Introduction to Choice Theory (1) Copy

“All behaviour is a choice and a positive intention”

–William Glasser in Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom (1998)
William Glasser was an American psychiatrist, who developed ‘Choice Theory’ (also sometimes called ‘Reality Therapy’) in the 1990s.

Through his work with patients, Glasser came to believe that almost all psychological problems were about relationships with other people and could be remedied by finding ways to improve relationships.

“All behaviour is a choice and a positive intention” is a key idea in Glasser’s theoretical framework, and it’s often a difficult one for us to understand for two primary reasons:

1) Most people would see some of their own behaviour as innate rather than a choice. For Glasser, it doesn’t have to be a conscious choice, but at some level a choice is being made.

2) It is hard to see a positive intention in some of the behaviour we encounter. For Glasser, all any of us do is behave, and everything we do is an attempt to meet one or more of our basic needs. The outcome may not be positive, but the intention always is.

More on Glasser and Choice Theory

Glasser’s Axioms

These are the maxims by which Glasser’s theory of ‘total behaviour’ operates. Total Behaviour refers to everything we think, feel and do. We can find Choice Theory helpful or useful even if we don’t totally agree with all of Glasser’s ten axioms:

  1. The only person whose behaviour 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 behaviour is Total Behaviour and is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology.
  9. All Total Behaviour 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 Behaviour is designated by verbs and named by the part that is the most recognisable.

William Glasser’s thoeries about human behaviour were controversial. Glasser came to believe that all psychiatric illnesses (including enduring mental illnesses such as schizophrenia) could be treated by using Choice Thoery to understand patients’ needs. Glasser argued against the pathologisation of mental health conditions, and believed that medication was unnecessary in almost all cases.

Although Glasser’s views may seem extreme to some, the principles of Choice Theiry can be a very useful tool for working with young people. While medication for conditions such as ADHD is important, we would argue that Choice Theory can work as a way of assessing the needs of young people on medications.  We would certainly not advocate (as Glasser did) for the use of Choice Theory as a cure for all behaviour and psychiatric diagnoses.

Suggested reading:

Glasser, William. (1998). The Quality School: Managing Students without Coercion. New York: Harper Perennial.

Glasser, William. (1998). Choice Theory New York: Harper Collins.

Glasser’s Choice Theory encourages us to see human behaviour(s) as an attempt to meet a need; Glasser contends that we all have these needs and will all find different ways (positive and negative) to meet them through our behaviour.