April 19 by The Running Son
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I spent 12 years studying cognitive psychology, two years from the perspective of technical communication and 10 from a deeper, more research-oriented perspective. So by the time I got my Ph.D., I had been thoroughly steeped in the idea that “human beings are limited-capacity information processors.” By that point, I had seen so much empirical evidence to support this idea that it seemed self-evident. Certainly it is widely accepted as a fact by all the prominent psychologists in the field.
Several years after graduating, I encountered the enneagram for the first time. It was bound to happen, because I’d always been interested in individual differences and personality. And I’d worked with the MBTI quite a bit, although not professionally but for my own growth as a human being. After encountering enneagram books next to the MBTI books in the library, I eventually started reading some of them.
They all described the nine types of personality, but most of the focus was on nine types of personality each of which is characterized by a particular kind of distorted or fixated thinking. So here we have a theory of individual differences, but a theory based on the idea that these filters not only impose perceptual limitations upon us, but that our percepts are inherently distorted (fixated). Most people commenting on the topic seemed to assume that we are born without such filters (in a state of innocence or essence) but acquire them during our formative years (moving from ego to essence).
Now nobody called the nine enneagram types “filters,” but from my perspective, they were obviously serving that role, because they were what distinguished our point of view. They obviously exercised a central role in determining how we perceived the world. But I quickly realized that the filters (the types) were believed to actually create the need to have cognitive and perceptual limitations, not simply to describe how these limitations vary.
To me, these limitations are inevitable; literally hundreds of experiments have confirmed this fact. And from a cognitive psychological point of view, they’re a positive feature in the psychological landscape because they allow us to take in information about the world without experiencing sensory overload. We know this is a good thing, because when it’s absent (e.g., when we’re tired or take certain drugs), we feel overwhelmed and less able to deal with life.
But in the world of the enneagram, these limitations are portrayed as a disadvantage. The implication is that, without them, we’d be in a state of expanded awareness (i.e., in essence). Maybe so—at least for certain individuals in certain situations. But most of the time, the need is to be fully alert in the ordinary world—to make the best possible use of existing resources. The individuals who are able to do this, do it by refining their ability to work optimally within a state of limitation. It is the process of continual refinement that enables us to develop a keener, sharper awareness of the world around us (a more subtle attunement) than by “throwing off the shackles” of our type.
For example, watch a reality show like The Amazing Race, in which people are put under pressure of various kinds to perform tasks which challenge their patience, perseverance, mental alertness, and emotional resiliency. It’s the people who remain calm and alert in a variety of stressful situations who almost inevitably win the day. (My favorite example on that show is the black couple who were actually 100 yards from the finish line—where they would win $1,000,000—but who didn’t have the cash to pay their cab driver. At any moment, another team could appear to claim the money. Did they become angry, upset, or hysterical? No. They simply said, “Okay, we will collect the money for the driver.” And they went around to bystanders calmly asking for contributions. They eventually collected enough, paid off the driver, and still had the time to reach the finish line first. To me, this is what expanded awareness is really about: the ability to remain human under inhuman—or at least highly stressful—conditions.)
I can think of a lot of other examples—and I’ll bet you can, too.
As long as we live in a physical body, limitations are something normal, not abnormal. We don’t have an elaborate theory to tell us how we came to have the limitations of type; we just need to look at the world around us, which is full of limiting conditions, many of which impose limits for our benefit.
Our nervous system limits our ability to do certain things by giving us pain when we exceed our limits; those who lack the ability to feel pain are not freer than the rest of us, they get many injuries that would be avoidable, if only they had a feedback system to tell them when they are putting their hand on a hot stove or jumping from a ledge that is too high. Life is much more dangerous for people who lack such feedback mechanisms.
Our social systems also impose boundaries designed to keep us within certain limits; if we go beyond them, we incur social or legal penalties—penalties designed to provide some measure of cultural stability (and also to protect people from themselves).
Even spirituality imposes limits; we might think that we can just decide to free ourselves of our spiritual limits, so we can experience higher states of consciousness. But as the Sufis have observed, there are veils which block us from the Ultimate Reality, which are intended to block us from experiences for which we are not prepared. Sometimes people find ways to get rid of these veils prematurely, not realizing why they are there. Is this a good idea? I would guess not.
Once we get over the idea of seeing the types as something that imprisons us, we can turn our attention to how they support our functioning in life. As a cognitive psychologist, I’m excited about the idea of seeing the nine types as perceptual filters; to my knowledge, no one who is currently studying perceptual processing has any real idea what it is that determines what we perceive—why it is that nine people can look at exactly the same event and see something from an entirely different point of view.
The enneagram can tell us a lot about the motivational factors that determine how we view the world (and therefore what kind of information we allow into our consciousness). It’s likely that the core motivation of our type directly affects the operating of the perceptual filter that determines what we see and the cognitive filter that determines how we respond to what we see.
Let’s say we’re all looking at a pedestrian crossing the street. She drops her wallet and bends to pick it up. Unfortunately, in the process, she is hit by a bicycle. What do people see? And how do they respond?
• ONES tend to see the ethical dimensions of the situation. They ask, “Who is responsible?” and try to collect information that may answer this question.
• TWOS tend to see the humane dimension, and wonder whether both participants are okay.
• THREES tend to see the event from a pragmatic point of view, and try to provide practical assistance.
• FOURS tend to absorb the emotional shock created by the impact, and may intervene to calm people who are emotionally overwhelmed.
• FIVES tend to notice the details of what happened, and to dispassionately record the exact details of the scene.
• SIXES tend to notice the fearful aspects of the situation and do what they can to restore order, including contacting emergency services.
• SEVENS tend to notice the intensity of the situation and look for ways to lighten things up.
• EIGHTS tend to notice the need for leadership and step in to take charge, if necessary.
• NINES tend to notice the general lack of harmony and to be available for whatever is needed.
Now, some of these descriptions are obviously stereotypes. Nonetheless, there is a good deal of truth in the idea that each type sees the accident through the prism of its particular core motivation. It’s also true that all nine ways of perceiving have something of value to offer; that there is no, one “best” way of perceiving the situation. By combining them, we achieve a measure of balance: all the needs of the situation are met. (If there’s anything the enneagram teaches us, it’s that we all need one another if we are to have a balanced world.)
My purpose in this article is to explain the reasoning behind the way I see the nine types—to explain how the insights of cognitive psychology support my view of the nine types as nine kinds of cognitive/perceptual filters that support our mental apparatus. Not only do the types help us sort out environmental percepts in the moment—they also help us form a long-term mental representation of the world, which is important for our ongoing mental and emotional stability. So from a cognitive point of view, our type serves two important purposes whose value cannot be overestimated.
Seeing the nine types as nine matrices that shape the way we perceive, think, and act allows us not only to see the nine types in a more positive light but to potentially better understand the processes of perception, cognition, and decision making. It will be interesting to see how both of these points of view may inform the other in the years to come.
(1986), by Lyle Bourne, Rober
Dominowski, Elizabeth Loftus, and Alice Healy.
(reprinted from The Enneagram Monthly, Issue 165, Dec. 2009)