stephen hayes

The Four Tendencies: A Behavior Analytic Perspective

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"The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don't act" -Gretchen Rubin

In Gretchen Rubin's new book, The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too), she discusses the premise that every human being falls into one of four categories of personality types: The Obliger, The Upholder, The Questioner, and The Rebel.  The Obliger's primary motive is to respond according to what other people want them to do; the Upholder responds according to internal and external events that cause them to "do the right thing," while the Questioner, questions all elements of their environment before they respnd, and finally, the Rebel responds by performing the polar opposite of what someone asks or tells them to do.

From a behavior analyst perspective, on the surface, these categories and explanations of behavior come from a mentalistic perspective, which can lead to circular reasoning ("well I'm an Obliger, so that is why I did that, because I am an obliger;" or "I'm a Questioner so I asked that question, because I am a Questioner.")  Rubin also states in her introduction that the Four Tendencies are innate, and never change (though a few paragraphs later she disputes this argument saying that they can change.)  As behavior analysts (and as Rubin herself also states in those later paragraphs), we know behaviors can change depending on the environmental variables that occur around those behaviors.

So despite our differences, is there a place that we can meet in the middle?  After thinking on it, I think there is a place we can meet, and it is through Relational Frame Theory.

"Human beings seem especially able to abstract the features of such relational responding and bring them under contextual control so that relational learning will transfer to events that are not necessarily related formally but rather are related on the basis of these arbitrary cues (“arbitrary” in this context means “by social whim or convention”). (Hayes, 2004)"

In this book, Rubin is actually creating relational frames of personality types, which to her, can explain human behavior.  As a behavior analyst, these categories are arbitrary, because by looking at the behavior itself performed under each heading, she is categorizing responses by contextual control, or function.  Each of the behaviors or even the "motivation" that surrounds each tendency, can be explained and grouped according to function.  The Obliger engages in behavior to obtain social reinforcement, the Upholder to obtain both social and internal reinforcement, the Questioner engages in behavior to escape a meaningless statement or request (in their perspective), and the Rebel engages in behavior to escape social demands.

Despite our differences, there is real value in this book, especially in Rubin's chapters on "How to deal with (insert personality type)."  In these chapters, she is actually outlining useful behavior intervention strategies, that we can use as parents, teachers, leaders, and managers to shape development and respond to behavior that occurs according to each of these functions.  Some of the strategies in these chapters I have already started to implement within my own life and the behaviors I've encountered, and they are solid behavior intervention strategies backed through research in our field.


Rubin, G (2017). The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too). Harmony 

Hayes, S. C. (2004). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Relational Frame Theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. Behavior Therapy, 35, 639-665.

Have you read the book?  Feel free to leave a comment below!

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