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What is Choice Theory?

what is choice theoryThere are many theories about behavior, but some educators and therapists are “choosing” choice theory over other motivational practices. What is choice theory, how does it differ from cognitive behavior analysis, and how does it impact clients?

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What is Choice Theory

Choice theory emphasizes the individual’s control over his or her own feelings and actions and teaches the concept that all behavior is chosen. It was created by Dr. William Glasser. The theory states that all human behavior is driven by the desire to satisfy five basic human needs: the need to be loved and accepted, the need to be powerful, the need to be free, the need to have fun and the need to survive. Conflict arises because humans can only control their own behavior.

The Ten Axioms

We have already seen the first axiom: humans can only control their own behavior. The second is that all we give or get from others is information. Number three is that all long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems. Axiom four is that we must have at least one satisfying relationship. The others are:

• The past has a lot to do with who we are, but it does not hold us prisoner.

• We are driven by five genetic needs.

• We satisfy these needs by building “quality worlds.”

• All behavior consists of four components: acting, feeling, thinking and physiology.

• Recognizing that we all control our own behavior brings us freedom.

• We only have “direct control” overacting and thinking, but we can gain indirect control over feeling and physiology through these.

How it Works

Teaching clients to alter their actions and their thinking can affect the way they feel and the way their bodies respond to stress. Education provides a wonderful example of this. Students frustrated over their inability to conquer certain concepts and gain specific skills may be taught to reframe their thinking about what constitutes a quality world for them.

Other therapies concentrate on past behaviors and ask the clients to work through “triggers for the behavior so that they can avoid them in the future. According to an article in Psychology Today, Choice Theory and its component, Reality Therapy, do not spend time on the past. They ask clients to concentrate on the present ( the reality) and ask them to envision changes they might make in their behavior that would help them get what they want out of their lives ( or the perception they have of their quality worlds).

The concept of Total Behavior is also involved. That is the concept that people can do little to directly change their physiology (such as anxiety attacks) or their feelings, but direct changes to thoughts and actions cause indirect alterations in those areas.

Choice Theory encourages people to build relationships that create “quality worlds” to build cooperation and connection with others.

Reality Therapy

Reality therapy was created using the principles of choice theory. Its main objective is to have the client make adaptive decisions that will help them meet their basic human needs. Glasser did not believe in mental illness, per se. Instead, problems were the result of unfulfilled goals. Because choice theory deals in the here and now, the client is asked to focus on the present rather than rehashing past experiences.

Reality therapy emphasizes the client-therapist relationship. It is thought that the therapeutic relationship serves as a model for other relationships in the client’s life. Indeed, Glasser believed that many problems were due to the disconnection between people. It is the therapist’s job to guide the client toward making the choices that will yield the most positive interpersonal outcomes.

It is very much a problem-solving approach. A client must assess how their current behavior is ineffective and then work on changing it to better realize their objectives. The successful client will learn to take responsibility for their actions and make a commitment to enacting more adaptive behavior.

With its focus on problem-solving, reality therapy is effective with numerous problems, including addiction and other behavioral disorders. However, it possibly has shown the most success in helping adolescents address behavior problems in school and the community.

Rational Choice Theory

Another offshoot of choice theory, rational choice theory states that people make decisions based on analyzing the pros and cons of a situation. This means that people weigh the costs and benefits of potential choices before settling on a course of action. Originally conceived as an economic theory, it was a way to understand how people make decisions to maximize their money. As time has passed, however, rational choice theory has evolved to include all areas of human decision making, including sociology and political science.

Under this assumption, all human behavior can be seen as a way to meet individual needs. For example, relationships are assessed by the benefits they provide a person. According to rational choice theory, human interaction is a transactional process where the perceived gain is emphasized over other motivations.

Criminology

Rational choice theory also extends to the study of criminology. It posits that criminal behavior is a premeditated decision where the criminal has concluded that the benefits outweigh the potential risks of their actions. A bank robber, for instance, will decide that the financial gain of the robbery is worth the possibility of being injured or going to jail. It should be noted that making a rational choice does not mean it is the best choice. Instead, it simply refers to the process of conducting a cost-benefit analysis.

In its purest form, choice theory states that we make decisions to fulfill our basic needs. It is posited that humans have a desire to make choices that they feel will benefit themselves. Unfortunately, that does not mean that faulty decisions won’t lead to poorer outcomes. However, it has been found that reality therapy can help people to improve their problem-solving abilities. With its roots in classic behaviorism, choice theory has made important contributions to the study of economics, political science, sociology, and psychology.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

Updated April 2020

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