What is an instinct?
Updated: Mar 23, 2022
An additional layer to the Enneagram personality model is the concept of “instincts,” highlighting the area(s) of life that each person tends to pay the most attention to. There are three instincts: Self-Preservation, Relational, and Social. Every person has some proportion of all three instincts, but there is often one instinct that is dominant (a preoccupation), one that is neutral (neither a focus nor neglected), and one that’s a blind spot (neglected). In this post, we’ll define the instincts and explore how adding them to your knowledge bank will empower you to become a more advanced Enneagram practitioner.
The “Self-Preservation instinct” emphasizes a person’s desire for physical safety and comfort. People who score high on the Self-Preservation instinct are highly attuned to meeting their basic survival needs and staying guarded against outside threats to their well-being. They take care of their bodies and minds, prioritizing their health, rest, food, and exercise. They cultivate a positive home environment that’s familiar, well-stocked, and comfortable. And they are notably practical, wanting to stay safe and knowledgeable, and be efficient with their time and money. The Self-Preservation instinct often correlates with introversion.
The “Relational instinct” (sometimes referred to referred to as “One-to-One” or “Sexual”) emphasizes a person’s desire for intense one-to-one connection, whether romantic or platonic. People who score high on the Relational instinct are highly attuned to feeling alive. They embrace risk, embarking on adrenaline-inducing activities, dangerous explorations, risky conversations, and romantic pursuits that activate their sense of thrill. They broadcast an attractive image laced with charisma, allure, and personality. And they are fusing in their demeanor, wanting total involvement from the people around them, which often leads to intense connections and intimacy.
The “Social instinct” emphasizes a person’s desire to be an important and accepted member of society. People who score high on the Social instinct are highly attuned to being well-liked and enjoy interacting/connecting with people, being socially and emotionally available, and finding a meaningful calling. They want to form strong bonds characterized by mutual support and values, so they are more likely to be affiliated with teams, cooperate with others, reciprocate good deeds, and be light-hearted and playful. They’re more attuned to the well-being of others, so they tend to be the most selfless instinct, prioritizing others’ needs nearly as much as their own. The Social instinct often correlates with extroversion.
Why do instincts matter?
Instincts represent another element of someone’s personality; using them gives us 54 unique type-subtype-instinct combinations we can use to better understand a person’s motivations. Knowing someone’s type and subtype is often more than enough to characterize their general thinking and behavior, so Enneagram users may wish to hold off on learning about instincts until they’ve got the basics down pat. Instincts do, however, become important for more advanced Enneagram applications like understanding nuanced personality differences, practicing self-development, and mastering interpersonal relationships.
From a personality nuances perspective, instincts account for much of the variation in preferences and behavior within the same type. A Social One with a Two wing—in addition to being good and doing the right thing—will highly prioritize their social relationships and being well-liked by others. They may involve themselves in their community, have a wide group of friends, and be socially sensitive to comments made by others. A Self-Preservation One with a Two wing will likely place less importance on social matters and be more concerned with their physical health and finances, choosing to stick to predictable regimens that keep the basics in order. Same subtype, different priorities.
From a self-development perspective, the concept of instincts can illuminate your blindspots and provide guidance on where to focus your improvement efforts. Enneagram scholars believe the most high-functioning people are relatively well-balanced, regularly tapping into all three of their instincts. If your Social instinct is far-and-away the most dominant, you may wish to develop Relational and Self-Preservation instincts by improving your ability to connect intensely with people and environments, and by cultivating self-respect for your time, health, and personal boundaries.
From a relationships perspective, understanding instincts can deepen your empathy and ability to meet people where they are. Oftentimes, a difference in two people’s instincts is sufficient to explain the genesis of a conflict or an inability to align on “what matters.” A Social Eight may be befuddled by their friend, a Self-Preservation Eight, who is constantly burying themselves in work and stockpiling resources at home. Similarly, a Relational Two may be frustrated by her partner, a Social Seven, who seems to enjoy tinkering with old cars and hosting movie nights as much as he enjoys spending quality time with her. Knowing the dominant instinct of important people in your life can help you understand what others care about, forgive people for wanting different things than you, and strengthen relationships by enabling you to become more attuned to others’ needs.
The (interesting and worth reading) fine print
Unlike your type and wing, your instincts can and often do change over time. Life circumstances can push you into a new instinct; someone who was Self-Preservation during the pandemic may become Relational afterwards, as they newly seek intense experiences and close one-to-one relationships. People can also conscientiously choose to nurture their weaker instincts. Someone who’s highly Relational may seek to develop their Social instinct by reading books about social dynamics or asking friends for feedback about how to be a better companion in group environments. Over time these efforts often pay off, yielding stronger instincts.
The easiest way to gauge your instinct is to take Blueprint’s instinct test, after which you’ll receive a stack-ranking of your three instincts: at the top is your dominant instinct, which serves as the primary filter through which you process almost everything around you. It is often either a superpower or, if you’re not careful, an out-of-balance obsession. Second is your neutral instinct. It’s typically the most balanced instinct, part of your conscious awareness and accessible to you when you need it. Third is your blind spot instinct. It is the weakest of your three instincts, a perspective you often neglect that could theoretically benefit you in personal or interpersonal matters.
For each type there is an instinct that tends to be counter to that type’s typical orientation, called the countertype. For example, Eights tend to accumulate resources and want to interact intensely with their environment, so the Self-Preservation and Relational instincts are both in line with their normal behavior. But an Eight with a dominant Social instinct is more willing to set their own needs aside for the greater group, which is counter to their typical behavior. Countertypes are more likely to be mistyped.
Instincts provide us with a third level of specificity and accuracy to model people’s personalities, describing where people place their day-to-day concerns. While many facets of the human personality remain consistent over time, instincts can change depending on circumstances and deliberate personal development efforts. Those who grasp the concept of instincts are often better prepared to work on themselves and coexist with others. Always trust your instinct…and develop those you often ignore.