Tag Archives: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

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.

Gender Stereotyping Strikes Again

avid reader

avid reader (Photo credit: sekihan)

The New Yorker ran an article by Joan Acocella on 10/15/12 titled “Turning the Page: How women became readers,” in which she reviews “The Woman Reader,” by Belinda Jack. (See link below.)

I’ve been reading for enjoyment, information, and edification ever since I learned how to translate letters into words and words into meaning; it’s something I’ve always take for granted.

But for centuries women were widely forbidden to read. Thank Gutenberg for making books so easy to get that men gave up trying to keep women away from them. But there were still a few obstacles remaining before women gained free access to books. One of them was the 19th Century belief that women were prone to hysteria as a result of their “strong emotions.”

One London doctor wrote that female patients might be allowed fiction but should be carefully watched. If a novel seemed to worsen a woman’s condition, it should be taken away and replaced by “a book upon some practical subject; such, for instance, as beekeeping.”

However, the 19th Century is also when novels became hugely popular–and some of them were even written by women!

All well and good (and I highly recommend the article), but what does any of this have to do with the Enneagram? One paragraph in Acocella’s piece describes a 2004 study of 800 educated British adolescents, who were “asked to name their ‘watershed books,’ books that sustained them ‘through key moments of transition or crisis in their lives.'”

The results of the study purport to reveal how boys’ and girls’ reading choices differ in “stereotypical ways.”

The boys chose The Stranger, One Hundred Years of Solitudeand The Catcher in the Rye. The girls chose Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina. (Acocella adds: “lest anyone doubt that women prefer tales of love and marriage.”)

Really? Really?

I don’t prefer tales of love and marriage. I’ve read all of those books, and I’m firmly in the boys’ camp as far as which ones had more of an influence on me. In fact One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite novel of all time.

Admittedly Enneagram type 3 or 8 women and Myers-Briggs type ENTJ women do not constitute the majority of women. But we do exist. And we do not conform to the stereotypes the psychologists and scientists and–now–writers keep trying to shove down our throats. The same goes for Enneagram type 2 or 4 men, who also exist and who also do not conform to gender stereotype.

Individual temperament–meaning personality type–is usually a more accurate indicator of a person’s habits and proclivities than whether that person is male or female. But gender stereotyping is easy. Understanding temperament is quite a bit more complex.

What book or books influenced you as a young reader?

Twisted Affirmations (Enneagram Humor)

English: Halloween in Bonaire.


A student in a group I facilitated years ago (not the group pictured above) brought in a list of “twisted affirmations” she’d come across. As she read them aloud, we realized how easily they could be categorized by Enneagram type. So that’s what we did. There were many more affirmations than the nine below, but some types got off pretty easy while others seemed to come out far more “twisted.” So to keep it fair (I’m an 8, after all), I’ve chosen what seems to be the most representative twist for each type. I would love to credit the author, but I have no idea who he/she is.

Type 1
I am grateful that I am not as judgmental as all those censorious, self-righteous people around me.

Type 2
As I learn the innermost secrets of the people around me, they reward me in many ways to keep quiet.

Type 3
To have a successful relationship, I must learn to make it look like I’m giving as much as I’m getting.

Type 4
I can change any thought that hurts into a reality that hurts even more.

Type 5
I have the power to channel my imagination into ever-soaring levels of suspicion and paranoia.

Type 6
Only a lack of imagination saves me from immobilizing myself with imaginary fears.

Type 7
I am willing to make the mistakes if someone else is willing to learn from them.

Type 8
When someone hurts me, forgiveness is cheaper than a lawsuit, but not nearly as gratifying.

Type 9
False hope is nicer than no hope at all.

~ ~ ~

Sometimes you just need to be able to laugh at yourself.