Responding to a Discussion on the Instinctual Biases

Mario Sikora
Nov 29, 2019

Warning–This post is for true Enneagram geeks! I was recently asked on a Facebook forum about my view on the instinctual biases and how they differed from some of the other perspectives; here is my response. Note that I will be part of panel discussion on this topic with Russ Hudson, Peter O’Hanrahan, and Beatrice Chestnut in April 2020 in Cincinnati. It is being organized by the International Enneagram Association and more info can be found via the IEA at

Yes, my approach tends to be closer to Russ Hudson’s than to Claudio Naranjo’s. I say this because I share Russ’s view that the instinctual biases can be understood independently of Ennea-type and that Russ has an understanding of and appreciation for science that seems to be lacking in what I see in much of what people teach as Naranjo’s approach. (Unfortunately, I am much less familiar with Peter’s approach to the material so can’t speak to it.)
In response to your comments and to clarify a few points, I’d like to explain why I have made the revisions to the way I teach this topic and then explain how my view is different.
First, as you know, I work primarily in organizations and most of my clients have a solid understanding of science. When they hear terms like “animal spirit nature” (a term I have heard one teacher use) or “energy,” they get antsy, since these terms are either meaningless or have a very specific meaning in science. “Energy,” for example, is problematic because to an engineer or physicist it has a very specific meaning (the capacity to do work) and there are specific kinds of energy that have clear definitions (kinetic energy, potential energy, etc.). Thus, such terms become substitutes for precision and, in my mind, unhelpful in truly trying to understand the underlying phenomena at play. If we use the word “energy” as anything other than a metaphor, what, exactly, do we mean by it? If it is a metaphor, ok, but it doesn’t get us closer to an understanding of the underlying phenomena.

The changes in my views from what I originally learned started over a decade ago when I was explaining the concept of “the three instincts” to one such science-minded person and he ripped me to shreds.
He pointed out that the idea that there are “three instincts” (self-preservation, social, and sexual) simply makes no sense from a scientific perspective—that humans have many innate drives. I eventually came to understand that the term “instinct” is not really used in mainstream biology and that it is more helpful to talk about “evolutionary adaptations” and to understand that there are many of them, not just three. They do, however, seem to cluster together into three broad groups or domains, and each of us has a bias toward one of these domains over the other two. (By the way, the addition of a fourth, as suggested in one of the comments above, strikes me as an attempt to make up for a lack of clear understanding of the three.)

It seems to me that the common understanding of the so-called “three instincts” is rooted in an attempt to conform to Gurdjieff’s idea that there are three instincts in the “belly center.” Naranjo attempted to construct a theoretical foundation for this model in “Character and Neurosis” (see pp 8-11 of “C&N”). While this model is interesting, perhaps, from a metaphorical perspective, it strikes me as an attempt to hew to a tradition rather than to update our teaching as our knowledge of the workings of our nature advance. If Naranjo came up with a more satisfactory hypothesis post-“C&N,” I haven’t yet heard it from his students.
Because, as far as I understand it, Naranjo’s hypothesis is not logically or scientifically sustainable, I developed another framework based on my understanding of the relevant science and my observations of people and their behaviors. I want to point out that, as all such pursuits should be, my model is a work in progress—as I understand the topic better I make the appropriate revisions. For example, I used to refer to “instincts” as well, but no longer do (again, preferring to think of “evolutionary adaptations”).

I’ll go a little deeper and explain a few things we know if we study the relevant science:

“Instinct” is a controversial and generally outdated term that few people in the scientific community use anymore; thus I no longer use it. Instead, biologists talk about “evolutionary adaptations,” and there are far more than three of them. Rather than thinking of “three instincts,” we have to understand that there are a multitude of evolutionary adaptations that do seem to cluster into three broad domains. It also seems empirically true that people seem to have a non-conscious bias toward one of these domains and differentially express the adaptations. In other words, some people have a bias toward expressing adaptations related to, for example, “preserving,” over “navigating” and “transmitting.” Frankly, the Enneagram literature’s emphasis on there being three discreet “instincts” that drive such a wide range of behaviors is a little bit embarrassing from a scientific perspective.

An “evolutionary adaptation” is a phenotypic trait of an animal that is a result of natural selection acting on that animal’s ancestors in a way that increased the ancestor’s reproductive fitness. The behaviors or drives that we talk about vis a vis the subtypes are the result of adaptations in our brains that we inherited from our ancestors. The adaptations were passed along because the made it more likely that our ancestors would reproduce and thus pass those adaptations to us. (Evolution is a simple algorithm that cares nothing about the individual or the species, it is a simple process of “that which increases chances of reproduction tends to get reproduced.”)

For example, the impulse to have sex certainly increases the chances of reproduction, which is it why it is so ubiquitous. Almost all humans have a “sex” drive, so calling one group of people “sexuals” makes no sense logically or biologically (“one-to-one” is an even worse term, in my view). The common literature, therefore, conflates other behaviors (e.g., a need for “intensity” or “deep one-to-one connection”) with the sex-drive adaptation, and see it as coming from one monolithic drive. Again, this runs counter to the fact that we have many, many adaptations. The reason I use the term “Transmitting” is not because “sexual” is awkward, it is because we are actually talking about a cluster of impulses that drive us to behave in ways that will increase the probability of the “transmission” of some part of ourselves, to others, whether that part of ourselves is our genes, our ideas, our values, our creations, etc. They may include behaviors that make us seem “sexy,” but they go far beyond sex or even a need for intense “one-to-one” relationships.

Again, the ultimate outcome of any adaptation is increased chance of reproduction. This is not to suggest that everyone will reproduce—evolution doesn’t care about the individual; it works as an algorithm, passing along the traits of those who successfully reproduced. Obviously, not everyone does reproduce but we almost all act upon the impulses bestowed upon us by our reproducing ancestors to do the things that could well lead to reproduction.

However, there are proximate outcomes that enhance reproductive fitness along the way—our ancestors had to survive in good-enough condition to procreate and with a mindset to ensure the viability of their offspring (Preserving); they had to function well enough as members of a social group to not get ostracized (Navigating); and they had to be able to attract and seduce someone with whom to potentially pass along our genes, values, artifacts, etc. (Transmitting). Three monolithic “instincts” would not be sufficient to meet these needs in a complex environment. Rather, multitudes of adaptations probably developed over great periods of time that operated within a desirable range of degree of specificity. That is, our adaptations must be relatively specific, but not too-specific—it was to our ancestors’ benefit to crave sweets and fats because that is where they found optimal nutrition, but if the adaptation was so specific that it drove us to crave only oranges, our ancestors would have died off when they ran out of oranges. However, we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that craving sweets is the result of a single “self-preservation” instinct, such an instinct would be too broad to be effective.

This point also illustrates how there is nothing inherently good or pure about our “instincts” if only they weren’t “interfered with” by our fixation—while craving sweets and fats to the extent that we do was beneficial for our ancestors living in an environment of scarcity, it’s not as advantageous to those of us living in an environment of abundance. These adaptations are neither good nor bad, they simply are. Our goal is to learn how to manage them.

(By the way, I still use the term “instinctual” because it means “deeply rooted,” which these drives are.)

It makes sense from a biological sense that differential expression of the instinctual biases (i.e., why people have different biases) is NOT rooted in a “deficiency motivation” as Naranjo claimed in “C&N,” but that it is part of the adaptive wiring of human nature. Observation of any social species will uncover differential expression of traits in a way that allows a group’s members to contribute to the group in some way. If someone focuses more on a domain that is different from ours, it makes them valuable to us and to the group. My wife is “Preserving” so I don’t have to be, for example, and I can focus on other aspects of the group experience.


A caveat is important here, without going into too much of a rabbit hole. Human nature is extremely complex and we need to keep in mind that there are different levels of expression of physical phenomena. For example, a chocolate cake is a chocolate cake when it is finished being baked, but it is not a chocolate cake prior to that. Prior to being baked, it is a “soup” of mixed ingredients, prior to that it is its various components, which also all have a prior state. When we are talking about the causal mechanisms of something becoming a chocolate cake we have to decide at which stage of expression we are discussing the thing. We can argue that the root of chocolate cake is flour, or sugar, or chocolate, but each of these are different from the finished cake. The same applies to human nature—there are mechanisms that might lead to a specific behavior, but there is a whole thread of interrelated phenomena that lead up to that final behavior—until the cake is “baked,” so to speak.

(Robert Sapolsky’s “Behave” is very good on explaining the temperamental thread of events and phenomena that lead up to a specific behavior and demonstrating that at different stages along that thread we can look at and emphasize different pieces.)

While I find it difficult to image that we will eventually find three discreet mechanisms that give direct and singular rise to the behaviors we associate with the three instinctual biases, stranger things have happened, and I would be happy to change my view if the evidence is compelling enough. That is, if through scientific means a mechanism is identified where a “self-preservation instinct” is demonstrated to somehow lead to the multitude of behaviors we correlate to that drive, I am happy to say, “Wow, I was wrong, it is only one thing causing all this; it is not multiple adaptations.” That day has yet to come, so what I can say now is that the conventional explanation (that we have “three instincts”) is not satisfying to me, and at best it is one that will alienate anyone with a solid understanding of science.

So the current explanation of causal mechanism is unsatisfactory and I have no explanation for the causal root phenomena that would pass scientific muster. Until a satisfactory scientific explanation becomes available, I prefer to simply say things I feel comfortable saying—that we have multiple evolutionary adaptations that appear to cluster into three domains and each of us has a bias toward one of these domains.

I can also say that motivation is much harder to determine than actions when it comes to instinctual behaviors so I focus on what people do rather than how they describe their inner experience. I’m often criticized for making statements like this, that behaviors don’t matter, motivation is what matters, etc. However, every wisdom tradition tells us that we do not perceive ourselves as well as we think we do, and the current science on the topic confirms what we have known for ages—we rarely know why we do what we do and we rarely know how we are perceived by others. This is why executive coaches like me conduct 360 assessments—there is often a disconnect between how a person sees themselves and how they are actually behaving. So people can tell me that they see themselves as this or that, but I look at what they spend their energy and attention on. If they tell me they are “Social” but spend all their time “Transmitting,” in my mind they are a Transmitter. It also why I use verbs rather than nouns. Thus my terminology of Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting as being the common theme of correlated and differentially expressed phenomena.

Some other points:


The idea that the instinctual bias and the Ennea-type cannot be viewed and discussed in a valuable way independently of each other simply makes no sense to me. It is like saying that we can’t talk about height without talking about weight. In the same way that we can talk about the fact that some people are shorter and some people are taller without talking about the fact that some people are heavier and some people are lighter, of course we can talk about the instinctual biases independently of the Ennea-types. Does it provide more richness to talk about them both and how they intersect than it does to talk about them separately? Of course, but you have to eat an elephant one bite at a time and I find it very helpful to teach about the instinctual biases and strategies separately before combining them. To suggest, as some of Naranjo’s students, do that this is in some way improper simply strikes me as odd.


Naranjo seemed to view the relationship of the “instinct” and “passion” as a dysfunctional one, with the passion serving to “contaminate, repress, and stand in place of instinct.” (“C&N,” p. 9). I have heard slight variations on this from some of his students, but the basic premise seems to be what he continued to teach post-C&N. This seems to be a very limited view in my perspective, and it is quite an oversimplification with regard to the complexity of the interdependent relationship between our biology and our psychology, which are so intermingled as to be inseparable. It is also, in my view, overly focused on dysfunction. This is not to suggest that what he wrote is not true, but it is only part of the picture.


Which brings me to another issue, the view of some teachers that there is only one way to teach this, and if you are not teaching it that way, it is “not OK.” I’ve literally heard Enneagram teachers say this, as if they have the truth and other perspectives are heretical. The beauty of the Enneagram is that it reminds us that humans are different and see the world in different ways. Like the blind men describing the elephant, each teacher is emphasizing a different aspect of a very, very complex phenomena and none of us have the whole picture. I think that each of the approaches you mention—the Naranjo tradition as described by Bea, Russ’s ideas, Peter’s—all add a valuable piece of the puzzle even if I disagree with some specific fact claims some of them may make. I do not claim to have the full truth on this topic; my approach is one perspective focused on a specific audience (pragmatic and science-minded people) that also meshes with my specific temperament. People claiming to have the capital-T Truth always make me a little nervous.


My view is that a more helpful way to think about the relationship between the strategy and bias is that the instinctual bias is a focus of attention or system of values whereas the Ennea-type is an adaptive strategy for satisfying those values (as well as other challenges life brings our way). I, for example, am a “Navigating Eight.” The instinctual domain I am biased toward (i.e., value the most) is the Navigating domain—I am innately drawn to Navigating activities and phenomena because they instinctually feel more important to me than the other two domains. My strategy for navigating is by striving to feel powerful (the non-consciously preferred strategy of the Eight). Depending on my degree of psychological health or adaptiveness, I act out this dynamic in adaptive or maladaptive ways.


I am highly reluctant to say that one of these phenomena (the strategy or the instinctual bias) “comes before” the other—I don’t know of any science to support that. Temperament is extremely complex and people in the Enneagram world always seem to be trying to oversimplify it. Maybe someday evidence will support that “instinct” comes before “type,” but in the meantime I am only comfortable saying that like all aspects of human nature, the strategy and instinctual bias work together in subtle and complex ways and may well be co-emergent properties of our nature.


I wrestle with the idea that dynamics related to the subtypes is one of dysfunction only (the Dalai Lama still seems to display the N7 subtype to me, and I would say it is because he is dysfunctional). To assume that we express them differentially because, among other things, we are repressing one of the domains and overcompensating in another is so speculative as to be easily ignored. It is much more likely that, due to the aforementioned differential expression of traits in social species (point 6 above), we are simply wired to find one domain more interesting or important and the others to be less so. The degree to which one is neurotic or psychologically unhealthy will determine the degree to which their relationship with their instinctual bias is neurotic or unhealthy. However, I do not believe I am “repressing” my preserving domain, I simply find it uninteresting and prefer to focus on navigating unless circumstances require otherwise.


The counter-type idea seems overly contrived to me—it’s a little too pat that there is one “counter-type” in each set of three subtypes. My way of thinking about it is that sometimes traits of the IB and the strategy reinforce and amplify each other (such as in the case of the Preserving Six or Transmitting Seven); other times they are in conflict with each other (such as in the Navigating Eight or Transmitting Five). These latter, dissonant combinations create a subtype that seems to unlike the other two in some ways. This is a much simpler and more nuanced explanation, in my view, than the construct of “counter-type,” which opens a whole can of “why” and “how” worms when a simpler explanation is available.


About the “stacking”… sigh…

First, I don’t use the term “stack,” which implies three separate things piled on top of each other. That is not how these phenomena work—there are intricately interwoven and intermingled. I can only talk about “patterns of expression”—the way these biases are empirically on display in people’s conversations and behaviors.

Over the course of working with hundreds of executives and teams, I have seen an invariable phenomena whereby people with a particular instinctual bias will demonstrate a tendency to pretty much ignore or be unskillful in a predictable domain. (I use that word “invariable” specifically, because that is my experience to date. Is it possible that there is a black swan who doesn’t fit the pattern? Sure, though I haven’t met him or her yet.)

Every Transmitter I have worked with (and every Transmitter I know) habitually and unconsciously talks about or obsesses over (often, their inadequacy about) things related to the preserving domain and usually spends far more time than they realize addressing these needs. One might even go so far as to refer to this as a blind spot, because they are blind to both the amount of attention they pay to it and that they are more skillful in this area than they realize. (Assuming they are skillful people; non-skillful people are generally non-skillful in much of life and we should never assume that one is “good at” the activities related to their dominant bias.)

(This last parenthetical comment is an important point and something that people continually misunderstand about my work. Because I work with executives who tend to be skillful people in life, they are typically most skillful in the activities related to their dominant bias. This does not mean that having a bias makes one skillful in that domain—being skillful at something makes one skillful at it, simply obsessing over something does not. Even Naranjo misunderstood this about my work—he once said that my “claim” that Navigators are all good at Navigating was “ridiculous.” He would have been correct had I actually claimed that.)

Back to the pattern of expression: Transmitters are also generally uninterested in navigating-related activities such as gossip and organizational politics, and while they think they are good listeners, they usually are not, preferring to talk rather than inquire into the experience of others. (Fixated Transmitters are good listeners for about 30 seconds and then tend to take over the conversation. (Non-fixated Transmitters can be good listeners if they work at it, of course.))

A similar predictable pattern of expression happens in Navigators (N/T/P) and Preservers (P/N/T).

I have seen the same thing happen at a team or organizational level with the culture is overly reflective of one of the biases.

Again, my focus is on the empirically observable behavior of people. I am not particularly interested in how people describe their “stack,” because it is too subjective; I am interested in the behavioral patterns people display because it is my job to help people overcome ineffective habitual patterns. While I have met many people who say their inner experience is not what I describe, I have yet to meet anyone who does not display the pattern in their observable behavior.

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