Have you ever wondered why some people follow rules that are clearly not in their best interests? Have you ever asked yourself why you can’t seem to do better, even when you know better? Why is it so hard for some people to form good habits, especially when it is surely better for their health, not to mention their happiness? I ask those questions—a lot. As a person who is fascinated by human nature and why people do the things they do, I am constantly seeking ways to understand myself and others. Much of that search includes personality tests. Some are helpful. Some not so much. That’s why I was delighted to learn about a new test—The Four Tendencies—by Gretchen Rubin on a podcast this week. If you like learning about habits, motivation, and expectations, you might be interested as well.
Gretchen Rubin’s name is familiar to me even though I’ve never read one of her many books. You might find that surprising because, after all, she is sometimes called the “Queen of Happiness” after her bestselling book, The Happiness Project. Still, from a few reviews I’d read and a couple of articles about the book, it seemed a little too much like “been-there, done-that.” Then recently I stumbled across a podcast interview where she constantly wondered why some people seemed to easily follow through on her happiness recommendations and form good habits while others struggled. From there she came up with the four different ways that all of us tend to behave, especially in response to expectations.
So, is it really that simple to divide human behavior into four categories? Surprisingly, her observations make sense. Remember, she insists that this doesn’t explain all the variances in human nature. It has nothing to do with intelligence, commitment, compassion or whether we are introverted or extroverted. Rather it clarifies the different ways that we approach expectations—both inner and outer. Naturally, there are some overlapping behaviors, but Rubin believes we are each born with one of the four traits most predominate. Just knowing this is another tool in the toolbox for those like me who are attracted to understanding human behavior.
The Four Tendencies
#1 Obligors. According to Rubin the majority of people (41%) fall into this category. This tendency finds it easy and often absolutely necessary to meet the expectations of others. It is very difficult for them to say no and often call themselves “people-pleasers”. They follow rules and believe that everyone should do so as well. Their biggest struggle is meeting their own expectations. Remember, the focus of this approach is on expectations, forming new habits, and what spurs us to action. Obligors feel obligated to meet the expectations of others, especially those others they consider in authority or important to them. Yet they grapple with the willpower to meet their own needs and desires. According to Rubin, obligors feel compelled to act when asking, “Does this expectation matter to others?” At the same time they ask themselves, why do I so easily meet other people’s needs and never my own?
#2 Questioners. The next largest group (26%) are those who feel duty-bound to get clarity and make sense of any expectation before they will act. They will only meet the expectations of others if it sounds reasonable and fits with their understanding—the exact same with expectations for themselves. A questioner automatically dislikes and distrusts all arbitrary rules and regulations. If something sounds justified they’ll do it—otherwise you can forget it. A common question for them is, “Why should I do that?” Their biggest struggle is that they can sometimes never get enough information to feel like they can make a clear decision and that often overwhelms them to the point of staying stuck and not following through. A key strategy for them is to use deadlines or trusted authority to help them choose and move forward.
#3 Upholders. This group of personalities (21%) finds it relatively easy to live up to their own expectations and the expectations of others. They tend to be very self-directed, disciplined and find it easy to take on habits and make changes that they believe will benefit them. They also usually meet most of the world’s expectations as long as it doesn’t conflict too much with their own. If they agree to do something—they do it. Their challenge is that sometimes they can be so absorbed with certain behaviors that they believe to be beneficial that they can become rigid in their actions, habits, and relationships. For upholders, it feels very important, almost compelling, to do what they say they will do. Their motto according to Rubin is: “Planning leads to freedom.”
#4 Rebels. This is the smallest group of people (12%) and they are named rebels because they resist all expectations—both inner and outer. They put a high value on freedom, choice, self-expression and thinking outside the box. They love flouting rules and expectations. According to Rubin, two lines that describes them well is, “No one can tell me what to do,” and “you’re not the boss of me!” In fact, they are flighty, restless and seldom listen to others. Most of the time, rebels are more likely to do the opposite of something that others expect of them. So much so, they often sabotage themselves and others unless they can be convinced that it was their spontaneous choice in the first place.
None of these tendencies are better than another, they all contain both benefits and disadvantages. And remember, they are just one aspect of a person’s personality. But once you start recognizing the subtle differences in people as they approach expectations and habits, the information can be extremely helpful. Best of all, they can offer ways we can learn to understand each other better both at home and at work. Want to figure out which tendency is yours? There is a short, free test here on Gretchen Rubin’s site.
After the first podcast interview I heard, I knew I was an upholder. For example, when I wanted to quit smoking years and years ago, I just stopped. It was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t hard for me, even though my mother struggled her entire life and was never able to quit. I find it very easy to be disciplined and self-directed about my writing, my blog, my diet and even my exercise routine. Others might even call it a bit obsessive. And when I heard Rubin say a common belief held by upholders is “Planning leads to freedom,” there is no doubt in my mind how I process.
Meanwhile, after taking the test it was clear that my husband Thom is a questioner. At first guess I thought he was a rebel because he often doesn’t do what others expect of him. But now I know that the reason he doesn’t live up to others (or his own) expectations is because what is being asked doesn’t make sense to him—so why bother? He loves to ask questions of others—but beyond that, in true questioner form, he is drawn to creating systems and loves to monitor things because of the clarity they offer him.
What’re our disadvantages? As an upholder, I can often drive Thom (and myself) a bit crazy when I insist on sticking with some of my expectations. If I’m honest, I’d practically have to be on my deathbed before I’d miss posting a blog post every Friday. It’s important to me so I do it. Is it any wonder I was drawn to a word like “flexible” as my word for 2018? As for Thom, he can sometimes get stuck and seem indecisive to me because he feels like he needs more information before he feels clear enough to move forward. He can also come across as sarcastic and disrespectful to obligers (and some upholders) who believe it is important to meet the expectations of what society expects. Now, After delving into these tendencies I understand his questions better and why he refuses to do anything if it doesn’t make sense to him.
All of us know many obligors. Most people live up to the expectations of our world—even when some of us can’t imagine why. They nearly always live up to their promises and find it difficult to understand why others don’t do what is expected of them as well. Most are easy to get along with and will nearly always put family and close responsibilities first. Obligers are people we can count on to do what is expected.
Unfortunately, if obligors want to do something for themselves, like get more exercise, they often need outside accountability. A personal coach or joining a team will help them to meet those expectations. If they want to lose weight, the group accountability of Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig is extremely helpful. They work well as a team member and follow directions well. And while obligors usually do their very best to live up to the expectations of their government and authority figures, as well as their families, when pushed too far and too long, they resort to what Rubin calls, “obligor-rebellion.” At that point they throw up their hands and walk away from the situation, often to never be heard from again.
Learning to understand what comes naturally to us in terms of how we approach expectations can explain so many of differences that exist in the ways we deal with the world and each other. Now when I see a person doing what they are told even when it is not in their best interest, I can recognize the obligor. On the other hand, when I see someone who is an extreme rebel doing whatever they want, when they want, without regards to another, I also understand that getting them to live up to my expectations is pointless. I also now know that obligors need more than just an occasional good suggestion to change a habit. Questioners need for things to be explained and justified. Upholders, like me, need the right information and the commitment to start. Just knowing my own motivations and those of the person closest to me is extremely beneficial on a day-to-day basis.
Taking an online quiz can be fun—especially when it offers tremendous insights into why we all do what we do. And from my (upholder) point of view, it is SMART to explore anything that can lead us to greater self-knowledge and self-awareness.
Okay your turn: Did you take the quiz? Which are you? What did you recognize most about yourself that might help you in your life? Please share your thoughts below.