Are You An Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, Or Rebel? The Four Tendencies By Gretchen Rubin Will Change How You View Yourself And Others

Rarely does a book change the way I view myself and others. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin did just that. Eye opening!

Ever since I was a small child, I've asked questions. Lots of them. I've had problems taking anything at face value. In some ways this has benefited me both personally and professionally inasmuch as I can apply a strong sense of curiosity to problem solving. In other ways it can be exhausting and counterproductive, like my constant assumption that there is a better answer or refusals to trust what I'm told. Nicole especially appreciates this. 

Turns out, I am a Questioner. And there are many others like me. 

Gretchen Rubin's new book, The Four Tendencies, outlines her narrowly defined personality framework. Unlike other models, such as Myers-Briggs and its offshoots, it does not aim to categorize all of a person's characteristics. Instead, The Four Tendencies focuses exclusively on one trait: How people respond to expectations, both external and internal.

Simple, but powerful. And because of this, a rarity -- a non-fiction page turner.

For most people, myself included, isn't meeting or failing expectations one of our greatest drivers of happiness or frustration? Dealing with an assignment from a boss or a request to do the dishes from a loved one -- or the New Year's resolution to get in shape or start a side business. Rubin's personality framework gets to the heart of what causes us to rise to the occasion or flounder.

Rubin herself is something of a savant. Perhaps best known for her earlier book, The Happiness Project, and her podcast, Happier, it is The Four Tendencies that put her on the map for many new fans, myself (and Nicole) included. Raised in Kansas City, Rubin went on to graduate from Yale Law School and clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor before launching her writing career. Her gift is distilling heady theories to fun and folksy nuggets. At least for Nicole and I, The Four Tendencies did not read like a boring textbook but rather a dynamic discussion of what makes us human.

So what are the Four Tendencies? 

Their bedrock is expectations, internal and external.

For clarity, an internal expectation comes from within the individual, i.e., a self-imposed goal of losing weight, whereas external expectations are everything projected onto the individual form outside, i.e., a doctor telling a patient to lose weight.

From there, the person's response to internal and external expectations divide them into one of four categories: Upholders (who freely meet both internal and external expectations), Obligers (who freely meet external expectations and are challenged by internal expectations), Questioners (who are challenged by external expectations and freely meet internal expectations), and Rebels (who are challenged by both external and internal expectations).

To find out which you are, Rubin's website has a very quick test (note: the form does require providing an email address).

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The following quick descriptions accord with, per Rubin's research, the percentage of the general population who fall within each category (in descending order from most populous to rarest):

  • Obliger (Freely meets external expectations / Challenged by internal expectations). According to Rubin, of any category, Obligers benefit the most from understanding their Tendency. Why? Because Obligers thrive when they use external accountability to meet internal expectations. And knowing that is powerful. If an Obliger wants to read more, they should join a book club that meets regularly -- not inwardly resolve to read thirty minutes every night. The expectations of the others in the book club, that the Obliger read the assigned books, allow the Obliger to meet their internal expectation of reading more. Nicole is a proud Obliger. 


  • Questioner (Freely meets internal expectations / Challenged by external expectations). Folks falling within this category freely meet expectations that make sense to them, i.e., expectations that are, or can be made, their own. They question the validity of everything else. Hence, a Questioner at work will struggle with completing an assignment from a boss if the Questioner doesn't understand the purpose of the project or why the boss insists on it being done a certain way. However, if the answers to those questions are available and satisfactory, the Questioner will often have no problem completing the assignment. Questioners need to know why.   


  • Upholder (Freely meets internal expectations / Freely meets external expectations). Because of their ability to freely meet most expectations, Upholders can get a lot accomplished. So is this the best Tendency? Not necessarily. The flip side is that their devotion to meeting expectations can overwhelm and take priority over other aspects of their life. A friend stops by to say hello to an Upholder? Sorry, the Upholder doesn't have time to chat, they have a workout scheduled and they aren't going to miss it. Upholders can be rigid and often struggle to introduce flexibility into their lives.


  • Rebel (Challenged by internal expectations / Challenged by external expectations). The rarest category, Rebels do not want to be told what to do, whether by others or themselves. Instead, Rebels do what they want. Is this bad? No. Rebels are able to accomplish much -- if they feel like it. It's important to understand that Rebels benefit from a strong sense of self. Thus, one way for Rebels to change habits is to change self perception. A Rebel who wants to read more may struggle with joining a book club -- too rigid. But if it becomes important for the Rebel to see themself as a bookish person they may find they have no problem speeding through paperbacks.   


Upholder: It’s important to me to meet other people’s expectations, but my expectations for myself are just as important.

Questioner: I’ll comply only if you convince me why.

Obliger: Promises to other people can’t be broken, but promises to myself can be broken.

Rebel: No one can tell me what to do.

The key takeaway from The Four Tendencies is that no Tendency is better or worse than the others. Rather, the holy grail is to (1) understand your own Tendency and (2) create conditions whereby you can excel within that framework. For instance, as a Questioner, I can benefit from signing over certain aspects of my life to trusted experts. If I need to decorate a room, my Tendency leads me to deep dive into the world of interior design. But that may not be the best use of my time or energy. Hiring a trusted interior decorator would free up countless hours that I can apply to other, more fruitful areas of my life.

Beyond that, much can be gained by understanding the Tendencies of those around you and tailoring your own expectations and communications. For instance, once you understand that your friend is an Upholder, you can be more forgiving when they blow their top because you were late for dinner reservations. And if your friend is an Upholder, you should be on time!

Rarely does a book change my view of myself and the world around me. It is no exaggeration to say that both Nicole and I were (and are) captivated by The Four Tendencies. We listened to it as an audiobook and could scarcely go a few minutes without hitting pause to discuss. For anyone interested in human nature, you won't be disappointed. 

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