamics of the three zones, we understand why people are good at some things and not others, why they talk about the topics they do, why they neglect very important parts of life, and why they are drawn to the things they are drawn to.

We start to realize why some people are interested in what we have to say (we are speaking about topics related to their zone of enthusiasm) and others are not (we are speaking about topics related to their zone of indifference).

We also start to realize that many of our miscommunications are based on a misalignment of values. Often, we can be much more effective if we are aware of—and better manage—where our attention habitually goes, as well as where others’ habitually goes, and consciously work out solutions that satisfy both our needs and theirs.


*It is easy to confuse the interpersonal (i.e., “social”) behaviors of Navigators and Transmitters, but there is a difference in that the connections that Transmitters make tend to be much more targeted and purposeful—they are seeking to connect for a reason, as if they are on a hunt and looking for a quicker payoff or energetic charge. Navigators, on the other hand, tend to build looser, more-diverse connections. They are more like interpersonal “farmers,” preferring to plant many seeds for the future with the understanding that not every relationship will have an immediate payo

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