This article is the paper I read at the Evangelical Theological Society annual conference in 2021. It's pretty long but is organized with lots of headings. It has also been adapted for oral presentation so citations may have been removed in adapting this paper as these are not always relevant for oral presentations, but I still have attempted to cite my work to avoid the appearance of plagiarism. Where I am merely reporting what others have done or said compared to my own ideas should be clear from the context and content of each statement. It is a product of my current research and is still limited in the scope of its analysis of the enneagram.
I’m assuming that if you are here, you have probably heard of the enneagram by now. For the few who may not have heard of it, the short answer is that it’s a personality typing system and personal growth tool. In the past 5 years, there has been an explosion of books, podcasts, businesses, and YouTube channels devoted to the enneagram. Available resources claim that it can improve every area of your life, including, but not limited to your own well-being, marriage, sex life, leadership, business practices, parenting, and most relevant for this conference, your spiritual growth and discipleship.
As I sought to learn about the enneagram, my primary concern was whether it accurately describes people, and this is the same approach I will take for this paper. I will only mention issues of its origins as they relate to its accuracy. The degree to which the enneagram can be successfully used for spiritual growth is largely dependent on its accuracy and other potential mechanisms for growth. In other words, if it makes false statements about the way people are, how can we expect it to change people for the better? Before discussing the evidence, I will explain in more depth what the enneagram is as this will be important to understand why it is subject to scientific testing and now it can be done.
What is the enneagram?In the most basic sense, an enneagram is a shape. The prefix ennea- is nine in Greek just like hexa- is six and penta- is five in Greek, so enneagram just means nine-sided figure. The enneagram as a personality system gets its name because it has 9 different personality types, which are organized in ascending order on a circle. Think of it as a clock with 9 at the 12 o’clock position.
Type 1 DescriptionFor the sake of time and lack of necessity, I won’t go through all nine types but I will give a brief description of types 1s to give a better idea of how the system describes people and how it functions. Type 1s are referred to as The Reformers (Riso & Hudson, 1996), The Good Person (Wagner 2021), and The Perfectionist (Cron & Stabile, 2016; Palmer 1988), but they all describe type 1s as good, conscientious, perfectionistic, and idealistic, amongst a long list of other attributes.
Psychologists study a lot of different things: personality, IQ, depression, religiosity, well-being, marital satisfaction, memory, and just about everything else you can think of that pertains to people. As you can imagine, the better we can quantify these constructs, the better we can use them to understand people, predict their behavior, and improve their well-being. Every measure we use is tested for accuracy, which is part of the reporting standards for what to include in journal articles for every scale used in a study.
ReliabilityWhen psychologists evaluate a scale for accuracy, they immediately look at the consistency of the scale. Wagner and Walker (1983) were among the first to develop and test their own version of the enneagram, the WEPSS. Their results yielded low consistency within the types with scores ranging from α = .37 to .78. For reference, .70 is typically considered the lowest acceptable value for this metric.
Multi-test ConsistencyAnother common way to evaluate a scale is by checking to see how consistent it is between multiple tests or human raters. If enneagram theory is correct, there should be very high agreement. If the enneagram types are more like shades of brown, low agreement would be expected.
Applied TestsA handful of studies have sought to test the efficacy of the enneagram in practical situations. Godin (2013) found no significant effect on psychological well-being or unconditional self-acceptance after training participants on the enneagram.
Why does the enneagram seem to work?At this point, you might be wondering, if the scientific evidence against the enneagram is so strong, then why are so many people so strongly convinced that it works and how has it withstood the test of time? Once again, we can find answers to these questions from psychological science. However, to do this, I want to try something a little out of the ordinary for this type of forum. Rather than just tell you, I want to show you. As I read the following list of personality descriptions, count how many of them apply to you.
- You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
- You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
- While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
- Disciplines and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
- You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
- At times you are extroverted, friendly, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
Here’s a fun video from an old Dateline episode showing the same thing.
For this next one, I’m going to need everyone to participate by trying to remember a list of words. When I’m done reading them, write down as many as you can remember.
Quickly, try to write as many as you can remember.
Let’s skip right to the point. Please raise your hand if you had the word window on your list. If you did, you are like 84% of people. Unfortunately, window was not on the list. All the words related to window, but I didn’t say it. This is known as the DRM procedure, and it demonstrates how easily our memory can be selective or misled.
There are countless other ways that our minds are unconsciously tricked. When we watch a video of someone saying fa-fa-fa but the sound is dubbed over with the sounds ba-ba-ba, our brain overrides the auditory signal for the visual signal and we hear the F-sound even when we know it’s incorrect. This is called the McGurk effect. Then there’s confirmation bias, self-fulfilling prophecy, the false-consensus effect, belief bias, the backfire effect, the placebo effect, attribution errors, and several other observed effects that can explain how and why so many can believe something that is demonstrably false.
The book Thinking, Fast and Slow is perhaps the best-known book that popularizes these types of cognitive biases but plenty of others do the same and discuss different biases (see You and Not So Smart, Think Again, Predictably Irrational, Blindspot, Fooled by Randomness, and many more).
Putting these biases together, several simpler explanations seem adequate to explain the popularity and alleged efficacy of the enneagram.
- The enneagram hasn’t really helped people as much as they think it has.
- Introspection and talking to others about their strengths and weaknesses has helped people, the enneagram was just the thing that led them to do that but wasn’t the actual cause of the growth.
- People in the most need of change are most likely to improve even if doing nothing (regression to the mean).
- Coincidence. Even a broken clock is right twice a day so for some people, it likely has had revolutionary benefits for some people.
Negative EffectsAnyone who’s heard of the enneagram has probably heard several anecdotal stories about how helpful it has been, but what about stories of its harm? In 1949, Egas Moniz won the Nobel prize in medicine for the prefrontal lobotomy. It helped a huge number of people, but at the same time, it did severe damage to others. Any potential good that might come from the enneagram has to be balanced in light of the potential harm. Unfortunately, the people it harms are unlikely to come forward in a group of people who rave about it. Since there is no empirical research on the harms of the enneagram, we have to rely on indirect evidence and the same type of personal testimonies used to promote it.
ConclusionI once mediated a disagreement where two of the people were heavily into the enneagram. Their knowledge of the enneagram, and the other person’s type, led them to believe they understood what the other person was really trying to say. After the meeting, they felt the conversation went well and explained how the enneagram had helped them get to the bottom of the issue. On the other hand, when I spoke to the person who was stereotyped by the enneagram, he felt like he wasn’t heard or understood by the other two. Same conversation, two drastically different interpretations of the outcome because a tool that promises to give understanding led to false beliefs and expectations.
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Enneagram Types from the Riso & Hudson (Enneagram Institute)
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
Summary of scientific tests for accuracy of the enneagram
- Internal consistency: Questions for same types should receive similar scores.
- Mixed results ranging from bad to good.
- Test-rest reliability: People should be typed the same when retested.
- Mixed results from low to acceptable.
- Interrater reliability: Different sources (people or scales) should type people the same way.
- Scores were generally very to low
- Convergent validity: The enneagram types should correlate with other personality measures in expected way and not correlate with measures it should be different from.
- Results are mixed. The enneagram types often correlate with personality measures that they should correlate with, but it fails to correlate with some, the strength of the correlations are lower than expected.
- Predictive validity: The enneagram should predict behaviors and attitudes of people better than other personality systems.
- Results are mostly negative. The enneagram weakly predicted some outcomes, but typically, it did not and other tests typically performed better.
I have already written about the enneagram on my website (www.jaymedenwaldt.com) and will add this paper to it, along with more in-depth analysis.
For more information on the enneagram’s dubious origins or the theological concerns with it, see Enneagram Theology: Is it Christian? by Rhenn Cherry or The New Age Trojan Horse by Chris Berg.