What is Choice Theory?

William Glasser Choice Theory Summary

There 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?

Related resource: Top 15 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Online Programs

The Choice Theory Definition

The Choice Theory Definition

Choice theory was created by Dr. William Glasser. Choice theory emphasizes the individual’s control over his or her feelings and actions.  Conflict arises because we can only control our own behavior.  The William Glasser theory teaches the concept that all behavior is chosen.  Glasser Choice 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
  • the need to survive

The William Glasser theory argues that everything we do is to fulfill one (or more) of these five basic needs.  As we increase our self-control, we can make better and more responsible choices.  Choice Theory recommends adopting seven Connecting Relationship Habits to use in all relationships.  These include:

  • Supporting
  • Encouraging
  • Listening
  • Accepting
  • Trusting
  • Respecting
  • Negotiating Differences

On the flip side, Choice Theory brings to light seven Disconnecting Habits that break down relationships.  These significant choice theory habits are used to control people and ultimately lead to misunderstandings and resentment.  They include:

  • Criticizing
  • Blaming
  • Complaining
  • Nagging
  • Threatening
  • Punishing
  • Bribing, Rewarding to Control

We all choose whether to use Connecting or Disconnecting Habits in our relationships.  Happy, positive relationships come from choosing Connecting Habits.

The Ten Axioms

Choice Theory also emphasizes 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.

The Quality World

William Glasser theories emphasize the concept of the Quality World.  The Quality World is a place in the mind where people store mental pictures of what they find important.  They might store images of places, things, beliefs, and people who matter to them.

Glasser believed that images in a person’s Quality World make them feel good and meet at least one basic need.  These pictures don’t need to align with society’s standards and are unique to each person.  Our idea of a perfect life resides in the Quality World.

The Perceived World

Obviously, reality doesn’t reside in the Quality World.  Choice Theory states that we experience the real world through our perceptions.  We gather information from our five senses and then pass it through our Total Knowledge Filter.

The Total Knowledge Filter is comprised of everything we have experienced over the course of our life.  When we encounter new information, we must make a decision.  We can:

  • Disregard the information
  • Believe the information might be meaningful but need to further investigate
  • Decide the information is meaningful and pass it along to the Valuing Filter

Information passed through the Valuing Filter is assigned a value.

  • Pleasurable information is assigned a positive value
  • Unpleasant information is assigned a negative value
  • Information that falls in between is considered neutral

This process is extremely personal.  Our views can differ wildly from the views of our peers.  Glasser believed our Perceived World is what we deem reality.  It is:

  • Subjective based on a variety of variables including gender, age, education and experience
  • Unique to each individual
  • Constantly changing as we gather new information
  • Likely inaccurate (but feels accurate at the time)

How Does it Work?

We know that teaching clients to alter their actions/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 choice therapy variations 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). They 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).

Glasser also developed the concept of Total Behavior. Total Behavior is comprised of four components including:

  • acting
  • thinking
  • feeling
  • physiology

Individuals can only control how they act and think.   There is little we can do to directly change our physiological responses (such as anxiety attacks) or feelings. By having direct control of acting and thinking components, our physiology and feelings also change.  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

Reality therapy was created using the principles of choice theory. The main objective of reality therapy is that clients 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. He believed mental illness was an expression of unhappiness.  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 psychological problems are relationship problems. It is the therapist’s job to guide the client toward making the choices that will yield the most positive interpersonal outcomes.

Reality therapy is a problem-solving approach. A client must understand that their current behavior is ineffective and work to change it for the better.  This is how they realize their objectives. The successful client will learn to take responsibility for their actions and make a commitment to enact more adaptive behavior.

Reality therapy is effective with numerous problems, including addiction and other behavioral disorders. Reality therapy has shown the most success helping adolescents address behavior problems in school and the community.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational Choice Theory

Rational Choice Theory is another offshoot of Glasser’s 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.

Rational Choice Theory assumes that all behavior is rational and actions can be studied for underlying rational motivations.  Originally conceived as an economic theory, Rational Choice Theory is 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 the assumption of Rational Choice Theory, 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.

Implications for 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.

William Glasser Choice Theory Summary

In its purest form, William Glasser 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

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