How Can The Enneagram Community Stay True to Its Roots And Embrace Science? by Jack Killen, MD

How Can The Enneagram Community Stay True to Its Roots And Embrace Science? by Jack Killen, MD



This session at the 2014 IEA Conference was developed as a forum in which to explore the proposition that science offers knowledge, tools, and methods that should be embraced in our efforts to further progress toward the IEA’s vision of a world in which the Enneagram is widely understood and constructively used. The session grew out of an essay in the 2013 issue of the Enneagram Journal by Fitzsimons and Killen[1].

It began with two brief introductory presentations by Eric Meyer and me. These set the stage for three rounds of small group discussions using the World Café method[2], facilitated by CJ Fitzsimons. These were structured around topics intended to explore a broad range of participants’ attitudes, opinions, desires, and concerns about the question posed by the session’s title. Approximately 45 participants engaged in a rich and spirited discussion, which was captured in notes made by the participants on paper “table cloths”, and summarized at the end by one anchor participant who stayed at each table.

The first two parts of our report offer expanded versions of our introductory presentations, one more scientific (Killen) and one more philosophical (Meyer). In a third part we will present a distillation of the results of the World Café discussions, and offer some concluding thoughts of our own. We hope through these articles in Nine Points to expand discussion about nurturing a scientifically oriented sub-culture within the Enneagram community.

Perspectives of a clinical research scientist

I suspect most participants at the IEA conference or readers of Nine Points share my belief that the Enneagram has a lot to offer the world, and that we should want to find more effective ways to share what we have. My beliefs reflect 18 years of enormous personal benefit from “working” the Enneagram, and witnessing similar experience by hundreds of others “working it” in both psycho-spiritual and business settings.

My perspective on how the enneagram community can stay true to its wisdom tradition roots and embrace science reflects my medical training and professional experience, and my 32 year career in biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health. Two things about that experience stand out. First, my career afforded me very unusual opportunities to work at the interface of scientific and non-scientifically oriented communities. These included 16 years leading efforts to build bridges between AIDS activists and scientists involved in NIH-supported AIDS research programs, and 10 years leading NIH efforts to bring rigorous science to complementary and alternative medicine. Second, I have always found it necessary to translate some Enneagram teachings into language and concepts that I could reconcile with my scientific orientation. Happily I have yet to encounter any show stoppers. At the same time I understand and sympathize with many scientific reservations and concerns about the Enneagram, and how they almost certainly contribute to its place on the fringes of contemporary mainstream psychological science. I also find myself dismayed at the misunderstandings or mistrust of science I often encounter in the Enneagram community.

From that perspective, I offer the following thoughts on why I believe science has much to offer us in our efforts to create a world in which the Enneagram is more widely understood and used, and how we can embrace it where we need it, while staying true to our wisdom tradition roots.

On nurturing understanding of scientific thinking and methods

Science is one way of knowing. It recognizes the fact that a host of cognitive biases and logical fallacies come as standard equipment in human minds. For this reason science views all observations and interpretations of experience with a degree of criticality and skeptical curiosity, and seeks objective evidence gathered using systematic methods designed to maximize confidence in accuracy, and minimize inadvertent errors. Eric Meyer’s perspectives in Part 2 will expand on this.

Even though there has been very little Enneagram-oriented research published in scientific literature, there exists in the collective experience of the larger Enneagram community a great deal of evidence supporting many aspects of Enneagram theory and application. For example, the descriptions of many aspects of the nine types have been developed, shaped, and refined through careful self-exploration and narrative inquiry involving many thousands of individuals. And the degree of consensus about those descriptions across various “schools” of teaching – and more recently across very diverse cultures – is very reassuring. Similarly we have considerable evidence in the accounts of thousands of individuals who have found the Enneagram helpful in their individual personal, psychological, or spiritual journeys in a variety of settings similar to those from which current Enneagram teaching has emerged. More recent similar evidence supports efficacy of application in workplace settings.

Given this evidence, why should we care about a more scientific approach to Enneagram theory and application? Lessons from clinical medicine and psychology practice are instructive. In those fields assimilated clinical experience is extremely valuable, can be compelling, and is often the primary basis for widely used interventions, including medicines, lifestyle approaches, surgical or physical procedures, and forms of psychotherapy. However, the history of all healing professions is riddled with examples of treatments widely believed by professionals to be effective and safe, but subsequently shown otherwise when subjected to scientific scrutiny in clinical trials. In every way the kinds and quality of evidence that constitute clinical experience in those fields resemble the kinds and quality of evidence we rely on as Enneagram teachers and facilitators. There is simply no reason to believe we are any less fallible to a variety of logical fallacies in our assessments of our version of collective clinical experience. If we are honest and objective, we must admit a degree of uncertainty about the validity of conclusions drawn from our assimilated experience.

How can reliance on assimilated experience fail us? One example from the healing professions, which is particularly relevant to the Enneagram community, is illustrative. There is an important blind spot in clinical experience, which relates to the simple fact that clinicians usually have more information about what happened to some patients/clients – whether good or bad – than others. This is bound to skew interpretations toward the experiences and outcomes of patients/clients about whom the clinician knows more. For example, a massage therapist’s self-assessment of techniques and skills can be easily and unintentionally skewed toward the experiences of the satisfied clients who return, while the experiences of those who don’t, which may or may not be similar to those who do, are in a blind spot.

How does this example apply to our work with the Enneagram? Most attendees of an IEA conference probably believe (as I certainly do) that the Enneagram would be useful for everyone. Our primary evidence for this belief is our personal experience, which is strongly reinforced by our colleagues’ and teachers’ collective experiences. The results are right here in the front of our individual and collective minds, hearts, and bodies. In the shadows, however, are uncertainties about what happened to the many more people who we know were exposed to the Enneagram in introductory workshops but did not embrace it like we did. Perhaps they simply “weren’t ready”, as we often infer, but if we are honest with ourselves we really don’t know. Alternative hypotheses include the possibilities they didn’t see themselves in the teachings because the teachings are in some way incomplete, or maybe the teaching are really relevant only to a subset of humanity which resembles us in some undefined way and we continue to shape the body of knowledge in our own image. These are obviously extreme examples. Hopefully they make the point that we should want, at a minimum, to learn as much as we can about hidden biases in clinical experience from others who have looked hard at the problem, and approaches we might take to identify potential weak spots, and lessen distortions in our own evidence base.

Doing so will also be useful in helping us understand more clearly how a more scientifically oriented world is likely to view our claims and offerings, as we seek to make the Enneagram more widely understood by others. More generally, I suggest we would be well served by efforts to create space in our collective exploration of the Enneagram that welcomes and encourages scientific thinking, and broader understanding of scientific approaches. For example, we could much more intentionally foster an environment that values and welcomes healthy skepticism and open discussion of doubts or gaps in knowledge. Why would we want to do that? Because increased clarity about what we know and how we know it, and what we do not know or need to know, strengthens our knowledge base, and fosters deeper inquiry where it is most needed. This is not to argue the universal supremacy of science, or that science should replace what we have and do now. Instead it is simply an argument to bring more scientific thinking and analysis to our armamentarium when it is appropriate. In many ways it is a call for us to strengthen our capacities for self-observation of our collective self. It is also likely that projecting an image of greater self-criticality will bolster our credibility in the outside world.

On fostering scientific investigation of enneagram applications

More and more we are beginning to see application of the Enneagram beyond the wisdom tradition settings in which it developed and has evolved. Use in business, and applications to important social problems (e.g. the Enneagram Prison Project), or health conditions (e.g. addiction) are familiar examples. From our perspective as Enneagram students and practitioners, the rationale for these applications is compelling, and the results we have heard about are gratifying. However, scientists looking in on our experience will have very legitimate questions about how much of what we see is actually attributable to Enneagram-specific effects, and how much is due to other processes which are integrated into our Enneagram-based interventions.

To understand these concerns, consider another example from clinical experience, which involves a general tendency of human minds to attribute cause-and-effect relationships to events that are merely correlated. Suppose a patient/client improves (event 2), following an intervention administered by a therapist (event 1). Both the patient/client and the therapist are prone to attribute improvement to the intervention. In fact all we know from this information is that events 1 and 2 are correlated. From this information alone we cannot know what role if any the treatment actually played. For instance, it is entirely plausible that the condition simply ran its natural course, and the client would have improved with or without the intervention. Indeed one of the biggest problems in relying on clinical experience in general is that symptoms or disease conditions change or even resolve on their own over time. (Voltaire spoke to this when he said “The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”)

More germane to our work, the correlation/causation fallacy is particularly problematic when improvement involves subjective symptoms (e.g. physical or emotional pain) or other cognitive or emotional states (e.g. attitudes, beliefs, affects), and the intervention involves time and attention from a caring provider or a group process. (Both would apply to most Enneagram-based interventions.) Both in and of themselves are known to have salutary effects on many kinds of mental states, so even if the specific intervention contributed to improvement, we know virtually nothing about how much it helped, or how it compares to other options on any measure of effectiveness, practicality, cost, or safety.

The methods of scientific clinical investigation seek to minimize such perceptual and interpretive biases, which are inherent in clinical practice evidence. That evidence-based practice has become the standard in medicine, mental-health, and organizational development is a direct result of innumerable hard lessons learned about the fallibility of assimilated clinical experience. Undoubtedly rigorous scientific investigation of Enneagram-based interventions will be required if we are to make a convincing case for their use in the wider world. In any case it seems to me inarguable that we should want the most rigorous evidence we can develop about our interventions, even if only for our own purposes.

Beyond desires for the best possible evidence, one can make a compelling argument that scientific research on practical applications of Enneagram-based interventions may provide some of the most feasible and realistic opportunities we have to make progress toward a world where the Enneagram is more widely understood and wisely used. If properly targeted, research asking questions about whether Enneagram-based applications are helpful in addressing specific health or social problems would be directly relevant to interests and needs across a spectrum of behavioral and social science and health care. It would also be vastly simpler to design and implement than research on any of a number of empirical questions we should be asking ourselves about the validity of Enneagram theory. However, research to address such fundamental questions would be enormously complicated, and very long-term undertakings, because Enneagram theory is about an enormously complex and interactive system with many dynamic elements.

Efforts to study cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), meditation, and acupuncture provide models for our own efforts. These interventions are particularly relevant to our thinking because each had roots in clinical experience, and much of that experience took place outside the mainstream of scientific psychological or medical practice. In all three cases there is now emerging an increasingly robust science addressing questions about whether these interventions are helpful and safe in managing specific clinical problems. Research on more fundamental questions – e.g. how those which seem helpful might exert their effects – has, in general, come after the emergence of evidence of usefulness. The detailed stories of each are beyond the scope of this article, but it is fair to say that assimilated clinical evidence from practitioners was sufficient to attract the interest of a few, sometimes intrepid mainstream scientists who saw needs in their particular fields of interest, and potential opportunity to make scientific progress toward better treatments. For example, a few “mainstream” research psychologists wondered if CBT might be a more efficient or safer alternative to more traditional approaches using long-term psychotherapy or drugs; a few “mainstream” mental health workers wondered if meditation might be a useful non-drug intervention for people with refractory anxiety; and a few “mainstream” physicians wondered if acupuncture might actually offer a useful non-narcotic analgesic alternative in managing refractory pain. Subsequently, “mainstream” neuroscientists became curious about how meditation and acupuncture might exert the beneficial effects seen in preliminary efficacy studies. In this research they have learned important and sometimes surprising information about innate mechanisms of pain perception, processing, and modulation by the brain.

In all three cases it is also fair to say that current progress in research has been a direct result of collaborations involving the “non-mainstream” clinicians who had expertise in their particular intervention, and the “intrepid” scientists who brought expertise in the methods and measures of science. Two points about these interdisciplinary collaborations merit emphasis. First, the science in these fields advanced because it was built on science that came before. Specifically, science brought experience and expertise to the challenges of designing good research on complicated clinical problems, including validated methods for measuring the effects of interventions on fundamentally subjective inner states (e.g. pain, anxiety, attention, and emotion). Second, a few non-scientist clinicians were willing to collaborate in research which subjected their beliefs about the value of their interventions to scientific investigation. In doing this they had to be willing to risk finding results that did not support those beliefs. Thus, while many studies of acupuncture suggest it can be helpful in alleviating chronic pain, other studies have failed to find evidence of usefulness in a number of other problems. While such “negative” studies are disappointing, the totality of the evidence base about acupuncture is increasingly more robust, and more credible to more outsiders.

How does this apply to the goal of building a science around application of Enneagram-based interventions? First, our assimilated evidence about applications of the Enneagram in business, health, or social settings is beginning to look a lot like the early clinical evidence about CBT, meditation, and acupuncture. If we are genuinely interested in expanding awareness and acceptance of our Enneagram-based applications, we can learn a lot and also avoid “reinventing the wheel” by studying the experiences of others who opened up research in those fields. Second, it suggests we need to build collaborations with scientists who work in intersecting fields of psychology, sociology, health care, and neuroscience. While we have expertise they lack in all matters Enneagram, they have expertise most of us lack in designing and implementing the kind of rigorous clinical research we should want for ourselves and will need to make a convincing case to others. Finally, we need to approach scientific investigation of Enneagram-based interventions with a balanced combination of hope that our early experience pans out in the results of more rigorous research, and understanding that we may not find exactly what we hope we will, simply because that is what often happens in clinical research on novel interventions. Whatever the outcome, however, we are guaranteed to learn a lot about what we actually have, and if we find what we hope to find we will have a better case for wider interest.

On fostering scientific collaborations

How can we foster scientific collaboration when we need it? I suggest one important step would consist of a serious attempt to look at ourselves, objectively, through scientific eyes. Doing that, one thing we would gain is fresh and useful insight into the hard fact most of us know that the Enneagram looks to most scientists like a host of other esoteric, pop psychology, self-help, or new-age offerings. Good scientists are constantly approached by others seeking collaboration. If we want to create the scientific collaborations we will need for good science on Enneagram-based applications, we need to understand how our potential collaborators think, so we can make ourselves heard and stand out from the crowd in terms they understand. Like all humans, scientists are more likely to collaborate with others when they see mutually beneficial opportunities to advance their own work. So we must work hard at framing opportunities for scientific collaboration, in ways that articulate both our own needs for scientific help and also what we have to offer “them”, in terms that they can hear most easily and clearly. Advocates for rigorous research on CBT, meditation, and acupuncture all took this kind of initiative. And though the politics were different, AIDS activists also succeeded in advancing their research agendas by approaching science on its terms. We should and can emulate that experience.

Finally we need to remember two things about scientists. First, they are human beings. Individual scientists can be every bit as idealistic, closed-minded, or protective of their own territory as any other human being. We should not fall into the trap of assuming hostility from all of “science” because of the dismissive views of some individual scientists. That this is sensible advice is demonstrated by the fact that we now have a large body of high-quality research on acupuncture, an intervention which was rejected outright as quackery by much of mainstream medicine and science. Second, we need to remember that from a good scientist’s perspective everything merits scrutiny and skepticism, because those are sources of clarity and creativity. In science hypotheses and models are strengthened most by failed attempts to break them, because it is relatively easy to find evidence to support what you believe or hope to be true. To paraphrase the Godfather, skepticism and challenge in science are “nothing personal, just business”. So we should consider scientific criticisms seriously, but not take them personally. When scientists criticize the Enneagram or our work with it, they are doing what science does – asking “are you really certain?” Our challenge is to hear clearly the kernels of truth, and determine what to do with that information from a place of receptivity rather than defensiveness.

[1] “How Science Can Help Solve the Enneagram’s Credibility Problem”. CJ Fitzsimons and Jack Killen. Enneagram Journal, 2013.



Jack Killen, M.D. recently retired from a 32 year career in clinical research at the National Institutes of Health. He has been studying the Enneagram since 1996. He is certified as a teacher by Enneagram Studies in the Narrative Tradition, and is a trainer in the workplace and an Enneagram coach by the Enneagram in Business. Jack has particular interests in the intersections of science, spiritual practices, and personal growth.

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