An old cub scout saying states that “We need to keep things simple and make them fun,
and then before we know it, the job will be done.” Notably, William Glasser seemed to be
aware of this saying as he sought to create Choice Theory and Reality Therapy. Truly, he
consistently sought to help others to better relate to their experiences, and then guided
them regarding how they might more readily take efficient control of their lives. This brief
overview simply seeks to explain how all of this can be simply done.
Often times, we blame other people or things for our own misery. “The kids are driving me
crazy.” “My husband makes me so mad.” “Being sick is making me depressed.” When
saying these things, many do not realize that they are actually choosing how they feel, and
that these people or things are not causing their emotions. According to choice theory
(formerly known as control theory), we choose all of our actions and thoughts, based on the
information we receive in our lives. Other people or things cannot actually make us feel or
act a certain way (Glasser, 1998)
Choice theory, developed by Dr. William Glasser, evolved out of control theory, and is the
basis for Reality Therapy (Howatt, 2001). Control theory,on the other hand, was developed
by William Powers and it helped explain many of Dr. Glasser’s beliefs, but not all of them.
Dr. Glasser spent 10 years expanding and revising control theory into something that more
accurately reflected his beliefs, what we now know as choice theory (Corey, 2013).
Although reality therapy is based on choice theory, it was actually reality therapy that was
coined first in 1962. It wasn’t until some 34 years later, in 1996, that Glasser announced
that the term “control theory” would be replaced with “choice theory”. The rationale for the
name change was that the guiding principle of the theory has always been that people have
choices in life and these choices guide said life (Howatt, 2001).
Glasser believed that people needed to take more responsibility for their behavior and that
reality therapy could help them do this. The essence of choice theory and reality therapy is
that we are all responsible for what we do and that we can control our present lives (Corey,
2013). Glasser also believed that the root problem of most unhappiness is unsatisfying or
non-existent relationships. Because of this void, an individual chooses their own
maladaptive behavior as a way to deal with the frustration of being unfulfilled. In reality
therapy, a person can be taught how to effectively make choices to better deal with these
situations. Reality therapy can help an individual regain control of their lives, instead of
letting their emotions run the show, which is the key to their own personal freedom
(Howatt, 2001). Although traditionally thought of simply as a therapy technique, reality
therapy is actually a philosophy of life that is applicable to more than just psychological
deficits. It can be used in all aspects of human relationships and in various settings,
including schools, hospitals, and correctional institutions (Corey, 2013).
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ESSENTIAL CONCEPTS OF CHOICE THEORY AND REALITY THERAPY
Choice theory is an internal psychology that postulates that all behavior is a result of
choices, and our life choices are driven by our genetically encoded basic needs. Originally,
Dr. Glasser presented only two basic needs: love and acceptance (Howatt, 2001; Litwack,
2007). By 1981, the basic needs had increased to five and are: survival, love and belonging,
power, freedom, and fun (Litwack, 2007; Brown, 2005; Corey, 2013; Glasser, 1998).
Survival is the only physiological need that all creatures struggle with. Love and belonging is
a psychological need and is considered the primary need in humans. Power is also a
psychological need that includes feelings of accomplishment, success, recognition, and
respect. Freedom is a psychological need that involves expression of ideas, choices, and
creativity. Lastly, fun is also a psychological need that involves laughing and enjoying ones
life. These basic needs are not in a hierarchy as Abraham Maslow’s needs are. Instead, our
basic needs as presented by Dr. Glasser vary in strength depending on the person, and can
also change within an individual over time and circumstance. If any of these needs are not
being met, which can be displayed in our feelings, we respond accordingly to achieve
satisfaction (Corey, 2013).
Choice theory also postulates that everyone has what they would consider their quality
world. This is the place in our minds where we store everything that makes, or that we
believe would make, us happy and satisfied. This is where all of our good memories and fun
times go. This is also where that dream vacation and dream home would go. It is like a
photo album or inspiration board of all our wants and needs (Corey, 2013). People are the
most important part of this quality world, remembering that a key point of choice theory is
that behavior is the result of unsatisfying relationships or the absence of relationships.
Without people in your quality world, there are no relationships. Without relationships, the
quality world cannot be satisfied. Part of the goal of the reality therapist would be to
become a part of their client’s quality world, thereby facilitating the process of learning to
form satisfying relationships (Corey, 2013).
Choice theory explains that all behavior is made of four components: acting, thinking,
feeling, and physiology. These four components combine to make up our total behavior.
Our acting and thinking controls our feelings and physiology. Choice theory also explains
that all behavior is purposeful, and is an attempt to close the gaps between our needs,
wants and what we are actually getting out of life (Corey, 2013). Our behavior can help us
deal with our emotions, give us some control over our circumstances, help get us the help
we need from others, or become a substitute for behavior that should occur. Behavior is like
a language sending out coded messages to the world on our behalf expressing our wants
and needs (Wubbolding & Brickell, 2005). Again, usually these wants and needs stem from
The focus of reality therapy is to address the issue of these unsatisfying relationships which
can result in unfavorable behavior. Emphasis is placed on the client focusing on their own
behavior rather than playing the blame game. We cannot blame others for our lives and, in
turn, cannot control the behavior of others. “The only person you can control is yourself.”
(Corey, 2013). Reality therapy also involves being in the present and not focusing on the
International Journal of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy • Fall 2014 • Vol. XXXIV, number 1 • 8
past. The past is just that, the past. We cannot allow the past to dictate our present and
future actions. Again, focus should be on current behavioral issues since that is what needs
to be “fixed” (Corey, 2013).