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  • Writer's pictureSasha Raskin, MA

What is CBT? Frasier goes to cognitive-behavioral therapy

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If you want to understand what is CBT, you might find this useful. Here, I analyze the relationships between Martin and Frasier Crane, the members of the Crane family in the TV show Frasier through the lenses of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exchange theory (ET). The family members are Martin Crane (the father), Frasier Crane (the oldest son), Niles Crane (the youngest son), and Daphne Moon (Martin's physical therapist who later gets married to Niles). Both Frasier and Niles are psychoanalysts. Martin Crane is an ex-policeman who was wounded and moved to live with Frasier.

Let's discuss the protracted conflict that Martian and Frasier have around Martin's recliner chair. This illustrates well, though comically, the intricacies of father and son relationships, and how these can change in older age.

In ET, reward and cost are essential terms, and they play an essential role in Martin's and Frasier's living arrangement:

A reward is anything that is perceived as beneficial to an actor's interests. A simple way to conceptualize cost is as the inverse of rewards. It is also possible to conceptualize "costs" as the negative dimension of rewards. It is important, however, to include as costs or rewards the opportunities for rewards that might be missed or foregone that are associated with any specific choice. (White & Klein, 2008, p. 70)

For Martin Crane, who did not bring a lot with him when he moved in with his son, his recliner chair holds a literal and a symbolic reward. The chair is very comfortable and helps him with his wounded leg. It also belonged to Martin for many years and made him feel more at home at his son's apartment. The chair also provides Martin with a sense of control: He was wounded by a gunshot and had to retire from the task force, and is now dependent on his son. Now that he lost some control of his life and his son is taking care of him, putting his chair in the middle of the living room allows him to feel more in control by controlling his physical environment. The cost for Martin in insisting on keeping the chair is the frequent arguments with Frasier about it.

Martin's son Frasier hates his father's chair. Frasier has a very expensive taste, and all his furniture is designer-made. Martin's chair is old, torn, and cheap. The reward in keeping the old chair in his living room for him is making his father happy. The cost is feeling that is apartment looks ugly because of that.

Despite the arguments and the ugliness of the chair, the chair has stood in Frasier's living room for eight years. One reason for that lies in the fact that both Frasier and Martin are acting according to the principle of profit: "Profit is defined as the ratio of rewards to costs for any decision. Actors rationally calculate this ratio for all possible choices in a situation and then choose the action they calculate will bring the greatest rewards or the fewest costs." (White & Klein, 2008, p. 71). Martin insists on his chair because the reward of having it there is more valuable to him than arguing from time to time. Frasier allows his father to have the chair there because the reward of pleasing his father is more valuable to him then being completely happy with the aesthetics of the apartment. Frasier's thought process can be further analyzed by examining his comparison level and his comparison level for alternatives:

In complex situations, the evaluation of profit available to an actor may be divided into two comparison levels. The first is the comparison (CL) of what others in your position have and how well you are doing relative to them. The second comparison (CL+) is how well you are doing relative to others outside of your position but in positions that supply an alternative or choice. (White & Klein, 2008, p. 71)

In this case, Frasier's CL is the way that the apartment of his brother Niles and the apartments of his colleagues look like, when not obstructed by old cheap furniture such as his father's chair. Frasier's CL+ is how his apartment would like if he would defy his father and will not allow the chair to be placed in his apartment, together with the impact that it would have on their relationship.

Frasier's and Martin's arguments about the chair eventually died off, which can be seen as a result of conditioning: "All behavior is regulated by its consequences. Responses that are positively reinforced will be repeated more frequently, those that are punished or ignored will be extinguished." (Nichols, 2013, p. 184). Everytime that Frasier said something negative about the chair his father burst out in anger. The pattern repeated itself until Frasier stopped saying anything. Martin's anger outbursts were reinforced by the fact that Frasier would give in every time. Frasier gradually learned not say anything when passing by his father sitting on the chair, and it was reinforced by his father's friendly behavior.

If Martin and Frasier would go to see a CBT family therapist, they would probably work a lot on conflict resolution: "Healthy families aren't problem-free, but they have the ability to address conflicts when they arise. They focus on issues and keep them in perspective, and they discuss specific behaviors of concern to them." (Nichols, 2013, p. 187). Even though Frasier learned to live with the chair, the conflict was never fully resolved until one day he set the chair by mistake on fire and had to reconstruct it to make his father happy. After years that was the first time they openly talked about their needs around it.

Throughout the TV show, Frasier's and Martin's communication skills are improved significantly. They learn how to explain their needs to each other openly and stay in conversation even in challenging moments. In CBT, excellent communication skills are the essential part of a good relationship (Gottman, Markman, Notarius, 1977).

Sasha Raskin, a therapist in Boulder, provides individual and family therapy / counseling in Boulder, Colorado, and worldwide via video and phone calls, drawing from over ten years of clinical experience. Schedule your free 20-minute phone consultation with Sasha Raskin


Gottman, J., Markman, H., & Notarius, C. (1977). The Topography of Marital Conflict: A Sequential Analysis of Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior. Journal of Marriage and the Family,39(3), 461. doi:10.2307/350902

Nichols, M. P. (2013). Family therapy: Concepts and methods. Boston: Pearson.

White, J. M., & Klein, D. M. (2008). Family theories (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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