The Enneagram and Critical Thinking
By now, you’ve heard about how helpful the Enneagram can be as a tool for self-discovery and as an aid for relationships. But you may have not considered how your personality type affects how you think. Specifically, how you apply critical thinking (CT) to your life. As it turns out, your Enneagram type strongly affects to what extent you are able to access CT or if it even occurs to you to try!
But in this world of fake news and social media posts geared to trigger the emotions, not the mind, critical thinking has become a seemingly lost art at the time we need it most. That’s why I wanted to write this post. Let’s dive in.
First, a definition
Here’s a baseline definition from none other than the Foundation for Critical Thinking:
“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
Well, that sounds pretty abstract and ivory tower-ish, so let’s put it into actual human words: critical thinking is learning how to think. Isn’t it sad that we have to learn how to think? And that no one really teaches us how? So that by the time we’re adults, our cognitive biases are going full bore and we don’t even know it? Sigh. But all is not lost – there’s still time to learn how to think, and once you learn it, you can apply this skill for the rest of your life.
There are various components of the critical thinking process, which is a way to parse out an argument and determine its validity. It brings a lot more objectivity to bear than our usual subjective “reasoning.” This process is much easier when we understand two sets of problems that impede our thinking: cognitive biases and logic fallacies.
But I’m not going to go into all of them because there simply isn’t room here. So at this time, I’ll focus on a specific cognitive bias that I’ve found lies at the root of much of human discourse: confirmation bias. There’s a great site, https://yourbias.is, that pithily discusses 24 cognitive biases – ways that our erroneous thinking trips us up.
Yes, 24! Which is why I don’t have time to go into all of them. So, let’s turn our attention to confirmation bias. As its name implies, this bias causes us to focus on things that confirm what we already believe.
So, as an example, if you believe that wearing a face mask helps you avoid getting COVID-19, you’ll be drawn to articles, videos, tweets etc. that back up that belief. And you’ll tend to automatically disregard and discredit articles, videos, tweets etc. that don’t align with your belief. The same sorting process holds true if you don’t believe face masks help you avoid getting COVID-19. It holds true for any topic that you’ve already formed a belief about.
Unless you become aware of your bias. Here’s how yourbias.is recommends overcoming confirmation bias:
“To help counteract its influence, we ought to presume ourselves wrong until proven right. Think of your ideas and beliefs as software you’re actively trying to find problems with rather than things to be defended. ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’ – Richard Feynman”
Learning to presume we’re wrong takes practice! Most of us automatically assume the way we see things is right. After all, it makes perfect sense to our brains and the way they process information – and our personality patterns. That’s how the Enneagram fits into the picture, and we’ll discuss it below.
How the Enneagram fits in
Because the Enneagram is so good at revealing our inaccurate assumptions and reaction patterns, knowing about our personality type enables us to more clearly see our CT failures. But rather than examining possible pitfalls by type, I think it’s more instructive to pull back and look at how two forces can hinder our critical thinking capacity: the three Centers of Intelligence and the three Instinctual Variants.
As a quick reminder, the Centers of Intelligence describe how we take in information from the world. We receive it through our minds (Thinking or Head Center), our emotions (Feeling or Heart Center) or our instincts (Instinctive or Gut Center).
Let’s look first at the Instinctive Center. Types 8, 9 and 1 receive what comes at them from the world through their “gut,” that place where instinct lives. These types arrive at conclusions intuitively, often quickly – without necessarily being able to explain why. It’s a feeling generated by that instinctive place. So, while great for all manner of circumstances, that way of “thinking” can make CT hard for these types.
On to the Feeling Center. Types 2, 3 and 4 process the world through their emotions. How they feel about a person or situation is of paramount importance. Emotions are necessary to human life and part of the human experience. However, they are not great to base decisions on. Situations can get murky when decision-making needs to happen and strong emotions – good or bad – are involved. It can be hard sometimes to hear the voice of logic when the heart is over-active.
Now, it’s easy to assume that CT takes place in the Thinking Center (Types 5, 6 and 7). That would seem to make sense, right? Well, maybe – but it’s not that simple. Enneagram Institute co-founder Russ Hudson teaches that none of the types fully inhabit the Center we’re in. We don’t have access to the full power of our Center because of our broken stuff. Also, we each over-rely on that Center, and the wisdom of the other two Centers is less accessible to us.
So, Head Types tend to over-rely on their thinking filter. This makes them more “certain” that they’re right, because they trust so deeply in their own brain processes. And that can further entrench cognitive biases and create confirmation bias all day long! (Not that I know this by experience or anything…) So, being a Head Type does not necessarily make CT easier – and belonging to another Center doesn’t necessarily make CT harder, either.
In addition to the Centers, there are three basic instincts that all humans share: the self-preservation, social and sexual instincts. As with the Centers, one instinct will predominate and the other two get used to varying degrees. Hudson says that your life is a temple to your dominant instinct. What he means is that you end up ordering your world around getting the needs of that instinct met.
Self-preservation types focus on, well, preserving themselves. Staying alive, in other words. This manifests differently through each type, so it’s rarely about actually defending your life. But it is about making sure you have what you need to live the life you want. It doesn’t require a huge leap of logic to see how this orientation toward life can color one’s thought processes. Self-Pres types will tend to have beliefs about things that support their comfort and safety, and then they may justify those beliefs with cognitive biases.
Social types are paying attention to how they individually fit into the context of the larger whole – the group they’re associated with. The question that keeps going through their brains is, “What’s best for the group?” They want to be accepted and necessary in their world; it’s actually like the next step after self-preservation. The social instinct is self-preservation within a group context – safety and survival in numbers! Their critical thinking faculty is likely to be swayed by the group or, at least, by the needs of the group. So, for instance, they will view political events or policies in terms of how they affect the social type’s group(s).
Sexual types are focused on intensity, on where the excitement is in a given situation. This instinct is about sex – but also much more. Sexual types are looking for the most interesting person in a room, the biggest adrenaline rush on the ski slope or the most passionate song. Riso & Hudson call them “intimacy junkies” because they are always seeking intense contact. This instinct brings with it a creative, pioneering energy. People of this type may let the experience of intensity overtake their critical thinking faculty. CT requires slowing down and thinking through an assumption or judgement, which is unlikely to appeal to average sexual types. After all, where’s the excitement or juice in that?
Copyright note here: This material about connecting critical thinking and the Enneagram originated with me. I didn’t paraphrase it from someone else. It’s my original thought and work, so if you decide to paraphrase it yourself, please credit me and link back to this post. The Enneagram world is still kinda small, and the last thing we need is people plagiarizing each other! That’s hardly in the spirit of the movement, eh?
Awareness is the primary skill to practice in the journey toward CT. Those who implement the wisdom of the Enneagram in their daily lives are already practicing awareness. They are paying attention to their reactions and responses throughout the day, catching their personalities “in the act.”
This skill translates well to critical thinking. First, though, you have to know what it is you’re trying to be aware of. With the Enneagram, you need to learn the habits and patterns of your personality type so that you can catch yourself doing them. It’s the same with CT. You need to learn the common logic fallacies and cognitive biases in order to catch yourself using them.
I’ve mentioned https://yourbias.is, and its sister site is https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/. These two resources alone will keep you busy for a while! There are entire books and course on critical thinking to explore, as well.
A life-long pursuit
Well, that was a lot of words, so thank you for sticking with me to the end! I hope that this post has made a viable connection for you between the Enneagram and critical thinking. And I hope you’ll check out the linked resources above to learn more about CT.
Quick Start Guide to Centering Prayer
This short guide gives you the essentials for learning to be still and quiet before God so you can hear his voice and feel his love in a deeper way.