Reality Therapy: Choosing Behaviors

Oct 13, 2011   //   by Shawna Figueira   //   Blog  //  No Comments

Choosing Behaviors to Impact Our External World: Reality Therapy

Anchor Counseling Center clinicians use an array of psychological theories and techniques to help their clients achieve a better quality of life. A more modern approach to psychotherapy that is currently taking notice is that of Choice Theory, also known as Reality therapy.

The History

William Glasser, MD, created reality therapy in the 1950s and 1960s while working in a correctional institution and a psychiatric hospital (Wubbolding, 2000).  Glasser was trained in psychoanalysis, but soon found that the goals of the analytic approach were attainable, but client’s ineffective behaviors persisted (Wubbolding, 2011). Glasser also observed that clients not only neglected to take responsibility for their behavior, but that they were also untrained in how to create more effective choices (Wubbolding, 2011). G.L. Harrington, Glasser’s professor and mentor, encouraged Glasser to generate and put into practice the early ideology of his new treatment. In Mental Health or Mental Illness, Glasser initially discussed his idea that the satisfaction of internal needs regulate an individual’s level of mental health (Wubbolding, 2011).

The defining moment of reality therapy came in 1965 with Glasser’s Reality therapy: A New Approach to psychiatry (Wubbolding, 2011).  In his newly identified therapy, Glasser highlighted that behavior is directly associated with one’s choices and that in most circumstances, people have various options available to them.  Glasser’s reality therapy was not initially received well by medical professionals, but others involved in corrections and the education system seemed intrigued by this methodology because it emphasized personal responsibility. Currently, when referring to reality therapy the associated theory is also implied; however, reality therapy was only seen as a method in the beginning.  Fascinatingly, the theory that applies to reality therapy was developed after the therapeutic methodology.

The early practice of reality therapy followed William James’ idea that attitudes are changeable, and therefore people can change their lives by changing their attitudes (Wubbolding, 2011). Psychoanalyst, Helmut Kaiser contributed to Glasser’s formulation of reality therapy by his admission that patients should feel responsible for their own words. Swiss physician, Paul Dubois, helped his patients substitute deconstructive thoughts with more constructive cognitions, which also contributed to the theory framing reality therapy. Glasser developed his basic premise when he consulted for the Ventura School, an institution for delinquent girls, in 1965.  The girls at the school had often been told that their emotional disorders rendered them irresponsible for their behavior, which Glasser disagreed with. Interest in the therapy practice gradually increased, but the need for a theoretical grounding was becoming an issue among those in the professional arena.  The William Glasser Institute, as it is currently named, was founded in 1967 and provides clinical training and certification in reality therapy for professionals.

In developing a fundamental theory, Glasser first formulated the sociological foundation in The Identity Society (Glasser, 1972).  This sociological foundation suggested that the gradual and sudden changes in societal values that impacted western civilization in the 1950s and 1960s birthed the “identity society” (Glasser, 1972).  The identity society referred to a society in which people’s central focus was on their identity development than on their basic needs (Glasser, 1972).  Emphasis was placed on personal empowerment by means of self-evaluation and positive future planning (Glasser, 1972). This notion was unique in comparison to the common practices of psychotherapy in the 1960s because it held people responsible for their behaviors. During that time in history, people seeking higher levels of inner control were, for the most part, the ones who approved of reality therap. Due to the concentration on personal responsibility, reality therapy was viewed as an internal control psychology. Glasser found that the control theory, or control system theory, was applicable to the practice of reality therapy. The assumptions of inner control formed the basis of choice theory, the theory that currently supports reality therapy.  The purpose of this paper is to discuss the underlying theory of reality therapy, the practice of reality therapy, and the therapy’s applicability and its efficacy as a therapy as it stands currently in the psychological field.

What is Choice Theory

Choice theory, previously known as the control system theory, explicates how the human mind functions as a negative input control system (Wubbolding, 2011).  The theory describes that when individuals perceive that they are not receiving what is desired, they display behavior, or trigger their behavioral system (Wubbolding, 2011).  Activation of the behavioral system occurs when the individual makes choices to correct the discrepancy between what they want or need and what they are not getting.  Mentally healthy humans are in a state of homeostasis when they perceive that their wants and needs are being satisfied by the world around them (Wubbolding, 2011). Glasser (1998) proposed that human behavior is both teleological and an individual’s attempt to influence and communicate with the external world. Reality therapy is rooted in choice theory, but maintains its own set principles and procedures as it predates choice theory. In any event, the aim of reality therapy is to change behaviors so that clients will experience need satisfaction and overall happiness. Wubbolding (2000), states that when clients’ needs are not being satisfied effectively, they will experience discomfort or a variety of emotions. Some people will develop psychosomatic symptoms or act out negatively when their needs repeatedly go unmet. Choice theory, is a system of brain functioning which Glasser (1998) adapted to his work with clinical patients and students. Control theory posits that the human brain works like a control system that seeks to regulate its own behavior which, in turn, alters the world external to the human being (Glasser, 1998; Wubbolding, 2011). Glasser’s (1998) extension of control theory, which includes five internal forces (needs) that motivate human beings, is what generated choice theory.  These five human needs, also known as “genetic instructions”, are inherent, general, and universal to all humans (Glasser, 1998).  Behavior is the individuals attempt to maintain or satisfy his or her needs for belonging or love, power or achievement, fun or enjoyment, freedom or independence, and survival (Wubbolding, 2011).  Effective satisfaction of the five needs results in a sense of control, equivalent with self-actualization or fully-functioning in other theories (Wubbolding, 2000).

Basic Needs and Feelings

The needs described by choice theory are similar to those presented by Maslow; however, needs in choice theory are not hierarchical, but function most effectively when all needs are equally balanced. Choice theory explains that all human beings strive to stay alive and reproduce. The inner functioning of an organism suggests that humans have a need for survival or self-preservation.  For example, the autonomic nervous system’s function is to maintain life and satisfy a person’s need for survival (Wubbolding, 2000).  The autonomic system keeps the body functioning, and many of the bodily functions require the help of the cerebral cortex. According to choice theory, “the cerebral cortex hoses the psychological needs and receives help-me messages from the autonomic system” (Wubbolding, 2000, p.11). This need functions at a level of awareness, regulates the individual’s voluntary behaviors, and attends to some less conscious, routine behaviors.

The need to belong is expressed by human beings tendency to congregate and form a sense of community.  This need is also evidenced by the fact that people quickly learn to cooperate with others and function as a unit. The workplace, school, church, and family are just a few of the places people find the need to belong satisfied. Glasser (1998) classified that the need for love or belonging operates effectively on a reciprocal basis. Psychotherapy shows clients how to lean on other people appropriately and how to make him or herself available to get love from another. Glasser (1998) stated that an excess of or excessive lack of love creates a self-absorbed, needy person or an insecure, always do-good person. People differ from one another by the individual’s efforts to establish and satisfy his or her identity needs (Glasser, 1972).  In reality therapy counseling, the quality of human relationships is the central focus in examining the individual’s need for belonging or love. Glasser (1998) pointed out that the need to belong is central to human motivation and how they relate with other people.  As long as clients can develop healthy human relationships, they can acquire the necessary means to satisfy their belonging needs.

Human beings also have a need for power in that they seek to gain power, achievement, competence and accomplishments.  Power, in choice theory, means “to be able “(Glasser, 1998, p.13).  While competition can definitely fulfill the power need, it is not the only way to acquire power.  Satisfying the power need should be viewed as an accomplishment or achievement (Glasser, 1998). In this sense, power is an internal feature; therefore, when one’s sense of power increases, it does not infringe upon the efforts of another person attempting to gain power.  According to Glasser (1998), attempting to achieve the need for power is a major cause of conflict in various societal settings such as schools, neighborhoods, and in families. Reality therapists assist clients in developing options that can fulfill their need for power without out impinging upon another’s efforts to do the same. Also, clients may experience the need for power as a need to feel inner control of their lives. Reality therapists assist clients in finding a balance of inner control as lives that are excessively regulated from the external world will often times rebel which is displayed by antisocial behavior, apathy, or negative symptoms (Glasser, 1998).

Freedom, or Independence, entails the notion that human beings have the chance to choose from varying possibilities and to act on one’s own without being unfairly restrained (Glasser, 1998).  Choice theory suggests that humans are born with the inclination to choose.  Most people who go into psychotherapy do not initially realize that they have the ability to make choices regardless of the circumstance. As with other needs, natural and circumstantial events (or objects) limit the ways in which the need can be fulfilled.  Despite even the direst situations, reality therapists deem that there is always a choice to be made by clients (Wubbolding, 2000, p.15).

The final need for fun and enjoyment is intrinsic to human nature. A person that chooses to be bored, lacks apathy or is “depress-ing” is not effectively fulfilling his or her need for enjoyment. According to Wubbolding (2000), “we are land-based creatures who play all our lives” (p.16).  In choice theory learning is associated with play, or fun.  Basically, humans are learning their entire life, but if humans were to discontinue playing they would also stop learning.  Fun is also related to building relationships. An example would be two people falling in love. People falling in love are essentially learning about each other, and often times they are seen by others as always laughing or having a good time with each other. Wubbolding (2000) says that “the developmental task of differentiating oneself from others entails the need for fun” (p.16). In couples counseling, reality therapists reveal options that help clients have fun and enjoy being together, as sharing fun with another increases intimacy. When a person participates in activities that are not at least tolerable, he or she may abandon the activities altogether or replace the activities with compensatory behaviors that are usually harmful.

McNamara (1997) expanded Glasser’s need system by suggesting that conflicts between needs can occur (as cited in Wubbolding, 2000).  This expansion suggests that one need may conflict with another, but also, tension can exist between aspects of the same need.  For example, a person’s need for survival may include the desire to be safe, but also the desire to grow and evolve.  The need for freedom can be freedom from something or the freedom to explore something.  While intra-need conflicts may exist, they are minute when compared to the true conflict expressed in the quality world of an individual.

Your Quality World

By interacting with the environment, people find that some aspects of the external world satisfy their needs, while other aspects of the world remain unsuccessful in fulfilling the five aforesaid psychological needs. From the external world experiences, the individual gathers information on what needs are and aren’t being met, and then he or she creates a file of wants (desires) in his or her mind. Each person generates particular images of people, events, beliefs, treasures, and activities that fulfill his or her needs (Glasser, 1998).  The collection of these need-fulfilling wants is the world in which a person desires to live (Glasser, 1998).  Choice theory describes the “quality world” as the conglomerate of wants as they relate to the five needs.  Every quality image, or want, is specific. Choice theorists call the specific wants, “pictures,” and the collective file of wants, the “mental picture album” (Glasser, 1998, p.53).  In general, people have ideas and beliefs about people who fulfill their needs for belonging, ideas about certain ways to gain power, and specific ideas about freedom. These specific ideas are exclusive to each individual.

Quality worlds are diverse, personally unique, and dynamic. According to choice theory, quality worlds adjust and evolve as people age and complete developmental tasks (Glasser, 1998).  Conflict may also exist among quality world wants. Quality world wants can be in conflict with each other, or these pictures can be in conflict with others wants. These conflicts often necessitate relationship, couples, or family therapy. The conflicts also imply that, in educational settings, teachers should attempt to become a part of their students’ quality worlds (Glasser, 1998).  Unfortunately, living completely in a quality world is impossible as humans actually fulfill needs in the real world (Glasser, 1998).  While pictures that make up the quality world are diverse, unique, and dynamic, they are also removable.  People even have the ability to remove others who are seen as important and lovable from their quality worlds. Glasser (1998) used the example of divorces.  He posited that the majority of marriages end because at least one partner changes the quality world pictures of his or her spouse (Glasser, 1998).

The pictures, or wants, of the quality world also exist as a set of priorities (Wubbolding, 2000).  Reality therapists spend a lot of time helping clients and students establish their priorities, or the level of importance associated with their wants. Wubbolding (2000) articulated that individuals brought up in chaotic, inconsistent, and dysfunctional families commonly express difficulties creating priorities and knowing the comparative importance of their wants. Unlike some choice theorists, Wubbolding (2000) held that some wants appear as blurred images in people’s brains. Just as a photograph can sometimes be blurry, the image of a want may present in the same manner because the individual may not have a clear idea of what he or she wants. Pictures, or wants, can either be attainable, unachievable, or in between. Unrealistic pictures are very common in psychotherapy. The first goal of psychotherapy is for the reality therapist to become a part of the client’s quality world so that clients will want to form a relationship with the therapist. Reality therapists have the job of helping people evaluate their current ability to achieve the particular want. Both Wubbolding (2000) and Glasser (1998) asserted that regardless of circumstances, an individual cannot be helped unless he or she chooses to be.

Regardless of what you are struggling with or what your wants are, we are here to respond to your needs. Anchor Counseling Center has over 20 clinicians in Cranston, East Providence, and Lincoln, RI that are dedicated to assisting you create change in your life that is fitting to your quality world.


Glasser, W. (1972). Identity society. New York: HarperCollins.

Glasser, W. (1995). Control theory: A new explanation of how we control our life. New York:

Harper & Row.

Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. New York, NY:


Wubbolding, R.E. (1988). Using reality therapy. New York, New York:  Harper & Row.

Wubbolding, R.E. (2011). Reality therapy. DC, Washington: American Psychological


Wubbolding, R.E. (2000). Reality therapy for the 21ST century. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor &


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