Gretchen Rubin’s “Four Tendencies” and Modern Marketing

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Are you a night owl or an early bird? Better at moderating bad habits or quitting altogether? Do you love opening a new bag of chips or finishing an older one? These are some of the questions Gretchen Rubin asks in her quest to create personality-centric advice.

I’ve been on the Gretchen Rubin train since her last book, Better than Before. While many books about mastering habits create grand theories that should apply to everyone, Rubin says not so fast. People are fundamentally different from one another, and that’s important.

The biggest concept she lays out is her theory of “the four tendencies.” Here’s the TL;DR. We all deal with two sets of expectations: our own (internal) and other people’s (external). Which set of expectations we prioritize puts us into one of the following categories:

Upholders: Honor both internal and external expectations. These very disciplined people love following rules, wherever they come from.

Obligers: Uphold external, but not internal expectations. Possibly the most selfless tendency, they often feel frustrated by their inability to make time for themselves.

Questioners: Value internal expectations, but only external expectations that make sense to them. They’re self-disciplined, but probably speed when they’re driving.

Rebels: Resist both internal and external expectations. Think of the freewheeling CEO who is visionary but doesn’t quite fit into the conventional business world.

You can take her simple quiz if you want to find out which category you fall into. I’m a Questioner.

This idea caught on so fast that she devoted her whole next book, The Four Tendencies to it. Before I read the book, I wasn’t sure how Rebels operated at all. If you’re not motivated by internal or external obligations, what are you motivated by? What I learned was that they operate by doing what they’re passionate about, and finding ways out of things that don’t excite them. They’re also quite motivated by control, and proving people wrong.

I also learned that Obligers sometimes “snap,” going into what Rubin calls “Obliger rebellion,” where they stop meeting any expectations for a period of time. She points out that this is a common plot in movies. (Good girl gone bad, etc.)

Upholders, she says, tend to love rules. An Upholder herself, she talks about reading and memorizing rules at swimming pools and other public places. It pains her to know someone isn’t following a rule. 

And Questioners like me, according to the book, tend to like conspiracy theories. They also, ironically, don’t like being questioned.

After reading this book, I found myself wondering how those of us in advertising/marketing could use these constructs.

Here are a few ideas:

Internal Culture

The most obvious place this framework could apply is among employees. By understanding their own tendency, they can find ways to make themselves more likely to follow through on their goals. Obligers could work together to do group challenges, and Questioners and Rebels could happily sit them out and work on their own projects. This probably already happens at every workplace, but Rubin’s framework makes it a more conscious process.

Customer Journeys

Understanding how members of a population are motivated could change the customer journey. Obligers may be more likely to sign up for a program with friends, while Rebels would be turned off by that idea. Questioners may need more information before they’re persuaded to sign up.

User Experience and Content Marketing

I feel like Weight Watchers has done a really good job at integrating different personality types into their mix. Their Community tab lets people find social support and accountability, while their marketing lets people establish internal goals that go beyond the scale. Creating such a diverse mix of behaviorally-motivating content could help any brand be an effective part of different types of people’s lives.

Overall, The Four Tendencies is a great read. I do wish she had gone deeper into why people end up with the tendency they have. Do Rebels grasp for control because they lacked it in childhood? Did Obligers’ and Upholders’ parents set unusually strong boundaries for them? And are Questioners more likely to be introverts, consumed by their own inner world? Maybe we’ll find out in her next book.

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