Choice theory

Choice theory

This article is about choice theory in psychology and education. For choice theory in economics, see rational choice theory.

The term choice theory is the work of William Glasser, MD, author of the book so named, and is the culmination of some 50 years of theory and practice in psychology and counseling. Choice Theory posits that behavior is central to our existence and is driven by five genetically driven needs, similar to those of Abraham Maslow:

  • Survival (food, clothing, shelter, breathing, personal safety and others)

and four fundamental psychological needs:

  • Belonging/connecting/love
  • Power/significance/competence
  • Freedom/autonomy, and
  • Fun/learning

Choice Theory posits the existence of a "Quality World." The phrase "Quality World" represents a person's total outlook and understanding of the world around them as it relates to people, possessions, beliefs, etc. Starting from birth and continuing throughout our lives, we place the people who are important to us, things we prize, and systems of belief (religion, cultural values, and icons, etc.) within the framework of our "Quality World." Glasser also posits a "Comparing Place" in which we compare and contrast our real world experiences against our Quality World perspective. We behave to achieve as best we can a real world experience consistent with our Quality World.

Behavior ("Total Behavior" in Glasser's terms) is made up of these four components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology. Glasser suggests that we have considerable control or choice over the first two of these, and little ability to directly choose the latter two. As these four components are closely intertwined, the choices we make in our thinking and acting greatly affect our feeling and physiology.

The source of much unhappiness is the failing or failed relationships with those who are important to us: spouses, parents, children, friends & colleagues. The symptoms of unhappiness are widely variable and are often seen as mental illness. Glasser believes that "pleasure" and "happiness" are related but are far from synonymous. Sex, for example, is a "pleasure" but may well be divorced from a "satisfactory relationship" which is a precondition for lasting "happiness" in life. Hence the intense focus on the improvement of relationships in counselling with Choice Theory—the "new Reality Therapy".

Choice Theory posits that most mental illness is, in fact, an expression of unhappiness and that we are able to learn how to choose alternate behaviors that will result in greater satisfaction. Reality Therapy is the Choice Theory-based counseling process focussed on helping clients to learn to make those choices.

The Ten Axioms of Choice Theory[1]

1. The only person whose behavior we can control is our own.
2. All we can give another person is information.
3. All long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems.
4. The problem relationship is always part of our present life.
5. What happened in the past has everything to do with what we are today, but we can only satisfy our basic needs right now and plan to continue satisfying them in the future.
6. We can only satisfy our needs by satisfying the pictures in our Quality World.
7. All we do is behave.
8. All behavior is Total Behavior and is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology
9. All Total Behavior is chosen, but we only have direct control over the acting and thinking components. We can only control our feeling and physiology indirectly through how we choose to act and think.
10. All Total Behavior is designated by verbs and named by the part that is the most recognizable.


Choice Theory in Classroom Management

William Glasser’s Choice Theory is the theory that we all choose how to behave at any time, and cannot control anyone’s behavior but our own. Glasser also believed in the importance of classroom meetings that are held for communication and solving problems. In the classroom it will be important for teachers to “help students envision a quality existence in school and plan the choices that lead to it."[2] For example, Johnny Waits is an 18-year-old high school senior and plans on attending college to become a computer programmer. Glasser suggests that Johnny should be learning as much as he can about computers instead of reading Plato. This concept is called quality curriculum; which consists of topics students find useful and enjoyable. Under Glasser’s strategy, the teacher would hold discussions with students when introducing new topics and ask them to identify what they would like to explore in depth. As part of the process, students need to explain why the material is valuable in life.[2]

Choice Theory and education

An example of Choice Theory and education are Sudbury Model schools where people decide for themselves how to spend their days. In these schools, students of all ages determine what they will do, as well as when, how, and where they will do it. This freedom is at the heart of the school; it belongs to the students as their right, not to be violated. The fundamental premises of the school are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility. In practice this means that students initiate all their own activities and create their own environments. The physical plant, the staff, and the equipment are there for the students to use as the need arises. The school provides a setting in which students are independent, are trusted, and are treated as responsible people; and a community in which students are exposed to the complexities of life in the framework of a participatory democracy.

Sudbury schools choose to recognize that students are personally responsible for their acts, in opposition to virtually all schools today that deny it. The denial is threefold: schools do not permit students to choose their course of action fully; they do not permit students to embark on the course, once chosen; and they do not permit students to suffer the consequences of the course, once taken. Freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action—these are the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility. Thus, members of these schools learn democracy by experience, and enjoy the rights of individuals.

Sudbury schools do not perform and do not offer evaluations, assessments, or recommendations, asserting that they do not rate people, and that school is not a judge; comparing students to each other, or to some standard that has been set is for them a violation of the student's right to privacy and to self-determination. Students decide for themselves how to measure their progress as self-starting learners as a process of self-evaluation: real life-long learning and the proper educational evaluation for the 21st Century, they adduce.

There are many unfounded criticisms of the Sudbury Model, namely:

  • Children may receive a sub-standard education from non-credentialed, uneducated caregivers.
  • Children won't learn the things they will need to know in their adult lives.[3][4]
  • A child may not learn the same things a regular-schooling peer does, unless an educational professional controls what material is covered.[5]
  • Because schools provide a ready-made source of peers, unschooling children will have to have other ways to make friends in their age group[6]
  • A child's only opportunity to experience people of other cultures and worldviews would be in a religious community, scout group, sports teams, etc. If a child isn't exposed to anything "extra", they might not be exposed to other socio-economic groups.[3]
  • Fear that a child may be completely unmotivated and never learn anything on their own if raised in a non-manipulated environment.[7]
  • A parent may fear they do not have the parenting skills required to guide and advise their children in life skills or help them pursue their interests.[4][5]

Critiques of Choice Theory

In a book review,[8] W. Clay Jackson writes, "Dr. Glasser postulates that everything contained in the DM-IV-TR is a result of an individual's brain creatively expressing its unhappiness. ... Dr. Glasser demonizes the entire profession as charlatans who have been brainwashed by their predecessors or who simply misrepresent many of the psychiatric illnesses to patients as having a biological basis. ... Despite claiming to have an appendix full of references demonstrating that there is no evidence that medications have a role in curing mental illness, the book simply relies on a core group of antiestablishment authors. ... However, what is noticeably absent from the book is a set of randomized clinical trials demonstrating the success of his teachings."

Glasser’s theories and teachings have not gone without criticism. Some questions the assumptions that Glasser makes in devising his theory. W. Thomas Bourbon had two criticisms about the assumptions: First, the teacher or school is responsible for creating an environment that meets the needs of the students; however, a students chooses his behavior based on his own needs. A teacher may go to great lengths to promote a positive environment, but the student may not choose appropriate behavior. In Glasser’s theory, when a student misbehaves, the teacher is responsible for when he fails to meet the needs of the student, although as stated in Choice Theory the students chooses his own "total behavior." (Bourbon 1994) Bourbon also argues that a paradox exists between the idea that a student chooses his own behavior but does not use behavior to control his own perceptions. He explains this using the "too hot, too cold, just right" exercise (Bourbon 1994). Imagine a room with an air conditioner and thermostat. A student can walk in and change the setting if too hot or too cold, until the room feels just right. But what happens when 29 other students have different perceptions of what is "just right" in the room? It is impossible, Bourbon argues, to create a classroom that meets the needs of every individual student simultaneously, because students have different perceptions of the same physical conditions.

Another criticism of Glasser’s approach is raised by Jay Weinstein. He argues that people are not always aware of all the choices in behavior that they can make and that they will not always "select the option that they believe will maximize the benefits forthcoming to them." (Weinstein 2000) This makes sense, as it is truly impossible to consider all possible actions or reactions that a student could do and then behave in a way that would meet the needs as defined by Glasser. Weinstein makes another good point when considering the dynamics of group behavior in the school setting in that people do not always act as individuals because sometimes they "representatives of others, members of a group, faces in a crowd, etc." (Weinstein 2000). This is important for educators to consider when applying Glasser’s theory as sometimes one cannot distill the psychology of and individual’s behavior but must review the sociology of a group’s behavior.

More criticism is from an observation in professional experience. This is not a criticism of Glasser’s actual teachings but of how his ideas can be spun out of control by untrained or poorly trained teachers. Many teachers are very familiar with the vocabulary expressed by Glasser, such as making good choice and being responsible for one’s behavior. However, it is difficult for a student to make the "right" choices if an environment of support for students’ needs is not in place in the classroom. Educators have seen one teacher lecture various students in the classroom using steps from Schools Without Failure, such as helping the student make a value judgement on the inappropriate behavior. However, the teacher, now retired, does not set up a positive learning environment in the classroom and seems to care very little about her students. The work assigned is not very well organized, very little direct vocabulary instruction in provided, and the class is largely filled by boring, outdated grammar drills (Observation 1996-2005). It is hard for any student to consistently make the "right" behavior choices in an environment like that, even when the teacher seems at least partially verses in Reality Therapy and Choice Theory.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Charles, C.M. (2008). Building Classroom Discipline. (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
  3. ^ a b Common Objections to Homeschooling, by John Holt, originally published as Chapter 2 of Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education. New York: Delacorte Press, 1981.
  4. ^ a b Unspooling Unschooling, by Bonnie Erbe, in "To the Contrary" blog on US News and World Report website, November 27, 2006
  5. ^ a b A new chapter in education: unschooling, by Victoria Clayton MSNBC, October 6, 2006
  6. ^
  7. ^ Unschooling Leads to Self-Motivated Learning,
  8. ^ Review of Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health, Jackson, W. Clay. 2005. The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Vol. 7, No. 2

Bourbon, W. Thomas and Ford, Ed. (1994) Discipline at Home and at School. Brandt: New York.

Personal observations (1996-2005). Teacher. Centennial High School, Champaign, Illinois.

Weinstein, Jay. (2000). “The Place of Theory in Applied Sociology: A Reflection.�? Theory and Science 1, 1.

External links

See also

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