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William Glasser: Choice Theory

William Glasser was born on May 11 1925, in Ohio. He participated in Case Western Reserve University, from where he earned both his BA and MA. He continued his education in California and received his MD from UCLA. Glasser worked as a psychiatrist for the VA in the start of his expert career. It was during this time he fulfilled his coach, Dr. G.L. Harrington. Glasser spent much of his life time concentrating on the advancement of his theories, particularly his Option Theory.

He studied the effects of control and how it associated to psychology and observed this dynamic in his own customers over years of personal practice. He examined how the choices each person made impacted the other, and focused on the fact that each had the power to make their own, unique, personal options, independent of the other.

In 1967, Glasser opened the Institute for Reality Therapy (Sharf 2004). Three decades later on, the institute was renamed for its founder and continues to provide education, training, and advances in Glasser’s theories and therapies through its numerous branches throughout the world.

Glasser began to establish his theories after several years in scientific practice. He realized that numerous people were incredibly dissatisfied with their lives, and in particular, with their relationships with others.

Glasser understood that humans have an innate need to control their situations, and the people in their lives, to gain power. This driving need causes individuals to exhibit forceful behaviors in order to satisfy that craving. The need to control, to have power over others, can be tempered if we choose to respect others.

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Relationships can be healed, and needs can be met, with respect, love, and mutual satisfaction. Control does not have to destroy lives. It was based on these theories that Glasser developed Choice Theory (Sharf, 2004)

Choice theory provides an explanation of motivation which is markedly different from what many of us have been taught. A central aspect of Choice Theory is the belief that we are internally motivated (Glasser, 1986). While other theories suggest that outside events “cause” us to behave in certain predictable ways. Choice Theory teaches that outside events never “make” us to do anything. What drive our behavior are internally developed notions of what is most important and satisfying to us. Our “Quality World Pictures,” these internally created notions of how we would like things to be, are related to certain Basic Needs built into the genetic structure of every human being.

The Basic Needs which provide the foundation for all motivation are: to be loving and connected to others; to achieve a sense of competence and personal power; to act with a degree of freedom and autonomy; to experience joy and fun; and to survive. Another major concept in Choice Theory is the notion that we always have some choice about how to behave. This does not mean that we have unlimited choice or that outside information is irrelevant as we choose how to behave. It means that we have more control than some people might believe and that we are responsible for the choices we make.

Choice theory is based on the assumption that all behavior represents constant attempt to satisfy one or more of five basic inborn needs. In other words, no behavior is caused by any situation or person outside of the individual. All individuals are driven by genetically transmitted needs that serve as instructions for attempting to live their lives ( Glasser, 2010). The needs are equally important and all must be reasonably satisfied if individuals are to fulfill their biological destiny. These basic needs are: The need to survive, belong, gain power, to be free and the need to have fun. Even though individuals may not be fully aware of their basic needs, they learn that there are some general circumstances that strongly relate to the way they feel. Even though human needs are essentially the same for everyone, the behaviors through which individuals choose to satisfy those needs may be quite different. To satisfy the basic needs, a person must behave.

This means acting, thinking, feeling, and involving the body, all of which are components of the total behavior generated in the effort to get what is wanted. Whenever there is a discrepancy between what one wants and what one has, the internal behavioral system is activated. The motivation is always to behave, not only for present needs but, after those are satisfied, for future needs. To satisfy needs, people must be able to sense what is going on both around them and within them, and then be able to act on that information. When we sense a discrepancy between what we have and what we want, we behave by acting upon the world and upon ourselves as a part of the world.

There are four components which always occur synchronously, which are: doing, thinking, feeling, and physiology. The feeling component of behavior is typically the most obvious. However, the more a person can recognize that feelings are just one component of total behavior, the more the person will be in control of his or her life. (Glasser, 1984) explains that, as individuals learn Choice Theory, they stop using nouns (like depression) that describe only the feeling component of total behavior and begin to use verbs that more accurately describe total behavior. In most situations people or more tuned in to their feelings than their actions, thoughts, or physiology.

The preschool age child lives in an environment largely devoid of labels, scoring categories, or other classification systems, allowing him to develop according to standards set by him. In such an environment there is no such thing as a failure. Everyday life experiences have no structures for pinning labels on individuals, they have no set standards to be met, they do not prescribe particular forms of thinking or select arbitrarily what is to be “learned” or committed to memory ( Glasser,1968). The child when he enters school has spent five years exploring his surroundings, learning about them by solving the problems and questions which his environment poses, conducting inquiry into matters relevant to his own life.

He has been more or less successful in these endeavors, depending on his home environment and the encouragement he receives from it, but it is through thinking problem-solving and dealing with matters, relevant to his life that he has learned as much as he has. No one has ever labeled him a failure for he has succeeded in doing all of the things which he set out to do at varying levels of achievement: he did learn to button his jacket; he did find out what happens when a match is lit to paper; and it was difficult at first but he did learn what happens when he gets off a teeter-totter too soon. He would never consider himself a failure and is quite confident that he is capable of success (Glasser, 1968).

It is in this optimistic framework, maintains William Glasser in his book, Schools without Failure, that most children begin their schooling experience: “Very few children come to school failures, none come labeled failures” (Glasser, 1968). And yet the pervading schools more seem to demand that a certain fall at the low end of the line. And so, certain proportions do “fail”. The teachers are not surprised; they expect certain percentage of failure. The tragedy is that after a period of acculturation, the pupils are not surprised either, they become accustomed to being labeled, and grouped, even to the extent of being identified as “failure”. For those who are identified as failures, the non-rewarding nature of their continuing experience with failure effectively lowers their motivation.

If memorizing facts seemed relevant at first, it seems doubly so even a little later, when it becomes apparent that chances of succeeding are so clearly diminished (Glasser, 1968). And the school, itself, becomes more irrelevant than before. Yet, the children are obliged to enter into this environment every day; in defense against an environment which is clearly hostile to their interest, they withdraw, or they may break out into delinquent or otherwise aggressive behavior. “And delinquency and withdrawal lead to a failure identity” ( Glasser, 1968). Children who experience failure early in school lock into a cycle of failure which becomes increasingly difficult to break out of. It becomes difficult to expect success in any realm of life.

Given that choice theory is short term, action based, and focuses on the resolution of problems in the present; it seems appropriate for diverse needs and issues of the client ( Sharf, 2004). In addition to the theory’s emphasis on the empowerment of individual’s choice and responsible behavior, it employs a creative therapeutic approach to enhancing personal fulfillment relationships. Choice theory is a creative therapeutic process that entails exploring mental images in our minds known as quality worlds, any image of a quality world or new way of living our lives are representative of the relationship and experiences we desire to have or maintain to fulfill our basic needs ( Sharf, 2004). Capturing honest perceptions of basic needs is an important component for making effective, empowering choices in creating our quality worlds.

According to William Glasser, choice theory can replace the Seven Deadly Habits of external control psychology—criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing and bribing- seven caring habits that focus on the autonomy of the individual- supporting, encouraging, listening, accepting, trusting, respecting and negotiating differences ( Glasser, 1998). Since this theory holds that most behavior is chosen, it we choose to behave in ways that may meet our needs, we can improve relationships and connections, thereby creating happiness. According to William Glasser, choice theory is limited in that it discounts any type of biological or chemical root for mental or psychological problems. The clinical and scientific support for the effectiveness of this theory and realty therapy is limited at best. While choice theory encourages individuals to harness and take control of their own behavior, its effectiveness as a replacement for pharmacological treatment in more severe mental health cases is highly questionable.


1. Glasser, W. (1998), Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. New York: Harper & Row 2. Glasser, W. (1986), Control theory in the classroom. New York: Harper & Row 3. Glasser, W. (1968), Schools without Failure. New York: Harper & Row 4. Glasser, W & Glasser, C. (2010). The language of Choice Theory. Harper Collins 5. Glasser, W. (2010). The Quality School: managing students without coercion. Harper Collins 6. Glasser W. (1997). A new look at school failure and school succes 7. Sharf, R. (2004). Theories of psychotherapy and counseling. Brooks & Cole

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