Any book titled The Four Tendencies (Gretchen Rubin, 2017) is bound to capture my attention. Gretchen Rubin has made quite a splash with her self-help books. Her books are different from the vast majority of self-help books that tell you either how to be successful in our world or how to be mindful, etc. In fact, she admits that many recipes don’t work for her, neither meditation nor the usual things people believe make them happy. She shares my passion:

My great interest is human nature, and I constantly search for patterns to identify what we do and why we do it .

The pattern she is most famous for is the four tendencies pattern:

Of course, most of us have all tendencies in us, after all we aren’t all sheep just following others, or constant rebels not doing anything at all. However, we certainly do have tendencies and I can mostly identify as an “upholder”, like Ruin herself. I have strong questioner tendencies and when I was a child I managed to tire my parents with my constant “why?” questions. I have a son myself now, who is clearly a questioner and who gives me the chance to relive my own parents’ experience with me.

Rubin’s patterns have been successfully applied to business and education. As an educator, it’s not too hard to see these patterns among my own students. There are the students who will turn in all homework without even questioning its purpose (obligers), those who do most homework, but who put extra effort into the tasks they are interested in most (upholders), those who do mostly those tasks they are interested in (questioners) and those who don’t do any homework at all (rebels). Of course, these are older students. Students at elementary school age have the tendency to be obligers (by far not all, though). Using Rubin’s framework makes it not only easier to understand why students behave the way they do but gives you also a tool to reach out to all. While obligers don’t need many incentives to do homework, giving a personal project assignment to questioners and upholders and options to rebels can help a lot to make these students feel more seen too.

People who are into personality theories and models will feel the immediate urge to map Rubin’s model onto other systems. A bit surprisingly, she discourages such effort:

Many people try to map the Four Tendencies against other personality frameworks, such as the Big Five personality traits, StrengthsFinder, the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, VIA-even onto the four houses of Hogwarts. I’m fascinated by any scheme that helps me to understand human nature, but I think it’s a mistake to try to say that “this” equals “that.” Each framework 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.

I agree with Rubin that other systems won’t match easily onto hers, but I disagree with her on her other points. She misses the “big picture” pattern when she says that it’s best only to examine a slice of human behaviour instead of how everything is connected as that would not help us very much in understanding human nature.

So, I do the first thing Rubin advises us not to do: compare the four tendencies with other systems. The number “four” crops up surprisingly often: four temperaments, four MBTI groups, four neurotransmitter-based types (Braverman), the four DISC types, etc. Rubin’s patterns reminded me of DISC first, not least because of the same colour coding (which does not match, however).

If you went by “labels” you would match the C (compliance) type with obliger, of course. However, that doesn’t work. If you read Rubin’s book you will quickly find that C most closely matches the analytical questioner pattern. Dominance matches the rebel pattern. Which leave the two “people-oriented” types to match up with the two patterns that like to meet external expectations, i.e. upholders (I) and obligers (S).

The big question for me is not how well those patterns match, but what their evolutionary origin is. Like most typologies, Rubin does not have an evolutionary perspective and is much more interested in how these patterns play out than in how they could have evolved.

Of course, the difference is that we can observe how the patterns work, whereas we have to speculate how they evolved. From an evolutionary point of view there are two possibilities (which could also be mixed):

  1. Each pattern represents an adaptation to a different environment

Most people will implicitly assume possibility (2) as we tend to assume we all evolved in the same environment. This assumption does make sense. According to Rubin, obligers make up the biggest part of humankind whereas rebels make up the smallest part. While for most of our ancestors the “go with the flow” pattern would have been the most advantageous in terms of reproductive fitness, for some the “against the grain” rebel strategy would have found a niche where it could thrive.

The alternative view (1) only becomes obvious when we look at our past subsistence strategies: nomadic foraging (hunter-gatherers) semi-nomadic pastoralism and sedentary farming. These are very different evolutionary environments that each require their own adaptations.

From this perspective, it is easier to assign a profile to one of Gretchen Rubin’s tendencies. Farmer types are most likely obligers, as collective farming (especially irrigation farming) required the most collaborative effort, and people had to be content with their place in the hierarchy. Being a rebel in a hierarchical farmer society would have led to reduced reproductive success. However, being a rebel (challenger) in a hierarchical and more individualistic pastoralist society would have had the opposite effect of climbing up in the hierarchy and achieving higher reproductive success.

This leaves questioner for the more individualistic/provisioning hunter profile and upholder for the caregiving gatherer profile. Note also, that the non-food producing hunters and gatherers would be more intrinsically motivated (meeting inner expectations), whereas the food-producing farmers and herders would be more extrinsically motivated (meeting outer expectations in the former, challenging them in the latter).

Theory and practise diverge somewhat, as I found out that a lot of herder types are questioners and a lot of hunter types are rebels from online fora. Moreover, Rubin claims that the rebel type is the rarest of all, which is also true for the analytical hunter types.

Famous rebels who changed history are, in fact, hunter types (Galileo, Luther, etc.) or even gatherer types (Gandhi, William Wallace, Che Guevara, etc.). This fact made me briefly reconsider my matching. However, rereading Rubin’s book I found that hunters, with their analytic minds and thirst for knowledge, do most closely correspond to the questioner pattern. They are typically the children who keep nagging their parents with their constant “why?” questions and who aren’t easily coaxed into doing something they don’t see a point doing. They easily become rebels in the face of authority as egalitarian hunter-gatherers do not take lightly to what they may perceive as injustice. However, contrary to herder types they do not enjoy challenging authority either. This is more like a power game that hunters would typically avoid playing. Finally, Rubin claims that questioners (hunters/her husband is one) often form couples with upholders (gatherers). Hunter and gatherer types form natural couples. This has also been confirmed by Helen Fisher’s research (she calls the profiles “directors” and “diplomats” respectively).

Gretchen Rubin has certainly discovered a fascinating pattern that needs research from a variety of angles (e.g. Big 5 or HEXACO). I would be surprised if there were no correlations between Rubin’s patterns and other typologies or personality systems.

Originally published at on November 24, 2021.