The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin

This has been an interesting book to read: The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin.

In this book, the author defines and explains a personality profile framework that may help us understand how we and the people around us deal with their outer and inner expectations, so that we can be more successful in our lives, work and relationships.

The Four Tendencies includes in the title the words, “personality types”. Originally “personality types” where introduced by the well-known research of Carl Jung, Katharine C. Briggs, and Isabel Briggs Myers, but Gretchen Rubin’s “tendencies” are not derived by Jung’s psychology.

She writes:

My great interest is human nature, and I constantly search for patterns to identify what we do and why we do it. I’ve spent years studying happiness and habits, and it has become obvious to me that there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all answer for building a happier, healthier, more productive life. Different strategies work for different people—in fact, what works for one person may be the very opposite of what works for someone else.

“And here was my crucial insight: Depending on a person’s response to outer and inner expectations, that person falls into one of four distinct types: Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations. Questioners question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect they respond only to inner expectations. Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.”

Or, in other words:

  • For an Upholder: “Discipline is my freedom
  • For a Questioner: “I’ll comply – if you convince me why
  • For an Obliger: “You can count on me, and I’m counting on you to count on me”
  • For a Rebel: “You can’t make me, and neither can I

For each tendency there is a section with two chapters: the first is about understanding the tendency and the other about dealing with it.

Below it explains briefly what’s distinctive for each type and how to deal with them in the best way possible.

  1. Upholders meet inner and outer expectations. They love rules, having a clear plan and are self-motivated and disciplined. Clearly tell them what needs to be done and they’ll lead the way.
  2. Questioners meet their own expectations, but resist outer ones. They need to see purpose and reason in anything they do. Make it clear why what you want from them is important.
  3. Obligers meet other peoples’ expectations easily, but struggle with their own. The must be held accountable by a friend, coach or boss to get things done. They thrive when they have a sense of duty and can work in a team.
  4. Rebels defy both outer and inner expectations. Above all, they want to be free to choose and express their own individuality. Give them the facts, present the task as a challenge and let them decide without pressure.


In life, we all confront two kinds of expectations. We face the outer expectations that others impose on us—such as submitting a report on time. We also face the inner expectations that we impose on ourselves—such as going to bed every night by 11.

In the Four Tendencies framework, Upholders are those people who readily respond to outer and inner expectations alike. They meet the work deadline, and they keep the New Year’s resolution, without much fuss.

For the most part, they want to do what others expect of them—and their expectations for themselves are just as important. Because of their readiness to meet outer and inner expectations, Upholders also tend to love schedules and routines—they’re the people who wake up and think, “What’s on my schedule and to-do list for today?”

They like to know what’s expected of them, and they don’t like making mistakes or letting people down—including themselves. More than the other three Tendencies, Upholders find it fairly easy to decide to act and then to follow through; they also more easily form habits.


At work, at home, and in life, we all confront both outer and inner expectations. While Upholders readily meet both outer and inner expectations, Questioners meet only inner expectations—and that includes outer expectations that they’ve turned into inner expectations.

In accepting those inner expectations, Questioners show a deep commitment to information, logic, and efficiency. They want to gather their own facts, decide for themselves, and act with good reason; they object to anything they consider arbitrary, ill-reasoned, ill-informed, or ineffective.

Many, many people are Questioners; only the Obliger Tendency has more members. For Questioners, how do outer expectations become inner expectations?

Questioners meet an expectation only if they endorse it as efficient and reasonable. For instance, a Questioner thinks, “My father keeps reminding me to get my oil checked, but I don’t think that’s necessary now—so I’ll ignore him,” or “The sign above the office kitchen sink says that we’re supposed to do our own dishes, but washing mugs isn’t a productive use of my time; it’s more efficient to let the night staff wash up. So I’ll leave my mug here in the sink.”

On the other hand, a Questioner readily meets an outer expectation that’s well justified because it then becomes an inner expectation. A Questioner thinks, “My teacher explained that I’ll finish my math homework more quickly once I’ve memorized the multiplication tables, so I want to get that done.”

Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin


As we move through our days, we confront a barrage of expectations—the outer expectations that others impose (or try to impose) on us and the inner expectations that we impose (or try to impose) on ourselves.

Obligers readily meet the outer expectations imposed by others but struggle
to meet the inner expectations they want to impose on themselves.

Identifying the Obliger Tendency finally gave me the answer to my friend who asked, “I never missed practice when I was on the high school track team, so why can’t I make myself go running now?” When my friend had a coach and a team counting on her—external expectations—she had no trouble showing up for practice, but her own inner expectation wasn’t enough to get her running.

As a result, Obligers respond to external accountability. They wake up and think, “What must I do today? For whom?” When an expectation comes from the outside—from a boss, a client, a family member, a doctor, a coach, an accountability group, a colleague—Obligers will respond. For the most part, they meet deadlines, they keep their promises, they follow through for others.

However, Obligers struggle to follow through for themselves. For Obligers, it’s the inner expectations that pose the challenge. No matter how much they may want to meet a purely inner expectation—to exercise, to take an online course, to start their own company—they will almost inevitably fail. That’s a harsh thing to recognize, but it’s true.



Every single day, all day long, each of us faces outer expectations and inner expectations—and we must decide, “Should I meet this expectation or resist it?”

For Rebels, the answer is always clear: Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do what they want to do, in their own way and in their own time, and if someone asks or tells them to do something, they resist. They don’t even want to tell themselves what to do—they resist expectations imposed from within as vigorously as those imposed from without.

Rebels want to act from a sense of choice, freedom, and self-expression. Rebels wake up and think, “What do I feel like doing right now?” They resist control, even self-control, and often enjoy flouting rules, expectations, and conventions.

Rebels aren’t persuaded by arguments such as “People are counting onyou,” “You’ve already paid for it,” “I did this task, so will you do that task?” “I think this is really important, so let’s agree that from now on we’ll do it,” “Things should be this way,” “You have an appointment,” “You said you’d do it,” “This way is more efficient,” “Someone else will be inconvenienced,” “It’s against the rules,” “It’s a tradition,” “This is the deadline,” or “It’s rude.”

They’re much more apt to respond to being told “This will be fun,” “This is what you want,” “I’m feeling anxious about this, do you think you can do it?” “This feels really important to me, what do you think?” Rebels can do anything they want to do.

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My Test Results

After reading the book, I was already guessing what my “tendency” is according to Rubin Gretchen, even if, like probably everybody else, at times I may act or react to expectations in a way that is not typical of my personality.

I took the test online and the “verdict” is that I am an Upholder. No surprise here, it fits me well, even if at times I may behave like a questioner or even a little bit like a rebel. But I am very rarely a pure obliger: my motivation is usually internal.


The book is very interesting and well-written. It’s based on some unique research. As many others of these 2×2 matrices it may feel a little too simplistic and reductive, and probably is. Still, there are many valuable insights, and as long as we don’t start classifying people too strictly according to Rubin’s idea, it may give us some valuable understanding of ourselves and other people.


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