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Science Supports the Usefulness of Knowing How to Respond to Expectations

Examining Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies.

Key points

  • Which personality differences underlie differences in how people achieve happiness?
  • There is scientific personality research that supports the Four Tendencies model.
  • Knowing your Four Tendencies type can enhance your well-being.

When you blend positive psychology, the study of positive experiences such as happiness with personality psychology, the study of how people differ from one another, we can learn how people differ in what makes them happy and in how they strive to achieve happiness.

The Four Tendencies

Gretchen Rubin, a PT blogger and author of The Happiness Project, spent years pondering which personality differences underly differences in how people achieve happiness. Her studies led her to the conclusion that successes and failures in achieving happiness are best explained by the importance people place on fulfilling inner expectations and outer expectations. Inner expectations are our own personal standards and values; outer expectations are what other people expect of us.

Some people have strong, clear inner expectations that they strive to live up to while some people lack a clear-cut inner compass. Some people are vigilant about what others expect from them and they try to conform to those expectations, while some people are either oblivious to or unconcerned about outer expectations. Because responsiveness to inner and outer expectations are two independent dimensions of personality, it is possible to classify people into four personality types that Rubin labels The Four Tendencies.

She has written a book called The Four Tendencies and has provided an online quiz that you can take to determine which of the Four Tendencies best describes you: Upholder (responsive to both inner and outer expectations) Questioner (responsive only to inner expectations) Obliger (responsive only to outer expectations) or Rebel (resistant to both inner and outer expectations).

John A. Johnson
The Four Tendencies
Source: John A. Johnson

Does the Four Tendencies Framework Have a Scientific Basis?

Gretchen Rubin is a graduate of Yale Law School and a best-selling book author, but she lacks formal psychological training. Does science support The Four Tendencies? Professional psychologist and a blogger for Psychology Today, Scott Barry Kaufman, questioned the scientific basis for the Four Tendencies in a 2017 podcast with Rubin. Kaufman pointed out that Rubin did not construct her Four Tendency quiz by the methods accepted by personality science and has not demonstrated the scientific reliability and validity of her quiz. (See my earlier PT blog posts to understand why reliability and validity are important).

He also said that personality science has determined that personality is better described by personality traits than personality types. He concluded that the Four Tendencies model has potential but does not align with personality science. Rubin agreed with Kaufman that her model has no scientific support yet, but that she hoped that professional psychologists would conduct scientific studies with her quiz. She maintained that her insights about human nature are valid, just as great novelists have discovered valid insights about human nature without doing scientific research. She also noted that countless numbers of her followers have found the Four Tendencies framework to be useful for living happier lives.

In my view, Kaufman and Rubin are both correct and both incorrect about the scientific status of The Four Tendencies. Obviously, they are correct in agreeing that Rubin did not use traditional personality research methods to discover and validate the Four Tendencies framework. However, they are incorrect in agreeing that there is nothing scientific about the Four Tendencies. Rubin's ideas about responsiveness to inner and outer expectations are remarkably similar to those of many social scientists who have conducted research following what Collins, Martin, and Ashmore (1973) called the "internal-external metaphor in theories of personality." These researchers include sociologists Émile Durkheim and David Riesman and psychologists Jean Piaget, Robert Hogan, and Jonathan Cheek.

For now, let's compare the Four Tendencies to Jonathan Cheek's research on aspects of identity. Building on the work of Collins, Martin, Ashmore, and Ross (1973), Cheek constructed scales he called Personal Identity and Social Identity. You can complete these scales online on Cheek's Aspects of Identity website.

The Personal Identity (PI) and Social Identity (SI) scales are statistically independent, which means it is possible to score high one while low on the other, low on both, or high on both. Cheek and Hogan (1983) discovered that the four types defined by combinations of low and high scores on the identity scales possessed unique personality profiles as measured by the Big-Five-based Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI). The Inner-Directed type (high PI, low SI) scored low on the HPI scales representing Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability, but high on Conscientiousness. This pattern of scores describes someone who is "unsociable, mildly neurotic, critical, and possessing strongly internalized values" (p. 356). This looks remarkably similar to Rubin's Questioner.

Cheek and Hogan's Other-Directed Directed type (low PI, high SI) scored low on the HPI scale representing Conscientiousness but highest of the four types on the HPI scale representing Extraversion. This pattern of scores describes someone who is peer-oriented, that is, similar to the Obliger.

Cheek and Hogan found an Alienated type (low on both PI and SI) that scored low on HPI scales representing Extraversion and Conscientiousness. This type parallels the Rebel.

Finally, Cheek and Hogan found a Mature type (high on both PI and SI) that looks highly similar to the Upholder. These individuals received high scores on all HPI scales reflecting Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability.

The clear correspondence between Cheek and Hogan's (1983) four identity-based types and Rubin's Four Tendencies can be seen in the table below based on Figure 16-1 in their book chapter (p. 344). Rubin's Four Tendencies labels are in parentheses.

John A. Johnson
Cheek Identity Types
Source: John A. Johnson

How Is Knowing My Four Tendencies or Cheek Identity Type Useful?

Once you have determined your type by either the Four Tendencies quiz or Cheek's AIQ, what can you do with this information? I will be making suggestions for applying knowledge of your type in future blog posts. For now, I recommend an article by Alex Chen that explains how recognizing your type and the type of others can be put to good use.


Collins, B. E., Martin, J. C., Ashmore, R. D., & Ross, L. (1973). Some dimensions of the internal-external metaphor in theories of personality. Journal of Personality, 41, 471–492.

Hogan, R., & Cheek, J. M. (1983). Identity, authenticity, and maturity. In T. R. Sarbin & K. E. Scheibe (Eds.), Studies in Social Identity (pp. 339-357). New York: Praeger.

Rubin, G. (2015). The happiness project. New York: HarperCollins.

Rubin, G. (2017). The four tendencies. New York, NY: Harmony Books.