The Enneagram, Stereotypes, and the Fundamental Attribution Error
Mid-day on Sunday our cable went out. Not just the cable TV, but the phone and internet connection that come in with it as well. It was a rainy day and my four sons had all invited friends over—mostly to watch the football playoffs. Eight boys in total with no TV or wifi—it was like living in the Stone Ages, or, well, my childhood.
Fortunately, the sun came out and teams were soon chosen for a Nerf-gun battle in the yard. Trouble and conflict are sure to ensue when eight boys arm themselves with Nerf guns, and it didn’t take long.
It started with one of the younger sons storming into the house, crying. “Adrian is a jerk! He shot me in the face.” Adrian, of course, had an explanation for his actions: “I was shooting at Ryan and Alexei ran in front of him—it wasn’t my fault!”
As the father of four boys, my intervention threshold is pretty high—if no one is bruised or bleeding I tend to pretty much let them resolve their own issues, although this does not stop them from running to me with each slight or grievance seeking justice or adjudication. Over the course of the afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing the pattern of their complaints. The aggrieved party would make a character judgment about the one who aggrieved him; the accused would provide a circumstance-based justification for his actions.
This is a common human tendency—when someone does something wrong to us we see it as a mark of their poor character, when we wrong another we see it as the act of a good person who was driven by circumstances to do something regrettable. This tendency is called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” (FAE) and we apply it all the time when we evaluate others or ourselves—our actions are a response to our situation but other people’s actions are a mark of their character structure; we are “what we DO,” others are “what they ARE.”
Combine this with the closely related correspondence bias—our tendency to assume a broad quality of another’s character based on one or a few actions or traits—and it is no wonder that humans tend to live in a world of simplistic stereotypes.
Part of the cause of these errors in thinking is related to our naïve Essentialism—the innate assumption that things have an “essence” and behave in ways that are consistent with, or perhaps even driven by, that essence. The most famous proponents of this naïve Essentialism were Plato and Aristotle. Plato, in his allegory of the cave, posited the notion of unchanging Forms that exist in another dimension, of which everything in this dimension is but a flawed or incomplete reflection. Aristotle believed that things did what they do because they are simply satisfying an essential aspect of their being—dropped rocks fall to the ground because they possess an essential “fallingness;” trees grow because they have an essential drive to do so.
These prescientific notions stood as common wisdom for centuries because they align with our naïve assumptions about how the world works. As psychologist Paul Bloom explains so well in his work, we are all naïve essentialists and the temptation to be stuck in these intuitive interpretations of the world is strong.
Science and modern philosophy are in conflict with these naïve intuitions. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, et al, helped us understand why objects act the way they do; Darwin opened the door for a more accurate understanding of human nature. We now know that people don’t have “Essences” in the sense that Plato, Aristotle, and their Neoplatonic followers believed (and some still believe)—we are complex and contradictory and human nature is ever evolving.
This goes against our naïve intuitions as demonstrated by the ubiquity of the fundamental attribution error in our lives, and it is no surprise that so many in the Enneagram world are tripped up by this cognitive bias—we can’t wait to rush to an explanation of someone acting the way they do because they are a “Type _____.” Some even use their Ennea-type as a justification for their questionable behavior—“Of course I don’t talk to people, I’m a Five;” “Of course I am a bully, I’m an Eight…” and on and on and on.
Enneagram teaching makes it very easy to fall into the trap of believing the fundamental attribution error. Even when they think they are teaching advanced insights, many will make the claim that our “better selves” are due to our unchanging “Essence” while our lesser qualities are due to a flawed interloper that needs to be rejected or replaced—the “ego” or “false self.” This is simply the FAE (good = me; bad = not me) applied to ourselves rather than to others, and it tricks us into believing that we will be okay if we just get rid of our false self somehow.
There are not two selves—there is only you doing good things and not-so good things and the only way to grow is by doing hard work required to stop acting doing the things that are harmful to us and others and doing more of the things that are helpful.
The Enneagram can also make it too easy to diminish others by putting an Essentialist label on them and attributing their actions to their unchanging nature or “type.” As much as we claim we are not doing so, we constantly put people into boxes and act as if nothing is happening outside that box. (I would suggest that Enneagram approaches that prescribe dogmatically diagram-related solutions to change—insisting you have to move to a connecting point or a wing to grow and denigrating the idea of growing through the preferred strategy—are just as mistakenly Essentialist and mechanistic as those who try to stay stuck in their “type.”)
Does this mean that the Enneagram, or other personality models, don’t have value? Of course not. The Enneagram is a map. Maps are useful unless we confuse them with the territory, or believe that they are literal. Maps, including the Enneagram, are the proverbial finger pointing to the moon; we need the finger to direct our attention to the moon but if we linger on the finger we miss the heavens.
Likewise, the Enneagram points us to our tendencies (both good and bad) but if we forget that, like other maps, it is just a human construct that has its limits, we end up living in a cardboard world filled with cardboard people.