Choice theory is a theory of human psychology and behavior developed by William Glasser, M.D. The theory seeks to explain an alternative source of human mental unhappiness or unhealthiness, one that can be traced back to an individual's choices regarding their own needs. Dr. Glasser and others have written many books on choice theory and its primary application, reality therapy. The theory has been applied in therapeutic and educational settings, and has been both praised and criticized by medical professionals.

What Is Choice Theory?

Choice theory, as explained by William Glasser in his book Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, holds that all we do is behave, almost all behavior is chosen, and we are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun. According to the theory, much of contemporary psychology focuses on external causation for mental illness and unhappiness, and the idea that external factors cause human beings to act in certain ways. Choice theory posits that human beings are motivated internally by the pursuit of the five basic needs, which we pursue according to what we believe will be most fulfilling and satisfying.

Applications of Choice Theory

Choice theory has been applied to both business and educational settings as a way for employees and students to set their own standards and reach their own goals in the absence of external controls. The theory is also the basis for reality therapy, which rather than focusing on how external factors have affected the patient, instead focuses on what needs the patient has that are met or unmet, and how the patient’s own behavior is contributing to these met or unmet needs.

Strengths of Choice Theory

According to The William Glasser Institute, choice theory can replace the Seven Deadly Habits of external control psychology -- criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing and bribing -- with seven caring habits that focus on the autonomy of the individual -- supporting, encouraging, listening, accepting, trusting, respecting and negotiating differences. Since this theory holds that most behavior is chosen, if we choose to behave in ways that may meet our needs, we can improve relationships and connections, thereby creating happiness.

Limitations of Choice Theory

According to a review of Glasser's ideas in The Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, choice theory is limited in that it discounts any type of biological or chemical root cause for mental or psychological problems. According to the review, the clinical and scientific support for the effectiveness of this theory and reality therapy is limited at best. While choice theory encourages individuals to harness and take control of their own behavior, its effectiveness as a replacement for pharmacological treatment in more severe mental health cases is highly questionable.