The Four Tendencies

The Four Tendencies

The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin

Upholders want to know what should be done • Questioners want justifications • Obligers need accountability • Rebels want freedom to do something their own way.
— Gretchen Rubin, The Four Tendencies

The Four Tendencies is a personality framework that tries to define people by the way they most often respond to inner and outer expectations. Outer expectations being things like your boss telling you to get the TP reports in by next Tuesday, and inner expectations are things like your desire to quit smoking and go to the gym.

The framework doesn't account for everyone's personality or actions, but it also doesn't try to. The limited nature of the framework is what makes it work. Too often personality frameworks try to explain everything about everyone, and generally use shady cold reading techniques combined with the illusion of confirmation bias to make it so no matter what you're told you agree. Think of star signs - it's not that there isn't any truth to horoscopes, it's that there is too much. It's almost always true for everyone!

The framework can be useful to be able to more effectively understand and respond to others as well as influencing yourself. In fact, I've already used the insights I learned to get myself to go to the gym on a cold, rainy day.

Here were my thoughts as I went through the book, in order:



Upholders do what is expected of them both externally and internally. They love rules and tend to have strong follow through. Expectations alone are enough for motivation.

This is what self-help books want you to be, a real go-getter. A self-driven person. A doer.

I've actually tried to be an Upholder before. Once, after reading some productivity books, I tried to schedule my entire day out on a calendar. It looked like this:

If you know me at all this is a hilarious image. I want to say I tried this approach for a week, but while I was going back to find that image it became obvious that this experiment only lasted a couple of days. How we remember what we want to remember!

Guess what happened after a couple of days? I rebelled hardcore and partied for a week. Seriously, not one thing on any To-Do list got done that week. I'm not sure I even answered any phone calls. Oh yeah, that'll show me.

Well, not an Upholder.



Questioners need to turn outer expectations into inner expectations by fully understanding why they're being asked to do something. "Because I said so," or "because I'm your doctor" are not good explanations for a questioner. This leads to a lot of questions (hinse the name) and often research.

I relate to Questioners, but I'm not one. "Maybe I'm part Questioner?" I asked myself. I do hate inefficiencies and nonsense, unless it's funny. And I think people are often wrong, misinformed, or talk out of their ass, so I have a hard time really believing people, even experts, without doing my own research.  But, once a Questioner understands something, they have no problem executing. For me, that's not always enough. I think for lots of people that's not enough. 




Obligers may struggle with inner expectations like going to the gym, but if you're counting on them they'll get the task done. Obligers generally make good employees and friends because they're reliable, but they may not spend enough time looking after themselves.

I'm not an obliger. Personally, If someone tells me to do something, I immediately don't want to do it. I'll resent the fact that they set me up for a potential failure. Plus, even if it's something I wanted to do, now it seems like I'm doing it because they told me to. It's now something I'm "supposed to do."  I hate things I'm supposed to do. 

That said, this section of the book had some really creative accountability tricks, such as trading gym shoes with a buddy so if you don't show up they can't work out. Also, this quote from a reader of Gretchen's blog: 

I wanted to get up earlier, but I live alone. So I created an embarrassing Facebook post and use Hootsuite to set it to post every morning at 8:00 a.m. unless I get up ahead of time to disable it.
— Fan of Gretchen, The Four Tendencies

This doesn't work if all your Facebook posts are embarrassing.



Rebels don't respond to expectations well, seeing them as limits to their freedom. Plans and resolutions can feel confining, even if it's something they wanted to do.

I wouldn't have initially identified myself as this, but after reading the book I totally get it.

Don't do well with authority? Struggle with New Year's Resolutions? You may be a Rebel.

For each Tendency, one question matters most:
Upholders ask: ‘Should I do this?’
Questioners ask: ‘Does this make sense?’
Obligers ask: ‘Does this matter to anyone else?’
Rebels ask: ‘Is this the person I want to be?’
— Gretchen Rubin, The Four Tendencies

According to The Four Tendencies framework, I'm a Rebel. (Which is not what the online quiz gave me. You can take it here, but you're better off reading the book.)

Why is that important? Well, it lets me structure expectations in a way that they'll actually get done. It also makes me easier on myself because I know other people are struggling with their own expectations and obligations.

I think Rebels get a bad reputation because their motivations are misunderstood. Sure, there may be people that are just contrary and refuse to do anything, but those people are unhealthy. That's not what defines a Rebel, in my opinion. Rebels value freedom and choice above all else. Rebels resent the burden of outer expectations as they find that they limit their freedoms or are ill-reasoned, arbitrary, or self-serving. And inner expectations? It does seem like if we feel like we should do something, then we'll do it. But that's obviously not the case. I'm not currently working out. It took me a week to write this. I often don't do things I think I should do.

For Rebels - at least for myself - the problem is that "should do" isn't good enough. There needs to be emotion behind the expectation that turns it from "should do" into "want to do". What the Rebel needs is an identity or cause that they are emotionally connected to. Maybe that's doing good for others, maybe it's having fun, maybe it's getting laid, or maybe it's being the kind of person you know you are.

Knowing what you should do is easy. Knowing what you want to do requires real clarity which is hard to come by in the age of buzzing notifications and omnipresent advertisements.

As I said, this came in handy for me already. The day after reading this book I was struggling to find the motivation to get to the gym. I reminded myself that this wasn't an obligation, but it was a choice. I reexamined the reasons I wanted to go the gym in the first place: I like being healthy, the gym can be fun, and I always feel better after I go. Plus, I want to be the kind of person that goes to the gym regularly. 

Then, I asked myself again if I wanted to go. And I did!

What Tendency are you? I'd love to know how you handle expectations and get stuff done. Send me an email or comment below!

Want to know more about Gretchen Rubin? Check her out online here.

I love discussing books with other people. Follow me on GoodReads!

Project 2018

Project 2018