Humans have an uncanny ability to detect patterns: Two dots and a crescent are not just two dots and a crescent, they are a smiling face that elicit feelings of warmth and well-being. The random sounds generated by a record played backward sound like “Paul is dead.” The random visual grouping of unrelated stars millions of light years away look like a crab.
This tendency to see patterns in unrelated or random data or objects is called apophenia and it takes many forms. Visual and auditory apophenia are called pareidolia—the kind of flaw in perception that makes us see Mother Theresa on a piece of toast or faces on the moon, or to hear “Paul is dead.” Other delusions, such as believing in improbable conspiracy theories or believing that planetary alignment affects human events, are rooted in a cluster of cognitive biases called “patternicity” by Michael Shermer, publisher of “Skeptic” magazine.
Apophenia often distorts the way we see the world, causing us to see things that aren’t there, but it is tremendously valuable and we would be lost without it. If we didn’t have highly sensitive pattern-recognition skills we wouldn’t be able to learn from experience, recognize faces, or infer deep spiritual or scientific truths. We would learn little and we would have to learn the same things anew each time. It is hard-wired into our psyche for the simple reason that seeing patterns confers a survival advantage: The tendency to see a set of stripes rustling in the bushes and think “Tiger! Run!” meant that our ancestors might live to pass on their genes; those without that tendency had a higher chance of becoming a tiger’s lunch. Seeing patterns is our evolutionary heritage.
Of course, this heritage is not always a good thing and it can mislead and misguide us. We are all prone to its excesses, and some are prone to hyper-paternicity, seeing significance in almost any random pattern and creating complex just-so stories to connect events that are not actually connected. A friend saying “plate of shrimp” at the same time you are thinking about how much you would enjoy a plate of shrimp is not spooky synchronicity; it is a coincidence no matter what Miller from “Repo Man” says.1 Understanding that we have a tendency toward apophenia and trying to mitigate its excesses is crucial to seeing ourselves and the world more clearly.
So what does this have to do with the Enneagram? The Enneagram is map of psycho-spiritual patterns that helps us see ourselves and others more clearly, but we have to be careful not to give into the tendency to get carried away seeking more and more patterns; confusing signal with noise.
The intricacy of the diagram is like catnip to those drawn to seeing patterns. The lines connect in mesmerizing ways, and an active imagination can start extrapolating an endless variety of triads and groupings and interactions. I was once contacted via email by someone who invited me to read his treatise on why there are actually 540 Ennea-types, not just nine. I declined his offer, and a couple of years later he sent me another email saying he had “discovered” that there are actually 1080 Ennea-types, offering me the chance to read his updated treatise. I again declined and expect some day that the number will grow even higher. One can only imagine the Beautiful Mind-ish scribblings on this poor soul’s garage walls…
One cognitive bias is particularly useful to point out when trying to understand patternicity and the Enneagram is the correspondence bias. The correspondence bias is the tendency to attribute universality to random or circumstance-driven behaviors. For example, one might meet Mary for the first time and see her as being quiet, introverted, and low energy. You are committing the correspondence bias if you then assume that Mary is generally low-energy person based on this one encounter, rather than see that Mary may have just been tired that day.
A variation on this bias occurs when we assume qualities about all or most people of a given Ennea-type based on our experience of one person of a particular type. I once had someone approach me at a conference saying he wanted to discuss my book. It turned out he had a different agenda and he asked me to read something that he had written. He said, “My wife is an Eight and she doesn’t read, so I know Eights don’t read. But this is short and won’t take you much time.” To this day, I’m baffled as to why he would approach someone who had written a book and assume that person didn’t read. There is no universal truth when it comes to Eights and reading; some do and some don’t.
It is all too easy to believe we see patterns based on far too few data points; it is very easy to assume that we see someone’s Ennea-type based on a very short exposure to that person and then it is very easy use the many patterns we think we see in the Enneagram to rationalize our too-hasty assumption. “Tom is a Two. I know Two’s don’t usually do that but maybe Tom behaves that way because he has an x wing and has x subtype and is a member of the x triad and has xyz as his trifix…” Seeing so many variable patterns can allow us deep insight, but other times we can simply be stuck in the patterns and missing other data—perhaps Tom is not a Two. The distinctions without a difference we create through hyper-patternicity can actually stop us from seeing what is right in front of our faces.
Yes, the Enneagram has many facets and there are many ways to look at the system, but we have to be careful that apophenia doesn’t lead us into fantastical theories and assumptions about the Enneagram based on out-of-context data points or giant leaps of inference.2
Here are a few tips to put into practice:
- Be skeptical.3 Don’t assume that every pattern you think you see is a real pattern because we all are prone to apophenia.
- Look for data that contradicts the evidence. If we assume that Nines are always lazy because we met a lot of Nines who seem lazy, for example, we should try to identify Nines who are not lazy and try to falsify4 the pattern.
- Beware of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (literally, “after a thing, therefore because of the thing”). Here’s an example: “Every time Mary takes an umbrella with her to work, it seems to rain; Mary and her umbrella must be causing the rain!” Some things are coincidence; other things have more complicated causes than may be seen at first.
- Ask: Does the pattern I am creating clarify or complicate? Some complication is necessary—humans are complex creatures—but good models simplify and we often seek new patterns because we are not effectively using the models we already have. When in doubt, side with Occam.5
Mario Sikora is an executive coach and consultant who advises leaders in large multinational organizations and conducts Enneagram-based certification programs and workshops across the globe. He is the co-author of Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change and past president of the Board of Directors of the IEA. He continues to serve on the board of directors and overseas international affairs for the IEA. He can be reached via his website: www.awarenesstoaction.com.
1See the “plate of shrimp theory” from “Repo Man” at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ToUAkEF_d4&noredirect=1.
2Leaps of inference are what occur when we jump from one data point to a conclusion while ignoring missing evidence in the middle. For example: “I met a woman named Jane today. She was wearing a red dress. I bet red is Jane’s favorite color.”
3I discussed the importance of skepticism in the second part of this series, which can be found at http://ninepointsmagazine.org/thinking-about-the-enneagram-2-skepticism-mario-sikora/.
4I discussed falsification at http://ninepointsmagazine.org/thinking-about-the-enneagram-1-science-non-science-and-pseudoscience-by-mario-sikora/.
5Occam was the medieval philosopher who is associated with the theory of parsimony. Often assumed to mean that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, Occam actually warned against adding unnecessary variables. If we can explain something with three variables, don’t invoke a fourth when it is not necessary or (especially) when it is not supported by robust evidence.