Posted on 22 September 2017 by Colin Adam

The other day whilst out for a late afternoon run I came across an unfortunate woman who was attempting to walk two cats on leads. I’ve often heard the cliché “it’s like trying to herd cats” but had never actually seen someone attempting to do so. It was interesting to watch. I’d love to have understood this woman’s underlying motivation for what she was trying to do! I’m sure there was a logical explanation. At least I hope so!

So I continued running and it occurred to me that what I had just witnessed was a pretty apt metaphor for the concept of ‘personality typing’. This woman’s clear intention was to force the cats to move in a particular direction. In personality typing people are also, in a sense, forced in a particular direction that ends up in the box of a particular named ‘type’.

Typology theories generally have a set of pre-determined ‘cat-egories’ (sorry, couldn’t resist that!) into which people are placed. Someone might be identified as ‘extrovert’ or ‘introvert’, ‘Type A’ or ‘Type B’, for example. In this way, type theories of personality tend to view certain characteristics as discrete named categories.

Trait theories, on the other hand generally suggest an incremental adjustment from one extreme to another along a continuum. In this worldview, people fall somewhere on the continuum between the extremes - for example, between the polarities of strongly extrovert to strongly introvert.

Types or Traits?

Over time, so-called ‘trait theories’ have gained popularity amongst psychologists. This is the result of an array of evidence indicating that personality indeed exists on continuums rather than in larger discrete categories or ‘boxes’. This gives credence to everyday experience of individuals being inherently unique and complex with subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, variations in their ways of being in the world.

However you look at it, type theories offer a relatively blunt way of describing people. They can have difficulty accounting for the small variations in behaviour that exist between individuals of the same type. As a result, it seems limiting and risky to assign a type label to a person, as this inevitably results in missing their individual uniqueness.

Acceptance of reality?

There is an argument suggesting that type is simply a ‘construct’. In other words, it’s an idea held in the mind of an observer and that doesn’t relate to what is actually present in the external world and then force-fitting the external world into the pre-determined construct. It’s like placing a set of documents into files that were labelled before understanding the content of the documents. What if one of the documents doesn’t exactly fit into any of these labelled files? In that case we’d probably place it in the file that most closely matches the context of the document, but it doesn’t fully match. In a similar way we might end up force-fitting people into types that don’t quite match them and yet we try to describe them as if they did match our pre-determined types.

Another potential problem is the way we label and describe personality types. These are apt to change across time, place and culture. This suggests that the concept of type may not be as neatly packaged or as stable and enduring as we might at first assume. This is akin to changing, adding to, or removing the labels on a filing system and tends to give credence to the notion that types are likely to be constructs rather than actual stable entities that truly exist outside of ourselves.

Russell A. Dewey, PhD in ‘Psychology: An Introduction’ offers some examples of types and how language and descriptions can evolve:

Examples of types from American culture of the mid to late 20th Century include: nerds, valley girls, hippies, greasers, GenXers, gangsta rappers, goths, and geeks. One can predict with confidence that most of these types will become strange or unknown, or just quaint and historical, just as the flapper type of the 1920s seems now. (Flappers were young ladies, decked out in the fashions of the time, typically with a hat and short hair, typically seen in early newsreels dancing the Charleston.)

Dewey goes on to suggest:

Types do not represent durable personality patterns; they reflect changing cultural patterns. Finally, when a type is identified, there is always the risk of stereotyping or creating a cartoon-like caricature of a group of people. When done by an insider this may be acceptable, but when done by an outsider it is almost always considered insulting.

Dewey also reminds us of Gordon Allport, one of many psychologists who explored types - especially the ‘authoritarian personality type’ that is said to be attracted to orderliness imposed by rule of law. This type was studied extensively following World War II in an attempt to understand how Hitler managed to acquire so many sympathisers. Along with other such research, this concept is no longer fashionable. Authoritarian personality type as such is seldom studied today, while trait-based research has grown.

Considering the Enneagram

The Enneagram of personality is often used as a typology. People tend to label themselves and others with one of the nine numbers representing their ‘type’. It‘s often said by Enneagram practitioners that “we each have all nine types within us”, but the meaning of this statement is rarely explored fully. Is it really possible for me to be simultaneously an extroverted ‘type 7’ and an introverted ‘type 5’? Well maybe not, but I could perhaps fall somewhere on the line or continuum that joins these two Enneagram points; and in different contexts I might change my position on this continuum resulting in changed behaviour.

Perhaps we should be looking to explore the Enneagram in a different way – from a trait perspective. There are various possible approaches to this. For example, by focusing more on the interior lines in the model. The ends of the lines represent the extremes on particular dimensions or continuums, rather like the way Cattell’s 16PF model works. The challenge lies in how to describe someone holistically in terms of where they fall on each of the Enneagram’s nine continuums. Alternatively, one could consider describing someone holistically in terms of their entire Enneagram profile from their most dominant behavioural pattern to least dominant pattern.

This is the kind of thinking that we’re challenging ourselves with at Ennea International. How can we account for and describe the subtle differences between people who appear to display the same dominant Enneagram pattern? This is the main reason why we’ve overlaid the Enneagram model with other significant ‘lenses’ and influencers that impact the way people behave and experience their world in many subtle and unique ways. We’re also exploring at how a person could be described from a trait perspective instead of type from an Enneagram perspective.

We believe that if an assessment is going to be useful it needs to be as finely tuned as possible if we are to avoid the ‘herding cats approach’ to describe temperament!


Colin Adam

Director: People Development

Ennea International