Category Archives: Stereotyping

The Categorizing Habit

brainSometimes people resist learning about the Enneagram (or MBTI) because they don’t like the idea of categorizing people—and they themselves are especially reluctant to be categorized.

But it turns out that our brains categorize things and people all the time at the unconscious level. And this can be very useful.

In Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodinow says that categorization is one of the most important mental acts we perform.

One of the principal ways we categorize is by maximizing the importance of certain differences…while minimizing the relevance of others. If we conclude that a certain set of objects belongs to one group and a second set of objects to another, we may then perceive those within the same group as more similar than they really are—and those in different groups as less similar than they really are. Merely placing objects in groups can affect our judgment of those objects.

Substitute “persons” for “objects” and you can see how categorization can lead to problems.

Our brains categorize other people whether we’re aware of it or not. And how our brains categorize them determines how we react to them and often how we treat them. But since this categorization is unconscious, we aren’t aware of it.

I remember that when I moved to New Mexico from California, I soon made the acquaintance of several other 8s. Immediately, I felt comfortable with all of them as a result of our similarities. Although we all have significant differences, those differences did not seem as important as our similarities so I downplayed them.

Categorizing people by Enneagram type is usually a conscious and deliberate process. But the traits and characteristics we associate with different types—and our attitudes toward them—may not be entirely conscious. Those unconscious attitudes may lead to negative stereotyping we aren’t even aware of.

So we don’t really have a choice when it comes to our brains’ categorizing habit and we aren’t privy to that information. But we can pay attention to the way we use the Enneagram to categorize people. We can notice when we perceive all 2s or all 9s as being alike. We can remember that although all 2s and all 9s have a lot in common with each other, each 2 and each 9 is different from the others. And even though we may not be 2s or 9s, we still have things in common with them. They are not as different from us as our categorization might imply.

Types and Stereotypes

Latina: Systema taxinomicum

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Any system or method of classifying people has the potential to be used in harmful ways. But classifying things—and people—is one of the ways in which we organize and make sense of the world. Our brains do a certain amount of classifying on their own without our conscious intervention. If they didn’t have that ability, we wouldn’t have survived long enough to have this discussion. It isn’t possible or even desirable to dispense with our classifying behavior.

In order to classify, the first thing we do is observe. From our observations, we then make generalizations. Based on our generalizations, we create classifications.

In terms of the physical/material world, it’s good to know which classifications of mushrooms are safe to eat and which are not, which insects have a deadly sting and which are harmless, which sounds and smells signal danger and which are innocuous.

In terms of people, things can get a bit dicey. We have all kinds of classifications for people based on nationality, religion, race, gender, age, level of education, type of car people drive, whether or not they have children, physical appearance, the language they use, whether or not they just cut you off in traffic, where they live, and even whether or not you know them. We also, of course, classify people by their personalities or temperaments. The Greek physician Hippocrates is the first person we know of to come up with this way of classifying people. Carl Jung may be the most well-known for “typing” people as a result of the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Inventory) based on his work.


Although there are some people who object to being classified by personality type, in general typing does not have the bad rap that stereotyping does. But in fact, typing and stereotyping are really the same thing. And I don’t think the problems we encounter with the misuse of typing are a result of stereotyping.

“What people call ‘stereotypes’ are what scientists call ‘empirical generalizations,’ and they are the foundation of scientific theory. That’s what scientists do; they make generalizations. Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true. If they are not true, they wouldn’t be stereotypes (emphasis his).”

–Satoshi Kanazawa, Psychology Today

Most of us think that stereotyping people is wrong. I think it’s wrong. Or at least I did until very recently when I started to investigate the concept and came to the conclusion that it isn’t stereotyping that’s the problem. As Kanazawa says, “stereotypes are observations…neither good nor bad, desirable nor undesirable, moral nor immoral.” The problem is that we use stereotyping the wrong way. You could even say we abuse stereotyping.

The first way in which we abuse or misuse stereotyping is that we tend to forget about individual exceptions. Just because something is true in general for an entire group of people (let’s call it Group Type A) doesn’t mean it is true for every single individual within Group Type A. The generalization still applies—it just doesn’t necessarily apply to the particular person from Group Type A you happen to be talking to or working with or in a relationship with.

The second way in which we misuse stereotyping is by using stereotypes against people. The most egregious examples are racism, sexism, religious persecution, and the like. But we also use personality stereotypes against other people.

“Stereotypes tell us what groups of people tend to be or do in general; they do not tell us how we ought to treat them.”

But isn’t that one of the points—and benefits—of learning about systems like the Enneagram? To know how to get along with different types of people? It’s kind of a conundrum, isn’t it?


Difficulties arise because the “empirical generalizations” that underlie systems like the Enneagram are viewed by each of us through our own set of filters, biases, opinions, judgments, personal experiences, and type. We don’t live our lives as scientists, examining the world through a microscope and trying to be as objective as possible before proceeding from one step to the next. We make snap judgments, we jump to conclusions, we react emotionally. Inevitably conflicts arise or someone says or does something we don’t like. It may be tempting, if we know about the Enneagram, to blame behavior we don’t like on the other person’s personality type. And to let them know we’re on to them.

Using the Enneagram to understand other people better is one thing, but throwing someone’s Enneagram type in his or her face is never OK. Even if someone behaves stereotypically, we can’t be certain their behavior wasn’t the result of something totally unrelated to type. We can never fully know someone else’s story. If we judge them solely on their personality type, we’re doing ourselves, the other person, and even the Enneagram a huge disservice.

The Resilience of 4s

Inner World

Inner World (Photo credit: sea turtle)

I was recently pondering out loud with a friend how the compulsions of our type are sometimes a perfect match with the circumstance or situation we find ourselves in. In that moment we fit the job/situation like a fine, hand-tailored, leather glove. No one else could do what we do—or do it as well as we could.

Then there are other times when the compulsions of our type are diametrically, or at least significantly, opposed to what is wanted and needed in the moment. We are the square peg trying to fit into the round hole. Not even a close match. The old adage if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail applies.

A short time later, I began rereading Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz and his development of what he called logotherapy, an attempt to shed light on the meaning of human existence and man’s search for meaning. Fifty-some pages into the book, I had to get up from my comfy chair to get a highlighter pen. What I was reading struck such a chord with me because of my recent post on the shadow of type 4 and the subsequent comments of a reader.

We both agreed that for various reasons 4s can have a difficult time in our Western culture, which doesn’t often value what they bring to the table. What got me out of my chair was Frankl’s description of some of the personal characteristics and tendencies of those prisoners who managed to best cope with life in a concentration camp. And, surprise of surprises, the people he described were clearly 4s:

Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature. …

The intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past. When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. His nostalgic memory glorified them and they assumed a strange character….

As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances.

This seemed amazing to me—and at the same time understandable after I thought about it. I know people who don’t have the type of inner life Frankl was talking about, and some of them experience that lack as a kind of suffering in itself. My own experience is that when I am in the best psychological shape, I spend more time daydreaming without it detracting from what I want to or need to do. In fact, daydreaming can have a very positive effect on my productivity (productivity being extremely important to an 8).

I asked Connie Howard (a 4) to read a draft of this post, which she was kind enough to agree to, and one of the things she said was:

I do sometimes see (in 4s I know) this contradiction: sensitive and melancholy and pessimistic on the one hand, and very adaptable and surprisingly strong and hopeful on the other.  On the occasions (during the course of my cancer) where I wasn’t able to hold things together, the feedback I got was surprise that I hadn’t come apart more often. Perhaps it’s kind of a 4 thing to conclude that intense experiences are both the most horrid and the best things to have had happen… a contradiction, I know!

I can see how the ability to retreat into one’s inner world and the past can in some circumstances be absolutely the best possible response—a response other types can and do make to one extent or another, but which 4s seem to be the very best at making. 4s’ inner strength may not always be recognized by other types, but that’s our loss.

Typing Abraham Lincoln

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Abe Lincoln is all the rage these days, and I’ve been going with the flow. I recently finished reading Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year. This extremely well-researched and well-written book by David Von Drehle covers the year 1862, Lincoln’s first full year in the office of President. On the first day of 1863, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Shortly after finishing the book, I saw the movie, Lincoln, which takes place in 1865, the year the 13th Amendment was passed by the House of Representatives.

Just about everyone in the Enneagram world seems convinced that Abraham Lincoln was a 9w1. Typing famous people, dead or alive, is common among Enneagram experts and amateurs alike. It serves a purpose in offering examples of types. But it runs counter to most teachers’ recommendations that people come to their own conclusion about which type they are. Many of the people who are held up as examples of type never heard of the Enneagram, let alone filled out a questionnaire or tried to identify themselves. And we can’t get inside their heads to understand where they were coming from or what motivated them. In a lot of cases, all we see is what’s on the outside. So we should take all of this typing of dead people with a grain of salt—or at least a caveat or two.

As far as Abe Lincoln goes, I will agree from what I’ve read that he was most likely a 9. Had he not had such a grasp of the big picture—keeping the Union together—our world would be inconceivably different today. But I’m not sure why everyone believes he had a 1 wing. Is it because of his nickname, “Honest Abe”? Or is it because only someone with a 1 wing (an Idealist) could possibly have been responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation and for bringing an end to slavery? If so, that’s the kind of stereotyping that should make us Enneagram experts squirm.

More 8 than 1

Lincoln was an ambitious man who wanted to make his mark, to have an impact on his world, to be remembered. He was also notoriously thick-skinned. Those are not signs of either 9s or 1s. Those are characteristics of 8s. 8s, too, are greatly concerned with justice, fairness, and equality and with defending and protecting the underdog, whoever they perceive the underdog to be. When 8s take up causes they will do whatever they feel is necessary to achieve their goals. If that includes making under-the-table deals with the “enemy”—as Lincoln did in order to get the votes he needed for the 13th Amendment—so be it. If that includes shading the truth—as he did about the existence of peace talks with the Confederacy in order to assure the House vote took place before the war ended—so be it. The ends very often justify the means for 8s.

As I was reading Von Drehle’s book, I came across many descriptions of Lincoln’s behavior, attitudes, and personal characteristics like these:

  • He had always been proud of his physique, and enjoyed challenging other men to contests of strength, which he inevitably won. He used his size subtly to intimidate, even as he used his humor to put people off guard.
  • …[F]or now Lincoln was still the virile figure of his campaign propaganda, the rail-splitter whose blend of brains and brawn reflected America’s favored image of itself: strong, bright, and independent.
  • Lincoln had a shambling animal force about him, which some found appealing and others found unsettling.

Which type does that remind you of?

When I brought up this typing issue with a friend who is a 1w9—and a history buff—he said he had never thought of Lincoln as an idealist. After seeing Lincoln, I suggested to him that Thaddeus Stevens might have been a 1. At least as portrayed in the movie, he was greatly pained when he reluctantly agreed to deny what he believed to be moral and true in order to achieve the short-term gain of passage of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln, on the other hand, did not seem to have those sorts of compunctions about the wheeling and dealing he undertook for what he saw as the greater good.

Lincoln was a politician. He never denied that. I think being a 9w8 made it possible for him to see what needed to be done in the broadest of terms and then to be able to do it, no matter how he had to bend either rules or people.

From time to time, even “Honest Abe” himself exaggerated or dissembled in pursuit of a great cause.

— Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer

I highly recommend both the book and the movie and plan to write about General George McClellan, who fairly jumps from the pages of Von Drehle’s book as a perfect example of a 5. Of course, McClellan is dead and I never met the man, but strictly as portrayed in Von Drehle’s book–my caveat–he’s a classic type 5.

The Image in the Mirror

Raistlin Majere. Image by Vera Gentinetta. Tic...

Image by Vera Gentinetta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A self-image is a lot like a work of fiction in that it is heavily edited before being presented to an audience. It is seen first by an audience of one—oneself—and then the public audience of friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers.

One of the ways we maintain a consistent self-image is by repeatedly telling ourselves stories that reinforce it. Another way we do it is by repeatedly telling other people stories about ourselves that reinforce it. We are, as Jonathan Gottschall puts it, storytelling animals. It’s our nature to pull together our experiences and perceptions into a coherent linear narrative. That’s how we make sense of the world. And that’s how we create the fictional characters we claim to be.

It isn’t as if we’re intending to lie about who we are. It’s that we are invested in being—and being seen—in a particular light. So we edit out the parts of our lives, past and present, that don’t fit the role we’re playing.

While it’s true that image is the primary issue of the three Feeling Center types, they aren’t the only people who construct and nurture their own self-image and the image they present to the world. We all do it.

What’s Your Self-Schema?

A lot of our efforts to maintain a consistent self-image are habitual and automatic, so we aren’t even aware of them. In the process of developing generalizations about ourselves, we form cognitive structures called self-schemas. These self-schemas then organize and guide the processing of information that is self-related. That means they determine what we pay attention to and how events and experiences are encoded in our memories. Self-schemas are biased on their own behalf. If something fits our self-schema, for example, we are likely to pay more attention to it and to remember it more easily. We tend to dismiss what doesn’t fit our self-schemas.

We don’t have just one self-schema; we have several, depending on the different roles we play in life. But there are some aspects of our self-schema that are consistent across all of them. If you know your Enneagram type, you know what many of those are for you.

Self-schemas are self-perpetuating and very difficult to change. You have to be open and willing to explore the possibility that you are not your self-image. Your self-image is a fictional character you have been developing—usually with some help from the people closest to you—for most of your life.

Wei Ji, the Chinese symbol for crisis

When something happens that significantly messes with our self-image, the result can be denial or a crisis of identity. But while such an experience can present a danger to our self-schema, it is also an opportunity to step out of character and address the audience directly (authentically).

Is that Really True?

There are a couple of simple steps you can take to become more aware of how you are perpetuating your self-image.

  • When you catch yourself telling stories, whether to yourself or someone else, you can stop and ask yourself if they are really true–or if they represent the “whole” story.
  • You can make a list of things you believe about yourself, and then for each one, ask yourself if it is really true. Be ruthless.

Trying to uncover the truth of who we are can be like chasing a moving target, difficult to hone in on. But it’s a liberating experience that’s well worth the effort. The reward is that we get to break free of the confines of the structure that has defined us and dictated what is possible for us.

Each one of us has many more dimensions than the scripted characters we have been playing.

You Can Call Me (Antisocial) Al

Al was one of my clients when I worked as a substance abuse counselor at the methadone clinic. Somehow I managed to persuade every single one of my clients to complete an Enneagram questionnaire, so I knew he was a Type 5. With his shaved head (usually covered by a baseball cap) and multiple tattoos, Al was a little off-putting, appearance-wise. He had spent more than one stint in San Quentin where he joined an Aryan Brotherhood gang. As he—and several other ex-con clients—explained to me, you had to belong to some group in prison in order to survive. He never seemed very committed to the white supremacist thing, and being a 5, he certainly wasn’t part of any gang on the outside.

Somewhere along the way, Al had encountered a psychiatrist who diagnosed him as having Antisocial Personality Disorder. I’m not sure what the psychiatrist was thinking. Did he believe that because Al had committed antisocial acts, he must therefore have Antisocial Personality Disorder? I don’t know. And I wouldn’t have cared, except the doctor was so convincing Al took on the diagnosis as part of his identity. It was as if he introduced himself by offering his hand and saying, “Hi, I’m Al. I have Antisocial Personality Disorder.”


The disconnect for me was that Al was unfailingly prompt for his counseling appointments and far more considerate of me than many of my less-sinister-appearing clients. He’d knock softly on my door and stick his head into my office after the client ahead of him had left. “I just wanted you to know I’m here,” he’d say. “Take your time. If you need a break, I’ll wait.” Continue reading

Gender Stereotyping: Who Controls the Remote?

When it comes to the brain, clichés are never true.

                                                                                      Jonah Lehrer

Wielding control of the TV remote is one of the most recognizable cliché examples of male (dominance) behavior. But my partner of 30 years, who died in 2005, was a 4w5—a Withdrawing type with a Withdrawing wing—and since I’m an 8w7—an Aggressive type with an Aggressive wing—I was always the one firmly in control of the TV remote.

Our relationship never fit that Mars/Venus stereotyping that’s still popular in some circles. Withdrawing types tend to nurture the past in one way or another, and as a result, RC had much greater and more detailed recall about the events of our relationship than I did. He would wander off on verbal reveries about something or other we once did—or used to do regularly—assuming I shared those memories. But since I often had zero recall, I learned to keep my mouth shut or nod abstractedly. If I strained hard enough, I was sometimes able to bring up a fragment of the past that had been lost to me, which was always a huge surprise and slightly unnerving.

On the domestic front, I’m erratic at best. I enjoy decorating, but I hate cleaning, am indifferent about cooking, and find grocery shopping and doing dishes useless wastes of time. While RC wasn’t crazy about cleaning, either, he pulled his own weight. And he did the lion’s share of all those other tasks. He was an excellent cook, and he really enjoyed it. I’ve never prepared a Thanksgiving dinner in my life. But we had roasted turkey and all the trimmings every year we were together.

He once threatened to get me a T-shirt that said “I am not the nice lady”—and he meant it as a compliment. Continue reading