HR-myths: The enneagram – a very old speculation that refuses to die

pixabay kanenori

The enneagram categorizes people into nine personality types. It is based on an old occult system and claims that humans have three brains to nourish the moon so that it can become a planet like earth. Nevertheless it has found its way into HR.

Reformer or perfectionist, thinker or wise person, challenger or powerful person – the enneagram is a form of type thinking that categorizes people into nine more or less distinct categories or what they claim personality types. It is claimed that each human being on earth has one, and only one, of the nine enneagram numbers (Hurley, K. & Dobson, T. ,1991).

The enneagram itself is a geometric figure in the form of a circle in which lines have been drawn between the nine points that are located at equal distances from each other on the circle’s circumference (the Greek word ennea means ‘nine’). Translated from Occulte karaktertypen. De doodzonden van het enneagram by Rob Nanninga (2000).

Proponents of the enneagram often refer to the ancient oral tradition of the Sarmouni brotherhood, a Sufi sect, as having developed „the system“, though others think it has Christian roots. One author (James Webb, 1987) traces the symbol back to the frontispiece of the Arithmologia written by the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher in 1665:

© Wikimedia Commons (Wellcome Library, London). Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0

His book indeed features the enneagram figure. On top of the image, Kircher wrote the Greek word „hierarch“ (p. 277, the book is scanned in its entirety by Google Book). The enneagram is referred to as an „occult“ system. Kircher tells us that the three triangles represent „three degrees“ into which „nine choirs of angels“ are divided. The three degrees represent three forces that are necessary to the creation of any phenomenon, according to Kircher. It thus clearly has religious roots, but Catholic leaders have later refuted the enneagram.

However, most proponents credit George I. Gurdjieff (1866–1949), a music composer but also a new age believer and mystic figure from Armenia, when referring to the current enneagram. It seems he first started his „teachings“ on the enneagram in the 1920s. The enneagram was later used as a personality description by Oscar Ichazo and his student Claudio Naranjo. Ichazo claimed that the human body and psyche is composed of nine independent systems that are interconnected. Imbalances within these systems were called „fixations„. The nine systems are represented by the nine numbers (enneagons), which represent a „structural map“ of the human psyche.

Let it be clear that, at that time, not much was known about the personality and people living at that time surely did not have access to our current scientific methods. So all they could do was speculate.

History and facts about personality

The word „personality“ originates from the Latin word „persona“, meaning „mask“, and indicates that early theorists regarded the personality as the outward expression of the internal nature of human beings. Personality models have been with us for thousands of years. Around 400 BC, the Greek „doctor“ Hippocrates described the first known personality model (and medical model), postulating that one’s persona is based upon two pillars of temperament, hot/cold and moist/dry, resulting in four humors or combinations of these qualities: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Another Greek doctor, Galen, extended Hippocrates’ theory by applying a body fluid to each temperament: blood, mucus, black bile, and yellow bile, respectively, and proposed that these were responsible for the major personality characteristics and a lot of diseases (hence the practice of blood-letting). This theory of the four humors has long been discredited, starting with Philippus van Hohenheim (aka Paracelcus) and later Giovanni Morgagni. By the 16th century, the theory was abandoned. Later, researchers such as Louis Pasteur, Girolamo Fracastoro and Robert Koch discovered that a lot of diseases were caused by micro-organisms. There was no basis for medical problems nor for personality in the four humors. Still, Insights Discovery, a model based on Jungian archetypes, still refers to these four humors as “color energies”.

The first attempts to examine personality in a more scientific way started in the late nineteenth century and continued into the late twentieth century, with a plethora of new insights followed by research in the twenty-first century. Sir Francis Galton in 1884 made the first major inquiry into a hypothesis, the „lexical hypothesis“, which stated that by sampling personality-related words listed in the dictionary, it is possible to derive a comprehensive taxonomy of human personality traits. In 1936 Gordon Allport’s and S. Odbert’s seminal work put Sir Francis Galton’s hypothesis into practice by using Webster’s Dictionary, to identify close to 18,000 words in the English language that could be used to describe personality. They divided this list into four categories and eventually came up with over 4,500 trait related words. Allport both established personality psychology as a legitimate intellectual discipline and introduced the first of the modern trait theories.

In the 1940’s, psychologist Raymond Cattell worked with his mentor Charles Spearman on developing factor analysis, a now common statistical technique to identify traits that are related to one another, and whittled the list down to 171 characteristics, which in turn led to 16 key personality factors. During the 1960’s Cattell’s 16 factor model was revisited when Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal (1961) and Warren Norman (1967) proposed that there were five recurring factors within Cattell’s sixteen: Surgency, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Culture.

In 1981 Lewis Goldberg conducted his own investigation of the lexical hypothesis and found the same five principal dimensions, later coining the term „Big Five“: Extraversion (e.g., talkative, outgoing vs. quiet, shy), Agreeableness (e.g., gentle, sympathetic vs. harsh, cold-hearted), Conscientiousness (e.g., organised, disciplined vs. sloppy, lazy), Neuroticism (e.g., relaxed vs. moody, anxious), and Openness (e.g., intellectual, imaginative vs. shallow). The model is also known under its acronym OCEAN.

By the 1980’s, personality researchers had begun accepting that the OCEAN five were the major categories of personality traits. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Paul Costa and Robert McCrae, independently verified the construct of this „Five-Factor Model“ of personality: Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience. However, some personality researchers argue that this list of major traits is not exhaustive. In particular, Michael Ashton and Kibeom Lee, in 2008, proposed a six-factor HEXACO model of personality structure. The HEXACO model was developed through similar methods as other trait taxonomies and builds on the work of Costa, McCrae, and Goldberg. The HEXACO model is unique mainly due to the Honesty-Humility (H) factor, which differentiates the HEXACO model from other personality frameworks.

Today, it is widely accepted in the academic world that the OCEAN and HEXACO model best capture our personality traits.

Human characteristics actually follow a normal or Gaussian distribution, whether in relation to height, muscle power, intelligence, or personality traits. Differences in personality are therefore gradual or „fluid“. Modern personality psychology favors the trait approach – these traits are presented in continuous scales or dimensions instead of in dichotomies or in distinct types. The most accepted and scientifically established models are, of course, the 5FM or 6FM. In each case, the five or six major domains and the thirty underlying facets show a normal distribution.

So, variations between people are mainly caused by evolutionary processes and the possible variations are certainly not limited to four, eight, nine, or sixteen types. There is little room for doubt given that the theory of evolution is considered one of the best founded scientific theories (Coyne, 2010; Dawkins, 2009; Dennett 1996; Williams, 1996).

Nine types of personality

The enneagram categorizes people into nine categories or personality types. The nine types are (Source: first titles translated from Luc Sala, second titles by Don Richard Riso & Russ Hudson)

  1. Reformer or Perfectionist
  2. Helper or Altruist
  3. Achiever or Motivator
  4. Romantic or Sensitive person
  5. Thinker or Wise person
  6. Skeptic or Loyalist
  7. Enthusiast or Happy person
  8. Challenger or Powerful person
  9. Peacemaker or Peaceful person

This is how most enneagram theories define the enneagram types:

  1. The Reformer: rational, orderly, idealistic, perfectionist, prejudiced
  2. The Helper: caring and possessive
  3. Seller or Motivator: ambitious, image conscious, efficient, self-confident
  4. The artist or Individualist: sensitive, creative, capricious, self-centered, self-absorbed
  5. The Thinker or Investigator: perceptive, provocative, analyzing
  6. The Family Man or Loyalist: committed, loyal, dutiful, law-abiding
  7. The Team Player or the Enthusiast: spontaneous, fun-loving, excessive
  8. The Boss or the Leader: powerful, self-confident, assertive, confrontational
  9. The Peacemaker: pleasant, easygoing, complacent

There are also several questionnaires that measure the enneagram types:

  • The Cohen-Palmer Enneagram Inventory
  • The Wagner Enneagram Inventory
  • The Zinkle Enneagram Inventory
  • The Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator
  • The Halin-Prémont Enneagram Inventory (HPEI)

The enneagram theory makes some outrageous claims. For example, it represents humans as “three-brained beings” who serve the moon to repay it an eternal debt, because ‘the moon has been split off from the earth.’ However, why humans are to blame for something that happened long before life evolved on this planet is a puzzle to me.

The reasoning behind this typology contains a major fallacy, namely the assumption that every person has only one type. I know, some proponents have pulled a switcheroo, no longer claiming we have only one type, but it is their problem that they changed the theory in a self-serving manner (e.g. In 1987, Riso expanded the type with “wings”: each person has a wing of his/her adjacent type – if you are a three, you have a wing of four and of two. The notion of wings has also been embraced by Delobbe et al., 2002).

Any form of typology reasoning is problematic for two main reasons:

(1) the enormous variation in individual differences in personality as described above is a result of evolutionary influences (e.g. random mutations or the arbitrary mixture of genes as a result of reproduction), other biological influences (e.g. hormonal influences during pregnancy or viruses), and developmental processes;

(2) the influence of environmental or contextual factors that cause people to behave differently in different situations (Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Moscowitz & Zuroff, 2004).

Not only is the theory wrong, empirical data are also lacking for the major claims:

  • There is no proof for three personality centers, three stages, or anything of the like.
  • The explanation of children developing a preference for one of nine base types present at birth in everyone is sheer speculation that starkly contradicts the current knowledge of personality.
  • There is no proof of “wings” of adjacent styles.
  • There is no evidence for the strong claims, such as that the enneagram could offer better psychiatric diagnosis, better understanding of customers, or could help people become better managers.
  • Given that the enneagram has a circular representation, it is very common to check the circular structure using the statistical technique of Multi-Dimensional Scaling (MDS). I have shown the outcomes of the MDS software in my book. There is no circular structure with 40° spacing (360 ÷ 9 = 40) and equal vector lengths (i.e. same distance from the midpoint of the circle). The enneagram does not show a continuum and the types are not in the predicted position by their model:

In my book A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary, I have also described how the psychometric properties of enneagram-based questionnaires such as the RHETI and HPI are problematic.

A skeptic’s HR dictionary: The ultimate self-defense guide for CEOs, HR professionals, I/O students and employees (Englisch). Das englischsprachige Buch kostet 125 Euro und ist über Amazon erhältlich. Darin entlarvt der Autor 25 Mythen, darunter das Alpha Training, die Teamrollen von Belbin, Organisationsaufstellungen, die Persönlichkeitstests DiSC, MBTI und Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), Leadership Circle, die Transaktionsanalyse und Spiral Dynamics. Zudem beschreibt er 15 halbwahre oder beinahe Mythen wie E-Learning, SMART Ziele, die Positive Psychologie und HR-Analytics.


Why do people believe in such myths?

Maybe people feel naturally attracted to the mystic, the occult, esoteric, sorcery, and gossip. The mere exposure effect of the continued influence effect may explain a lot as well since the enneagram has found itself a niche in some HR-midst. Once people have heard of a model several times, it stays in our memory.

And then, of course, there is the Forer effect (1949). Recognizing yourself in the test result, or in a horoscope description, can be a very powerful experience.

Hugo Mercier (2020, Not born yesterday) hypothesizes that people generally are not credulous, but sometimes rely on the wrong experts, or on con-artists who present themselves as experts. Relying on authority arguments is a shortcut most people use. For example, if you go to a hospital, you believe that the people treating you are doctors and nurses. It would be impossible to ask each time for credentials and diplomas. But this makes us vulnerable to false, proclaimed experts. In this case, it is clear people rely on false experts promoting a totally false theory and model.

The false alure of typologies like the enneagram is also the result of the coherent story it tells: it offers a rather simple explanation (only nine types) to navigate a complex world, giving people a sense of control and understanding.

Our coalitional psychology also offers a partial explanation: once HR-people have enrolled themselves in training program or are „certified“ users, they will count themselves among the „ingroup“ of enneagram-believers. Any criticism will cause cognitive dissonance (including feelings of discomfort). Humans have many ways to reduce this discomfort: they will use different techniques of motivated reasoning (i.e. find arguments to defend their previously held beliefs), by self-justifying, denying, discrediting science, accusing the „outgroup“ members of having their own agenda etc. They are so predictable.

How will proponents defend this myth?

It is likely they will either continue to claim it is a good and scientific model (which it is not, but some researchers have lent themselves to validating questionable enneagram-questionnaires), or just the opposite. In the latter case they might claim that (Western) science does not know all the answers, and that there is a lot of „ancient“ wisdom. They might also say that it doesn’t matter whether the questionnaire is scientific: it is just a conversation starter. But what if your starter is entirely wrong? Would you find your way in Paris (if you don’t live there) based on a wrong „starter“ map of Berlin? It is one of the weakest arguments, but at first sight, it sounds good and convincing. But it’s not. Garbage in, garbage out.


Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (eds.) (1992). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Clemans, W. V. (1956). An analytical and empirical examination of some properties of ipsative measures. Psychometric Monographs, 14. Richmond, VA: Psychometric Society.

Delobbe, N., Halin, P., & Prémont, J. (2012). HPEI Ennéagramme évolutif: Manuel du Halin Prémont Enneagram Indicator pour le psychologue et le praticien certifié. Presses univ. de Louvain.

Edwards, A. C. (1991). Clipping the wings off the enneagram; a study in people’s perceptions of a ninefold personality typology. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 19(1), 11–20.

Gurdjieff, G. I. (1950). Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (Vol. 1). Library of Alexandria.

Gurdjieff, G.I. (1963). Meetings with remarkable men. UK: Penguin.

Gurdieff, G.I. (1973). Views from the real world. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Gurdjieff, G.I. (1974). Life is Real Only Then, When I am. UK: Penguin.

Hinkin, T. R. (1995). A review of scale development practices in the study of organizations. Journal of management, 21(5), 967–988.

Hurley, Kathleen V., & Dobson, Theodore E. (1991) What’s My Type: Use the Enneagram System of 9 Personality Types. Harper San Francisco: p. 15: „It is important to remember that each person has one, and only one, Enneagram number„.

Newgent, R. A., Parr, P. E., Newman, I., & Higgins, K. K. (2004). The Riso–Hudson Enneagram type indicator: Estimates of reliability and validity. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 36(4), 226–237.

Kircher, A. (1665). Arithmologia: sive, De abditis numerorum mysteriis. Romae MDCLXV.

Moskowitz, D.S., & Zuroff, D.C. (2004). Flux, pulse, and spin: Dynamic additions to the personality lexicon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 880–893.

Riso, D.R., & Hudson, R. (1996). Personality Types. Using the enneagram for self-discovery. Revised edition. Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Smith, D. E., & Karpinski, L. C. (1911). The Hindu-Arabic Numerals. London: Ginn.

Sutton, A., Allinson, C., & Williams, H. (2013). Personality type and work-related outcomes: An exploratory application of the Enneagram model. European Management Journal, 31(3), 234–249.

Vermeren, P (2019). A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary: The ultimate self-defense guide for CEOs, HR professionals, I/O students and employees,  A4SK Consulting bvba (BV).

Other References (abstracts, summaries, excerpts, or reviews)

Palmer, H. (1991). The Enneagram: Understanding yourself and the others in your life. San Francisco: Harper.

Patrick Vermeren has been in the business of human resources since 1997. Since 2001 he has worked as a practitioner-consultant for a Belgian provider of training and coaching. He is a writer, journalist and board member of SKEPP, the Belgian Skeptics organization and is widely recognized as an expert in HR matters.

Kommentare anzeigen (1)