Mental health
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Gretchen Rubin, who wrote The Four Tendencies, with Oprah Winfrey. Photo: Gretchen Rubin

Which personality type are you? Rebel, questioner, obliger or upholder? The answer could change your life

  • Author Gretchen Rubin says we fit into four personality types who respond differently to expectations
  • Knowing which you are helps achieve your goals, make better decisions, meet deadlines and reduce stress

Gretchen Rubin – an influential writer on the linked subjects of habits, happiness, and human nature, suggests that by asking the simple question ‘How do I respond to expectations?’, we can gain life-changing self-knowledge.

In her best-selling book, The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) Rubin explains that based on peoples’ answer to this question, people fit into four personality types: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels, and that discovering your type can make you happier and more successful.

The author has sold more than 3.5 million copies of books, including The Happiness Project and Better than Before.

A member of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100, and podcast host of the award-winning podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, says that knowing your tendency can improve your ability to achieve your goals, make better decisions, meet deadlines, keep promises to yourself, reduce stress, and engage more deeply with others.

‘The Four Tendencies’ by Gretchen Rubin.

We all face two kinds of expectations, she says: Outer expectations such as work deadlines and requests from friends, and inner expectations, such as a desire to keep a New Year’s resolution or to go for a daily run.

Depending on whether you meet or resist inner and outer expectations will determine which of the four tendencies best reflects you.

More than three million people have taken Rubin’s online quiz to help determine their tendency, but people can often recognise their tendency from its description.

Upholders readily meet both outer and inner expectations. Upholders are self-directed, meet deadlines, and manage commitments. They want to know what other people expect, but their own expectations are just as important and their freedom comes from discipline. They can seem rigid, inflexible, disapproving or judgmental.

How to be happy: the 10 universal principles

Questioners meet only inner expectations and question outer expectations. They need to be convinced and their motto is ‘I’ll comply if you convince me why.’

Questioners are data driven, evidence based and fair minded. They can seem tiresome when they only do what they think makes sense and resist anything they deem to be arbitrary or inefficient.

Obligers readily meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. They are reliable, responsible, easy to get along with and the type most likely to come through if you ask them to lend a hand and go the extra mile.

While helping everyone else, obligers often don’t follow through with their own goals. They can get overworked and burn out which can lead to obliger rebellion.

Rebels resist both inner and outer expectations. They don’t like to be told what to do and even dislike telling themselves what to do. They are independent.

A sense of identity is important to them and they love a challenge. If someone puts pressure on them it can trigger their spirit of resistance, making them seem uncooperative and inconsiderate.

An obliger might want to find a workout friend who meets them at the gym every morning. Photo: Shutterstock

From Rubin’s research, a representative US population roughly breaks down into 41 per cent obligers, 24 per cent questioners, 19 per cent upholders, and 17 per cent rebels.

Once you determine which tendency best describes you, Rubin says: “you can harness your strengths and offset your weaknesses. For example, an obliger might want to find a workout buddy who meets them at the gym every morning – the prospect of disappointing that buddy might be enough motivation to work out.”

Failure to understand other people’s tendencies can cause friction in personal and professional relationships, she adds, and working with other people’s tendencies can improve the way bosses and employees relate, and help teachers get the best from students.

How overweight couple lost 59kg (130lbs) in a year and ran a half marathon

“Having a better understanding of the four tendencies allows us to be more empathetic towards others, with less judgment, so we can take steps around their tendencies.”

For example, we might give advance warning about schedule changes to an upholder, allow questioners extra time at the end of meetings, speak up for obligers who are taking on too much, and provide information and consequences to a rebel while letting them make the final decision.

Knowing your tendency, according to Rubin, can also be helpful when choosing a partner because anything that helps us better understand ourselves and how we go through the world will help us understand how to work better with other people.

A questioner child may seem disrespectful, so parents can guide them to ask questions in a way that is respectful and constructive. Photo: Shutterstock

“It helps you understand certain kinds of conflict and allows you to manage it or accept that certain habits in your future spouse aren’t going away any time soon. It also makes behaviours seem less personal when you understand they are character-driven and this can ease any potential bad feeling.”

Rubin also believes you are better placed to guide your children when you’re aware of their tendencies. For example, a questioner child may seem disrespectful, so parents can guide them to ask questions in a way that is respectful and constructive.

“Parents can also put in place outer accountability in the form of specific competitions or events for obliger children. Instead of nagging rebel children to practise piano, parents can express that they know the piece is challenging but that they’d love to see their child on stage because they’re a beautiful musician.”

Don’t take out your stress by spanking the kids, doctor says. Is she right?

While the four tendencies help to explain our responses to expectations Rubin admits that “it doesn’t tell you how introverted/extroverted, adventurous, curious, scientifically oriented, analytical or smart you are or identify your values”.

Each of these, she says, also has a huge impact on how our tendency comes out into the world.


3-year-old in China’s impressive table tennis skills

3-year-old in China’s impressive table tennis skills

An understanding of the four tendencies has practical applications: it has helped people lose weight, keep their kids in school and persuade family members to take their medication.

An article in the journal Biomedicine Hub in 2017 proposed using the tendencies to help health care workers boost patients’ adherence to medical treatment plans.

It describes the example of a family doctor who was treating a patient who needed to change her behaviour to lose weight and address pre-diabetes and insulin resistance – who was resistant to following his recommendations.

Handstands – their health and fitness benefits

He realised that she was displaying attitudes and behaviours associated with the rebels. Rather than giving clear directions (his usual style), he gave a list of suggestions to choose from, to try ‘if she wanted to’. The patient later returned and had followed one of his suggestions; she’d lost weight and was feeling better.

Since publishing this book, Rubin has created a free app, the Better app, for people to discuss and learn about this framework, and use it for romance, their career, and as a parent.

Says Rubin: “I’m excited to see how the four tendencies is put into action – at home, at work, in health and in life.”