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Discuss Choice Theory within Reality Therapy

Discuss Choice Theory within Reality Therapy

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).

International Journal of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy • Fall 2014 • Vol. XXXIV, number 1 • 7


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

unsatisfied relationships.

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).

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