• Alyssa Barton

What's Your Tendency?

Are we born being predetermined to respond to social pressures in certain ways? Author Gretchen Rubin thinks we are.

In The Four Tendencies, Rubin discusses her theory that people can be categorized into groups based on inherent tendencies that we are born with, characterized by how we respond to internal and external expectations. These tendencies are a bedrock feature of our personalities, we demonstrate them through habitual patterns of response to expectations set by ourselves and set by others.

The four tendencies are:

  • Upholder: Responds readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations. For example: an upholder can equally excel at meeting deadlines at work, keeping commitments to their significant other, and make and keep personal goals – for example, healthy diet and exercise routines.

  • Questioner: Questions all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect they respond only to inner expectations. For example, at work, if an assignment seems arbitrary or counterproductive, a questioner might refuse to do it until their boss explains the purpose and strategy behind the task – and then only if they agree that it makes sense. Likewise, a questioner won’t set or keep personal expectations unless they understand the logic and see the benefit to themselves.

  • Obliger: Responds readily to outer expectations but struggles to meet inner expectations. These are the folks that go out of their way to help others, they are people-pleasers, the most reliable givers you may know at work and in life. Though they may make personal goals and set internal expectations, they’ll often fail to meet those expectations because they need an external force – an “accountability partner” - to hold them accountable. In short, they put others before themselves, so they tend to fail to meet their inner expectations while meeting everyone else’s.

  • Rebel: Resists all expectations, outer and inner alike. These folks simply don’t like to be pegged down or defined by anyone, including themselves. They’ll refuse to do something if a spouse, boss, coworker, friend or even they themselves feel obligated to do it. This can be counter-productive to the point of being self-destructive.

As one example across all tendencies: according to Rubin, upholders are most likely to make and keep New Year’s resolutions; rebels dislike resolutions; questioners make them when the time seems right rather than waiting for an arbitrary date; and obligers give up making New Year’s resolutions altogether because they’ve struggled keeping them in the past. Obligers might make a comment along the lines of “it’s so hard to make time for myself.”

But how does this theory – that all people conform to one of these “tendencies” - hold up? Do people really fall squarely into one of these boxes? Rubin says she ran a study among a nationally representative sample, examining a geographically dispersed group of U.S. adults with a mix of gender, age, and household income. She doesn’t state how many people she polled. But she said that clear trends emerged and thus she was able to define these tendencies. Per her poll, “at 41%, obliger was the largest tendency. Next came questioner, at 24%.” Then came upholder and rebel.

I’m not convinced of the scientific accuracy of Rubin’s theory, and I’m skeptical that people are born with an innate and immutable “tendency” to react a certain way to internal and external expectations – a tendency that we have no control over and that has nothing to do with our environment or upbringing. But the book makes for a very curious and highly entertaining read. The writing is witty and Rubin is humorously matter of fact in her analysis and explanations of the tendencies.

I listened to the audio book during a long car ride up to Baker Lake in Washington with my significant other. We got a kick out of hearing what sounded like our “tendencies” described – my boyfriend an upholder, and myself an obliger tending towards an upholder. Digging into the psychology behind why people act the way they do makes for a great listen and great conversations.

When reading or listening to the book, you won’t be able to help but to start analyzing yourself, your family, coworkers, friends and more, trying to categorize people by tendency. You also will probably have some “ah hah!” moments like we did when we suddenly came to realize that certain people we know seem to fit squarely into a tendency. Suddenly a friend’s behavior made so much more sense when viewed through the lens of the four tendencies because now we knew (or thought we knew) what motivated them. By understanding their tendency we knew (or thought we knew) how we might better support them or get them to do what we want. Now you can see how this might be a useful tool for the workplace!

This book will get you thinking about the motivations and reasons for our behaviors: why do we uphold, reject, or fail to meet an expectation – whether it was a request made of us at work or a goal we personally want to achieve? Why do we act or choose not to act? What gets in our way, and what steps can we take to work around these tendencies? Self-knowledge about how we respond to expectations is critical to understanding ourselves – our own nature, interests and values. It’s also very useful to understand other people: this type of examination can lead to insight about our relationships and about how some methods of communication or interaction work for us while others fail. In theory, understanding people’s tendencies could lead to better, more productive outcomes in all kinds of relationships.

For example, if you’re a boss and your employee is a questioner, when you give them a new assignment you will need to explain the purpose and strategy behind the assignment and tie it in to the success of the business so that the employee understands the purpose and merit of the assignment. As another example, if your significant other is an obliger you might help them to meet their personal goals by acting as an accountability partner: if you tell your obliger partner that YOU want to stick to a healthy diet and need their help sticking to it, you will have better luck helping them meet their own diet goals.

Finally, understanding a child’s tendency, or patient’s in a doctor/patient relationship, can help you persuade them to engage in appropriate behavior. With rebels, when trying to get a rebel to meet an expectation Rubin says you must provide them information, explain the consequences, and give them a choice – framing your preferred choice as the option that will benefit the rebel. This can be a scary approach to parenting because you have to give the child the space to make mistakes, which can be painful. But, she argues that it is the most effective way to get rebels to behave appropriately, rather than dictating or giving an ultimatum which rebels will reject.

Rubin generalizes how people with each tendency behave and what motivates them to behave that way. She runs through how the different tendencies relate to each other in relationships including spouse to spouse, parent to child, healthcare provider to patient, worker to boss, and teachers (or coaches) to their students. She provides lots of examples and a Quiz in chapter 2 to identify your tendency. She also provides some pros and cons of each tendency – the cons are often the pros taken to extreme. For example, the upholder is great at meeting expectations, but this can make them rigid and inflexible. They are loathe to change well-made plans at the last minute due to emergencies or life’s inconveniences. Likewise, questioners might avoid wasting time by asking questions to identify and weed out pointless tasks at work. But, they may ask so many questions that they fall victim to analysis paralysis and fail to reach a decision point in a timely way.

When plotted as circles in a Venn Diagram the four tendencies make for an interesting collection of personalities that overlap on each edge, with each tendency blending into another.

I relate most to the obliger tendency. I am a people-pleaser and often put others before myself. I think lots of women are! As one example, I love being very generous and hospitable with friends when they visit me from out of town. Visits from random friends – even acquaintances that I’m not close with! - spark elaborate plans to drive them all around the city to the see the highlights, treat them at local restaurants and bars, and generally show them a great time with a focus on their favorite activities and interests.

I can definitely also relate to the concept of “obliger rebellion.” Rubin says that obligers say “yes” to everyone’s requests – until they can’t take it anymore and break. At that point, they’ll lay down the law and reply with a loud “NO!” to all additional expectations. This can be because they start to feel taken advantage of – when they were the root cause of the problem in the first place. Failing to draw boundaries and set realistic expectations can have this explosive end-result. Having recognized the tendency to overload my own plate in the past, I know how essential it is to draw boundaries, to clarify expectations and implement realistic milestones and timelines for tasks to avoid burnout in all aspects of life.

What do you think about the tendencies? Do you recognize yourself in one or several of the descriptions?

I recommend this titillating read or listen, at it offers potentially constructive outcomes for your relationships.

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©2019 by Alyssa Barton