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The Three Instinctual Biases

This article is excerpted from “The Notes and the Melody: An Introduction to the Awareness to Action Approach to the Enneagram,” which is available on myAmazon author page.

three instinctual biases imageHuman nature is a very complicated combination of our evolutionary legacy of biological adaptations—behaviors and traits that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce—interacting with external (and psychological) forces at play in our current environment. The result is a rich stew of our nature acted upon by the nurture we experience. The behavioral impulses resulting from that stew exist on a continuum from the reflexive and (nearly) uncontrollable to the manageable. Examples of the former include blinking at a sudden gust of air toward our eyes, kicking when the doctor taps our knee with a mallet, and pulling our hand from a hot stove. Examples of the latter include deciding whether to eat a bowl of ice cream.

But even with such manageable impulses we fight the forces of our evolutionary heritage: we find it difficult to resist the ice cream in the freezer because we have evolved to crave sweets and fats, the main sources of nutrition for our ancestors.

Evolution results in biological mechanisms that increased our ancestors’ chances of reproduction. The behaviors related to the so-called instincts are related to the plethora of mechanisms (called adaptations) that we have inherited. These adaptations often lead to contradictory impulses (eat the ice cream because sweets and fats are good; don’t eat it because ice cream is not healthy). These evolutionary adaptations are many, but they fall into three broad domains.

By way of (very simplistic) analogy, imagine watching a documentary about peacocks in order to understand these domains.

The first part of the documentary focuses on the nesting and nurturing adaptations of the peacock—how they make their nest, feed and groom themselves, care for their offspring. I refer to this as the Preserving domain.

The second part of the documentary focuses on the orienting-to-the-group adaptations of the peacock—how they identify social mores (such as they are) and their place in the pecking order of the muster. I refer to this as the Navigating domain.

The third part of the documentary focuses on the attracting and bonding adaptations of the peacock—how they attract the attention of peahens in the area with the hope of establishing a connection so they can pass on their genes. I refer to this as the Transmitting domain.

Humans are more complicated than peacocks, but our evolutionary adaptions fall into the same three broad categories: Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting. Such adaptations, sometimes colloquially referred to as instincts, are ways that nature equipped our ancestors to increase their chances of survival and reproduction. In us, they are sometimes beneficial (feeding ourselves and those around us, getting along with the people in the group, finding deep connection); other times they can work against us (too much junk food, too much Facebook, too much need for attention and co-dependence).

I purposely chose verbs for describing these domains to indicate a focus on what people do rather than how they feel about what they do. I frequently have people tell me that although they may tend to transmit a lot, they are really “Navigating” because (fill in the rationalization). This is, again, a result of our innate tendency to think Essentially (“I am this, even though I may do that…”).

I am more focused on what they do rather than what they say they are.  In biology, we call something a duck not because of its inherent essential “duckness” but because it looks like a lot other things we label duck, it acts like a duck, and it talks like a duck. It doesn’t matter if the duck thinks it is a dog. Likewise, in my mind, if you Transmit more than you Preserve or Navigate, you are a Transmitter no matter what you consider yourself to be on the inside.

Each of us attends to the impulses in each of these domains, but we do so in varying degrees and have a “bias” toward one of the domains over the other two. It is the area to which we pay most attention and on which we tend to place the highest value. I refer to these non-conscious preferences as instinctual biases when discussing them independently of Ennea-type and I refer to the combination of the instinctual bias and Ennea-type by the more-conventional term subtype.

To truly understand the instinctual biases, we need to break away from the concept of there being three discrete instincts and instead think about clusters of evolutionary adaptations that fall into three domains. It is also important to understand that these adaptations are sometime contradictory because they have evolved to meet unique but similar needs, leading to the contradictions and dissonance often seen in people regarding the biases.

For example, in the Preserving domain we have adaptations that drive us to crave sweets and fats and we have other adaptations that drive us to maintain our health. Thus, we want that ice cream but feel guilt for eating it. We want to share, but we also want to ensure we have what we need first.

In the Navigating domain, we want to reveal good things about ourselves to others to gain acceptance from the group but we want to hide those qualities or behaviors that could lead to ostracism, meaning that we are never really sure how much information is too much information. We want to be open and connect to people, but we are also internally judging them and placing them into systems of categories that exist in our head.

In the Transmitting domain, we want to bond deeply with someone who interests us, but we don’t want to cut off our options, so we are constantly caught between sending signals out into the ether and focusing on that one special person who holds our attention. We want to connect to others by remarking on how special they are, but then, contact made, we end up talking about ourselves.

Such contradictions and complexities noted, it helps to have some structure in how we think about each of the three domains. I divide them into three loose subcategories of behaviors and foci of attention, with the understanding that the categories are not rigidly fixed and the same behavior may satisfy different adaptive needs. (A love of cooking, for example, is something that could satisfy needs in each of the three domains.) Thus, it is important to watch the patterns of behavior over time rather than just making an assessment of ourselves or someone else based on a few data points.

In the Preserving domain, our behaviors and attention fall into three broad areas:

  • Security—attempts to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our resources safe from harm.
  • Well-being/Resources—attempts to be comfortable and healthy and to acquire “enough” resources without risking those we already have.
  • Maintenance—attempts to fix and improve those things which make the first two possible.

In the Navigating domain, our behaviors and attention fall into these subcategories:

  • Trust/Reciprocity—attempts to understand who is trustworthy and can be safely transacted with. (See here for more information.)
  • Status/Identity—attempts to understand where everyone (especially oneself) fits into the social order.
  • Power/Influence Dynamics—attempts to understand who has power and who can be used to promote your agenda.

The behaviors and attention patterns in the Transmitting domain include:

  • Broadcasting/Narrowcasting—attempts to send attention-getting signals to the broadest group; once a signal is received by someone the attention goes to that individual. (See here for more information.)
  • Asserting—attempts to get what one wants, often with little inhibition. (See here for more information.)
  • Impressing—attempts to “leave one’s mark” so one is remembered or leaves a legacy.

Again, even these subcategories contain countless adaptations and many of them lead to contradiction. But when we step back and understand the way evolution works we see that these contradictions and different ways behaving eventually fall into the same cluster of behaviors and foci of attention—Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting.

We all use all three of the instinctual domains, but do so in varying–but predictable–ways. Those predictable patterns are:

  • Preserving/Navigating/Transmitting
  • Navigating/Transmitting/Preserving
  • Transmitting/Preserving/Navigating

What appears to be happening is that we express our non-dominant instinctual biases to varying-but-predictable degrees and, most of the time, in a way that is in service of the dominant bias.

In other words, Preservers are most notably marked by their focus of attention on and behaviors related to preservation. They will also express Navigating behaviors more than they realize (though often with a great deal of internal stress or ambivalence) and usually in a way that directly or indirectly supports their Preservation needs. They seem to have little interest in the Transmitting domain, though when they do express it they tend to do so in support of Preservation.

Navigators, on the other hand, are most notably marked by their focus of attention on and behaviors related to navigation. They will express the Transmitting domain more than they realize, but often with internal stress or ambivalence and in a manner that supports Navigating. They rarely express interest in the Preserving domain unless it supports their need to Navigate.

Finally, Transmitters are marked by a focus of attention on and behaviors related to transmission; express the Preserving domain more than they realize and often with internal stress and ambivalence. And while they often see “Social” as second in their “stack,” they actually show little interest in the concerns of the Navigating domain beyond the way that it supports their inclination to Transmit.

(It is important to note that even though, in general, we show little interest in the third domain, it becomes a big focus when needs related to it are acute—we all become Preservers when we realize we haven’t eaten all day—but we will return to focusing on our dominant domain when those needs are satisfied.)

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail on each domain, so I’ll provide a brief description and then look at how the biases affect leadership styles.

In general, people may not be necessarily effective at addressing the needs found in their dominant domain, even when it is a disproportionate concern for them. For example, a given Navigator may not necessarily be “good at” Navigating, though they spend a lot of time thinking about it or attempting to do it. Leaders, however, tend to get to leadership positions because they are effective people, so they are typically very effective in their dominant domain, to the point where it often becomes an overdone strength.

To try to capture both sides—those who are effective and those who are ineffective—I use the term drawn towith the acknowledgment that one can be drawn to something but not effective at implementing it.


Those with a dominant bias toward Preserving tend to focus on ensuring that they and those they care about have sufficient food, shelter, and all the other resources that not only sustain life but make it comfortable. They are attuned to needs related to their health and well-being and they are often collectors or cultivators of the traditions and artifacts that create a sense of continuity with the past. They can fall into the trap of over-doing their preserving tendencies, never feeling that they have quite enough of what they need, that something may disrupt their comfort or well-being, or believing that resources are scarce even when they are not.

Preserving Leaders:

Preserving leaders tend to be drawn to the fundamental, “nuts and bolts” issues related to business and organizations. They tend to be more cautious and conservative, and more risk-averse in general. They tend to want to ensure that administrative issues are in order and that procedures are being followed. They can be resistant to change and new ways of doing things, and they often like to be the Devil’s Advocate who challenges new ideas. They often prefer tradition to risky experimentation. These tendencies can make them good leaders for organizations that need stability and order. The downside, of course, is that they can be too resistant to change, conservative, and tradition-bound and may struggle in a fast-changing environment.


Those with a dominant bias toward Navigating tend to focus on the workings of the group and their status in it. They want to understand the group hierarchy, the interrelationships of the members of the group, and how they can fit into it better. They are “soft networkers” who don’t push themselves on others but maintain connection with a broad and loose network that allows for a flow of information about trust and reciprocity issues. (It is important to note that Navigators are much more interested in collecting information that may or may not be useful in the future than they are in talking about themselves.) They can overdo their navigating tendencies and become gossips, or become overly concerned with how others perceive them. They may tell people what they want to hear or seem like snobs who look down on those who don’t meet their criteria for inclusion into the group.

Navigating Leaders:

Navigating leaders are drawn to issues related to group dynamics and interpersonal communication. They track group cohesion and status changes; they tend to be attuned to organizational politics, intuitively knowing which levers to pull in order to move projects around obstacles. They are able to instinctively read the pulse of the group, assess morale, and know who needs to be pushed, who needs to be nurtured, and who the influencers are. They tend to be good at identify the needs of the various constituencies in the organization and finding ways to satisfy them. Navigating leaders tend to be good in the “forming” stage of team dynamics, where the group is finding its identity and ways of working together. They may, however, become too focused on the political dynamics of the group and spend more time on the politics than on the organization’s ultimate business goals.


Those with a dominant bias toward Transmitting tend to focus on demonstrating their charm, charisma, and accomplishment. They are both broadcasters and narrow-casters—they non-consciously transmit signals to attract attention and then home in on individuals who are receptive to the signals, establishing intense connection with specific individuals, even if only for a short time. The transmitting instinctual bias also compels them to leave an impression on their world, creating a legacy that ensures that part of them lives on. They can overdo their transmitting tendencies and draw too much attention to themselves, taking up all the “space” in the room and leaving others feeling unimportant or ignored or, conversely, smothered by the intensity of the transmitter.

Transmitting Leaders:

Transmitting leaders are often charismatic and bold. They are often good at articulating a goal or vision and moving others toward it, seducing some and driving others as necessary. They often intuitively understand the mind of the market and the customer and are persuasive sellers of the product, company, or dream. They can be competitive and are often the alpha males and females of the group. Transmitting leaders tend to be good in the start-up phase of a business when the organization needs an inspiring vision to rally around. On the downside, the transmitting impulses can cause these leaders to focus too much on themselves, their accomplishments and their desirable qualities.


Because of the predictable expression of the instinctual domains, we also have clues for what to look for regarding the leader’s secondary and tertiary instinct domains.

Preserving leaders, for example, often neglect the leadership behaviors related to their third domain—those very leadership capabilities that are typically the focus of the Transmitting leaders. They tend to be understated and conservative, focused on process to the neglect of inspiration. They may neglect the “selling” component of leadership, failing to focus enough on marketing and sales or the selling of the vision. They are often ambivalent and conflicted about the needs addressed by the Navigating domain of adaptations—they have some tolerance for the organizational politics but often see it as an unpleasant diversion; they may understand the value of “management by walking around” or talking with people to gauge the emotional temperature of the team but always find reasons to neglect doing so.

Navigating leaders frequently neglect those activities addressed by their tertiary instinctual domain—the Preserving adaptations. They may fail to appropriately value or follow process, overlook threats to the company’s competitive position, and ignore details that could be the signs of bigger problems. As in Aesop’s fable, they can be the grasshopper who wants to chat and enjoy the sunshine rather than the preserving ant who is preparing for the winter. They are often conflicted in the leadership areas of the Transmitting domain. They want to shine, but are hesitant to draw too much attention to their gifts; they may want to drive a vision, but worry too much about the political impacts of doing so.

Transmitting leaders, though seeming outgoing and “social,” typically neglect the leadership duties supported by the Navigating domain. They have little time for gossip or organizational politics beyond what it takes to directly and immediately advance their agenda. Their social interactions are usually transactional and have a definite purpose—to charm and sell their ideas when necessary—but they are not usually great listeners and quickly grow weary of social small talk. They are conflicted in the Preserving domain—they want to accumulate the resources necessary to fill their goals and they want to be comfortable and pampered, but they can be reckless—aiming to acquire the whole pie rather than only the amount they need—and forget to be appropriately conservative when conservatism is called for.


These three instinctual biases are part of the Enneagram model of personality. The Enneagram identifies nine distinct adaptive strategies for solving the challenges life brings our way. If the instinctual biases establish a system of values (i.e., what is important to us), the strategies are our habitual approach to satisfying those values. The combination of the three instinctual biases and the nine strategies creates a system of 27 distinct “subtypes.” (See for more.)

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all 27 subtypes (combinations of strategy and instinctual bias). In the same way that the labels of the strategies are intuitive—we can intuit what it signifies if we say someone is “striving to feel connected”—my labels for the subtypes are simple and intuitive as well.

The best way to understand the relationship between the strategy and the instinctual bias is to think of the biases as what is important to us (i.e., our values) and the strategies as how we go about satisfying those values. A Preserving One, for example, uses the strategy of Striving to feel Perfect to satisfy their preserving needs whereas a Preserving Two uses the strategy of Striving to feel Connected toward the same ends.

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They 27 subtypes are listed below.


The 27 Subtypes

Striving to feel … Preserving Navigating Transmitting
Perfect Perfect Preserving Perfect Navigating Perfect Transmitting
Connected Connected Preserving Connected Navigating Connected Transmitting
Outstanding Outstanding Preserving Outstanding Navigating Outstanding Transmitting
Unique Unique Preserving Unique Navigating Unique Transmitting
Detached Detached Preserving Detached Navigating Detached Transmitting
Secure Secure Preserving Secure Navigating Secure Transmitting
Excited Excited Preserving Excited Navigating Excited Transmitting
Powerful Powerful Preserving Powerful Navigating Powerful Transmitting
Peaceful Peaceful Preserving Peaceful Navigating Peaceful Transmitting