“Questioning” the Four Tendencies with Gretchen Rubin

September 13, 2017

“This looks at one question: how do you respond to expectations?” — Gretchen Rubin

This week we’re delighted to have Gretchen Rubin on The Psychology Podcast! Gretchen is the author of several books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers, Better Than BeforeThe Happiness Project and Happier at Home. She has an enormous readership, both in print and online, and her books have sold almost three million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. On her popular weekly podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, she discusses good habits and happiness with her sister Elizabeth Craft; they’ve been called the “Click and Clack of podcasters.” Her podcast was named in iTunes’s lists of “Best Podcasts of 2015” and was named in the Academy of Podcasters “Best Podcasts of 2016″. Gretchen’s latest book is The Four Tendencies, which is the main focus of this episode’s lively discussion and debate.

The larger themes of our conversation include:

  • The four tendencies: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels; they refer to the different ways each of us responds to internal and external expectations
  • How Gretchen came up with these 4 categories
  • The ways in which each of these 4 categories may be found to correlate with different “Big 5” personality traits
  • The disadvantages of studying discrete types in the world of personality psychology
  • The level of rigor necessary to distinguish a theory from a fully-formed, brand new personality dimension
  • The place for writing that presents theories built on a more observational and experiential notion of truth, as opposed to a rigorously tested truth
  • The ways that knowing your type can help you harness both your own strengths and those of others


[Book] The Four Tendencies

[Quiz] Take Gretchen’s Four Tendencies Quiz 

[Twitter] Follow Gretchen on Twitter for updates

Notes: We sincerely apologize for the poor audio quality of this episode. There was a mistake in the recording process during this episode, and we will try our best to improve the quality in future episodes.

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31 Responses to ““Questioning” the Four Tendencies with Gretchen Rubin”

  1. Silvia says:

    Thank you for this podcast! I’ve heard Gretchen on so many podcasts and took her quiz. Not surprisingly, as a “questioner” myself, I was curious as to the validity of this framework, given that Gretchen does not have a background as a scientist or psychology professional. I am grateful that Dr. Kaufman was not afraid to question Gretchen’s claim. At the same time, I appreciate that Gretchen communicated that these 4 tendencies were her observations and still remain to be scientifically studied.

  2. Kwa says:

    Bro . That was intense and felt heated .

    • Brittany Soltani says:

      Im a big fan and I hate to write you for the first time on a sour note, but I feel compelled. It seems like you went into the interview with an agenda instead of the respectful curiosity you usually present with. I think the conversation ended well, but wishing that you had been upfront with her about your issues with her use of language so that you could have gotten that established early. Of course I’m glad that you raised great questions as usual, but the tone was very accusatory and maybe even a little condescending sometimes. Other than this one, please keep up the great work! I really love listening to your podcast!

      • Scott Barry Kaufman says:

        Thanks for your valuable feedback, Brittany! I take your point, and agree I probably could have been a bit more patient. However, I think why this one struck such a chord with me is that personality science is my field, and we have to do a lot of work to validate a new model of personality. Theory is not enough. Gretchen made some explicit claims that I wanted to challenge. I did try to be respectful, but if it didn’t come across that way, then I clearly can do a better job. I do value and respect Gretchen’s work, so will try better next time. Also, thanks for the kind words!

        • Dear Dr. Kaufman,

          I am a new listener and love the podcast. While the philosophical questions of “What is truth?” “How do we relate to truth?” and “When is scientific evidence required to state something as true?” are all interesting questions, I still know nothing about Gretchen’s Four Tendencies and/or how they might apply to helping me form better habits. Was this your intention? I wish you had explored the framework a bit more with open curiosity before going down the science vs. experience debate. I understand you are a personality researcher, but it would have helped if you had first allowed the listeners to understand the full theory before questioning it. Also, it seems unfair that other guests can get away with pretty intellectually sloppy statements without debate, while this guest does not simply because it’s your area of expertise.


  3. Kwa says:

    But so educational !!!

  4. Joye truthtruth says:

    Thank you for this podcast! I listen to both yours and Gretchen Rubin’s podcast regularly. Though I enjoy Ms. Rubin’s suggestions and insights, I have to question the validity of her claims ( I took the quiz and am an upholder). It seems much research needs to be done to see how true the tendencies are. I felt that she was willing to have her tendencies researched, I still felt a defensiveness on her part. She compared finding the truth to truth in other literature, like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I thought her books are non fiction. However, it is true, that her podcast and books are geared to a more pop psychology crowd. It will be interesting to see what the research results find.

  5. Dantan says:

    I have had a lot of skepticism for Gretchin, so I’m very grateful that Scott held this respectful interview with her.

    She really rubs me the wrong way in her books and this podcast. Her ideas may or may not be empirically supported but that doesn’t matter. It’s nice to have scientific backing but as long as the ideas are interesting and are making her money, she’s good to go.

    Gretchin isn’t as bad as Rhonda Byrnes, however she does prey on those in the self help community who cannot properly exercise critical thinking.

  6. Anna says:

    Thank you for this podcast. It was very enjoyable. I think this issue deserves even more attention. Is anyone “allowed” to claim just about anything ? Is it acceptable to present one’s unfounded, random, outright imaginary claims as “rigorously” researched? Ms Rubin is very entertaining and her writing may be enjoyable. If the only aim of her’s was just to present this “data point of one” without insinuating any impact on others, perhaps she could consider putting a disclaimer on the front page of her book. Something like – “This has no grounds in science” or “This is my individual experience only” or ” I have just imagined this without any scientific foundation what-so-ever”. I’d like to see whether her writing would be equally successful, if labelled this way.

  7. Mela says:

    Thank you for this. Great interviewing. I got woken up in the middle of the night by the dog and put on your podcast to fall asleep (no offence Scott, I catch up on what I missed in the morning). However, this was so intense I couldn’t get back to sleep.

    Got to say – ‘data point of one’ didn’t cut it with me at all.

  8. EJ says:

    You seem so excited about ZipRecruiter…Probably your questioner tendency shining through

  9. Alan says:

    Thank you so much for asking the critical questions! I have taken Gretchen’s survey, and found it lacking. I did not feel that I resonated with most of the answer options. This notion of “I feel this way, so it must be true” is reminiscent of confirmation bias in research (ie looking for evidence to support one’s claims but ignoring evidence contrary to one’s claims). Do questions like “I regularly ignore when I am told to do something” really match many people in real life situations? I guess we can’t know until it is tested (this would be a lot of people out of a productive line of work). Is being an “Upholder” so different from Conscientiousness? I am left with these questions after the podcast.

  10. Lisa says:

    I just took Gretchen’s quiz. I have an interest in the framing and construction of surveys. In some questions, I found myself unable to identify with any of the options. In others, I found myself saying ‘yes, but only in X situation, in Y I’d more likely do Z’. I’d be interested in the correlations with the Big 5 as you suggest. However, I think the questionnaire in its current format would make it impossible to determine whether these factors are indeed loading on dimensions ‘new to science’. Having said that, Gretchen did seem genuinely open to having this claims tested.

  11. Anne says:

    My goodness. You seemed to have lost track of the fact that you were not talking to another human personality researcher. This woman, seems very bright, curious, self-aware, and well-read. Through keen, but unscientific, observation she came up with compelling explanatory framework. She readily and REPEATEDLY asserts that she is not a scientist and is not making empirically validated assertions. Yet, you interrogated HER as if she claimed otherwise. Perhaps it makes more sense to interrogate her CLAIMS using the scientific method. In addition, I too am an empirical researcher and academic, yet would caution you to be a bit more skeptical about the output generated by the scientific method. Remember that it is itself a paradigm. Personal blind-spots, pressure to publish, political correctness, intellectual laziness, hubris, miscalculation, and many other human foibles make their way into our efforts to “do science.” Peer-review serves a useful function in weeding some of this out, of course, but certainly not all of it. It too is a human endeavor and likewise operates within an incentive structure. As you make the transition from academia to writing in the “real world,” I’d recommend listening to this podcast again. Do so not to revisit the substantive bits, but for what this guest has to offer about ways of thinking and sources of intellectual enrichment outside of scholarly publications. Best of luck to you on your new journey!

  12. Asli says:

    I think this was a really tough one but that you asked questions that really needed to be asked. I had to cringe more and more as the podcast went on, because I think you were asking very legitimate questions that she was defensively dismissing as scientists existing in a different world from non-scientists. I feel like an open and inquisitive person would take the criticism on board and take responsibility, but I guess you have to stand by a published book in the real world. It’s bizarre to me to make a personality test, claim you have found a predictive model that everyone fits in to and that the pattern you see is “real” based on your own individual observations, even if it’s a data point of one, which makes no sense since she’s inferring that this applies to the whole population. If she doesn’t want to be held to scientific rigor, she shouldn’t make scientific claims. She’s basically saying I made it all up and I can use whatever language I like because I’m not qualified. It’s not a stretch to think people who buy her book assume that this is a genuine model that she has tested, since, well, she does claim that she has. I think making claims with reference to the way people view themselves and view their lives that you say are “true” comes with great responsibility that she does not seem to be aware of. It seems like she thinks confirmation bias is an appropriate way of seeing irrefutable patterns in the world. I think that’s a very slippery slope that leads to dangerous ideas, even if hers may not be.

  13. TJ says:

    This was a difficult conversation to listen to, especially toward the end, when Ms. Rubin’s defensiveness was palpable. Despite the discomfort, I’m so glad you raised the hard questions, Scott; I only wish she had been better prepared to answer them in a legitimate way, social scientist or not. I’ve read a couple of Ms. Rubin’s earlier books and could accept them for what they were because they essentially said, “Here’s my story, here’s what I learned about myself, maybe something here will be useful to you, too.” But this book sounds quite different — it sounds like it’s touting a psychological model as “predictive” and implies to the average reader that both her model and the instrument she created have been supported and validated in some way. This feels like shoddy pop-psych and I’m disappointed the publisher let it out into the wild. New ideas, new ways of looking at the world and ourselves — these are good things. But they become far less good when they’re framed with phrases like “I discovered” and “predictive” without any real basis to back up the claims. She may not be a social scientist by training, but if she’s going to write a book like this, she has a duty to know some basic stuff. Even my professor husband’s intro research methods undergrads know better than to make up a “test” and assume that because it works for a “data point of one,” it’s worthy of sharing with the masses.

  14. Tony says:

    Scott, I am a long time fan of the podcast and I have to say this is your best one yet. I’ve never heard you be so skeptical of anyone else’s ideas. It made for such good listening. That is what this podcast should be about – a good hard assessment of people’s theories by a respected professional. Please make more like this one!

  15. Simone says:

    The robust debate in this podcast was really helpful and I appreciate Scott respectfully asking for evidence to substantiate the claims as I also appreciated Gretchen’s emphasis on the information needing to be useful. In my view however, theories, frameworks and claims that lack rigour or fall apart under scrutiny must be presented as what they are – as the thoughts and opinion’s of the author and not as evidence based research. Gretchen made a number contradictory statements and retracted previously stated claims only to restate them again later in the interview. Id encourage Gretchen to rewrite the book as a collection of practical tips and hints from personal experience rather than evidence based. That I feel would be an honest representation of what it is.

  16. talia says:

    This was painful to listen to. Scott- you were so obnoxious and snobby. Awful.

  17. Laura says:

    I found this really difficult to listen to – you both clearly have interesting and valid points (I am not coming from a psychology background so don’t claim to understand 100%) but it seemed like you were on completely different wavelengths. I feel that it would have been more professionally courteous to let Gretchen explain her own ideas in more detail instead of going down a path that was never going to be constructive for either of you. Maybe this is worth thinking about for future episodes – let the interviewee shine and explain.

  18. John Danzer says:

    There is nothing new about typologies formed around 4 dimensions. The universities are full of books by forgotten experts that felt they figured it all out. All of these systems seem to be using different words to describe the same categories. To be sure they all put a feather in their hats but it’s still “macaroni”.

    The problem is all of these systems are “descriptive” and what we need is an explanation. How the heck do we even know what is going on. Behaviorists tried to ignore these exercises. The fmri crowd of researchers are just a step beyond the phrenologists (neat brain pictures). What is needed is explanations not more descriptions.

    Even the big 5 seems to be a pattern of 4 descriptors with neuroticism thrown in for good measure to try to explain the way people adapt poorly.

    Scott could fill every podcast interviewing another descriptive scheme or some permutation of the alphabet describing a therapy. I am afraid each discussion would shape up just like this one. And I like that.

  19. Jennifer says:

    I found your podcast as a result of trying to find critical / thoughtful reviews of “The 4 Tendencies.” I am eager to listen to the episode and feel relieved that someone has had the opportunity to directly question Ms. Rubin about her claims. While it has been noted, its worth emphasizing that her previous books clearly identified her opinion / personal experience. While I admire Ms. Rubin’s strong intellect and deep curiosity about human nature, I feel compelled to emphasize the concerns of others in terms of the claims she has made in her book. The level of hubris and lack of concern for making blanket statements (“these tendencies are hard wired” / people don’t change” should be Ms. Rubin’s next area of exploration.

  20. David says:

    Love how Gretchen bunks the science of life, preferring la joie de vivre, the useful vs the universal truth (whatever that means), cause if you want to be a statistic and follow someone else’s truth, go for it – its your choice! While if you want to live a vivacious life of artistic personal creative expression that leans on your own visceral experience of life vs some scientific data point or someone else’s way of living, I applaud you! It’s like Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmun…its clear for me which side of life I mostly want to live in, from, with….love scientific support and notions but in the end of the day thats head stuff, when life is so much more (for me) about what’s coming from your gut, heart, instincts, intuition, uncertainty, serendipity, chance, choice, soul, storytelling, myth, randomness, well lots of stuff. Great debate Scott it really fleshes out very different modes of being and living in the world, and just goes to show nobody has the right answer for anyone else, really. #gratitude

  21. David B says:

    The fact that Gretchen Rubin linked this podcast from her many online outlets speaks so well of her. Your style is both obnoxious and extremely condescending. She is helpful and makes no other claim than she has found a way to help herself and as a result, has helped others. In having to say “I’m not really an asshole” speaks of your own lacking. Please, not all people who help others are questionably dishonest. Reconsider another interview where politeness will reign.

  22. Jack P says:

    Dr Kaufman,

    I’m was a fan of your podcasts and have loved everyone of them thus far. However I am extremely disappointed with your rhetoric in this podcast that at times seems quite chauvinistic. I have to agree that it seems as though you had an agenda with this interview. Gretchen was very clear that she does not claim her 4 tendencies have been scientifically proven, but instead you kept picking at that point, in order, it seems, to try and discredit here work and success. She has developed a framework to help people who want to help themselves. If the 4 tendencies were not helpful, it would not be successful in helping people achieve their goals. I do wonder if Gretchen were a man, would you have had the same interview and arrogance? Perhaps that is a question you should reflect on.

    • Scott Barry Kaufman says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jack. Sorry you feel that way about the episode, and I will certainly reflect on what you’ve said as I’m always trying to learn and grow. With that said, yes, I do think I would be just as inquisitive with a man, and don’t see this as a gender issue. I was genuinely curious how her framework could be tested, and how it relates to modern day scientific findings. At its base, I respect Gretchen’s work highly so if that didn’t come across clearly then I will think of how to make sure that better comes across in the future. All the Best, Scott

  23. John Danzer says:

    I forgot everything about this interview including the fact that I had already made a comment.
    I was at the library today and saw the book “The Four Tendencies”. I’m very interested in 4-quadrant personality theories so I took the book home with me.

    I also felt I had been exposed to this schema before. It dawned on me that you interviewed her.
    As I read it (very easy read because it’s descriptive without theoretical explanations) I noticed the following connections.

    Questioner = Conscientiousness/Opennes
    Upholder = Extravert/Agreeable
    Obliger = Agreeable/Extravert
    Rebel = Opennes/Conscientiousness

    It clearly has some rotational problems which suggest the need for more exploratory factor analysis.
    And like all the other personality theories it describes but explains nothing.

  24. Leslie Bixler says:

    Rubin is an artful debater, but she is trying to have it both ways. She is making claims that sound neat, and definitive but when pressed, says she has nothing to base it on and compares them to reading a book of literature. Anna Karennina doesn’t have tests to decide your type, or tell you four ways to describe yourself. It doesn’t simplify and categorize. Literature does the opposite. It invites you to engage your own thinking processes. So this is completely a bogus comparison. She really pisses me off. Her know-it-all tone is grating. While my first reaction to her categories was agreeable, within a few hours of listening to her book, I realized that I don’t’ fit into any one category and the system is deeply flawed, even without my wanting or needing a scientific perspective. So I’m a questioner, but I actually am also very upholding when I believe in a system. I’m a rebel but I also like to please certain people. In other words, it’s bullshit in my opinion. I thought you were kind to her. She’s making big bucks on this ‘discovery’ of hers. She gives herself a pass that she doesn’t deserve.

  25. Shawna says:

    I wonder if these four tendencies are less akin to personality traits and would be more easily compared to potentially common cognitive behaviors? Stimuli being the internal and external expectations, thoughts/beliefs/behaviors about expectations being the response to those stimuli (rebels feeling weighed down by them “if I do this I won’t be able to do something else and might not have fun”, questioners challenging them- “they say I need to do this but why are they saying that, what if that’s not true and there is a better way?” obligers responding to a desire to do well “if I do this others will see me as a smart/good/ hardworking person and if I don’t they will see me as a bad person- so I better concentrate on what they want me to do even if it takes time away from what I want to do” etc) and the consequences being how likely one is to form a habit/stick to resolutions/etc as a result. Then it feels like her ways to challenge those beliefs and behaviors are just reframing techniques- “but wait, you said you wanted to be healthy so you can travel the world- how does not taking your medicine help you do what you want?” Idk. I’m not an expert on these four tendencies nor CBT. I only have limited experience with CBT from grad school and some of my work experiences but that was a thought I had when I was thinking about your podcast and her tendencies framework.

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