“How Can We Encourage People to Vote by Applying the Four Tendencies?”

I voted sticker

Of everything I’ve written about habits and human nature, the insight that’s the most original is my Four Tendencies personality framework.

This framework divides people into four types: Upholders, Questions, Obligers, and Rebels.

I’m often asked how to apply the Four Tendencies to particular challenges. “How can the Four Tendencies help people take their medication more consistently?” “How can the Four Tendencies help me be a more effective parent?”

And lately, no surprise, many people have asked me, “Can the Four Tendencies be used to encourage someone to vote in the upcoming U.S. election?” The answer is: YES.

This matters, because in the 2016 election, only about 60% of eligible voters cast a vote. We want to do what we can to encourage people to participate in the election of our representatives.

But first—what is the Four Tendencies framework?

In a nutshell, the Four Tendencies distinguishes how people tend to respond to expectations:

  • outer expectations (a deadline, a request from a friend)
  • inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep your New Year’s resolution)


Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%).
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense—essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations. They need reasons and justifications.
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves; they keep their promises to others, but have trouble keeping their promises to themselves.
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike; they can do anything they want to do—in their own way. If someone else tells them what to do, they’re very likely to resist.


If you’d like to take a free, quick quiz to learn your Tendency, you can take it here. More than 3 million people have taken this quiz.

So, given this insight into how people respond to expectations, how might we talk to a person in a way that’s tailored to the Tendencies?

Note: These Tendency-specific suggestions often work on other Tendencies as well. I’m explaining why certain messages might be particularly powerful for particular Tendencies.

Upholders: Remind Upholders of the duty to vote, and make it clear when and how to vote—and make sure that information is available early. Upholders love to plan ahead. Upholders are good at follow-through, so they tend to be very responsive to any kind of reminder.

Questioners: Questioners need reasons. A very civically-minded Questioner told me, “Why should I bother to vote? I live in New York; one vote doesn’t matter.” As an Upholder, I was shocked by this argument.

Questioners tend to trust their own judgment (and often judge that others are less likely to do the work to come to the correct conclusions), so you could remind a Questioner, “These are crucial decisions for your country. Don’t you want to weigh in to register your views? Do you want other people to make decisions for you?”

You might also appeal to the Questioners love of efficiency and research. “If you plan ahead, you can figure out the most efficient time to vote.” “If you want to make a difference in your community, the quickest and easiest ways to influence change is to cast your vote.”

There’s an appeal to logic. “You might think that one vote doesn’t matter, but remember 2000 when Florida had to recount its votes. In the end, George Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes, and that difference decided who became president. Your vote might really make a difference.” “Even if your vote wouldn’t change the outcome for a national election, you’re also voting on more local elections, where your vote will make a difference.”

And there’s appeal of data. “Even if your individual vote doesn’t sway the outcome, for years to come, people will be studying how people voted in the election—and those patterns will  have a big influence on how decisions get made, and what concerns get addressed. If you vote, your views will be part of that data. If you don’t vote, your views are more likely to be ignored.”

Obligers: Obligers respond to outer accountability. So you might say, “You need to be a good role model for other people at home or at work.” “If you don’t vote, other people will feel like it’s fine not to vote.” “Think about the country you’re shaping for future generations.” “I’ll call you after you’ve voted, I want to hear how the experience was.” “Text me when you’re in line at the polling place.” “Research shows that messages that children receive early in life affect how they vote. If your children see you voting, they’ll be more likely to vote themselves one day.”

Along the same lines, Obligers are more likely to do something if they’ve publicly committed to doing it in advance. So forms of pre-commitment are useful.

It’s also helpful to create a system of accountability for the actual voting. In many places, voters get a sticker that says “I voted.” This is a form of social proof and also accountability. These days, too, social media is a significant place of reminder and accountability.

Telling someone, “Thank you for voting in the past” is a gentle form of accountability.

It’s interesting. This year, I’ve heard from many people involved in efforts to send people handwritten reminders to vote, or to vote for a certain candidate. The idea is, “It’s so unusual to get a handwritten note, people will pay attention, they’ll be more likely to act, etc.” As far as I can tell, it’s not clear yet what effect these efforts have on the recipients. But I bet it makes a difference with the senders. Sure, those senders were already highly politically engaged. But even so, I bet that people are more likely actually to vote if they’ve sent the letters, because they’ve announced their own commitment in writing.

Rebels: A few different approaches work, depending on the kind of Rebel.

Appeal to identity and choice: Remind the Rebel that this is the kind of person you are, this is what you choose, this is the self that you want to put into the world: “I’m an engaged citizen.” “I support ____, I show that support with my vote.”

I’m not certain that this writer is a Rebel, but it sure sounds like it—and he explains that he started to vote when he realized:

Note that he doesn’t make an argument like “I must vote because these vulnerable people are counting on me” (obligation, accountability) but rather “How could I claim to care about these people if I wouldn’t donate my time to them?” (choice, identity).

Appeal to dislike of being controlled: “If I don’t vote, other people make decisions for me.”

Appeal to freedom: “No one and nothing is going to stop me from exercising my individual right to vote.”

Stimulation of a challenge: “The thing is, I don’t think you can get yourself to show up a a certain place at a certain time.” “I’ll show you!” “Meh, no one your age bothers to vote.” “Oh yeah? Watch me!

Rebels really don’t like being told what to do or being boxed into a category. One Rebel told me, “Everyone was saying, ‘You have to vote,’ and I thought, nope, I don’t. Then my mother casually said on the phone, ‘Oh,  you’re not voting today. You never vote,’ and I automatically said, ‘Yes, I am.'”

All Tendencies:

An appeal to values can be very persuasive to a person of any Tendency. For many of us, voting is the right thing to do. People have sacrificed their lives to give and protect the right to vote. A good citizen votes.

So, for instance, with Questioners—Questioners always want a reason to do something, and one very powerful reason is “Voting is the right thing to do.”

Make something convenient. To a startling degree, we’ve very influenced by how convenient or inconvenient an activity is. Want to resist the cookies? Put them on the back of a high shelf. Want to encourage people to vote? Provide a ride to the polls, hand out a map of the neighborhood, permit voting by mail, remind people that election day is coming, etc.

But remember! Sometimes a strategy that works well with some Tendencies might backfire with others.

For instance, it’s often useful to ask someone to make a specific commitment. We’re often more likely to do something if we’ve said that we’re going to do it, and we’re also more likely to follow through if we’ve figured out a plan (decision fatigue is a powerful barrier). So efforts to get people to “pledge” to vote tend to be useful. Also, to encourage someone to vote, it’s useful to say, “Where will you vote? What time are you planning to vote?” because as a person explains a plan, follow-through becomes more likely.

But for the most part, Rebels don’t like to be told what to do; they don’t like to be locked into a plan; they don’t like someone looking over their shoulder. So trying to get a Rebel to pre-commit to a plan might ignite their spirit of resistance. Better to say, “If you want to vote, remember, our polling place changed to that other address.”

What messages work for you, with your own Tendency? What strategies have you seen resonate—or fall flat—with other Tendencies?

To learn more about the framework, read my book The Four Tendencies. You can also read a sample chapter and find other resources here (scroll down to “The Four Tendencies”).



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.