Instincts and Subtypes

The Enneagram is a rich and subtle system for understanding human nature. While much focus goes to identifying and describing the nine basic Ennea-types, the system becomes much more powerful when we also understand the three versions of each type.


Instinct: a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason (Merriam Webster Online)
Instinctual bias: Instincts fall into three broad groups or domains. An “instinctual bias” is a sensitivity to stimuli related to a particular domain. They are drives that nudge us toward behaving in ways that satisfy specific needs.


Enneagram theory describes three variations of each Ennea-type. These variations, which we call “subtypes,” are formed by the interaction of the nine adaptive strategies of the Enneagram and the dominant group of instinctual behaviors. While biologists don’t all agree on what, exactly, the instincts are or what behaviors qualify as an “instinct,” they do generally agree that humans have many instincts, and that instincts are non-conscious responses to our environment. Enneagram theory holds that these instincts fall into three broad categories or domains and that each of us has a non-conscious bias toward one of the instinct domains. We call those domains Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting. These biases shape our values; that is, they influence the things we place value on and the things on which we focus.

The nine strategies of the Enneagram are the way we go about satisfying these values. For example, a Preserving One (P1) instinctively values and focuses on things related to the Preserving domain and does so through a strategy of striving to be perfect. The three instinctual biases and nine Ennea-type strategies stand alone as independent typologies; taken together, however, they have profound explanatory power.


  • Preserving: Focused on “nesting and nurturing” and on ensuring that fundamental survival needs are met for things like food, water, clothing, shelter, and overall safety from harm.
  •  Navigating: Focused on “orienting to the group” and on building alliances, creating trust and reciprocity, and understanding where oneself and others fit into the group.
  • Transmitting: Focused on “attracting and bonding” and on passing genes, beliefs, values, interests, and worldview to others in order to make them carriers of that information.


Instincts from all three domains are active in each of us to varying degrees, but one domain influences us more than others in the same way that one of the nine strategies shapes our interactions with the world more than the other eight. With the instincts, there is a predictable ordering of domains that occurs in us. One domain is primary, meaning that it is our home base—the area in which we feel most comfortable and which influences our behavior the most. We call the secondary domain “adolescent territory” because we are drawn to this domain but often feel inadequate or uncomfortable in it. Orden InstintosWe tend to have a conflicted, love/hate relationship with this domain and it is home to many of our shadow issues. The tertiary domain is under-active; we have little emotional “juice” for behaviors related to this area and we tend to ignore it to a large extent.

The ordering tends to go as follows:

  • Preserving, Navigating, Transmitting
  • Navigating, Transmitting, Preserving
  • Transmitting, Preserving, Navigating


At first glance, the instinctual biases seem simple and easy to understand, but the way they affect us can be subtle and sometimes-contradictory. Very often, two contradictory behaviors will serve the same broader instinctive need, such as the conflicting desires to eat sweets and to take care of our health, creating a conflict within the domain. The topic is further complicated in that sometimes the instinctual bias and the strategy are in some degree of conflict with each other. Take, for example, the Transmitting Five, who has a reserved side due to the strategy of “striving to be detached” combined with an outgoing side due to the instinctive behaviors associated with the Transmitting domain.