Choice Theory and Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures

I am always grateful for meaningful learning opportunities, but I generally prefer them more when I don’t look like an idiot in the process! I have been traveling in Asia and was repeatedly struck by people’s concerns about pleasing their parents, even parents that are quite controlling. I have written a book about diversity, yet today I realized just how biased I am by favoring an individualistic culture.

Choice Theory teaches that external control damages relationships, and I believe that is true. However, as I talked with Chinese and Singaporean people, I was surprised by how important it is to them to please their parents. Parents in those cultures often use controlling measures to maintain the success and safety of their children. Sometimes physical discipline is involved, including methods that even in their culture is characterized as physical assault. Guilt is also used to control a child’s behavior. Spouses may choose their parents sides in disputes with their own spouses. A common theme is heard: I can get another wife/husband, but I’ll only have one mother/father.

My immediate thoughts came directly from my individualistic culture: How unhealthy! How controlling! I hoped the people I spoke with could develop a sense of independence and stand up to their offending parents. For parents that hurt their children, whether with objects, their hands, their words, or other harsh punishments, I wished they could understand the value of their children and be kind, gentle, and understanding instead.

Then I checked myself. I realized not only was I coming from a strong individualistic culture of collective freedom, but also that my own highest need strength is freedom. I am the poster child for freedom and independence! My thoughts and values have no place in a helping/teaching relationship if it isn’t relative to the reality of the people I’m talking with.

Dr. Glasser defines being responsible as meeting one’s own needs without preventing another from meeting theirs—even this only works in an individualistic culture. For a person in a collectivistic culture, this sounds incredibly selfish. In a collectivistic culture, I believe the definition of responsible needs to be altered to include a person’s family, tribe, and community. Being responsible means meeting your needs without stopping others from meeting theirs or hurting those important to you.

I do not believe this in any way negates Dr. Glasser’s work; in fact, it supports it. We carry a picture of ourselves in our Quality World. It depicts our best possible vision of who we are as a person. A person from an individualistic culture often sees themselves as strong and independent, so doing what is in their best interest matches their Quality World. On the other hand, someone from a collectivistic culture often depicts themselves as a loving, supportive, and respectful person, so doing what is best for their parents is also a Quality World match. So in essence, though shaped by our cultures, everyone is acting to meet their own needs.

In no way does culture form the whole picture; it is just one factor among the many that shape how we see the world. People raised in an individualistic culture can value themselves as someone who wouldn’t hurt anyone close to them, just as there are independent people in collectivistic cultures that believe their needs are of primary importance. Through these many things that contribute to how we see the world, it is those we learn to value that eventually determines our behavioral choices. Choice Theory still remains, for me, the best explanation of all human behavior there is. If you are interested in Choice Theory training, go to for more information.

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