The author Gretchen Rubin has long been fascinated by human nature, and wanted to know why some people easily adopt new habits while others struggle to change. After years of investigation, she realized these differences could be explained (and better managed) by identifying how a person responds to expectations. It turns out that certain people respond very differently to:

  • inner expectations like New Year’s resolutions or personal goals
  • outer expectations like work deadlines or requests from family or friends

The personality framework she developed—detailed in her book The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better—divides people into one of four basic personality groups depending on how they respond to both types of expectation.



Upholders readily meet both inner expectations they place upon themselves and outer expectations placed upon them by others. They love planning, to-do lists, detailed schedules, and clearly defined rules and guidelines.

A favorite saying of many Upholders is:


“Poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency for me.”


Questioners question. Everything. They question both external and internal expectations, and will only commit to something if it makes sense to them. To meet an external expectation, Questioners must first transform it into an internal one.

Questioners often ask:


“Why are we doing things this way?! It doesn’t make any sense!”


Those with this tendency have a much easier time meeting outer expectations (especially those of friends, family, and colleagues they respect), but have a tough time sticking to self-made commitments no matter how important they may be.

Gretchen gives Obligers this motto:


“You can count on me, and I’m counting on you to count on me.”


Rebels resist all expectations, including those put upon them by others and even those they try to put upon themselves. But Rebels needn’t despair: they can do anything they truly want to do if it fits their identity.

As Gretchen puts it, their motto is:


You can’t make me, and neither can I!”

Primary & Secondary Tendency

Note that most people have a primary and a secondary Tendency. As you can see in the Venn diagram above, each Tendency has slight overlap with the two others adjacent to it. For example, I’m a Questioner that tips toward Rebel, while my wife is a Rebel that tips toward Questioner. But certain Tendencies don’t overlap, so a Questioner won’t tip toward Obliger, or vice versa, just as an Upholder won’t tip toward Rebel, or the other way around.

Applying the Four Tendencies in Language Learning

“Our Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so using this framework allows us to make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress, and engage more effectively.”

Gretchen Rubin

The Four Tendencies framework is an extremely useful tool for language learning: once you figure out your Tendency, you can then choose the methods, tools, and resources that best fit your personality:


Upholders tend to do best with more structure, clear deadlines for finishing specific resources, and a detailed daily study schedule. While I’m not usually a fan of formal language textbooks, classes, and courses, Upholders may find such approaches more useful. They may also benefit from taking placement and progress tests.


Questioners need to have a clearly defined WHY for learning a language, and good reasons for using each resource, method, etc. Questioners often struggle in traditional language learning environments, especially when their question “Why are we doing this?” is met with, “Because this is what we’ve always done.” Like Rebels (see below), Questioners tend to flourish using approaches that put them in the driver’s seat of their learning journey. For more on self-guided learning, see my post How to Create an “At-Home Immersion” Language Environment No Matter Where in the World You Live.


Obligers do much better if they have a language study buddy, get a language tutor on a site like iTalki, attend local language meetups, commit to prescheduled study dates or tutoring sessions, and make friendly wagers with friends (especially for competitive Obligers) using a service like Stickk.


Rebels can be highly dedicated learners if learning the language informs and solidifies who they are. Unlike Upholders, they don’t do as well with formal structure or deadlines, nor do they benefit from peer pressure like Obligers. When it comes to resources and activities, they respond better to could-do lists instead of to-do lists. It’s also critical that Rebels have the freedom to choose what resources they use, when they use them, and how they use them. Again, see How to Create an “Anywhere Immersion” Language Environment No Matter Where in the World You Live.

Take Action!

  • Take the Four Tendencies Quiz at
  • Read The Four Tendencies.
  • Select the resources, tools, and methods that fit your tendency.
  • Never apologize for who you are. No tendency is “good” or “bad” and each has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to language learning. What matters is how you play the hand you’ve been dealt.

Pin It on Pinterest