Choice Theory

Glasser’s Choice Theory

Choice Theory provides a unique explanation of human motivation positing that motivation is derived intrinsically rather than controlled by external forces. William Glasser theorizes that behavior is central to human existence and is driven by a set of genetically defined needs. In other words humans are motivated based on fulfillment of the following five needs:

  • Survival
  • Belonging/connecting/love
  • Power significance/competence
  • Freedom/autonomy
  • Fun/learning

Everyone has expectations for what they want to happen or rather an ideal image of what should be. Choice Theory posits that every individual will make choices to behave in order to achieve a reality that is consistent to an ideal image they have of the world based on the five needs. Glasser calls this ideal world a “Quality World” and as humans we are constantly striving to achieve this image.  Whether or not an individual is aware of it they are constantly comparing and analyzing current events and behaviors with their “Quality World” and making choices directing their behaviors to achieve this image. Ultimately, Glasser posits that the choices an individual makes in relation to thought and action greatly affects their emotions and how the physiological process of the body.

The Ten Axioms of Choice Theory

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

Choice Theory in practice The following educational practices are evidence of Choice Theory…

  • Teachers act as managers focusing on building relationships
  • Learners are motived to learn through a learning environment that satisfies learners basic needs
  • Learners have a sense of ownership in their learning
  • Learners are involved in determining a collective set of rules for the learning environment
  • Lessons are related to learner’s own experiences
  • Learners are encouraged to take risks in a “safe” learning environment
  • Lessons are multi-dimensional and appealing to a wide variety of learning styles
  • Self-evaluation is actively practiced in the learning environment
    Adapted from Sullo, B., Senior Faculty at the Glasser Institute

Understanding an individuals motivation to make certain choices is important for both leadership and education. Choice theory is applicable to any age group and any situation. From a leadership perspective, employees are in charge of their own lives. For example, they make the choice to continue coming to work which results in a multitude of potentially good and bad consequences. If the work they are doing is not satisfying the five needs as outlined in Choice Theory they will likely make the choice to seek other opportunities to fulfill those needs.

From a training and development perspective, leadership and learning should be learner centered. A training program should offer the individual the opportunity to choose content and instructional methods that best fulfill their needs thus giving them ownership in their own learning experience. Providing a curriculum that utilizes their existing experiences and encouraging self-reflection is a tenet of Choice Theory that can help discover foundational causes to existing physiological and/or psychological issues that may be causing problems with their work performance.


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