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What About the Instinctual “Stacking”?

Two recent questions–one asked of me directly and another I saw on a Facebook forum–have inspired this blog. The first question was about how I came up with my idea that there is a predictable patter regarding how the instinctual biases express themselves in our lives; the second question was about why you won’t find descriptions of 54 subtypes rather than 27. staced pancakes

I’ll address them in turn.

When I first learned the Enneagram I was taught that your instincts were present in a stack–if, like me, you were “social,” you could be social/sexual/self-pres in descending amount of each instinct or you could be social/self-pres/sexual. If you were a sexual subtype, you could be sexual/social/self-pres or sexual/self-pres/social. If you were self-pres, you could be self-pres/social/sexual or self-pres/sexual/social. Because of this variation in stacking there should be, in effect, six subtypes of each Ennea-type rather than merely three, and we’d be talking about 54 variations rather than 27.

I never questioned this and it was what I taught to others–until one day almost a decade ago when I was discussing the three “instincts” with a friend and suggested her stack might be Sx/SP/Soc. She asked if it was the same way for all sexuals and I parroted what I learned: “No, it can be different.”

But for some reason that I no longer recall, I asked myself “How do I know that to be true?” So I started observing, and I’ve come to some conclusions:

  1. The names traditionally used for the subtypes cause a lot of confusion,
  2. It helps to look at what people do rather than what they report about their inner experience,
  3. People frequently demonstrate a disconnection between how they internally perceive their “stack” and how they seem to actually behave, and
  4. There seem to be patterns of expression of the instinctual domains that are consistent when viewed in the context of the language I use.

Let’s take each of these points in turn:

  1. I’ve already written about why I use the words “preserving,” “navigating,” and “transmitting,”so I’ll refer the reader to that blog rather than restating it here. Briefly, my view is that they common names for the three subtypes do not capture the full scope of correlated behaviors found in each domain, and are thus insufficient.
  2. My focus when I work with people regarding the instinctual biases is to pay more attention to what they do or what they spontaneously talk about than to what they report about their internal experience. This is not out of a belief that our internal experience is not important–it is. Specifically, it is important when trying to change behaviors–we have to understand our internal narratives and work on rewriting them so that we can make changes. (See my article on the Awareness to Action Process for more on this.) When it comes to diagnosis, however, self-reporting is notoriously flawed. The reason I do 36o assessments of my clients is that we all need an objective perspective on ourselves to truly see our behavior. Cognitive science shows over and over again that our minds are structured in ways that fool us–we are not nearly as objective as we think we are. (See my article on this here.)  I still vividly remember participating in the Riso/Hudson training on the subtypes back in the late 90s. I was convinced that I was a self-pres Eight because I was fixated on a few basic self-pres things I do. Don came along and said, “No, you’re Social,” and it lifted the scales from my eyes. Some might argue that you aren’t supposed to tell people their Ennea-type or subtype, that you should let them find it out for themselves, but I certainly would have held onto that false belief for a lot longer were it not for his outside perspective and observation of my behavior. Despite my earlier misbelief, I actually express very little Preserving behavior and always have.
  3. I frequently see people claiming that a particular instinctual bias is second in their “stack” but they rarely ever spontaneously talk about it or act on it and, in fact, spend far more time focused on issues related to what they see as third in their “stack.” Instinctual behaviors are frequently expressed subconsciously or non-consciously; no matter how self-aware we believe we are, the conscious mind has very little access to what we are doing most of the time. When we are aware of something, we often amplify the amount of actual attention we pay to it sub- or non-consciously. Thus, someone can think they express an instinctual behavior far more than they do. Further, because the original terms are, in my view, flawed, people misinterpret their behaviors and squeeze them into the wrong instinctual domain. For example:
  • Preservers can think they are “sexual” second (or even first) in their stack because they have a strong need for one-to-one connection. When they understand what I really mean by “Transmitting,” they realize that their need for such connection is related to comfort and security issues (concerns in the Preserving domain) and they actually “Transmit” very little. Preservers will spend far more time acting on or talking about issues in the Navigating domain than they realize, and often have some anxiety about whether they are doing the “right” things in that domain.
  • Navigators may think they are “self-preservation” second (or even first) because they may like fine wines or fine foods or to entertain others in their homes. What they often don’t see is that their attention to such things is often more related to social status and relationship building than it is to the security and resource concerns of the preserving domain, and that they pay little attention to true Preserving issues. Navigators will spend far more time acting on or talking about issues in the Transmitting domain than they realize, and often have some anxiety about whether they are doing the “right” things in that domain.
  • Transmitters may think they are “social” second because they can be relatively extroverted and like to have an audience to transmit to. In fact, they typically pay very little attention to the key concerns of the Navigating domain–such as making gossipy small talk and monitoring the subtle interactions within the group. Transmitters will–you guessed it–spend far more time acting on or talking about issues in the Preserving domain than they realize, and often have some anxiety about whether they are doing the “right” things in that domain.


  1. All of this together has led me to believe that when we look at what people do, rather than what they self-report, there is a consistent pattern of expression of the instinct domains that goes: Preserving/Navigating/Transmitting; Navigating/Transmitting/Preserving; and Transmitting/Preserving/ Navigating. I see these patterns over and over again in my work with clients, and their 360 assessments bear this out. The reports will, almost invariably, point to weaknesses in the domain that is least expressed. Preservers will consistently get feedback that they don’t promote themselves enough or that they are not charismatic enough (issues related to Transmitting). Navigators will consistently receive feedback that they are not process-oriented enough or that they pay too little attention to operations or the bottom line (issues related to the Preserving domain). Transmitters will consistently receive feedback that they don’t read social cues or engage in organizational politics effectively enough.


It is altogether possible that people consciously perceive or experience their stack as being different from the patterns of expression I describe here but again, when it comes to diagnosis, I am focused on what people actually do and talk about rather than how they describe their inner experience, and how their behaviors shape their effectiveness in interacting with the world. I will not make the claim that everyone follows this pattern–I have not yet met and spent adequate time with everyone. What I do believe is that everyone I have worked with or had adequate time to observe in their natural environment has seemed to fit the patterns of expression of instinctual focus and behavior I describe, even if they report believing their “stack” is otherwise.

So as for the second question of “Why are there not detailed, objective descriptions of 54 subtypes based on real-world experience with people that reflect variable stacks?” is concerned, my simple answer is that those descriptions don’t exist because those variations don’t actually exist and there are only 27 subtypes. Although the question has not been asked, one might also ask why there are not 54 variations based on wings. I have some speculations on that as well, which you can find here. Mind you, I am not saying that such descriptions don’t exist, but the ones I have seen are flimsy and based on speculation from an assumed model rather than observation of people in the real world.

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