Subtypes and Instincts: FAQs, Part 1

Mario Sikora
Aug 11, 2012

The subtypes and instincts were a topic of great interest at the IEA conference in Long Beach at the end of July and a number of presenters addressed the topic, including Russ Hudson, Beatrice Chestnut, and me. Everywhere I went at the conference people asked me questions on the topic, wanting to know get answers to specific questions or wanting to know what I thought of the comparisons of and contrasts between my approach and others.

Because I was not in the other sessions for more than a few minutes each, I can’t fairly talk about comparisons or contrasts but I would like to share some of my thoughts about the subtypes and instincts in a “frequently asked questions” format. This blog is the first part and I’m sure there will be others to follow. 

What are instincts?

Instincts are behaviors, or patterns of behavior, rooted in our biology that lead to increasing the chances of our survival and increasing the chances that our genes or (in some cases) those of our kin will be reproduced.

Merriam-Webster online provides two definitions of the word “instinct”:

1) a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity 

2) a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason

These definitions, of course, are broad, and they are broad because the term “instinct” doesn’t really have an agreed-upon definition in the biological sciences. Patrick Bateson, Professor of Ethology (the biological study of behavior) at Cambridge University, writes “The reason Darwin wisely refused to provide a comprehensive definition of instinct was that the concept has so many different dimensions to it. The same is true today. At their simplest, instincts may be nothing more than reflex reactions to external triggers, like the knee jerk or the baby’s sucking of a teat. In more complex forms, instincts are a series of movements coordinated into a system of behavior that serves a particular end, such as locomotion or nonverbal communication.” *
* Design for a Life: How Behavior and Personality Develop by Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, p. 79.

The concept of instincts is further complicated because they are rooted in biology but their expression is affected by our environment. In other words, you and I may share an instinctive drive, but I may act it out differently than you because we have had different life experiences that shaped the way we learned to satisfy those needs. How much time and energy we spend attending to those needs can also be influenced by environmental factors, and patterns can be reinforced by the brain’s tendency to habituate behaviors that seem to effectively meet our needs.

So, when we talk about instincts, we have to remember that we are talking about a myriad of nonconscious behaviors existing on a continuum somewhere between uncontrollable reflexes (such as a knee jerk or blink) on one end and free agency (such as the choice to pick up the pen on my desk or not pick it up) on the other.

How many instincts do we have? 

Because there is no agreed-upon definition of “instinct,” it is impossible to say how many instincts we have. However, it is pretty safe to say the the idea sometimes found in the Enneagram literature that we have three (and only three) distinct instincts is overly simplistic because it is dramatically inconsistent with the way instincts are seen in the biological sciences, where many instincts are described.

We have many instincts, but they do seem to cluster into three broad categories or domains of differential expression. That is, people tend to display more of the instinctive behaviors related to one of the domains than the others. Understanding the distinction between having three instincts and having many instincts that cluster into three domains is important if we want to have a clear picture of the workings of our personality. One simple reason this understanding is important is because sometimes instincts in a single domain may be in conflict. For example, the instinct to gorge on sweets and fats and the instinct to not eat too much both fall into the domain I call “preserving” (typically called “self-preservation” in the Enneagram literature–more on terminology later). Both instincts increase our chances of survival, but do it from a different perspective and contradict each other. Thus, most of us continually wrestle with how much to eat when we sit down at the table. One instinct tells us to eat as much as we can, another tells us to protect our health.

These same kinds of conflicts exist in all three instinct domains.  

What is the difference between “instincts” and “subtypes”?

“Instinct” is defined above. “Subtypes,” in the Enneagram literature, are a way of categorizing patterns of personality style that result at the intersection of the dominant instinct domain and the Ennea-type. It is commonly said that there are three subtypes of each Ennea-type, with each subtype correlating to a biased expression of one domain of instincts.

Some Enneagram teachers talk about the subtypes as what happens when passion of the Ennea-type interacts with the “instinct.” This can provide valuable insight into the personality, but it may not capture all of the dynamics at work. First, it may not take into account that there is not one instinct, but many related instincts, interacting with the passion. Second, the emphasis on the passion puts the emphasis on maladaptive behavior and may overlook the adaptive aspects of the subtypes, knowledge of which can also provide valuable insight.

My preference is to talk about the intersection of the instinctual bias (a person’s nonconscious inclination toward one domain over the others) and the nine strategies. The strategies are themes of problem-solving and adaptation that are at the core of each Ennea-type; Type One is “striving to be perfect,” Type Two is striving to be connected, etc. To explain this concept, I ask my clients to envision a taiji (yin-yang diagram); one side is the instinct, the other is the strategy. Taken together they intermingle to form the subtype. One way to think about it is that, broadly, the instincts are what we (nonconsciously) want and the strategies are how we go about getting it. Taken together, they greatly influence how we act in the world.

What are the three instinct domains?

In much of the Enneagram literature, the instincts are referred to as self-preservation, social, and sexual (this last being referred to as one-to-one or intimate by some). I find these labels to be a little bit limited, however. For starters, the term sexual is not appropriate in the business context. (I also think the alternative one-to-one and intimate are compromises that may muddy the view of what is happening in this domain rather than clarifying it.) More crucially, however, these terms don’t capture the breadth of behavior that occur in these domains. Therefore, I use the terms preserving, navigating, and transmitting.

The first difference is that these terms are verbs, connoting that they involve doing rather than merely an area of concern. They are also broader in scope. Compare social to navigating, for example. To many, the term social implies a need or desire to be sociable–outgoing, extroverted, adaptive to the group. Actually, this domain of instincts helps us navigate the social structure of the group, and people with this instinctual bias generally don’t see themselves as generally outgoing. They like to be around people and they may seem socially comfortable, but their interactions with others are very deliberate; they are constantly monitoring the group and calibrating their own behavior. They display enough friendliness and openness to be accepted by the group but they don’t reveal so much that they risk damaging their reputation. As members of a social species, humans need capabilities to understand hierarchies (so we can find our place in the pecking order), tools for determining who we can trust and who we can enter into reciprocal relationships with, and the ability to track alliances. These abilities are so critical to our survival that we evolved the capacity to do many of these things instinctively (social outcasts during the Pleistocene era tended to end up as some predator’s lunch). These instinctive behaviors tend to group together in this navigating domain and navigators seem to be most acutely attuned to exhibiting them.

I’ll go into more detail about each of these instinct domains in a future post.

Do the instincts have any value as an independent typology? Some would argue that the instincts independent of the Enneagram have little explanatory power.

I believe that the instinctual biases, while not a complete typology, have a lot of explanatory power in and of themselves.

Many people find it difficult to accept the idea that humans even have instincts, preferring to think that we are in some way different from other animals and somehow above such base characteristics. Despite the protests, this is not a supportable position. Like it or not, humans are animals, specifically of the primate order, and animals have instincts. The literature on instincts in humans is broad and many biologists who know nothing about the Enneagram write about instinctive patterns in human beings. (See, for example, Deidre Barrett’s “Supernormal Stimuli,” which talks about instinctive drives that track remarkably close to the Enneagram literature on instincts.) Further, humans are a social species and all social species seem to display differential expression of traits. That is, in any species that relies on cooperation and collaboration for their survival–ants, bees, chimpanzees, humans–some members tend to be good at (or, hard-wired with a bias toward) some things and other members tend to be good at other things. This means that there is always specialization in social creatures and there will be excellence in many areas rather than having a collection of “jacks of all trades.” If I’m good at this and you are good at that, we can work together and be effective at two behaviors rather than being collectively mediocre at those same behaviors.

All personality-type theories, such as the Enneagram, rest on the idea that there are a limited number of sustainable but differentiated patterns of behavior that appear in the group, depending on what criteria for analysis one has established. Thus, various independent personality models have developed that are valid but independent of each other (for example, the Enneagram and MBTI are independent models that many people use together, though not to the same degree of integration that the Enneagram and the instinctual biases have). The existence of one typology does not negate another; using one independent of the others does not invalidate it.

Thus, it is reasonable to believe that people have a bias toward a particular domain of instincts, and that people who share this bias will share noticeable characteristics. This concept has great face value, as well; once one is aware of this way of categorizing people into three groups dominated by a different instinctual bias, it is impossible not to see people instinctively acting out these biases. As we know with the Enneagram, some patterns of personality seem to be relatively fixed over time, and understanding these patterns has great value.

This is not to say that the instinctual biases alone are a complete model, of course, in the same way that the Enneagram, independent of the subtypes, is a complete model. In fact, no model or combination of models is complete and fully captures the scope of human nature. Humans are complex, complicated, and contradictory. In the same way that one would need a map of the Earth the same size as the Earth to be completely accurate, human individuality is such that one would require a model that incorporates every individual aspect of human nature in order to accurately portray every individual. This is not to say, however, that a map that you can fit into your pocket does not have some value, and a model that is rigorous and accurate can tell us much, even if it doesn’t tell us everything. As with any model or map, we must recognize its limitations in order to appreciate its strengths.

Thus, while the model of the instinctual biases is much more useful when combined with the Ennea-types, it has great value on its own when used appropriately and within its limitations.  

Can you say more about this relationship between the instinctual biases and the strategies, and how they affect each other’s expression?

Sometimes the instinctual bias and the strategy are similar in tone and reinforce each other, and other times they are in some degree of contrast. This can make it either very easy to see the individual’s Ennea-type or instinctual bias (in the former case) or very difficult to see them (in the latter case).

Take Ennea-type Five, for example. The Five’s strategy is “striving to be detached;” Fives interact with the world by keeping a controlled emotional distance from it. This is not to say that Fives can’t emotionally attach to others or don’t experience emotions, of course; Fives acting adaptively can connect even if Fives acting maladaptively struggle to do so. Still, the Five’s basic adaptive strategy to the world is maintaining a controlled emotional stance. The strategy is very consonant with the Preserving instinctual bias because they both have an element of interpersonal conservatism. The Preserving half of the personality likes to be in the nest; the strategy half likes to be emotionally detached. Thus, you get someone who looks very “Five-ish” as Fives are commonly understood in the literature. Transmitting Fives, however, are more contradictory. The Transmitting half is compelled to transmit, so they often want to be around an audience and they tend to talk a lot to (and often at) that audience. At the same time, they maintain an emotional and analytical detachment from the members of that audience. Then we have to add another factor–one of the instinctual tendencies of Transmitters is to seek intense emotional connection (which is an instinctual way to entice in someone to whom one can transmit). Thus, Transmitting Fives can be a complex mix of emotional intensity and emotional distance, of audience seeking and group avoiding; they can appear to be extroverted introverts, a contradictory character indeed.

In the next post, I’ll pick up with the question: I see myself as a sexual or one-to-one subtype, but I don’t do these transmitting behaviors that you have identified. Why?

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