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The Conspirituality of Enneagrams

Donate Can everything important about you and those you interact with be boiled down to a single digit?  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Consumer Ripoffs, Health

Skeptoid Podcast #925
February 27, 2024
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The Conspirituality of Enneagrams

Today we're going to open a drawer in our cabinet of New Age psychometric modalities — as one does — and flip to the folder for enneagrams. For years, this has been growing in popularity as a way to understand our own personalities, and the personalities of those around us, and how we might interact. Some would argue that it's like a blending of Myers-Briggs, numerology, and horoscopes; others would claim that it has solid science behind it. What is the truth of enneagrams? Do we each have an enneagram number that tells us useful things about ourselves, or can it be dismissed as glorified numerology?

In fact, the word enneagram breaks down into the Greek roots for nine and figure; as in a figure representing the number nine. Imagine the numbers one through nine arranged on a circle just like a clock. Starting from the one o'clock position, go all the way around until you end with nine up at the midnight position. Now use an equilateral triangle to connect nine at the top with three at the bottom right and six at the bottom left; then connect the other numbers by overlaying a six-cornered irregular polygon. Now you have this mystical-looking symbol with all nine numbers interconnected in various ways — and this diagram, according to proponents, tells us all the most important things about human personalities and how we all work and interact together.

According to one company that sells workshops, testing, and other for-profit products and services, The Enneagram Institute, the nine enneagram type descriptors are:

    1. THE REFORMER - The Rational, Idealistic Type: Principled, Purposeful, Self-Controlled, and Perfectionistic

    2. THE HELPER - The Caring, Interpersonal Type: Demonstrative, Generous, People-Pleasing, and Possessive

    3. THE ACHIEVER - The Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptive, Excelling, Driven, and Image-Conscious

    4. THE INDIVIDUALIST - The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental

    5. THE INVESTIGATOR - The Intense, Cerebral Type: Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated

    6. THE LOYALIST - The Committed, Security-Oriented Type: Engaging, Responsible, Anxious, and Suspicious

    7. THE ENTHUSIAST - The Busy, Fun-Loving Type: Spontaneous, Versatile, Distractible, and Scattered

    8. THE CHALLENGER - The Powerful, Dominating Type: Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational

    9. THE PEACEMAKER - The Easygoing, Self-Effacing Type: Receptive, Reassuring, Agreeable, and Complacent

If that reads just like signs of the zodiac, there's a good reason for it. Although astrology is much older, it came from the same place: non-experts lacking modern psychological knowledge attempting to make the human race easier to understand. Note that the type descriptors read very similar to a horoscope: most are generally positive terms that everyone likes to believe are true about themselves, and each with one or two more negative words thrown into the mix, tempting one to want to dig in deeper to learn how to fix that. Fundamentally they both sell the same message: that you can learn everything important about yourself and others with this one simple trick.

By now, experienced Skeptoid listeners are already recognizing enneagrams as just another "spin the wheel and invent a New Age psychometric system". And you would be right. We've looked at quite a few psychometrics and similar systems promising to give unique self-insight here on Skeptoid — Myers-Briggs, phrenology, Huna, iridology, Kambo, physiognomy, graphology, Human Design, palmistry, numerology, neuro-linguistic programming, and of course astrology — and almost without exception, they were invented by non-experts building on existing abstract metaphysical ideas, and are unsupported by either evidence or sound theory. I wish I could say that finally we'd discovered an exception, but as you probably expect, enneagrams are no different. Let us take a look at the historical roots of enneagrams, and find out what they really are.

It's not a simple process, as throughout history, there have been countless attempts to categorize people psychometrically, going back literally thousands of years. Any of these can claim to be original or claim to be building upon the work of earlier similar systems; for most of them, there isn't really much historical proof either way. So much is similar between them all. But at some point amidst all of this, an Armenian mystic and esotericist named George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (c.1867-1949) developed the nine-numbered geometric figure and named it the enneagram. He was always secretive about its source and meaning. He never used it for psychometry, but rather for sacred dances that he claimed he learned in a mysterious Sufi monastery in the mountains of Afghanistan. (I'm not saying he didn't, but if you're trying to come up with an impressive-sounding provenance for your funky New Age dance system, pick something that nobody can verify or disprove.)

The enneagram got its boost #1 from a Bolivian New Age philosophist named Oscar Ichazo (1931-2020). His studies of the enneagram led him to conclude that it represented a 3x3 matrix that correlated somehow to chakras and to three questions that he considered fundamental: How am I, Who am I with, and What am I doing. And thus was born the enneagram type descriptor system, with nine possible personality types. There's much more to it, obviously, but each of us — supposedly — is one of the nine, but influenced by the numbers of those around us.

The enneagram got its boost #2 — which was the big one — from one of Ichazo's students, a Chilean psychiatrist named Claudio Naranjo. Naranjo made what turned out to be a major marketing coup for the enneagram, which is that he took it to the Esalen Institute on California's Big Sur coast in the 1970s. With an estimated annual revenue of $20 million, Esalen is one of the most commercially successful and well known New Age retreats in the world, selling expensive seminars to wealthy Americans about the rejection of worldliness and whatever Eastern-sounding esoterica is trending. With such exotic and enlightened origins like a Sufi monastery and an ancient culture like Bolivia, and not even the hint of contamination by academia or mainstream science, the enneagram was warmly and enthusiastically embraced at Esalen. Naranjo also took it to Berkeley, California, America's ground zero for counterculture, spiritualism, and asceticism.

And so, looking back on the history of the enneagram, one wonders how it could achieve such popularity given its total lack of science (either social or psychological) in its genesis. The answer to this lies in something called conspirituality.

Conspirituality is a great word. As you can tell, it's a portmanteau of conspiracy and spirituality, and refers to the convergence of conspiracy theory ideation and New Age spirituality. It was coined in a 2011 article in the Journal of Contemporary Religion written by two sociologists. We see this well exemplified in enneagram culture. The conspiracy angle is the belief that traditional psychology exists only as a profit model, so industry conspires to deny the ancient mystical "truth" of the enneagram. The spirituality angle is also clear, whereby simply knowing your enneagram becomes a pathway to consciousness, self-love, and enlightenment. Blending both of these together, a conspiritual idea satisfies the desire for a magically easy solution to a complicated question.

This incompatibility with both science and conventional religion was aptly called out by an unexpected source, the Catholic Church, all the way back in the year 2000. The Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices produced a report which stated, in part:

While the enneagram system shares little with traditional Christian doctrine or spirituality, it also shares little with the methods and criteria of modern science... The burden of proof is on proponents of the enneagram to furnish scientific evidence for their claims…

In conclusion, those who are looking for an aid for personal and psychological development should be aware that enneagram teaching lacks a scientific foundation for its assertion and that the enneagram is of questionable value as a scientific tool for the understanding of human psychology. Moreover, Christians who are looking for an aid for spiritual growth should be aware that the enneagram has its origins in a non-Christian worldview and remains connected to a complex of philosophical and religious ideas that do not accord with Christian belief.

Conspiritual philosophies such as the enneagram system, Huna, Kambo, Human Design, and countless other New Age copycats of one another, will likely always have a place. It's politically correct both to see "the system" as corrupt, and to value metaphysics over material reality; and so such things are always going to be trendy and popular.

But simply showing that enneagrams have no sound origin doesn't mean they aren't effective or useful as advertised: maybe Oscar Ichazo got lucky. To determine that, we turn to the academic research that has attempted to evaluate it.

There are a million papers published about enneagrams, many of them evaluating its value in given settings. Like, if nurses know their enneagram numbers, can they work together more effectively; that kind of thing. It's a huge number, and results are all over the map, but the quality of the studies and of the journals they're published in is also all over the map. So to get a clearer picture, I'm going to focus on just two, both published in top tier psychology journals: the first is a literature review giving a meta-analysis of all the high quality research, and the second is a survey of experts for their opinions on the quality of many different psychometric tests, including the enneagram.

A 2021 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology published an article called "The Enneagram: A systematic review of the literature and directions for future research." The authors described the paper's purpose in the abstract thusly:

…The purpose of this review is to provide a comprehensive and clinician‐friendly review of the extant empirical work on the Enneagram. After reviewing 104 independent samples, we found mixed evidence of reliability and validity.

And in their conclusion, they stated:

In our review, we tried to balance scientific values with an openness to learn from helping traditions outside of modern psychotherapy. On the research front, scholarship on the Enneagram is still mostly relegated to unpublished dissertations or journals not indexed in PsycINFO, which may explain its relatively poor reputation among some psychologists. Existing evidence for the reliability and construct validity of the Enneagram types is mixed…

I'd describe their paper overall as "qualified." If I had to summarize it in a single sentence, I'd go with "We don't find anything there now, but who's to say we won't tomorrow."

That's based on the published literature. What if we go to the actual experts, the people practicing psychotherapy in the field, who encounter clients who use enneagrams and believe in it? This comes from a 2006 survey published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Hundreds of experts were asked to rate each of 25 fringey mental health tests on how discredited they are: a score of 1 meant legit and not at all discredited; a score of 5 meant completely discredited. For reference, the Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI) got a score of 2.63, just about in the middle. Enneagrams for personality assessment was way down at #21 out of 25 with a score of 4.14, which is between "probably discredited" and "certainly discredited." Among actual professionals in the field, enneagrams are considered essentially worthless. You can absolutely find cheerleaders for it out there, who are usually selling books or seminars or certifications; but now we know that they are on the fringe. If you have some questions about your own personality or your interactions with others, you're much better off speaking with a licensed psychotherapist.

I will close with a one-sentence summary on the question of enneagrams: You will never go broke putting a shiny new label on astrology.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Conspirituality of Enneagrams." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 27 Feb 2024. Web. 19 Apr 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4925>

 

References & Further Reading

Clarke, P. Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Fayard, J. "Your Favorite Personality Test Is Probably Bogus." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 25 Sep. 2019. Web. 16 Feb. 2024. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/people-are-strange/201909/your-favorite-personality-test-is-probably-bogus>

Hook, J., Hall, T., Davis, D., Van Tongeren, D., Conner, M. "The Enneagram: A systematic review of the literature and directions for future research." Journal of Clinical Psychology. 1 Jan. 2021, Number 77: 865-883.

Naranjo, C. Transformation Through Insight: Enneatypes in Life. Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press, 1997.

Norcross, J., Koocher, G. Garofalo, A. "Discredited Psychological Treatments and Tests: A Delphi Poll." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 1 Jan. 2006, Volume 37, Number 5: 515-522.

U.S. Bishops' Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices. "a Brief Report on the Origins of the Enneagram." NCR Online. National Catholic Reporter, 19 Oct. 2000. Web. 16 Feb. 2024. <http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/documents/ennea2.htm>

 

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