Are there only four kinds of writers?

Self-help books are my secret shame. I can’t resist them, especially if I find myself in an airport bookstore. The siren call of the self-help section means I inevitably board the plane clutching two more paperbacks (which I have no room for at home). My latest secret shame is Gretchen Rubin’s ‘The four tendencies: the indispensable personality profiles that reveal how to make your life better (and other people’s lives better too)’. I picked it up in the store with a smug smirk and started reading it. ‘Oh how very unscientific’ I chuckled to myself. I flicked through a few pages. ‘Wow, look at this dumbass quiz!’ I muttered.

Yet… I bought it (don’t judge me ok?).

Colour me surprised when I read the whole thing on the flights to and from the University of South Australia. Briefly, Rubins’ (largely unscientific) theory is that, when it comes to motivation, people tend to fall into four categories:

  1. Obliger: meets outer expectations; resists inner expectations
  2. Rebel: resists outer expectations and inner expectations
  3. Questioner: resists outer expectations; meets inner expectations
  4. Upholder: meets inner and outer expectations

According to Rubin’s (cough) theory, the tendencies overlap, so you can be an Obliger with a Rebel tilt, or an Upholder with a Questioner tilt. She expresses these overlaps in a diagram:

Gretchin Rubin’s 4 tendencies diagram from her website.


According to Rubin’s ‘research’, most people are Obligers: they find it hard to do things that are solely for their own benefit. If you’re the kind of person who finds it almost impossible to go to the gym without an exercise buddy, you are, according to Rubin, an Obliger. By contrast, an Upholder, while happy to be your exercise buddy, is also perfectly capable of going to the gym by themselves because they know it’s good for their health. A Questioner, on the other hand, is not a great exercise buddy because they only respond to their inner expectations. A questioner won’t go to the gym on a cold morning just to please you. Meanwhile, the poor Rebels might have wanted to go to the gym, but they resist all expectations, even their own. As soon as you expect a Rebel to be at the gym for an exercise date, they will not turn up, just to spite you (and themselves).

When I first read the descriptions of the four tendencies, I immediately categorised myself as an Upholder. They sound like they have their shit together. But when I did the quiz online, to my surprise, I tested as a Questioner. Which might be right because one of the first things Rubin says about these people is: ‘If your first reaction to the Four Tendencies is to think, “Well, I question the validity of your framework,” you’re probably a questioner.’

OK, she got me there, but I’m a researcher. I question things for a living lady!

I wanted to dismiss this book – I really did, but it was hard. When I read the list of Questioner strengths (data driven, fair minded, willing to play devil’s advocate, comfortable bucking the system) and weaknesses (unwilling to accept authority, analysis paralysis, refusal to accept closure on issues others think are settled) I have to say, I see myself in an unflattering, but realistic light.

Is Rubin’s framework a bit like a horoscope, in that you can apply it to anyone? Probably. But over the next week, I started to think about how this framework might apply to PhD student writers. Against my better judgment, the four tendencies started to appeal. Certainly this framework seems to explain some behaviour patterns I have observed over many years of working with PhD students.

So, I’m taking the idea out for a walk, without taking it too seriously, just to see if it’s useful to you. Read the descriptions below – do any of them resonate with you?

The Obliger

Since Obligers more easily meet outer expectations and not inner ones, they struggle with the lack of structure in a research degree. Humanities researchers without demanding supervisors will noodle around, probably reading a lot, but not making a lot of writing progress. Obligers in the lab usually do well, in the early stages at least. This is because labs impose a lot of external expectations; booking time on equipment, using materials before they go to waste, etc. When it comes to the writing part, however, science student Obligers tend to stall.

Obligers might feel a mild sense of panic about their writing progress, but they can push these feelings away by spending inordinate amounts of time on email and/or social media. Most Obligers find it easy to get very involved in the life of the department: organising seminars, writing groups and teaching, as well as doing stuff for their supervisors and peers. This activity FEELS like work, but they know that it isn’t really. Obligers might start to feel resentful that other people lean on them so much to organise social events, but still find it difficult to say ‘no’ and get started on their own stuff. However, when one of the few deadlines, like the confirmation or closing seminar, come around, Obligers shine. They can put their headphones on and really punch it out. In the face of a deadline, Obligers produce their best work but exhaust themselves in the process. After they have spent a week in bed, the Obliger promises themselves they are going to follow a daily writing plan, but then someone emails them about organising Christmas in July and… well…

Obligers benefit greatly from peer-led ‘shut up and write’ groups and similar, where they can turn all that willingness to organise others to their own best interest. Obligers particularly like writing retreats, like Thesis Bootcamp. I’ve made a habit of telling the students how much money we have spent organising the perfect writing environment and that all I expect is for them to take advantage of it and do the work. Now I realise why I say this: to an Obliger, being TOLD to be selfish is like catnip.

The Upholder

Upholder students intimidate everyone else, mostly because Upholders have their shit together on so many levels. Upholders can meet external and internal expectations easily so they can adapt to the lack of structure in the research degree, even if it takes a little while. While they are happy to be involved in the Obliger’s shut up and write group (and they are generally excellent, reliable contributors), they are just as happy sticking to their own writing schedule. In fact, they usually have a set of self-declared ‘rules’ around their working schedule. You are an upholder if you are generally feeling in control of your thesis and wondering why everyone is complaining about not having enough time. If only they would listen to you about your writing schedule! Upholders are not exactly selfish about guarding their writing time, but if you interrupt the schedule, expect them to get a bit cross, even rude. In fact, if there’s one criticism Rubin makes about Upholders is that they can get ‘stuck’ in habits and rituals they have made for themselves and convince themselves it’s the only way they can work.

Generally, supervisors love working with Upholders because they are simultaneously independent and open to direction. However, there is potential for conflict, particularly if there is disagreement amongst the supervisory panel. Upholders faced with a panel fighting will go into a tizz, trying to please everyone. Upholders are prone to perfectionism, which can be the result of their internal standards being too high. While supervisors are saying ‘good enough’ the Upholder is saying ‘it could be a bit better’. Upholders also benefit from deadlines that provide a natural end to this perfectionist cycle, even if it may cause them pain. I can’t offer other advice to Upholders because you probably have everything so handled, but try to be patient with the people around you. Not everyone has their shit together as you do!

The Questioner

Of all the tendencies, the Questioner is adapted perfectly to the lack of structure in a PhD program, in fact, they tend to thrive on it. A Questioner must convert an outer expectation into an inner motivation, so they are principally self-directed learners. Questioners LOVE to analyse, so they are happiest up to their elbows in a spreadsheet, or whatever pile of data/research material is available, trying to work out the ‘why’ of it all. When it comes to writing, however, they can be a bit hit and miss. The thrill of the chase for knowledge might be more intrinsically interesting than the plod of writing it all down. Questioners love to optimise and look for efficiencies. Even when they find writing productivity techniques that work, they are always on a hunt for different/better ideas.

Questioners can be exhausting students for their supervisors because they are reluctant to accept authority. If they decide their supervisor can be trusted, then they will fall into line, but they tend to be distrustful and are likely to resist suggestions. Questioners may struggle with some parts of the thesis more than others, particularly the literature review. Because questioners like to analyse, the endless, bottomless literature can put them straight into analysis-paralysis. While questioners might enjoy writing groups for the social aspect, they are unlikely to find it as helpful as Obligers or Upholders because they are not as driven by habit. The best advice for questioners facing a writing motivation problem (and I should know because apparently, I am one) is to try to convert the outside expectation that you will produce a document to an inner expectation. Questioners love to share their knowledge; the evidence suggests that examiners love to read a thesis to learn new things. So, think about your dissertation as a big gift to someone else that you will craft with loving care.

The Rebel

Rebels thrive on the lack of structure of the PhD – or they totally don’t. You can’t predict how Rebels will cope because they resist all expectations, even their own. A Rebel might make their own writing schedule, and then not follow it, then beat themselves up and go into a shame spiral for not following through. Rebels can get very demoralised thinking nothing will help, but that’s not true. For the Rebel, writing motivation has to come entirely from the inside. Finding inner motivation can be tricky, especially if you don’t love the work so enthusiasm is your best weapon against yourself. Rebels work best when they feel a ‘higher’ motivation, so they are most perfectly adapted to the basic premise of the PhD as the quest for new knowledge, especially if the research is aimed at helping other people and/or changing the world. Rebels fired up and passionate about their topic will endure incredible amounts of suffering and work harder than anyone else to achieve their aims.

The Rebel’s stubborn nature can be a source of strength. The inner monologue for many a Rebel is ‘you can’t make me!’. I’ve seen more than one PhD student finish in a blaze of glory just to prove other people wrong! Supervising a Rebel can be really challenging. While a Questioner can be talked around to accepting authority, the Rebel will resist even if they can intellectually concede you have a point. The way to help a Rebel is to stage your suggestions as information, consequences and choice. For example, I might say to a Rebel student suffering writer’s block “many people find the Pomodoro technique helpful”. I’ll then point out the consequences of not having a writing schedule: “The dissertation is such a big document you will exhaust yourself if you don’t break it down into smaller chunks”. Finally, I give them a choice about whether they should take up the suggestion or not: “I’ll send you a blog post about it and you can make up your own mind”.

So there you have it – the (kind of bullshit) four tendencies framework might be a good diagnostic tool… maybe? Rubin stresses that most people are not purely one thing or another; all of us can tilt towards an adjacent tendency. In my case, although I need to work from inner enthusiasm most of the time, I tilt Upholder. This explains my pragmatic side. I am responsive to an externally imposed expectation, especially if I am being paid to do it, or going to get in trouble if I don’t. But maybe that’s just because I like to see myself that way? See, I’m questioning it now! What do you think? Do you relate to any of the four descriptions above? Is this way of looking at things helpful? Love to hear your reactions in the comments.

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30 thoughts on “Are there only four kinds of writers?

  1. JC says:

    I relate to the Questioner with a dash of Rebel and a smattering of Upholder 🤔
    I enjoyed the article, and perhaps it may be a bit simplistic and likely contextualised by numerous things, but it is thought-provoking and facilitates self reflection.
    I did wonder if the upholder is my true phd persona… i feel like mental health and negative life experience plays a part here. None the less i relate to it. And this is turn makes me wonder if the Rebel counteracts the Upholder… I also wondered how much i wanted to be a Questioner more so and my bias to see myself that way. The struggle is real…
    I’m at the end of my phd now and i have unceremoniously dragged my procrastinator along for the ride. I hope the rebel helps me drag his butt across the finish line.

  2. Dorothea says:

    Interesting ideas here and I, too, am skeptical of Rubin’s theory- as I am of all kinds of personality quiz type things. However, it does make sense, broadly speaking, and I like how you adapted it to the writer/PhD candidate. Your post made me wonder if it is possible to have a different tendency in one area of life than another. For example, I too took the quiz (sigh) and it put me as an Upholder, which surprised me, because it’s rather flattering. However, in thinking about it, while answering the questions I was thinking of my life holistically, and this includes things like personal care habits and running and the like. In this regard, I am an Upholder, no question. However, your description of the Obliger fit me much better as a writer. Actually, it fit me completely. Does this mean I shouldn’t be doing a PhD? (probably) no. However, it does make me realize that II may not be motivated in the same way for my PhD as I am for other things in my life and I should figure this motivation out to be more committed to my Upholder tendancy. Thanks!

  3. Ruth says:

    I think you’re right about people having different tendencies in different areas of your life – I can relate to all four. I’m a rebel when it comes to going to the gym or being interested in popular culture (more relevant when I was a teenager and ‘meant’ to be interested), mostly an obliger in my interactions with family, a questioner in a lot of my approach to my PhD (with some upholder) and an upholder in a lot of my work (with some questioner).

    I think it comes down to that fact that even if we have strong internal motivation in some areas, there will always be others that we aren’t so concerned about. We will also find some external sources of motivation have more influence over us than others. In my case, not upsetting people I care about is a big source of external motivation.

    Interestingly, this can explain why I’ve become more of an upholder In the second half of the PhD – I realised how difficult it can be for my supervisors when I constantly challenge/resist their advice, so now I try to address all their feedback while still staying true to what I’m trying to do. Which seems to have led to different troubles, of the ‘trying to please everyone’ sort that Inger describes.

    • Ruth says:

      Oops, that was meant to be a reply to dorthea’s comment (the reference that I’m agreeing with in the first line). I also agree that Ingers application to writing is very insightful and thought provoking.

      • Thesis Whisperer says:

        The ‘trying to please everyone’ can be such a PhD problem – I think it’s the most difficult of all the writing problems I encounter because it’s probably the most rational. Good luck with it!

  4. Laetitia says:

    Ouch. When it comes to PhD, it was kind of as if you followed my around for the last 5 years, and you have been asked to describe me in a few short paragraphs… >.< It can feel crippling and painful. But this is a sort of useful framework to work with. And it's a nicer spin than "lazy" or "too easily distracted". Also explains why I've not yet written my The Conversation piece, that book, or the final outline for my methods section yet…

  5. Mariana de Oliveira Yonamine says:

    Questioner to the bones, struggling with writing at the moment
    Gretchen`s podcast has some useful life hacks too!

  6. Miriam says:

    I am definitely an Obliger, with a hint of Rebel. I’m good at all the prep work but actually getting down to the writing freaks me out! And delay, delay, delay… I also did find a Thesis Writing Boot Camp REALLY helpful in the last couple months. So pretty accurate for me all round.

  7. Dr Dani Barrington-Francis (@Dani_Barrington) says:

    As a PhD student/now academic (and supervisor) I think I’m pretty fairly in the Upholder category – I’m certain that people think I’ve got my shit together (even if it doesn’t always feel like it). However, this comes with a couple of interesting struggles I’ve had over the years:

    1. Why is it so hard for others to figure out a way to do things that works for them and others? This frustrates me (and is my issue, no one else’s). But as a supervisor (and a human!) I have to be conscious of not putting this pressure onto my students! Balancing internal and external expectations may not come as easily to others as it does to me (also, having suffered major depression and been through a lot of cognitive behaviour therapy over the years, I have become a lot better at moving from Obliger to self care!)

    2. Guilt! Because I am good at time management and devoting time I have scheduled to things, I make sure that there is time to look after myself, spend time with my husband, etc – which makes me feel like a “bad” academic (I wrote about this in Research Whisperer) – because so many of my peers are/were working 18 hour days and weekends trying to get PhD/academic writing done and I think… “I’m definitely missing something here, when is the other shoe going to drop..?” – so being an Upholder, in my case, contributes to my Imposter Syndrome! (I’m sure it manifests differently for everyone!)

    Thanks for the food for thought Inger – I’m going to ask my current students to read this post and identify where they think they fit, to help me understand them better!

  8. Lea says:

    Sort of half Questioner and half Obliger. I can see both aspects clearly in me and neither one seems stronger than the other. Makes writing (trying to) and interesting process!

  9. Colleen says:

    This actually sort of makes sense to me. My brain is a questioner/obliger which doesn’t really cross in your Venn, but whatever. The academic in me is ‘I want to know everything’ but the other part of me that knows that isn’t possible likes ‘professionals to diagnose and make recommendations’. This sort of plugs a hole for me.

  10. Neny says:

    Oh gosh, I’m an obliged/rebel one. Can one be more catastrophic than this combination? What’s your suggestion for this poor PhD student?

  11. rdavenport1972 says:

    Definitely an obliger sometimes upholder (when I set my mind to it!). For instances right now I am in a SUAW session with my thesis data waiting for me to continue analysis and I am reading Thesis Whisperer posts! I do also have a text book open on my lap and multiple articles open on my laptop to read! See the perfect obliger!
    Thanks Inger- I definitely need a better writing schedule and need to find some external carrots to dangle to help me stick to it!
    Rachel, Melbourne.

  12. Dee says:

    Thank you so much for this article — it was most apposite. I’m an Obliger with a heavy dash of Rebel and right now, paper-writing is NOT working for me. I’ve been digging in my heels, blowing past quite reasonable deadlines, and this has really prompted me to go back and start looking critically at what it is that I want from it rather than what anyone else might get out of it.

  13. Stacia says:

    I just recently read Rubin’s book about the four tendancies, and have found them to be remarkably relevant to myself and my friends/family, despite the lack of science. I am an Upholder, and your section about doing a PhD as an Upholder was spot on. I’m pretty sure that during my PhD I even said to my partner, word for word, “If only they would listen to me about my writing schedule!” I absolutely think this is a potentially useful tool for supervisors and students alike, even if the framework could do with some field testing.

  14. Nathalie says:

    As a fellow questioner, your description of reading about these four tendencies is so recognizable. And it makes total sense how you translated it into the types of students 🙂
    (As the link doesn’t work, I’m on )

  15. Moses says:

    I suspect I am a questioner and love to see the practical aspects of things. In my world, there must be a rational relationship between phenomenons, else those phenomenons may not exist after all. I also have some tint of rebel within me. In this regard in can be totally non-conformist in a whole lot of things. I have set deadlines, failed to meet them.

    Working on my weakness while honing my good characteristics are certainly worth doing.

  16. Moses says:

    I suspect I am a questioner and love to see the practical aspects of things. In my world, there must be a rational relationship between phenomena, else those phenomena may not exist after all. I also have some tint of rebel within me. In this regard in can be totally non-conformist in a whole lot of things. I have set deadlines, failed to meet them.

    Working on my weakness while honing my good characteristics are certainly worth doing.

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