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: Reality Therapy/Choice Theory

Robert E. Wubbolding

Reality therapy, a practical method based on theory and research, aims to help people take better charge of their lives and fulfill their needs. Choice theory is the theoretical basis for reality therapy and is built on principles that emphasize current motivation for human choices and changes. To help clients make such changes, the counselor focuses on realistic choices, especially those touching on human relationships. The goals of reality therapy are twofold: process goals and outcome goals. The reality therapist helps clients examine their own behavior, evaluate it, and make plans for change. The outcome is more satisfying relationships, increased happiness, and a sense of inner control of their lives.


William Glasser, the originator of reality therapy, first began to develop this approach to counseling and psychotherapy while working in a correctional institution and a psychiatric hospital. A board-certified psychiatrist, Glasser had been trained in the traditional methods of psychiatry. He was taught to help clients gain insight so that after transference was worked through, they could achieve a higher degree of sanity. However, his experience had shown that even if these goals of the analytic approach were achieved, clients did not necessarily change their behavior, and many continued to have difficulty making productive decisions. With support and input from a sympathetic professor named G. L. Harrington, Glasser formulated the early principles of his new treatment modality.

The watershed year for reality therapy came in 1965, when Glasser published Reality Therapy. In this then-controversial book, Glasser emphasized that people are responsible for their own behavior and that they cannot blame the past or outside forces and at the same time achieve a high degree of mental health. He asserted that behavior involves choices and that there are always options open to most people. Consequently, the objective of counseling and psychotherapy should be measurable behavioral change, not merely insight into and understanding of past events or current subconscious drives.

Though not greeted enthusiastically by the medical profession, Glasser's theory was well received by many, including corrections personnel, youth workers, counselors, therapists, and educators. He was asked to consult in schools to help students take more responsibility for their behaviors and to blame others less, and out of this work came his book Schools Without Failure (1968). In this work, he discussed how reality therapy can be used in large groups – what he called class meetings. While not the same as group counseling or psychotherapy, the meetings have some of the same goals, such as increased self-esteem, feelings of success, and group members' sense of belonging and respect for one another.

At that time, many professionals saw reality therapy as a method rather than a theory. Then, in The Identity Society (1972), Glasser formulated what might be called the theory's sociological underpinnings. He explained that three forces had contributed to the radical changes in Western civilization in the 1950s and 1960s: the passage of laws that guaranteed human rights, increased affluence that satisfied the basic need of survival for the majority of people, and the advent of instant communication via electronic media. These three gradual but important changes facilitated the arrival of the identity society – a world in which people are more focused on their identity needs than on their survival needs. Most people want an opportunity to move beyond economic and political serfdom. Therefore, reality therapy found acceptance because it is a theory that facilitates personal empowerment by means of self-evaluation and positive planning for the future.

Still, this pragmatic and culturally based method needed solid theoretical grounding. Such a foundation was provided by a relatively unknown theory of brain functioning. Powers (1973,2009) described the brain as an input control system similar to a thermostat that controls the temperature of a room. Glasser (1984) extended Powers's control theory (or control system theory) by incorporating a system of needs to explain human motivation, and he then molded the theory to the clinical setting and the practice of counseling and psychotherapy. With the addition of these and many other ideas, it was no longer appropriate to call Glasser's theory "control theory," and consequently the recognized name is now choice theory (W. Glasser, 1998, 2005).

Another major development in reality therapy is the extended application described by Wubbolding (2000, 2009, 2011). The WDEP formulation (discussed below) provides a pedagogical tool for learning and practicing the process of reality therapy. Wubbolding has also extended the theory to multicultural counseling based on his experience working in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Additionally, he has provided credibility for the system by emphasizing research data and scientific validation. The system now is elevated beyond the work of one man and has reached the level of universal applicability.

In 2008 the European Association for Psychotherapy recognized reality therapy as a scientific and valid system after an 8-year effort by the European Association for Reality Therapy. This recognition is founded on two requirements: empirical validation and the existence of six national European reality therapy organizations (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Finland, Ireland, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom).

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