Choice Theory

choice theory

What is Choice Theory? Developed by psychiatrist William Glasser, Choice Theory states we are motivated by a never-ending quest to satisfy the following 5 basic needs woven into our genes: to love and belong, to be powerful, to be free, to have fun and to survive.

Behavior is Chosen

Choice theory contends that we are internally motivated, not externally motivated by rewards and punishment.

Originally called “control theory,” Glasser switched to “choice theory” in 1996 to emphasize that virtually all behavior is chosen .

Choice Theory: What Motivates Us?

Choice theory represents an alternative to  behaviorism and other external control psychologies.

Rather than seeing people as “shaped” by rewards and punishment, Choice Theory suggests that we always have some capacity to make choices and exercise control in our lives.

Choice Theory teaches that we are always motivated by what we want at that moment. It emphasizes the importance of building and maintaining positive relationships with others to create a shared vision. People who develop shared quality world pictures are motivated to pursue common goals and are more likely to work collaboratively.

Choice Theory Summary

A basic understanding of Choice Theory requires some knowledge of the following 5 key concepts:

1. Basic Needs

2. The Quality World

3. Reality & Perception

4. Comparing Place

5. Total Behavior

Choice Theory: The Basic Needs

All people are born with 5 basic needs:

1. to love & belong

2. to be powerful

3. to be free

4. to have fun

5. to survive

All behavior is purposeful, motivated by our incessant desire to satisfy the basic needs woven into our genes.

The strength of each need varies from person to person.

For example, some are more driven by the social need to love and belong while others are more driven by the need to be free and autonomous.

1. Choice Theory: The Quality World

Each of us develops a unique Quality World, the source of all motivation.

Whereas the Basic Needs represent  “nature,” The Quality World represents “nurture.” As we live our lives and interact with others, we each build this unique Quality World that includes the people, activities, values, and beliefs that are most important to us as individuals.

Everything we place in our Quality World is need satisfying.


  • I love these people.
  • I feel a sense of power when I am singing on stage.
  • I have fun when I am playing outside with my children.

Throughout our lives, we add and delete “pictures” from our Quality World. Some people develop Quality World pictures that are unhealthy and irresponsible.


  • Think of people who only feel a sense of power or freedom when drinking alcohol or taking other drugs.
  • Think of people who have fun when hurting others physically or emotionally.

Choice Theory suggests that parents, educators, and the community at large can promote environments that encourage others to develop Quality World pictures that let them satisfy their needs responsibly.

2. Choice Theory: Reality & Perception

Even though we all live in the Real World, Choice Theory contends that what matters is our perception of reality.

We behave based on what we perceive to be real, whether we are right or wrong.

Choice Theory states that information passes through three distinct filters as we create our perception of reality:

1. the sensory filter

2. the knowledge filter

3. the value filter

Because of these filters, two or more people may witness the same event or participate in the same activity and develop radically different perceptions.


  • We may all agree that Barack Obama is president of the United States, but there are multiple perceptions about how “good” or bad” a president he is.
  • Talk to a couple of Red Sox and Yankee fans and you’ll quickly understand that the same “real world” is perceived very differently because of their value filters.

3. Choice Theory: The Comparing Place

Our brain continually compares two images:

1. our perception of reality

2. our Quality World picture of what we want at that moment

The purpose of all behavior is to create a match between what we perceive and what we want.

When there is a match, we will maintain the behaviors we have chosen. When there is enough of a mismatch to cause internal discomfort, we automatically search for new behaviors that will create the match we seek.


  • A classroom teacher looks around the room and notices that the students are actively involved in the activity she has asked them to do. She gets a positive internal signal and continues her current teaching strategies
  • A parent notices that their child is behaving poorly at home and in school. The mismatch between what the parent wants and what they perceive leads them to try new strategies designed to help the child behave more responsibly.

4. Choice Theory: Total Behavior

All behavior has four components:

1. acting

2. thinking

3. feeling

4. physiology

When we change any one component of behavior, the other components change as well.

The two easiest components to control directly are acting and thinking. It is virtually impossible to change your feelings or physiology directly.


  • Imagine you could feel less sad or depressed just because you wanted to.
  • Imagine a student who is agitated and frustrated and could just calm down because he wanted to.

Since all four components work in concert, however, we have much more control over our feelings and physiology than we realize. By choosing to act and/or think differently, our feelings and physiology automatically change.

Practitioners of Choice Theory help people choose responsible actions and thoughts that lead them to feel better and positively impact their physiology.


When Choice Theory is applied in the classroom, as it has been in schools across the world, it has a significant impact on how instruction is delivered.

The Teacher As Manager

Glasser contends that teachers need to manage effectively if they hope to successfully teach their students.

The role of the teacher/manager is to help students see that working hard and doing what the teacher asks is worth the effort and will add quality to their lives. This is achieved by developing positive relationships with students and providing active, relevant learning experiences where students can demonstrate success.

Effective teacher/managers create shared Quality World pictures with their students so students are motivated to learn what the teacher wants to teach.

The Needs-Satisfying Classroom

When creating lessons, teachers who practice Choice Theory ensure that students can satisfy their needs by doing what the teacher asks them to do.

Learning increases and disruption diminishes when students know that they are able to connect, feel a sense of competence and power, have some freedom, and enjoy themselves in a safe, secure environment. (Chapter 10 of The Motivated Student: Unlocking the Enthusiasm for Learning offers a specific strategy that helps teachers plan lessons with their students’ needs in mind)

Common Characteristics

Classrooms and schools that apply Choice Theory share the following 3 characteristics:

1. Coercion is minimized. Rather than trying to “make” students behave by using rewards and punishments, teachers build positive relationships with their students, managing them without coercion. Coercion never inspires quality.

2. Focus on quality. Teachers expect mastery of concepts and encourage students to re-take tests and continue to work on assignments until they have demonstrated competence or quality. The emphasis is on deep learning demonstrated through the ability to apply what has been learned.

3. Self-evaluation. Self-evaluation is a cornerstone of Choice Theory. Given helpful information (rubrics, models, exemplars, etc.) students take on greater ownership of their learning by evaluating their own performance routinely. Encouraging students to self-evaluate promotes responsibility and helps students pursue goals and become skilled decision-makers because they are more actively involved in their education.

About the author -

Bob Sullo

Bob has been an English teacher, school psychologist, school adjustment counselor, and school administrator. Now he is a full time consultant. Bob has written several books about internal control and motivation including, The Inspiring Teacher, Activating the Desire to Learn and The Motivated Student. You can read Bob’s full bio here. Learn more about Bob and his work by visiting his website,

9 Responses to Choice Theory

  1. latika says:

    thanks for putting together relevent and easy to understant latest trends in educational thought and practice. i shall definitely recommend this for reference. Do increase the content on whole brain learning.

  2. Naomi Epstein says:

    Just finished reading “The Classroom of Choice”. Lots of practical suggestions to implement the theory. Thought provoking theory! Can it work when only one classroom in a huge school changes its approach?

  3. Bob Sullo says:

    Naomi… answer to your question, a teacher using these ideas in isolation can be successful. However, it’s a difficult journey. If you are lucky, some of your colleagues will notice the success you are having and you can begin to change the way things are done in your school. In my experience, the real excitement comes when a critical mass or an entire school begin to move towards engaging and inspiring (as opposed to rewarding and controlling.) I wish you lots of success!

  4. 外遇問題 says:

    This is my first time i visit here. I found so many useful stuff in your website especially its discussion, From the a lot of comments on your articles. I guess Im not the only one receiving the many satisfaction right here! keep up a good job!

  5. barbara Williford says:

    I would like to know which book would be best for a 16 year old girl that recently has been diagnosed with depression.  I am her mother and have been reading, unhappy teenagers a way for parents and teachers to reach them, it has really helped me releave my anxiety about her by my choices of happiness not unhappiness.  I think the first 2 chapters would work for her, but if there is a teen book, I want to purchase that for her.

    • Bob Sullo says:

      Hi Barbara….I'm glad you have found a resource that you are finding useful for your daughter. You might want to consider Helping Kids Help Themselves by E. Perry Good. If your daughter is receptive to the ideas of choice theory, she will find this a useful tool. It will help her understand that depression isn't simply something she "has," but something she can manage more effectively. Used wisely, it will help her feel a greater sense of control in her life. When that happens, she'll discover that her depression "magically" improves. Hope this helps.
      All the best……bob

  6. Lindsay B. says:

    Oftentimes I find it hard to accept that the choices my high school students make are pleasing to them in any fashion. However, remembering that it is all a part of their perception makes understanding come a little more easily. That being said, it leaves a lot of room for misinterpretations. I feel as though my students often are not able to self-evaluate themselves at a level that could be beneficial. It is something I plan on emphasizing more in my classroom this year. As an example, when we learn new vocabulary and use it in the classroom, I ask the students to rate their understanding on a four point scale. This is an academic example, though I think many could benefit even more from learning personal and social ways of self-evaluation.

    Choice theory contends that we are internally motivated, not externally motivated by rewards and punishment.

    This is a tough statement to understand as well. I feel as though external rewards/punishments can speak to our own internal needs/desires. If they didn't, then they would not be effective rewards/punishments, but to say that we are not motivated at all by such things seems naive. For example, if I knew that if I got all A's, my name would go on a plaque in the hallway, that would be highly motivational to me. It would satisfy my need to feel powerful and my need to belong with the "smart kids." Now on the flipside, if grades were completely kept secret, I would have less of a drive and sense of competition. Am I interpreting this scenario incorrectly? Would there not be an external reward that guides my behavior in some way?
    Thank you for writing such an interesting article!

  7. Bob Sullo says:

    Thanks, Lindsay, for writing. I'm glad that you found the article interesting. I'm sticking to my guns and suggesting that motivation is internal, not external. The example you gave about having good grades posted, etc can be used an example. Because having your grades posted, etc means something to you, and it helps you feel a sense of competence and accomplishment, then it is motivating. But not everyone is wired the way you are. There are some kids who would find it embarrassing to have their name posted with good grades announced for all the school to see. For those kids, such a strategy would not be motivating. You teach high school English, right? (At least you are teaching some vocabulary.) If a student correctly defines a word/term in class and you offer praise (an external reward), it will be effective only if the student wants to be publicly acknowledged. Offer that same praise to the kid who wants to be invisible and there's a good chance the student will not raise their hand again in class (unless they want to use the bathroom or go to the nurse!) In a way, it gets back to a comment you made early on: the key is how the individual perceives it. In othe words….we are motivated from within…..I hope that helps clarify things and doesn't just muddy the water. I have much more information in my books. Maybe you'll decide to check them out. All the best…..bob

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