Why We See What We Expect to See: Confirmation Bias and the Enneagram

awarenesstoactioninternational
Sep 7, 2021

By Mario Sikora

The voice came from behind me in a moment of downtime after an exercise during the training.

“So, Mario, have you identified your subtype?”

I turned around to see Don Riso standing a few feet away.

“Yes, I’m a self-pres Eight.”

“No you’re not. You’re social,” he said matter-of-factly before walking away.

Now, I know that is an Enneagram no-no. You are not supposed to “tell” someone your type, they need to find it themselves, etc. However, Don was absolutely correct, and he saved me a lot of time and aggravation by pointing out what seemed to be obvious to everyone but me.

But whether or not we should “tell” people their Ennea-type of not is not the point of this article.

What always comes to mind when I recall this incident from 25 years ago is how I could have been so thoroughly convinced of something that was so thoroughly wrong.

At the time, I had a great story of why I was a self-preservation subtype—my obsession with room temperature, my insistent need to have a water bottle at all times, my fanaticism regarding punctuality—and I told it to anyone who would listen.

The problem is, that although each of these facts was true, my broader internal story was fiction. The realization that I was, indeed, a Social Eight came crashing down on me, as did the realization that, those three data points aside, I was almost completely indifferent to self-preservation needs.

How could I have been so wrong?

The answer is simple: confirmation bias.

The popular literature on cognitive biases and their impact on our lives has exploded since the publication of Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” a decade ago. Perhaps the most common and pernicious cognitive bias is “confirmation bias”—the tendency to see evidence for what we already believe to be true and overlook evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

We don’t do this because we are bad people or intentionally dishonest, we do it because it is what our brains are wired to do for a variety of reasons. And while confirmation bias may be easy to see in others (as Don saw it in me), it can be very difficult to see in ourselves.

However, Enneagram teachers and students need to be particularly on guard for confirmation bias. If the Enneagram teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that we fall into habitual, non-conscious patterns of thinking and that by developing awareness we can get out of those patterns. But we need to be vigilant because the patterns are pernicious and persistent. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing things that are convenient or comfortable, but untrue.

Why does this matter in our work with the Enneagram?

It mattes because it is far too easy, and far too common, to get an assumption about ourselves, another person, or some concept related to the Enneagram that turns the system into something that keeps us trapped in illusion rather than something that breaks us free.

Examples of how this happens are many, but mistyping and assumptions about theory are the two most common.

Like me and my subtype, it is not uncommon for people to read a description of an Enneagram type, immediately identify with it, and cling to it as being “their type,” but then failing to see the bigger picture. The longer they go seeing themselves as a type they are not, the more invested in and identified they become in their beliefs, and the harder it can be to see their true patterns.

Enneagram teachers can rush into assessing a student’s type, and then only see the evidence that supports that hypothesis. Again, the more invested the teacher is in their assessment of the student’s type (e.g., the teacher will feel embarrassed by changing their mind), the more convinced they will become of their original, incorrect assessment and the more evidence they will find to support it.

Some of the common assumptions about Enneagram theory are rooted in confirmation bias as well. I was once approached at an Enneagram conference years ago by someone who explained to me that “Eights don’t read.” He based this on his experience of his wife and few other Eights he knew who did not like to read. Despite knowing that I had written a book, he assumed I did not read either and seemed to dismiss my claims otherwise.

Such stereotyping is rampant—we assume Sevens like to engage in thrill-seeking activities and then start to notice all the Sevens who, say, skydive, but we fail to see the Sevens who don’t do any such thing. We assume all Fives are readers and don’t see the Fives who don’t read. Before we know it, the Enneagram becomes a set of simplistic stereotypes and loses its power to depict reality.

Guarding against confirmation bias is a critical element of doing serious work with the Enneagram. The best way to do so is to take two steps.

First, rather than seeking confirming evidence to support our assumptions, simply getting into the habit of asking ourselves “Is that really true? What is the evidence or best argument against what I think?”

Second, reward yourself for recognizing that you were wrong about something and have changed your mind. While many fear doing so will undermine their authority and appearance of expertise, it is actually a sign of intellectual integrity and humility. It is also a sign of wisdom—every time we realize we were wrong about something we have learned something new.

 

 

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