Personality Types

Book Card  -  Volume 13  -  Book Review Number 2  -  Sat, Apr 28, 1990 04:51 AM

TITLE: Personality Types: Using The Enneagram For Self-Discovery
AUTHOR: Don Richard Riso
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Co.

I have recently become more interested in the notion that people can be sorted into a finite number of personality types. We now have an ongoing Archipelago project to develop a personality adventure game, and a friend and I are looking into the possibility of developing personality tests for the Macintosh. So I have been studying personality tests and combing through bookstores in search of a credible system.

Like most people, I was initially resistant to the idea of "labeling" people. After all, every person is absolutely unique and most labels are judgemental in some subtle way. It seems a dangerous and futile business.

But when you think about it, any attempt to comprehend an extremely complex system must begin with a taxonomy of some sort. This is how biologists had to start when faced with a seemingly infinite variety of critters. Of course, every taxonomy is a fiction; that is, it is more rigid and simple than the elements it seeks to contain, but that it precisely why it is so vital as a stepping stone to a deeper understanding. We need some simple way of sorting through the flood of information before we can even begin to look for deeper patterns. Thus a system which allows us to sort through the flood of unique personalities makes it possible to have deeper insights into human nature.

The problem is finding a system that even comes close to working. Psychologists have taken up this task and many new systems have arisen in the last century. Many of them seem *close* but not quite on target. Mr. Riso's interpretation of the Enneagram is the best I've seen so far.

The Enneagram is a geometric design with nine dots arranged around a circle with interconnecting lines arranged in a certain way. It supposedly dates back to the Sufis, Islamic mystics of the fourteenth century. The nine dots have come to represent nine personality types, the sufi numbers. Through a strange series of events, the basic idea fell into the hands of the Jesuits and various people in the new age movement, who have essentially borrowed ideas from Freudian, Jungian, and Developmental psychology. Mr. Riso seems to be some sort of renegade Jesuit who has spent twelve years further refining the system. There are now a number of Enneagram (pronouced ANY-A-GRAM) books on the market, but from what I could see, Riso's book is by far the best.

This rather mystical lineage does not inspire any confidence in my mind, but whether an idea comes from a mountaintop swami or a Ph.D. scholar or the guy down the street, the real test, it seems to me, is does it work? Does it make sense? Does it fit my experience?

What struck me most about this system is that, unlike most other systems I've investigated, I was IMMEDIATELY able to classify myself with no doubt whatsoever. There are 18 subtypes (and hundreds of sub-sub-types); I am a "4 with a heavy 5 wing". Moreover, I was also immediately able to identify several other close friends, former lovers, and relatives. Better yet, each description included insights into what makes each type tick, and in one case in particular I suddenly understood several events that had previously mystified me. The insights into my own personality type were also quite revealing and thought provoking.

Riso's system has several properties which I admire. First, the personality types are simply assigned numbers from 1 to 9; this avoids the kind of judgemental baggage that comes with more colorful labels. There is a real sense here that people come in different types, but that no type is inherently better than another.

Another nice property is that each type comes with a continuum of healthy to unhealthy stages, with quite a bit of variation along each continuum. Riso insists that types solidify by about age twenty and do not change thereafter. I had reached a similar conclusion (it is interesting to note that the human brain stops growing at about age twenty), and until reading this book I was fairly depressed by the inability of people to change. But while Riso agrees that people don't change personalities, he does provide room for an enormous amount of personal growth within each type. Different types have different ways of growing and changing.

Riso is not afraid to define healthy and unhealthy, and I have come to regard this as another advantage to his system. Our new secular religion of mental health seems to me to be floundering because it has recoiled too far from the old notions of good and evil. Today's counselors are often so afraid of being judgmental that they provide no guidance whatsoever. Riso's definitions seem to me to be clear, logical, and useful.

Finally, Riso's system captures the irony of the vicious circles we all follow at one time or another. His vision is that each personality type has certain fears and that, ironically, as each type of person runs from what frightens him, he ends up bringing about the very result he most fears. I have seen this pattern again and again in myself and others. Riso argues (and here his Jesuit background comes through) that each of the nine different vicious circles come about through the sin of pride and that the solution in each case is self transcendence through love.

Some parts of the book are a bit weak. For example, Riso goes to great lengths to squish developmental ideas into a three by three table so that they will match up with his nine numbers. And he does not seem to consider gender as a relevant factor in his thinking (some of you may see this as another strong point). But the bottom line, for me, is that much of what he says rings true.

I am curious to know if this enneagram scheme makes as much sense to any of you as it did to me. If any of you seek this out (and again, beware of other enneagram books), I would love to compare notes.