Review of "Choice Theory"

Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom is William Glasser’s presentation of a mode for everyday human interaction that doesn’t rely upon coercion and force to compel people to act in a specific manner. Why is this desirable? Glasser holds that these power dynamics and compulsions to act limit the individual, leads to personal disempowerment, dissatisfaction with life and human relationships and an undue focus upon material possession rather than positive, high-quality social interactions. The manner in which Glassner seeks to evade such exertions of power is by promoting personal autonomy and demanding that we reflect deeply upon the choices available to people. By realizing how it is that we often form our own behaviors by choices we make, Glassner holds that we gain power over our emotions and our repertoire of responses – even if we can’t do so over the conditions in which we live. There are many examples given of how this actually works, some more compelling than others, as well as methods for obtaining positive results from a currently bad situation.

This can include avoiding two of the purely negative types of individuals that he cites as well as one of the methods for obtaining peace, contentment and happiness in a permanent relationship. This latter mechanism involves the conscious creation of “circles of belonging”. While the examples primarily relate to marriage, Glasser claims that this also applied to family and even work dynamics. Focusing on this can help counteract people’s choice to depress, exhibit deleterious psychosomatic functions and help build stronger social ties. On the point of generalized therapeutic practices, Glasser writes passionately that it is not that childhood or previous experiences of the patient that truly matters but whatever problematic relationship they are now in. Glasser states that normally he forgoes this typical Freudian tactic to instead analyze the problem and reorient them to proper behavior that recognizes their choice in disfunction. While, nominally, I agree with this, I think it also important for the therapist to provide the client with tools to better understand their former choices in such a manner as they can see how their choices, empowering or disempowering, creative or destructive, helped bring them to that point. Such a tract will of course depend on the desires of the client, but I thought it worth mentioning.

One of the larger sections which Glasser shows his choice theory in action is in his exposition on it’s functionality in public schools both ideally and in case studies. After having had his ideas adopted by a number of principles and even getting involved with them, he shows how the model explicated in Choice Theory in the Classroom works. This section, while interesting, has the same failings as several other points in the book. Simply it makes very broad claims without documentation. This is not to say that there are not some very worthy points to be made. Glasser agrees with Freud’s position that much of the self-repression which occurs isn’t, qua repression, bad – for if one was to unleash the many aggressive feelings one has when one’s desires are delayed or negated the world would be much more violent. However Glasser does claim that the world’s level of violence is increasing, a point that Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined refutes as well as current statistics on gun and knife violence. I point this out only as I find the foray of psychologists into social science to be understandable but also specious at times, for as in this case not only does the actual evidence go against him but it’s not needed for his argument that Choice Theory is a practice that should reach a wider audience. Another point that I find somewhat disconcerting is the author’s apparent claim that he has developed choice theory himself, without the influence of other theories, when much of the components of it were outlined by the Greek stoics thousands of years ago. While he did adapt aspects of it to fit modern needs and devise therapeutic approaches to it, I find this silent disavowal problematic.

One of the traits of this and several other of the FICAM readings that I’ve been doing that I look forward to writing on in the future is that manner in which many of these psychological texts posit that the application of the paradigm propounded within the books is claimed to create an ideal living situation for all in contradistinction to the terrible world administered by government. Additionally this type of power is claimed as pre-eminent by its exponents and in a way it becomes a force for universalist, humanist personal power. Those familiar with Foucault’s writing on psychology and biopower who haven’t had alarm bells ringing in the above paragraphs should have them going off now. As is mentioned in passing in the above, the psychological conception of autonomy that Glassner has is one that is radically separated from history and is in many ways concerned with reconciling the self to the needs of society. Such a direction, outlined in more detail with other psychologists in Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power, has obvious issues both in it’s hermeneutic and therapeutic approach. If I seem to be overtly critical in the end of Glasser, I do not mean to be so. The framework he has employed clearly has genuinely positive effects on unwanted neurotic symptoms that should not be minimized, however I think it’s worth restricting it’s application to certain areas of living rather than propounding it as a panacea.