BOOK REVIEW: 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

BOOK REVIEW: 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

Hodder & Stoughton General Division
September 2017
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Self-Help & Personal Development / Popular Psychology


Many of us will be familiar with the idiom, “Different strokes for different folks.” While this quote could mean that people are varied and enjoy different things, it can also be used to justify people’s diverse habits and motivations. Gretchen Rubin is a habits expert who has developed a new framework for identifying and understanding different personalities called The Four Tendencies, which she describes in a new book by the same name. Some readers will find her commentary enlightening and useful but more research is required in this area to determine its overarching validity beyond the realms of pop psychology.

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

Rubin is a former lawyer who has previously written the best-selling books, The Happiness Project and Better than before and the latter volume touched on some of the above ideas. Rubin is neither a scientist nor a psychologist but she is intrigued by human behaviour. When her readers questioned her about how she got motivated to do some of the things she outlined in her previous books, she wondered how some people couldn’t just pick up the ball and run with it. From there, she got thinking about how people respond to their own inner goals and expectations versus the ones that are imposed on them from their work or via other people. She coined the terms Upholders, Obligers, Rebels and Questioners to distinguish and classify how people are motivated by and respond to these different stimuli.

Each framework (personality frameworks such as the Big Five personality traits, StregnthsFinder, the Ennegram, Myers-Briggs, and VIA) captures a certain insight, and that insight would be lost if all of the systems were dumped together. No single system can capture human nature in all of its depth and variety.
Also I think that many personality frameworks cram too many elements into their categories. By contrast, the Four Tendencies describes only one narrow aspect of a person’s character—a vitally important aspect, but still just one of the multitude of qualities that form an individual. The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t act.

This book details these four types by offering some repetitive general descriptions and some anecdotal evidence as well as the trait’s own strengths, weaknesses and communication preferences. There is no question that Rubin is an accomplished writer who describes things in ways that are quick and easy to follow. She uses a non-judgmental tone and states that no trait is better or worse than the other, it is all a matter of how they interact with their different environments and with other personality traits. So an Upholder is conscientious and reliable but they can also be too rigid at times. A Questioner might enjoy a lot of research but also suffer from analysis-paralysis while Rebels march to the beat of their own drum and Obligers need external accountability.

It’s all too easy to assume that what persuades us will persuade others—which isn’t true. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is that we’re more like other people than we suppose and less like other people than we suppose. And it’s very hard to keep that in mind.
In a nutshell, to influence someone to follow a certain course, it’s helpful to remember:
• Upholders want to know what should be done
• Questioners want justifications
• Obligers need accountability
• Rebels want freedom to do something their own way

For some readers, The Four Tendencies could help them identify and overcome their own personal issues and obstacles and improve their communication skills with others. But this only helps when that person and those they’re interacting with clearly fit the description of one particular type over another. Rubin does write about some potential overlap between the traits but she fails to mention any instances where people may act in ways that are completely contrary to how their type is “supposed to act,” which could happen in different scenarios and environments, etc. (Remember, people are complex creatures so they may behave very differently in environments like: home, school, work, in public, etc.)

Similarly, we’re more likely to be persuasive when we invoke the values that have special appeal for a particular Tendency:
• Upholders value self-command performance
• Questioners value justification and purpose
• Obligers value teamwork and duty
• Rebels value freedom and self-identity

The descriptions of The Four Tendencies are neat and tidy but the fact is that people are messy and often don’t conform to one specific role. There are also issues with Rubin’s “research” which to date has been based on individuals who have completed a short, online quiz on her website. While she reports to have had over 600,000 respondents, this is hardly a representative sample and more likely to be skewered towards a particular type of person who is interested in this field. It could also mean some false positives and patterns in her data and results that simply don’t exist. The questions in her quiz also fail to check whether the respondent is answering the questions truthfully or whether they are manipulating the answer to “fit” a tendency they believe they are, not what they really should be classed as.

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.

Rubin also asserts that people are hard-wired and don’t change their tendency. This could be plausible and some of her other assertions also seem quite logical and reasonable at times but you also get the sense that greater testing and research is required. Without extra research like a peer review and studies, a book like this could be quite damaging in its oversimplification of people, especially if it was treated like fact rather than something that is really more akin to a horoscope – enjoyed and used by some people but utterly useless to others who fail to see how they relate to it all.

The Four Tendencies is likely to resonate with some readers who can relate to the descriptions that are offered here. If they find Rubin’s sharp prose and advice useful, all the better for them. But before this framework has a wider implementation, more research and studies need to be employed to determine how valid and applicable it is to the wider population. Because at the end of the day does this one woman’s theorising actually represent reality? The answer to that question could only be found in the results from further research.

BOOK REVIEW: 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

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