As someone who studies issues related to human nature, happiness, health, and good habits, I’ve long been intrigued by Weight Watchers — when and why it works.
And one thing has struck me with particular force.
In my book Better Than Before, I identify the 21 strategies we can use to make or break our habits. The Weight Watchers program harnesses many strategies that can help people eat more healthfully: for instance, the Strategies of Monitoring, Scheduling, First Steps, Clarity, Scheduling, Loophole-Spotting, and Safeguards.
All these strategies are very powerful. But there’s one aspect of Weight Watchers that explains why, for some people, it works so well — and also explains why people might find themselves frustrated, by re-gaining the weight after they leave the program. And that’s an aspect related to a person’s Tendency, and the Strategy of Accountability.
As a reminder, my Four Tendencies framework divides people into Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels, based on how we respond to outer expectations (like a work deadline) and inner expectations (like a New Year’s resolution). Want to take the free, quick quiz to identify your Tendency? It’s here. More than one million people have taken the quiz.
The Obliger Tendency — the Tendency that includes the largest number of people — describes people who readily meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. Obligers would say, “Commitments to other people must be met, but commitments to myself? Meh.”
Therefore, to meet an inner expectation, Obligers must have structures of outer accountability. Like…Weight Watchers. While many people find accountability helpful (note, however, that for some Rebels, accountability may be unhelpful), for Obligers, it’s crucial. When Obligers get that crucial outer accountability, they can succeed. But if that outer accountability disappears, the expectation will no longer be met.
Lesson? Obligers must maintain outer accountability. Indefinitely.
And this explains a lot about the success of Weight Watchers.
One Obliger wrote:
I have no doubt that I am an “Obliger.”And since you have made me aware of this fact, it has changed my life in subtle yet meaningful ways. I battle with my weight, and I’ve joined and unjoined Weight Watchers more times than I care to recount. Oftimes, I wonder why I’m there, when I understand the program and could save myself time and money by just applying the knowledge I already have at home. And then I stop going to meetings: I fail miserably on my own and am beyond disappointed.
Defining myself as an Obliger has changed my approach and expectations. I signed up, yet again, but this time with a different mindset. I now go to meetings not as much for the information imparted as the sense of community and accountability. Because that is what I really need. And instead of hating to admit that I need a community, I am embracing the idea and running with it.
I joined a livelier, more fun-loving group that I feel a greater commitment to. I laugh a lot and feel empowered to tackle the rest of the week when I leave. I committed to tracking my progress online daily with other members. The Weight Watchers program hasn’t changed. The way I employ it and make it work for the type of person I am has changed immeasurably. Now, instead of going against my grain, I’m letting the grain be my guide.
Another Obliger wrote:
I’ve been trying to shed some weight for years and feel like I’ve tried just about every old (and new) thing. I’d tried Weight Watchers several times, but since learning that I’m an Obliger, I decided to sign up for their coaching option, where you can have personal calls with a coach. I signed up two weeks ago, and it’s been a huge difference from previous attempts. I’m 1000% sure that’s because of the exterior obligation to my coach.
Of course, Weight Watchers is just one of many kinds of accountability groups that people use. Law school study groups, exercise classes, weekly work status meetings, attendance records, library fines… there are countless ways to create outer accountability.
I’ve even created an app, the Better app, where people can discuss issues related to the Four Tendencies, and — this is key — can join or launch accountability groups, for accountability to meet whatever aim they want.
The key thing for Obligers to recognize is that they require these systems of outer accountability, even to meet an inner expectation. It’s not that hard to create outer accountability — once you know that’s what you need. And Obligers continue to need that outer accountability. Obligers sometimes tell me that they don’t like this aspect of being an Obliger, that they don’t like needing outer accountability, or they don’t like the fact that they can’t “graduate” out of needing it. But in my observation, this is just how it works for Obligers. It’s more useful to figure out how to deal with your Tendency, rather than to wish it were different.
Note that Obligers vary greatly in what kind of accountability works best for them. Some might feel more accountable to a group; some, to an individual coach; some, to knowing that they’re going to step on the scale before a meeting. Some Obligers become teachers, leaders, or coaches themselves, because they know that if they’re guiding others, they have to set a good example.
The Four Tendencies framework has other implications for programs like Weight Watchers, for the way other Tendencies would use them.
For instance, while Obligers need accountability, Questioners and Upholders also often benefit from accountability — and sometimes, even Rebels benefit. Knowing that someone is watching, monitoring, and noticing what we’re doing often reinforces our determination to stick to a good habit. As an Upholder myself, I don’t depend on accountability to meet expectations — but nevertheless when I’m being held accountable, it does make me feel all that much more…accountable.
However, sometimes accountability can be counter-productive. If accountability isn’t working for you, don’t use it! There’s no right way or wrong way; only the way that works for you.
For instance, Rebels don’t like being told what to do, or being told when and where to show up. For Rebels, it’s helpful for a program to emphasize that “This is what you want,” “This is what you choose,” “This is the kind of person you are,” “This will give you more freedom,” “This is fun for you, you enjoy it,” “These people are helping you to get what you want.”
Examples? “I want to eat more healthfully,” “I’m a healthy, active person who respects my body and doesn’t load it with lots of processed foods,” “I love fresh, delicious, natural foods,” “Big food companies can’t tell me how eat,” “I’m not addicted to sugar,” “I choose to be free from cravings,” “I enjoy this kind of program,” “When I lose weight, I’ll feel more comfortable on airplanes and walking around, and that will make me feel freer, and more able to travel.”
As for Questioners, they demand justifications for everything they’re expected to do. So to work for Questioners, a program must provide information about why certain things are being encouraged, forbidden, emphasized; why systems are set up the way they’re set up; why an authority is worthy of respect, etc. For instance, if someone tells a Questioner, “Take a fifteen-minute walk every morning,” this may strike that Questioner as arbitrary. Why fifteen minutes? Why every morning? Why a walk? Questioners need justifications.
To work for a Questioner, any system — such as a point system for food — must be justified. Why does X food have this many points, but Y food has this many points? Questioners would succeed much better when they understand the research, reasoning, and structure of a regimen.
Questioners also tend to love to monitor and customize. So for them, activities like tracking, keeping food logs, or using a step-counter may be useful, because they enjoy getting that information on themselves. And they also like to customize, so it’s useful to tell them, “You might try doing something in this other way, if that works for you.” Or, if it’s important to do something exactly as suggested, it’s important to explain the reason. “Take this medication with food, or else you might get severe nausea.”
Upholders tend to do well in this kind of program. In fact, just about any program, curriculum, device, and so on will work fairly well for Upholders, because meeting outer and inner expectations comes more easily for them.
The Four Tendencies vary in the number of members. The largest Tendency, for both men and women, is Obliger. It’s the one that the greatest number of people belong to, so any program or group should take that fact into account. Next largest is Questioner. Most people are Obligers or Questioners. The smallest Tendency is Rebel, and just slightly larger is Upholder.
Programs like Weight Watchers can take these differences among the Four Tendencies into account. For example, read here about how Dr. Judson Brewer is tailoring his eating program to take into account the Four Tendencies.
Have you tried Weight Watchers, or similar programs? I’d be especially interested to hear from Obligers.
In my book The Four Tendencies, I explore this issue at much greater length, along with related subjects like Obliger-rebellion, why Obliger-rebellion often shows up in health-related matters, why Obligers often pair up with Rebels, why sweethearts don’t make good accountability partners, and more. Obligers + accountability is a big subject!