Chapter 2:     Basic Fears

As Chapter 1 showed, Riso/Hudson ends with a tantalizing invitation to merge the Enneagram with science.  The concept of "Basic Fears" is core to this invitation. 

Chapter 1 described Types, Wings, and Development.  In Part Two, we'll see how these concepts are manifested in the brain.  But first, we need to understand some more concepts before we can go there.

Chapter 2 discusses the notion of Basic Fears. Basic Fears are at the heart of the Enneagram's extraordinary power.  They are what make the Enneagram amenable to direct scientific validation. 

But at the same time, Basic Fears render the Enneagram both unpopular, and less amenable to indirect validation via questionnaires.

 An Error

Although Riso/Hudson offers an invitation to science at the end of the book, the offer is an unintended one.  We know that because, on page 25, the book begins by backing away from science altogether:

Each body of knowledge has its own kind of proof.  The proof of a proposition about art is certainly different from that of a proposition about history, just as history's proof is different from that of physics and the other hard sciences.  The proof of the Enneagram's accuracy lies not so much in empirical validation as in its ability to describe people in a way which deepens their understanding of themselves and others.  In the last analysis, either the descriptions of the personality types in this book have "the ring of truth" about them or they do not ... . (emphasis added)

It's only page 25 and Riso/Hudson has already thrown up its hands and given the game away to "the ring of truth".  Yet 445 pages of rigorous, methodical detail later, and Riso/Hudson has neatly set the table, albeit unintentionally, for direct empirical validation.  At least, that is the premise of this book.

PET and fMRI research (described in Part Two) is a paradigm technique of "empirical validation".  In this area of research, the brains of people are observed in operation.  This observation focuses on glucose metabolism in the brain.

As you are reading this book, blood is flowing to certain parts of your brain, and those parts are metabolizing ("burning") the glucose (sugar) in that blood.  This activity in your brain is allowing you to read and understand this text.

PET and fMRI machines record this brain activity.  As we'll see in Part Two, findings in neuroscience are emerging on mental states like optimism, pessimism, and fear.  That is, when we are experiencing these mental states, neuroscientists now have a pretty good idea about the activity that is going on in our brain.

As we'll see in this chapter and the next, the Enneagram covers the same ground as does current neuroscience.  Current neuroscience speaks of optimism, pessimism, and fear; so does the Enneagram.

Given that they are speaking of the same things, the Math Urge says the Enneagram must be subject to empirical validation through PET and fMRI research.  If not, then something must be invalid.  Either PET/fMRI research is invalid, or the Enneagram is invalid, or they are really not speaking of the same things.

I believe they are speaking of the same things.  But since that claim may be controversial, Chapter 3 takes care in defining the relevant mental states.  You can draw your own conclusions on whether the two sides are talking about the same concepts.

As for the validity of PET/fMRI research and of the Enneagram, good arguments can be made that some aspects of both fields are invalid.  But that is true of any rapidly developing body of knowledge.  Interest and activity in both PET/fMRI research and the Enneagram have exploded recently.  That some current aspects of either field may be invalid does not doom the whole field.

Now if the Enneagram cannot be empirically validated through PET/fMRI research, even though the two fields are talking about the same thing, then one or both of the areas is invalid.  If that is the case, then as an approach to observing humanity, PET/fMRI research seems less likely to be invalid than does the Enneagram.  At least PET/fMRI research has the benefit of repeatable "objective" experiments and established peer review.

Riso/Hudson writes that "the proof of the Enneagram's accuracy lies not so much in empirical validation."  This statement suggests that some of the Enneagram's accuracy does lie in empirical validation, but also suggests that the theory as a whole cannot be empirically validated.

Both suggestions seem to be erroneous.  At the time Riso/Hudson was published (1996), there was no empirical validation of the Enneagram.  At least, none of the books, including Riso/Hudson, mentions it.  So to the extent Riso/Hudson suggested that even "some" of the Enneagram was subject empirical validation in 1996, that suggestion was in error.

The second suggestion is erroneous for a different reason.  That suggestion is that the Enneagram theory as a whole is not subject to empirical validation.  But this suggestion is insupportable.  In general, proving that something does not exist is exceedingly difficult.  The best we normally can do is to say: "I don't know if it exists.  I suspect it doesn't exist.  But frankly, I just don't know."

The bottom line here is that, concerning the Enneagram, Riso/Hudson said that science "can't touch this". This book responds: "Oh yes, science can."[1]

Basic Fears

One area in which Riso/Hudson particularly excels is the topic of Basic Fears. Although the Palmer books also describe fear as the root of the theory, Riso/Hudson explains this topic in detail.

Specifically, Riso/Hudson explains that each of the nine personality types harbors a particular Basic Fear.  The Basic Fears for each type are as follows:


Basic Fear


Fear of being unwanted, unworthy of love.


Fear of being worthless.


Fear of having no identity or personal significance.


Fear of being helpless, useless, incapable.


Fear of being unable to survive on their own, of having no support.


Fear of pain and deprivation.


Fear of being harmed or controlled by others.


Fear of becoming lost and separated from self and others.


Fear of being corrupt, evil, and defective (imbalanced).


                                                   Enneagram Basic Fears

Note that these Basic Fears are principally social in nature.  This means they are fears that, for the most part, arise from one's relations with others.  As such, they correspond closely to ego fears.  Certainly, at the most extreme level, these social fears become physical fears.  But for all other levels of social fear, it equates to ego fear.  Accordingly, it is useful to think of Basic Fears as social fears. 

Harboring our Basic Fear, yet being unconscious of it, is, according to the theory, our default state.  Being unconscious of it causes us to perceive the world through the filter of our Basic Fear.  This causes us to maintain an illusion about the world as being divided into two opposites: our Basic Fear and Basic Desire.

Riso/Hudson explains Basic Desires:

The Basic Desire is the central motivation for the type; it is the way that the type tries to manage its Basic Fear, and so can be seen as directly related to it. [470]

The Basic Desire/Basic Fear split-view illusion for each of the types is as follows:


Basic Desire

Basic Fear





























Illusions of the Types

To say that these split-views of the world are "illusions" is not to say that they are never true.  For example, a clever investment in the stock market that reaps profits is a valuable investment.  If, on the other hand, the investment value falls to zero, it becomes worthless.  For a Three to believe that the investment is valuable or worthless is not to hold onto an illusion about the world. Value and worth exist in the world.

Illusion creeps into our processing in at least three ways.  First, illusion creeps in when we assign rigid normative values onto the split-view.  So to a fearful Four, significance is always desirable; insignificance always undesirable.  To a fearful Six, security is always good; insecurity always bad. And so on.

Second, the illusion pervades understanding because it gets applied far beyond its limited scope.  A fearful Three will apply her split-view of valuable/worthless not merely to financial investments, but to everything — experiences, people, ideas, relationships.  Virtually all of life becomes the parted Red Sea.  On the one side the valuable; on the other the worthless.  The game of life for the fearful Three is to swim on the valuable side and bask in admiration.

Third, these illusions cause us to perceive reality as polar-opposite global absolutes, rather than as local, relative phenomena.  A less healthy Eight tends to label everything as either strong or weak.  This type fails to see that everything is simultaneously strong and weak, including himself.  Whether a thing is strong or weak depends entirely on the point of reference.  Strong relative to what?  Weak relative to what?

These are the personality "fixations" of which both Riso/Hudson and the Palmer books speak.  Each personality type at the less healthy level will perceive all the world as being divided into the desirable and the undesirable.  Each type will pursue what it perceives as the desirable, and defend against what it perceives as the undesirable.  Moreover, each will pursue and defend with desperation and imbalance.  And in this desperation and imbalance, errors and other negative traits are born.  The greater the fear, the greater the errors.  This is the nub of the Enneagram.


But since fear, desperation, and error inform the core of the Enneagram, it should come as little surprise that the theory hasn"t as yet emerged into popular consciousness. How many of us today are willing to see ourselves as persistently fearful, desperate, or in error?

In other words, the theory has meaning only to the extent we are less than enlightened and short of self-actualized. This is because if we were all enlightened and self-actualized, the entire notion of personality would vanish. We all would be loving and wise, courageous and selfless, and so on. Heck we might all be saints in such a world.

But that world is not this world in which we live. In this world, different personalities do exist. The Enneagram says that what makes these personalities different is the peculiar flavor of Basic Fear that underlies each personality. Different Basic Fears result in different kinds of errors and negative traits. It is through these errors and negative traits that we are able to understand our own type, and the types of others. But of course, getting to that understanding requires that we "insult" ourselves and others.

But if we "insult" ourselves or others in bad faith and out of spite, we not only misuse the Enneagram, we tend to make errors. In other words, if we type ourselves or others, and we feel antagonistic to ourselves or others, our typing is likely to be erroneous.

So not only is the Enneagram unpopular because it requires "insults." It is unpopular also because most of us probably need to be at a sufficient level of health for it to be of use. That is, the more unhealthy we are, the thicker our filter of ego fear and more distorted our illusions, and thus the more errors we are likely to make. So the more unhealthy we are, the less likely we are to understand the Enneagram as a true model, or even if we understood that, to apply it correctly.

I believe the only exception to this dynamic involves the two types — Five and Seven — which, in their unhealthy states, flee toward the refuge of excessive thinking (see Chapter 3). That is, I suspect some, but certainly not all, unhealthy Fives and Sevens understand the Enneagram well and are able to apply it accurately.[2] But I suspect the rest of us unhealthy types — types the refuge for which is something other than thinking — are less capable of this.

Of course, this answer is quite unsatisfactory. It says to critics of the theory: "You're just too unhealthy to understand or apply the theory." Critics respond: "If I can't understand the theory or apply it correctly, the problem must be with the theory." Such is the bane of "pseudoscience". Which stance is correct?

Well, until recently, resolution of this conflict to the satisfaction of Americans was not possible.  But now, with the advent of PET and fMRI, we are on the threshold of resolving these conflicts. Either the Enneagram will be revealed as true and its critics as less than optimally healthy, or the theory will be invalidated.

Also, with the advent of machines, perhaps the "insulting" nature of the theory will dampen. It's one thing to tell ourselves that we're unhealthy, or to have other people tell us the same. It's quite another for an impersonal machine to do so. So perhaps the future bodes well for the theory after all.

Enneagram Questionnaires

Understanding Basic Fears helps us to understand ourselves and others.  Why did I do that? Why is that person saying what she is saying? If we could understand why, we might be able to effect useful personal change, and to improve our relations with others.

How can we learn of our own personality type?  This is one of the most difficult aspects of the Enneagram.  It's often quite difficult to identify ourselves as one of the nine types. A common reaction of people who are first introduced to the Enneagram is: "I think I'm a little bit of a few of the types."

There are a number of different methods for typing ourselves.  One method involves reading one or more of the Enneagram books and undergoing self-introspection.  I have found this method useful for me.

I would tell you about the conclusions I have come to concerning my own type. But I'm interested in hearing what you think first. This book runs into the hundreds of pages. In it, my voice speaks for hours.  Hours of speech serve as a tremendous corpus of data for typing the speaker.

But one word of advice: for typing me, look not at the parts of this book that you enjoy, so much as at the parts that rub you the wrong way.  Where in this book am I being disagreeable?  Where am I in error?  It will be in those places that you will find the seeds of my personality type. I would tell you where those places are, except that if I could do that, I would have corrected the errors and been more agreeable. This is what is meant above by the illusions of personality. Looking at the world through our own filters, some of what seems reasonable and correct to us comes across to others as disagreeable and incorrect.

In addition to reading Enneagram books, another method for typing ourselves involves what Ms. Palmer calls the "oral tradition".  Through this method, Ms. Palmer puts together a panel of people who understand their own types.  She groups the people according to their type.  Then the panel people interact among themselves and share their experiences and understandings with the audience.  In this way, members of the audience may come to learn about their own types.

The least expensive method involves Enneagram questionnaire/tests.  Messrs. Riso and Hudson have developed something called the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator ("RHETI").  RHETI is a questionnaire that suggests one's likely type based on the answers given.  One can buy the RHETI on for $10.  In addition to RHETI, there are a number of free Enneagram questionnaire/tests available on the Internet.

Since the questionnaires are the quickest and cheapest method, ranging from $0 to $10, can we conclude that this method is the best?  Instinct may suggest the contrary.  That is, if something is quick and dirty, it may be less useful.  In my view, instinct serves us well in this case.

Actually, we may not need my view here.  We might just look at the data from RHETI.  Messrs. Riso and Hudson have announced that RHETI has been "scientifically validated."  They claim that "[t]he internal-consistency reliability scores indicate that the RHETI ranges from 56% to 82% accurate on the various types ... ."[3]

So for some personality types, just over 50% counts as "scientific validation".  Is 56% a good score?  The answer depends on what game we are playing.

Batting .560 will not only get us into the Baseball Hall of Fame, it will get us tested for illegal steroid use.  But if we win only 56% of our chess matches, we can save ourselves the trouble of preparing our "grand master" acceptance speech.

What's a good score for Enneagram questionnaires?  Messrs. Riso and Hudson say that RHETI's 56% to 82% range is "solid":  "This is a solid score for a 'forced choice' format test. The RHETI also compares well to the psychometric standard, the NEO PI-R test." 

The NEO PI-R test is yet another personality theory test.  The only difference is that this one was put together by biological psychologists, instead of pop psychologists.

It is the argument of this book that these scores are something less than "solid."  The thesis of this book is that the Enneagram is reflected directly in the workings of the brain.  If that is so, then it is the purest, most true description of human personality.  All other descriptions are likely just partial, biased descriptions.  Being partial descriptions, it's no surprise these other tests bat in the 50% range for some people.  But the Enneagram ought to do much better.

Further, a range of 56% to 82% might seem to suggest that the Enneagram is skewed toward the biases of the types who score at the high end.  But if the theory is biased toward one or a few types, then it can't be a true reflection of human personality.

Is the problem here with the theory?  Or is it with the questionnaires?  I believe it's with the latter. 

The problem with questionnaires is that they rely, by their very nature, on the conscious understanding of the subject.  But the Enneagram is a personality theory built upon unconscious fears. 

Our Basic Fear is unconscious to most of us.  It is almost certainly unconscious to those of us who are Enneagram initiates — the very people who use the questionnaires. 

Harboring our Basic Fear causes us to see more of an illusion, and less of reality.  But the existence and nature of our illusion is unconscious to us.  A test taker cannot provide information about which she is unconscious.

Questionnaire proponents might respond that while a subject may be unconscious of her Basic Fear, the subject will likely recognize "secondary fears layered over it", as Riso/Hudson puts it.  Questionnaires can target these secondary fears.

The problem with this is that by the time we get to secondary fears on one personality type, they start to overlap with the secondary fears of the other types.  This is because, as Riso/Hudson explains, the "Basic Fears [are] variations of a more central and pervasive fear found in all of the types ... the fear of nonbeing, of not existing".  If the Basic Fears are simply different shades of the same color, then secondary fears derived from them may well be even less distinguishable.

This is the nub of the problem with questionnaires.  The fearful personality chases her Basic Desire, and defends against her Basic Fear, and she does so with desperation and imbalance.  In this state, all of the other Basic Fears become swallowed into her own Basic Fear.

To a fearful Eight, the weak are not merely weak. The weak are also unwanted, worthless, insignificant, incapable, insecure, pained, lost and defective.  Conversely, the strong are loved, valuable, significant, competent, secure, satisfied, at peace, and good.

Perhaps this explains the common response of Enneagram initiates: "I think I'm a few of the types."  Perhaps this also explains scores like 56% "reliability".

In my view, the Enneagram's lack of amenability to questionnaires bodes well for the theory.  The world seems over-populated with pop psychology personality tests.  On the level of the pop questionnaire, the Enneagram is likely no better nor any worse than any of the rest.  But they all fall short.

This suggests that the only way that the Enneagram is going to emerge from the noise of the fringe "fads" is through direct scientific validation.  When it comes to personality, this means the brain. 

As we'll see in Part Two, current brain research is all over the sorts of attributes that make up the various personality theories and tests. 

Either the Enneagram is reflected in the workings of the brain, or it is not.  If not, the Enneagram can stay where it is, tucked into the section of the bookstore reserved for "curious fringe ideas".  But if it is reflected in the brain, then let's all buckle up while history lurches forward.


[1] Although Riso/Hudson seems incorrect in its position on science, that doesn't mean the book in untrustworthy in general. In discussing empirical validity, I believe the authors were speaking outside their area of core competence. In contrast, their analysis of the theory seems most rigorous. In any event, this book relies not solely on Riso/Hudson for describing the Enneagram. In addition, it relies also on the books of Helen Palmer. Importantly, the Palmer books and Riso/Hudson agree for the greatest part on the dynamics of the theory.


[2] This may explain the dynamic through which bipolar Sir Isaac Newton (Seven) and schizophrenic John Nash  (Five) exhibited intellectual genius, and through which the ambitious and litigious Oscar Ichazo (Seven?) conceived of the Enneagram (see Chapter 5).