Choice Theory

As one of my readers, you’ve likely encountered the phrase Choice Theory, but it’s possible you’ve missed out on the details. Choice Theory is an explanation of all human behavior developed by Dr. William Glasser. There are five components of this theory— basic human needs, our quality world, the perceived world, the comparing place, and our total behavior.

Basic Human Needs
The five basic human needs are survival, love & belonging, power, freedom, and fun. We are all born with these needs, but we experience them to varying degrees. One person might have a high love & belonging need, while another person is high in freedom. We cannot escape these needs; we are biologically driven to satisfy them in the best way available to us.

The Quality World
This is a place that exists inside all of us. Things that have satisfied one or more of our basic needs in the past and whatever we think may satisfy them in the future are stored here. These things are separate from society’s definition of quality. Alcohol is in the quality world of an alcoholic, stealing cars is in the quality world of a car thief, and domestic violence is in the quality world of a batterer. The only two requirements for entry into our personal quality worlds are that it meets one or more of our needs and it feels good.

The Perceived World
We each have our own perceptions of the world. Our sensory system takes in information through sight, touch, sound, taste, and scent, but we all have unique ways of processing that information based on our life experiences, our culture, and our values.

When you encounter others whose perceived world doesn’t match yours, it doesn’t mean one of you is wrong. It simply means you are different. Remembering this simple statement can reduce the amount of disagreements and fighting in your life. Accepting this fact would mean giving up the need to convince others of our point of view. We could simply accept the fact that we see things differently and move on.

The Comparing Place
The comparing place is where we weigh what we want from our quality world against our perceptions of what we believe we are actually getting. When these two things are a match, all is well.

However, when our perceptions and quality world don’t line up—when we perceive we don’t have the things we want—then we are driven to action to fix it. Unless they are in some degree of discomfort, people generally don’t make a lot of progress or change the things they are currently doing; the greater the pain, the more motivation to try something different. This is where conventional wisdom tells us that if we want what’s best for the people in our lives, then it is our responsibility to raise their pain level to get them to do things differently because we know what’s best for them. Right?

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Wrong—we can only know what’s best for ourselves. Remember, our perceived worlds are all different as we have unique values and experiences. How can we possibly know what’s best for someone else when we haven’t lived their life? We can only know what’s best for ourselves.

Total Behavior
All behavior is purposeful, and all behavior is total. There are four inseparable components of total behavior—acting, thinking, feeling, and physiology. These all exist simultaneously during any given behavior we engage in. The first two components—acting and thinking—are the only components over which we can have direct control. This means that if we want to change how we are feeling or something that is happening in our bodies (physiology), we must first make a conscious decision to change what we are doing or how we are thinking.

All behavior is our best attempt to get something we want. We never act in response to some external stimulus, but we act purposefully to get something we want. This means that yelling at my son to clean his room after asking him nicely several times, I wasn’t yelling because my son “made me mad.” I was yelling because it was my best attempt to get him to do what I wanted. This seems like I’m splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction to make when you are attempting to move from a victim’s role to a place of empowerment.

The Implications
Choice Theory pretty much rids us of the idea that people are “misbehaving.” Everyone is using their best attempt to get something they want. Of course, in the process, they may break laws, disregard rules, and hurt others, but those are side effects of doing the best they know how. We are all doing our best—some of us simply have better tools, resources, and behaviors at our disposal than others.

By embracing Choice Theory’s concepts, our function becomes educating others to self-evaluate the effectiveness of their own behavior. They may continue to do things exactly as they have because it’s familiar and/or because it is effective and gets them what they want. It is not our job to stop them, nor is it our job to rescue them from the consequences of their own behavior.

We can only make our best attempt to help others evaluate the effectiveness of their own behavior in hopes they will choose a different way that is more responsible. Then we need to get out of the way and let the situation play out. This may seem hard to do—like you aren’t doing your job as a parent, teacher, counselor, or supervisor. However, I ask, what is the alternative?

When you attempt to force, coerce, or bribe another person to do things he or she doesn’t want to do, you may be successful. You may be able to find the right reward or create a painful enough consequence to get another person to do what you want, but in so doing you are breeding resentment and contempt and your relationship will suffer. If you believe, as I do, that relationship is the root of all influence, then you are losing your ability to influence another by using external control.

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If you are interested in training in Choice Theory or even becoming certified, check out the dates of my upcoming training here:


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