Nature or Nurture?

In an early issue of the Enneagram Educator, Dr. David Daniels published an article entitled "Nature and Nurture." He addressed the problem of how we got our Enneagram style. It is the old question: "Are we born this way or did we all start the same and develop this way because of our environment?"

He doesn't say he answers the question, but he brings a lot of weight to the position that we are born with our Enneagram style. He quotes a recent article in a medical journal that discovered that babies are born with nine (9!) different attention styles. From birth they pay attention in different ways to different things. With no major adjustments or explanations you can overlay those nine ways of paying attention on the nine Enneagram styles. The doctors doing the research had no knowledge of the Enneagram. It is a remarkable, objective correlation of the Enneagram map as we know it. It appears that we are born with our Enneagram focus of attention.

Does that mean our environment really doesn't have much or any effect? An article in the New Yorker about ten years ago had a long article on identical twins. Their evidence also had a number of remarkable stories of identical twins separated at birth and 30 years later discovered they were remarkably alike in their jobs, friends, tastes, politics and religion. Two sisters met after 35 years and they were wearing the same dress! More and more evidence piles up on the side of biological influence.

On the other hand, many life-stories of people interviewed about their Enneagram styles reveal clear patterns. Threes tell of being valued for their performance, Twos tell stories of having had to take care of their parents at an early age. I'm a Seven, I had a shortened childhood having had to take care of my severely retarded brother. Being the oldest of 10 children it was obvious I had to help with the nurturing at a very young age. This is a common seven pattern when you listen to stories.

There are no "answers" to this question. The question may be formulated wrong, for one thing. Either/or questions tend to polarize. Here are some responses to the question as posed.

It is entirely possible that we are born with a general style. Even probable, looking at the evidence. But the intensity and specific manifestations of that style can be worlds apart. Mother Theresa and Madonna are both Twos, but they're somewhat different. Both have intense manifestations of their Twoishness, but they chose entirely different aspects of the Two energy to exhibit.

Ways of Paying Attention

It is important to remember that an Enneagram style is a way of paying attention and the energy that develops around that attention. So if Mother Theresa and Madonna are both paying close attention to people, they are exercising the Two focus of attention. They both develop a lot of energy off that high focus.

But paying attention to people can be done in a myriad of ways. Pleasing people can be done in dozens of ways. Our Enneagram style, probably the one we're born with, is most likely a general way of paying attention. Then our environment provides a spectrum of objects / experiences to heed.

So what we may end up seeing is people telling stories of what they paid attention to and the formative power of the energy that was generated by that attention. We now move from the general down to the specific. Because I need a car doesn't necessarily mean I need a 1992 red, four door, six cylinder, automatic Ford with power steering. Because I'm an Eight with an antennae out for power messages doesn't mean I will become an NFL linebacker. Or a bully. Or a social activist. Or overweight. Or or or.

Not an individual description

It does mean that I have clearly outlined strengths and inclinations and probable weaknesses because of my birth and environment. And the Enneagram is a brilliant description of the general contours of that. And each Enneagram teacher will see shades and examples of differences within that general orientation. You might think of the Enneagram as a map, but it is not a city map, it is a map of the general contours of the entire country. The smaller streets and streams of the map are arbitrary. But a general map is a wonderful place to start looking at what you have to deal with.

The Enneagram map, however fully we may fill it in with detail, is never the map of us as an individual. It is more like modesty than politeness to urgently insist that our Enneagram style is not an identity, it is a strategy we do, a bit of raw material out of which we, the artist, carves our own face. The Enneagram can and should be explored carefully, but it should never be confused with our personality. That remains a delightful mystery that we can only explore in prayer and meditation and one that those who love us see with some clarity.


Contemporary evolutionary psychology vigorously attacks the usual forced choice between nature and nurture. For a long scholarly treatment of this issue, I recommend Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. It's heavy going but he shows how the issue affects politics, religion, economics, therapy and many gender issues.