Or the full name: The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too). Yeesh.
We all love taking personality quizzes, don’t we? Which Hogwarts house we’d belong to (I’m a Ravenpuff), which is our True Colour (Green/Blue tie), which Friends character we’d be (…Mondler). Or, perhaps slightly more scientifically, our Myers-Briggs profile, or Big Five ratings. When I was in high school, there was one proto-BuzzFeed-type website where you could do all sorts of ridiculous quizzes, on what breed of dog you were, what kind of dessert, etc, and it would save all your answers and collate them. I wish I could remember what site it was, but anyway – my point is, it can be fun to examine different aspects of your personality, compare them to a suggested type, and see if the descriptions and prescriptions feel uncannily correct or completely inapplicable.
Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies are are yet one more version of this, albeit more focused than many of those mentioned above. The basic problem being addressed here is: What makes a person able to complete a task? Or in Rubin’s words: “How do I get people—including myself—to do what I want?” The idea is, if you know your “tendency”, you’ll have a better idea of how to motivate yourself to achieve the things you want to achieve, and if you know someone else’s, you’ll have a better idea what to do, and what not to do, to help them achieve the things they want to achieve (or manipulate them into achieving things you want them to achieve).
Your tendency is based on the yes/no answer to two questions: 1) Do you meet outer expectations (goals or tasks set by a force external to you)? and 2) Do you meet inner expectations (goals or tasks set by you). An Upholder would answer yes to both. A Rebel would answer no to both. A Questioner would answer no to 1 and yes to 2. And an Obliger would do the reverse. Or, to put it visually:
Obviously the book describes each type in depth, which chapters focusing on their strengths and weaknesses, and how they interact with each other, but here’s a quick summary. A disciplined and focused Upholder might have difficulty understanding why other people can’t just do the things they want to do. An Obliger may have a hard time focusing on their own needs when they feel the burden of other’s expectations so heavily. A Questioner needs to understand why they’re being asked to do something, or it won’t feature on their list of priorities. A Rebel reacts particularly poorly to nagging, which can result in them not doing something they’d otherwise want to do, just because they were told to.
Here’s an example. Based on her quiz, and also knowing myself for more than 10 seconds, I’m a Questioner (with Rebel leanings). My brother is an Upholder (he hasn’t taken the quiz, but it’s just as obvious). Growing up, my parents would constantly use the “because I said so” line on us, and my brother would do the thing and I would absolutely not. It might have helped them to know that simply providing me with a justification could have preempted so many arguments (…provided I agreed with said justification, of course). Do some parents figure that out instinctively? Sure! But to my Upholder dad and Obliger mom, my point of view may not have occurred to them, and they didn’t understand the importance of the explanation.
Another example: my mom is a pretty textbook Obliger. She often struggles with keeping goals she’s made, such as cooking dinner every night or doing more exercise. She complains that she never has time for herself because people keep phoning her. My instinct has been to assume that she didn’t really want to do those things, and to tell her to just switch off her phone for some Me Time when she needs it. But after reading this book (and recommending it to my mother), I can see how that’s not a helpful suggestion for her, and that it was never a question of want.
Here’s what The Four Tendencies doesn’t do. It doesn’t take mental illness or disabilities into account. It doesn’t discuss privilege. Any difficulties a person experiences due to these things are beyond its scope, and as such, many people might find it oblivious and unhelpful.
Gretchen Rubin studied law at Yale, and, while clerking for Sandra Day O’Connor, decided she’d actually like to be a writer instead. So is this book based on scientific research, scientific experiments, or scientific evidence? No it is not. It is based on a hypothesis she came up with when writing The Happiness Project and elaborated upon in podcasts and other writings. Then, she spent a whole lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about it. Per her website: “I ran a study among a nationally representative sample, to examine a geographically dispersed group of U.S. adults with a mix of gender, age, and household income. I learned a lot from that study.” Based on what she wrote in The Four Tendencies, this single study was conducted on Facebook, and was already based on the premise that the Four Tendencies were valid – it was just to find out more about the people who identify as each type.
Do I mean that as a criticism? Not necessarily. She doesn’t claim that this is science. And just because it isn’t based on structured research doesn’t mean you can’t find something useful in here. If you’re having trouble motivating yourself or understanding why you’re having difficulty doing things you would like to do, such as exercising more or finishing projects on time, I think this book could be incredibly helpful. If you can’t understand why your kid, student, or spouse won’t practice piano, complete their homework, or take out the trash, this book has some excellent strategies. But it is written by a wealthy, Ivy League educated white woman and comes mostly from her observations and experiences (although she does quote a lot of anonymous letter writers and friends!) and it shows.
The Four Tendencies isn’t going to solve all your problems, but it has some great tips and tricks for understanding and dealing with people who may see the world differently than you do, and equally some good advice for how to use your, well, tendencies for good.