Self-Help Guru Gretchen Rubin Tackles "The Four Tendencies"

In an interview with LJ, Gretchen Rubin expands on a concept developed in her earlier work about habits, Better Than Before: the idea that people fall into one of four categories based on how they respond to expectations.

Photo by The Girls Lounge

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How To Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) expands on a concept author Gretchen Rubin developed in her earlier work about habits, Better Than Before: the idea that people fall into one of four categories based on how they respond to expectations. Upholders find it easy to meet both inner and outer expectations; obligers satisfy obligations to others (an exercise partner, a book club) easily but struggle to meet inner expectations; questioners have no trouble achieving their own goals but may not respond well to those generated by others; and rebels have difficulty meeting both inner and outer expectations. (See the review, LJ 8/1, p. 106).

Why is it important to know your tendency? When you know your tendency, you can set up your life in a way that’s going to make it easier for you to achieve your own aims. Also, when you’re dealing with other people—because a big part of life is getting other people to do what we want as well—it’s very hard to remember that others may be different from ourselves. If something works for me, I’m going to think that’s what works for everybody. When you understand how people see the world differently, then you have a lot more compassion and can set things up in a way that’s going to help people ­succeed.

What are some common misconceptions about the four tendencies? People don’t really think through the relationship between the tendencies. They’ll think I’m an upholder and an obliger. You can’t be both—they both readily meet outer expectations, so in a way they’re the same, but in other ways they’re very different. Everybody has a little bit of these [tendencies]—nobody wants to do something that’s arbitrary or stupid, and everybody’s going to rebel if someone’s trying to control their every action. But in general, people do tend to fall into these core tendencies.

You have a quiz in the book to help people figure out their tendency. What was the process of writing that like? It was very difficult, and the quiz has gone through many iterations. It’s hard to come up with questions that people will widely identify with and also get at the distinctions. When I was coming up with the four tendencies, I was trying to identify patterns in how people were behaving, and I would use certain questions to understand these patterns. One question was about New Year’s resolutions. Not, do you make or keep New Year’s resolutions, but how do you FEEL about those resolutions. Because that [kind of question] does a much better job of getting at the differences between the four tendencies.

When I was coming up with the quiz I had many examples that didn’t work or were confusing. One had to do with what a parent would do with a child, and then I realized a question like that gets into one’s duty to another, and that adds a whole other layer, so I had to strike that one from the list. It was a huge undertaking to get finalized.

As I’ve gotten further into understanding the tendencies, I’ve understood that even certain words are tip-offs. [For example,] the word “arbitrary” is a big tip-off for questioners. Obligers use words like “self-care” or say that “I should do this but I don’t,” whereas rebels will start talking about spontaneity or choice, freedom, not being controlled. On the Better app, where people can talk about the core tendencies, somebody had come up with one word for every group: upholder, will; rebel, won’t; obliger, should; and questioner, could.

What is the process of narrating your audiobooks like? Is it similar to doing a podcast? I love narrating my books. I’m happy to do it. The kind of writing I do [makes]people feel more connected, so it seems sort of artificial to have someone else speaking for me. What I like about [writing] a book is that you get every word exactly right. With the podcast, sometimes I listen and think ugh, I could have said that better. But what you gain in spontaneity you lose in perfection, so it’s a trade-off. Both have advantages.

How can librarians use the tendencies to work with patrons more effectively? Say you’re trying to get patrons to return materials on time. For questioners, you want to give reasons, so you could say we have limited resources, [or] we only have so many copies of popular books.

To an obliger, you’d say somebody’s waiting for that—most of our books have wait lists and if you hold on to a book too long then you’re preventing somebody else from being able to read it.

For a rebel, which is always a little trickier, you want to reach their [sense of] identity and tell them the information and the consequences. If someone goes to the library, that’s a part of their identity, so you might say, as someone who loves libraries, we hope that you’ll choose to return your materials in a timely manner because so many other people are eagerly looking on the shelves.

And to the upholder, you just tell the due date? Yeah, an upholder is probably going to get it in on time. It’s interesting because one of the habits I talk a lot about in the book and on the podcast and generally is reading more, and it’s striking to me how many people say they want to read more. It’s right up there with exercising and eating differently. They talk about it a lot.

One of the strategies people talk about is using the library to force their reading—[for example,] I know I have to read this book in the next three weeks or I’m going to have to return it. So [librarians] can point out [to patrons] that in order to get that book back on time, you’re going to have to sit down and actually read it. Or if you don’t read it in the next three weeks, you probably don’t really want to read it. ­Return it and get something you feel like ­reading.—­Stephanie Klose

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