The Four Tendencies
1The Four Tendencies
The Origin of the Four Tendencies • How the Tendencies Weave Throughout Our Characters • Why It’s Helpful to Identify Our Own Tendency • Why It’s Helpful to Identify Others’ Tendencies
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I walked through the door of the Atlantic Grill restaurant one blustery winter afternoon, I was heading to one of the most significant conversations of my life.
As I bit into my cheeseburger and my friend picked at her salad, she made a comment that would occupy my mind for years. In an offhand way, she mentioned, “I want to get myself in the habit of running, but I can’t, and it really bothers me.” Then she added, in a crucial observation, “When I was on the high school track team, I never missed track practice, so why can’t I go running now?”
“Why?” I echoed.
“Well, you know, it’s so hard to make time for ourselves.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
We started talking about other things, but even after we’d said good-bye, I couldn’t stop thinking about our exchange. She was the same person she’d been in high school, and she was aiming to do the same activity. She’d been able to go running in the past, but not now. Why? Was it her age, her motivation, her family situation, the location, team spirit, or something else?
She assumed that we all have trouble “making time for ourselves.” But actually I don’t have any trouble making time for myself. How were she and I different from each other?
I would spend the next few years trying to answer these questions.The Origin of the Four Tendencies
They say there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.
I’m definitely the first kind. 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. Some people are morning people; some are night people. Some do better when they abstain from a strong temptation; others, when they indulge in moderation. Some people love simplicity; some thrive in abundance.
And not only that. As I pondered my friend’s observation about her running habit, I sensed that deep below the “night people vs. morning people” sorts of differences, there existed some kind of bedrock distinction that shaped people’s natures—something profound, but also bold and obvious—that nevertheless eluded my vision.
To help figure out what I was missing, I posed a number of questions to readers of my website, including: “How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions?” “Do you observe traffic regulations—why or why not?” “Would you ever sign up to take a class for fun?” As readers’ responses poured in, I saw that distinct patterns were threaded through the various answers. It was almost weird—as though groups of people had agreed to answer from the same script.
For instance, about New Year’s resolutions, a subset of people gave virtually identical answers: “I’ll keep a resolution if it’s useful, but I won’t start on New Year’s Day, because January 1 is an arbitrary date.” They all used that word: “arbitrary.” I was intrigued by this specific word choice, because the arbitrariness of the January 1 date had never bothered me. Yet these people were all giving the same answer—what did they have in common?
And many people answered, “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore because I never manage to keep them—I never make time for myself.”
Another group said, “I never make resolutions because I don’t like to bind myself.”
There was some meaningful design here, I knew it, but I just couldn’t quite see it.
Then finally, after months of reflection, I had my eureka moment. As I sat at my desk in my home office, I happened to glance at my messy handwritten to-do list—and suddenly it hit me. The simple, decisive question was: “How do you respond to expectations?” I’d found it!
I’d discovered the key. I felt the same excitement that Archimedes must have felt when he stepped out of his bath. I was sitting still, but my mind was racing forward with thoughts about expectations. I grasped at that moment that we all face two kinds of expectations:
•outer expectations—expectations others place on us, like meeting a work deadline
•inner expectations—expectations we place on ourselves, like keeping a New Year’s resolution
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
It was that simple. With just one single, straightforward question, all of humanity sorted itself into these categories.
Now I understood why my friend had trouble forming the habit of running: She was an Obliger. When she’d had a team and a coach expecting her, she had no trouble showing up; when she faced her own inner expectations, she struggled. I understood those repetitious comments about New Year’s resolutions. And I understood much, much more.
The Four Tendencies framework clarified the striking patterns of behavior I’d perceived, and I was able to make sense of what everyone else had seen—but no one else had noticed.
When I mapped the complete system on a sheet of paper, in four symmetrical overlapping circles, my framework showed the elegance of a fern frond or a nautilus shell. I truly felt that I’d uncovered a law of nature: human nature.
Or maybe I’d created something more like a Muggle Sorting Hat.
Once I’d identified the framework, I worked to deepen my understanding. “The Strategy of the Four Tendencies” became the first chapter in Better Than Before, my book about habit change; I wrote about the Four Tendencies on my website, gretchenrubin.com; my cohost and sister, Elizabeth Craft, and I talked about the Four Tendencies on our weekly podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. Every time I discussed the framework, readers and listeners responded.
Most people can identify their Tendency from a brief description, but for people who aren’t sure or who want their answers to be analyzed, I designed a quiz. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken the Four Tendencies Quiz, which appears in chapter 2 or at happiercast.com/quiz. People’s answers to the quiz, as well as their open-ended responses, gave me an additional trove of insights. (For one thing, I’ve noticed that people’s Tendencies influence their willingness to take the quiz. Questioners sometimes ask, “Why should I spend my time and effort taking this quiz?” and Rebels sometimes think, “You’re telling me to take this quiz? Well, I won’t do it.”)
To test my observations about the Four Tendencies, I decided to run a study of the framework among a nationally representative sample, to examine a geographically dispersed group of U.S. adults with a mix of gender, age, and household income.
The most important thing I discovered? The distribution of the Four Tendencies. At 41%, Obliger was the largest Tendency. Next came Questioner, at 24%. The Rebel Tendency had the fewest members, at 17%—I’m surprised that the survey put the number that high—and my own Tendency, the Upholder Tendency, was just slightly larger at 19%. The study also confirmed many of my observations about the Four Tendencies; for instance, when considering New Year’s resolutions, Upholders are most likely to make them; Rebels dislike them; Questioners make resolutions when the time seems right rather than waiting for an arbitrary date; and often Obligers give up making resolutions altogether because they’ve struggled in the past.
As I refined the framework, I even assigned a color to each Tendency, by using the model of a traffic light. Yellow represents Questioners, because just as a yellow light cautions us to “wait” to decide whether to proceed, Questioners always ask “Wait, why?” before meeting an expectation. Green represents Obligers, who readily “go ahead.” Red represents Rebels, who are most likely to “stop” or say no. Because there’s no fourth traffic-light color, I chose blue for Upholders—which seems fitting.
The more that I’ve studied the Tendencies, the more I see their tremendous influence.