Thursday, August 13, 2009

Experiments and Enneagrams

In one of my internet adventures, I came across what is known as the Enneagram. It's yet another personality test, one I had never heard of before. And there's a funny little diagram to go with it.
I'm generally pretty skeptical about personality tests. I accept that people have different personalities. But what is a personality type? It's a bunch of different character traits which tend to come together. How do we know which character traits come together, and which are independent? How are they really organized? These are difficult questions, which would require some critical analysis to get reliable answers. I'm not confident that sufficient critical analysis went into the making of these personality tests.

For instance, look at the enneagram picture. Each of the numbers represents a different personality type. Do those lines really represent mysterious connections that we've discovered between different personalities? Or is it just guesswork based on the decimal expansion of 1/7 (0.142857142857...)? Various sources suggest the latter...

That's not to say that there's no point to taking such a personality test. I thought it was fun to play around with.

The first thing I did was look at the Wikipedia article. Glancing through it, I was reminded of the Forer effect. The Forer effect causes people to think "Hey, that's totally me!" whenever they read a vague personality description. Looking at the first few personality types, they all gave me at least a bit of a feeling of, "That's totally me!" But is any one of the personality types more me than the others? This calls for an experiment!*

So here's what I did. I copied the section of the wiki with the nine personality types. Using search and replace, I removed all references to "ones", "twos", "threes", and so forth. Then I jumbled the order of all the sentences. I couldn't tell which sentences correspond to which personality type, because I'm just not that familiar with the enneagram personalities. So I went through the sentences one by one, and decided whether they described me or not. Afterwards, I resorted the sentences so I could see which personality types came out on top.
Here's a picture of the end result. Green means that I felt it totally matched me. Red means that it didn't really match at all. Yellow means something in between. It's sort of hard to tell, but I suppose the picture indicates that my personality type is 5 ("the investigator"), followed by 4 ("the individualist") and ... maybe 3 ("the achiever")? That totally sounds like me. I mean, I'm doing investigation right now, of course I would be the investigator. 3 and 4 also had some resonance with me.

Are these results consistent? I tried taking a five minute test to find out. Lo and behold, it said I am most likely to be 3, 4, or 5. That's pretty neat, huh? So I tried taking yet another test, this one a bit longer. This time it said I was mostly type 1 ("the reformer"), followed by 9 ("the peacemaker"), and then 5. Actually, now that I think about it, 1 and 9 match me much better than 3 or 4. The reformer is all about having high standards and working for change. Why, I do have rather high standards; that's why I'm so critical! The peacemaker wants everything to go smoothly and without conflict. That's so true, I do tend to avoid confrontations, and I have an extremely slow temper.

The more I look into it, the more it seems like all of the personalities match, to varying degrees. But if I look carefully, all of them also have things which I think are totally wrong.

Take, for instance, number 5, which seems the best match for me overall. The description of 5 seems to get my motivations totally wrong. The Wikipedia article says that fives are often either neglected or intruded upon early in life. It's funny how they put both these opposing possibilities there, so that no matter what kind of childhood you had, you're likely to think, "yes, YES, that's me!" In any case, I feel like I was neither neglected nor intruded upon, but somewhere in the happy middle. The article also says that fives often withdraw because they feel they have limited energy. I think I hardly ever feel that way. I have all the time in the world.

Another odd thing about the descriptions, is that several of them talk about feelings which we are unaware of. Gee, if I'm unable to discern my own feelings, I hardly expect a personality test based on numerology to know any better.

I wonder. What would happen if I just took all the green text from my experiment, and created a new personality number 10? That would totally fit me much better than any of the other types!

*I hope no one takes this to be a rigorous experiment. I mostly did it because designing experiments is a fun process in itself.


Anonymous said...

I've never really understood the point of personality tests. It's true that we don't always consciously recognize certain character traits in ourselves until they are pointed out, but still, for the most part I think I could give a more accurate description of myself than any preexisting list of traits. Why should I need an outside source to tell me what I am like?

Eduard said...

It may be difficult to understand the point of personality tests but it is much easier to understand why people like personality tests and why they are conceived.
Thinking is consuming a lot of energy (calories! sure!). Energy saving is a very powerfull explanation tool. Every living system saves a maximum of energy. Personality tests are terrible oversimplifications (and religions too).

Anonymous said...

I found your "experiment" while searching for critical assessments of enneagrams. I, too, took the "short" test-- a couple of times. What I noticed about choosing answers was that, most often, neither answer was "true" for me. Both times I took the test I answered honestly; however, I found that I could answer "honestly" many different ways, depending on what self-image I had in mind while answering. When I answered as "the child of my family," I was a 5. When I answered as "independent adult," I was an 8.

It seems to me that the "test" elicits only totally subjective opinion, not true personality traits. We therefore can only answer according to what we "think" we are, and what we have been conditioned to "think" we are.

Who and what we really may be remains a mystery.

Yaz said...

I suppose my take on the Enneagram is if you can find it a useful tool for understanding patterns of behaviour in yourself or others, great, if not then don't use it.
It shouldn't be about pinning down 'who you are' in an absolute fashion. I don't think any test could do that. Apparently you are supposed to have traits from all the enneagram types and work towards a sense of balance between them all, so any analysis of type is really about where you are most out of whack at this stage in your life. At least that's my take on it. Unlike the Myers-Briggs, which is essentially a static concept, the Enneagram aims for change and dynamism, and that is useful.
And given how even science tends to avoid the hard questions about emotion and personality, we have to look for any tools we can find. Even psychology/ psychiatry is usually just about setting up a yardstick of normality, and trying to push everyone towards that. And do you trust that yardstick? Hell, no!

miller said...

Quick question: How does the Enneagram tell you "where you are most out of whack" without having some "yardstick of normality"?

Yaz said...

Of course, there is always a yardstick of normality, whatever the context. In a visual sense, if you look at that enneagram diagram as points on a circle then 'the norm' is a very broad and fuzzy-bordered area in the centre. It is not about some zen-perfection in the exact middle, whatever that may mean, but a move away from being stuck in particular ways of being (which psychology also does to some extent too). The enneagram also seems to describe a concept of a healthy well-integrated personality within each of the types, so perhaps it is as much about the process of being self-reflective as it is about normality.
I don't really want to be caught up in the role of defending the enneagram, as I have no real stake in that. I have just found it useful for myself, even if my partner things it's a crock of s**t!

Anonymous said...

Well, there are actually some good reasons why you see yourself in other personality types as well. Your tests doesn't take into account some of the details of the enneagram. There are several important things to know. For one, each personality type tends towards one of its neighbours, so if you are a 7, you do have some tendency to the behavior of 8 or of 6. That's called the "wing" (if I translated that correctly). Another thing that is quite important is how content or stressed you feel. There are several levels that will cause your personality to fall back to certain patterns to compensate for problems, those are the lines you see in the diagram. It's called disintegration and integration. If you are feeling good, are content with your life and don't seem to have problems, you will take the good qualities of your integration type, for a 7 that is the 5. For a 1 it's the 7, etc etc. The disintegration is the opposite, if you feel bad, have a crisis, things like that, you will take the bad patterns of your disintegration type, for a 7 that is the 1. So there are quite some variations and the lines between the personalities are not hard but smooth.
I am myself not super convinced yet, but what I read so far makes very much sense and helped me to gain a few insights in how I work and also how my flatmate works.



miller said...


That seems kind of all over the map. It would be hard to distinguish between the scenario where your enneagram is complicated by "wings", "integration", and "disintegration", and the scenario where enneagrams are bs.

And despite the fact that "wings", "integration" and "disintegration" could explain nearly any combination of personality types, it nonetheless fails to match my results. My best match was a 5, but 8 was a terrible match, and 3 was an okay match. Most of the others I'm not sure if you would even consider them as good or bad matches.