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This is part of an ongoing and occasional series of FAQs. Part one can be viewed here and FAQs part two can be viewed here

Why is transmitting ideas an aspect of the sexual instinct?

The terms “sexual subtype” or “one-to-one subtype” can be misleading. The way I like to think about it is that the drive to have sex is only one of many instincts that fall into a domain that I label “transmitting.” One of the foundational flaws in much thinking about the instincts in the Enneagram literature is to assume that there are three, and only three, “instincts” or instinctive drives. Humans, like other mammals, have many instincts. While it’s common to say that these instincts support survival and reproduction, the way biologists would look at it is that they all, ultimately, increase the chances that we will reproduce.

This wording is important—they increase the chances, they don’t guarantee anything, and they are not designed or intended for any purpose. Instincts, and other biologically based behaviors that exist in us, are there because they in some way increase the chances that we will reproduce, but whether we reproduce or not is not a given. They are driven by statistics, not by some teleological force (i.e., some predetermined end pulling them forward).

Genetically driven behaviors tend to work on a “leash” of a given length. (Keith Stanovich explains this nicely in “The Robot’s Rebellion.”) That is, we are wired to have a given amount of behavioral flexibility within a particular range. For example, most of us have a drive to have sex, but we aren’t driven to have sex with every person we see. There is some flexibility in the range of expression of this drive; and we have a fairly long leash regarding how that drive is expressed. Our need for comfort, on the other hand, is generally on a shorter leash, and we will act relatively quickly to make discomfort go away.

Some genetically driven behaviors are very specific, such a male’s tendency to “puff up” when threatened or attempting to impress a potential mate. Others are more general, such as a pregnant woman’s need to “feather the nest” in the late stages of pregnancy. She will want to prepare for the arrival of the baby, but there is a great deal of latitude in how different women decorate a soon-to-be-born baby’s room.

The expression of instincts will also be affected by cultural or technological changes around us. In “Supernormal Stimuli,” Deirdre Barrett discusses how the instinctive need to connect to other people is now often expressed via Facebook rather than going to the village square. The same fundamental instinctive need is met in a variety of ways because the instinct pushes us to “connect to people” and either behavioral choice satisfies the need. Most people now will choose Facebook because it is more convenient. In a related way, as Barrett explains, internet pornography undermines the building of relationships because people give in to the sexual impulse without necessarily needing a second real person involved. We are biologically driven to do things that satisfy a our instinctive needs in an easy way rather than a difficult way. Because the instinct is not teleologically driven, satisfaction of the instinctive need will occur with a proximate end rather than an ultimate end.
Sex—the physical actions leading to two organisms sharing genetic material—is just one instinctual drive in a cluster or domain of drives that have the proximate (near term) end of increasing the chances of attracting and bonding. I call this domain “the Transmitting domain.” The other clusters or domains—“Preserving” and “Navigating”—have different proximate ends but the same ultimate end of replication. So, rather than thinking about someone being a sexual subtype, I think it makes more sense, and captures the bigger picture, to think about someone having a dominant transmitting bias. All things being equal, Transmitters will tend to express behaviors related to this domain more frequently than the other two domains.


The behaviors in the Transmitting domain are not all so specific or “short-leash” that they are only limited to physical intimacy. Sharing one’s ideas or creations not only reproduces a part of oneself, but can also result in increasing the chances that one is noticed in a way that is desirable to others. This attention increases the chances that one will get the opportunity to do those things that lead to replication.

Of course, when people are sharing their ideas or creating something, they are not doing it with the explicit purpose or conscious intention to be viewed as more desirable as a mate, and they are not necessarily doing it so they can get in the sack with someone else. Again, the instincts don’t work that way; they are not teleological, they are not conscious, they are not “purposeful.” This is why people have a hard time seeing the connection between “transmitting ideas” and sexual reproduction, because it is not planned with the ultimate outcome (reproduction) in mind. 

Rather, we have an impulse that is rooted in a wired-in drive and then we justify it with an explanation that is consistent with our cultural norms and psychological understanding of ourselves. We know, going as far back as Hume but confirmed through the modern sciences, such as in Gazzaniga’s findings on confabulation and Aronson et al’s work on cognitive dissonance, that humans do things and then nonconsciously “make up” reasons for why we did them.

This is not to say that these manufactured rationales are not legitimate or even partially true—human experience is complex and our nature is multidimensional and multilayered. Deep down, the sharing of ideas or creations or genes may well be rooted in a general need to transmit, but it can also be shaped by other impulses and satisfy other instinctive needs. For example, we may share our ideas to better orient to the group (thus serving the Navigating domain) or to somehow earn money (and thus serving the Preserving domain). It’s all very complicated and we have to watch for patterns over time.

The Enneagram community needs to stop thinking about the Ennea-types from an essentialistperspective—the idea that one is, say, a Nine or a Five or an Eight and therefore has x, y, and z traits—and start thinking from a process perspective—that there are forces and tendencies at play and the outcomes of those interacting forces demonstrate some noticeable consistency. From my perspective, two Transmitting Fives tend to look somewhat similar not because they share some core essential characteristics, but because they are both people who have a preferred strategy of striving to be detached and a bias to express instinctive behaviors in the Transmitting domain. These two things working together result in behavioral similarities and similar traits, but there are many other things that shape one’s personality (in the sense beyond Ennea-type) and those forces will result in differences between these two people.

Seeing things this way allows us to release ourselves from trait-based prejudices about the Ennea-types and subtypes and, if we understand the dynamics at play, see them more clearly and accurately.

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