How to Take and Interpret the Four Tendencies Quiz
Are you an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Find out to identify your most effective tactics for reaching your goals.
Even when we have similar goals, we can’t all reach those goals by following the same advice.
The trick, then, is to find a way to identify the advice that is optimal for you, and ignore the advice that’s been optimized for people who are fundamentally different than you. That’s where the Four Tendencies framework comes in. It was developed by Gretchen Rubin, first as a quiz and then later as a book.
I helped adopt it at my own company, giving it both to coaches and coaching clients to help them figure out how to tailor our coaching.
What we found is that the quiz is very useful — that’s why I’m taking the time to walk you through it below. But also in giving it to so many people, I’ve found one common objection to this quiz and any other quiz that smelled even a little bit like a personality test.
People will ask, “is this result true?” and they seem to mean, “is this scientifically accurate?”
I don’t care, and I don’t think you should either.
There’s a different goal for quizzes like these, which is to be a useful mental model that simplifies your view of the world down to something that is manageable for you to work with. Like all heuristics, the point is usefulness, and it’s up to you to be your own judge of that.
With that in mind, and after testing this quiz on hundreds of people, I do think you’ll find your own results useful.
The Four Tendencies Framework
When Gretchen Rubin was researching her book Better Than Before, she realized that one simple question can provide life-changing self-knowledge:
“How do I respond to expectations?”
There are two types of expectations: inner expectations that you place on yourself, and outer expectations that others place on you.
Your inclination to either meet or resist these expectations uncovers your place in Rubin’s Four Tendencies Framework:
- Upholders meets both inner and outer expectations.
- Questioners questions all expectations, but will follow through if they find satisfactory answers. Generally, this means they are more likely to meet inner expectations which are easier for them to understand but resist outer expectations.
- Obligers resist inner but meet outer expectations.
- Rebels resist both inner and outer expectations.
I used to think it must be so easy to be an Upholder. They set goals and are wired to follow them. Same when they make promises.
But then I realized that it’s also exhausting and often stressful. That’s because when an Upholder makes too many commitments, they’re actually going to force themselves to follow through on all of them, whereas the rest of us would probably just bail.
Once you know your tendency within this framework, you can choose behavior change strategies that fit your psychology and thereby dramatically increase your chances of success.
So, take the Four Tendencies Quiz. It will only take ten minutes or so. Then come back here, keep reading, and I’ll show you how to use this self-knowledge to your advantage when you build new habits or make any other sort of behavior change.
Upholder? Track Your Progress.
We’ve found that behavior change is easiest for this tendency.
Whenever there’s an expectation, whether it’s from yourself or someone else, you’re likely to follow through naturally. It might still feel like a struggle dealing with the feelings that you have to get your responsibilities done no matter what.
For Upholders, what gets measured gets improved, and so they often gravitate, successfully, to habit tracking. I, uh, built a habit tracker app for iPhone back in the day and it still works great. But so do all the other habit tracker apps, and so does a paper journal.
The thing a habit tracker will do for an Upholder is to give you a sense of control — especially if you are near your limit. At your limit, you’ll start to get anxiety that you are forgetting things, and a habit tracker can give you confidence that your goals are organized.
I’ve also found a lot of Upholders will hire habit coaches. At first, I was confused by this because a lot of value in habit coaching is accountability, and Upholders don’t particularly need this. But then I realized that Upholders often end up feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of responsibilities they’ve agreed to, so they will turn to coaching to try to get help with optimizations.
If an Upholder makes their way to higher levels of coaching, an issue that they’ll wrestle with is permission to do less. Would you be happier if you were less busy? Would you be more successful if you focused on a single thing? Have you ignored building skills around saying no or delegating because you have so much pride in getting everything done yourself?
Questioner? Look for Proof.
If you’re a Questioner, you’ll meet an expectation only if it makes sense to you. You’ll end up converting external expectations into internal expectations by finding an underlying reason that is meaningful to you. If you can’t answer “why is this important?” then you won't do it.
You tend to motivated by logic, sound reasoning, and strong evidence. Before you get to work on a goal, you want to have proof that it’s worthwhile.
Once you have a strong rationale behind the goal— deeply compelling reasons why it’s important to you — you’ll most likely find it much easier to establish and sustain.
As a publisher in self-improvement, I find Questioners often get tripped up by magical explanations — especially on the more spiritual side of self-improvement advice.
If you are a questioner, I would recommend reading Thinking, Fast and Slow for a simple reason: it’ll give you a rational understanding of the role of emotions in your own decision-making process.
Once you understand how much of your life is ruled by irrational emotional decisions, it’s easier to take the more wu-wu advice as being purposely irrational in order to reach your own emotions. You can test almost any magical or spiritual sounding exercise, even crystals or mantras, if you preface it with “this could be a useful mental construct.” Run the test and then decide for yourself if it’s useful.
Having an upfront understanding of the Questioner tendency makes coaching and advisor/mentor relationships much more successful. Questioners want to know why, but that question, “why?”, is loaded. Some people assume that any question is the start of an argument, “I don’t believe you, prove me wrong.” Coaches are usually unphased by being challenged, but it’ll surprise an advisor or mentor who comes in assuming you’ve chosen them because you already think they know what they are talking about.
But a Questioner can preface these conversations by saying that you are most motivated when you understand the why behind any advice and decision and that’s why you’ll be asking so often.
Unfortunately, in self-improvement, sometimes the best answer is “I’ve seen it work, but I don’t know why it does.” People are complicated and a lot of advice works simply because it’s replacing a damaging behavior or triggering a placebo effect, science is hard, etc.
Obliger? Get External Accountability.
If you’re an Obliger, you meet the expectations of others easily, but struggle to meet the expectations you set for yourself. That doesn’t mean you don’t set goals for yourself—but, rather, that you tend to work on meeting the expectations of others first, and become too depleted to work on your own intentions. So to leverage your own tendency to be accommodating, go find external accountability.
The classic example of this is someone who hires a trainer at the gym simply to force themselves to go to the gym.
Habit coaches are a relatively cheap source of external accountability. The benefit of paying for a coach is that they’re easy to find and more reliably available. But if you can find a friend to be your accountability partner, you’ll have a cheaper experience. I helped pioneer daily, online messaging from habit coaches at Coach.me, but this is now a service that’s available from lots of places.
I have run into people who’d never considered themselves an Obliger until they took this test, and found themselves wanting to change this tendency. Why let other people rule your life, right? This is a job that’s best given to a therapist, someone who can help you develop patterns of putting yourself first.
Rebel? Preserve Your Freedom.
If you’re a Rebel, you resist all expectations, inner and outer alike. This can make it a challenge to create the habits you want or achieve your goals. I should know — I’m a Rebel, myself.
Rebel, though, might not be the precisely correct name. In testing people and then working to coach self-identified rebels, I’d prefer to call them Independents.
The behavior that comes up with coaching a Rebel is that they want to do everything their own way. They aren’t swayed by best practices or standards. In other words, they’re trying to invent a way that’s independent of other people’s advice.
So what we tell our coaches about this type is to prepare to be a sounding board. A coach can help a Rebel sharpen their own ideas, but the coach is not going to be able to change them.
Our expectation for Rebels is that change happens retroactively rather than through proactive planning and research. A Rebel will test something and then adapt.
And so, the best proactive strategy to work with your own Rebel tendencies is to build in feedback mechanisms. That way when you do test one of your own ideas, you get strong, immediate feedback that lets you adapt quickly. Take my advice on this now, or, more likely, later, if you feel you’re changing too slowly.
If you’ll let me, I’d like to circle back to the concept of using mental models to identify the advice that’s most (and least) likely to work for you.
The vast majority of self-improvement advice is sold as one-size-fits-all. The seller says, “This is 100% guaranteed to work!”
And, I’m sure you’ve noticed over the course of your life, this is not true at all.
That’s why I’m such a big fan of Gretchen Rubin. Her Four Tendencies are one of the first effective assessments I’ve seen that act as a tool to filter advice and to choose what strategy is most likely to work for you.
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