Reality Theory


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Joe Sierzenga Memorial




Chapter 19
Perceptual Control Theory,
Reality Therapy, and the
Responsible Thinking Process



W. Thomas Bourbon, Ph.D.
Perceptual Control Theorist, Rochelle, Texas

with extensive help from Caroline Bourbon Young and assistance from Tim Carey


The relationship of RTP and PCT to William Glasser's ideas have been misconstrued by some educators over a period of several years. I am pleased that this chapter sets the record straight with abundant documentary evidence.  —  Ed Ford


In his Responsible Thinking Process (RTP) for schools, Ed Ford tries to apply principles from a unique science of behavior, perceptual control theory (PCT), developed by William T. Powers. When they first hear about RTP, many people think that it is the same as one of the various school discipline programs developed by William Glasser, and they think PCT is identical to some ideas that Glasser used to call Control Theory (CT). I believe that those people are wrong: RTP is unlike anything Glasser allows to occur in schools, and PCT is a formal science, whereas Glasser's ideas about his Control Theory are unscientific personal speculations.

Why are so many people confused about the relationships between Ford, Powers, and Glasser? Why do so many people think programs and ideas that are different from one another are identical? In this chapter, I explain similarities and differences between RTP and Glasser's various programs, and I briefly describe the history of interactions between Powers, Glasser, and Ford. After you read this chapter, you can decide for yourself whether Ford's RTP and Glasser's programs are the same, and whether the science of PCT is identical to Glasser's speculations.

Some Initial Comparisons

Ford's RTP and Powers's PCT: In RTP, Ed Ford says that teachers are responsible for teaching their subjects, and for using simple questions and making referrals to the responsible thinking classroom (RTC) whenever students disrupt. Ford also says that students are responsible for not disturbing others unnecessarily, whether they are teachers engaged in instruction or other students engaged in studying and learning. A student who continues to disrupt is referred to the RTC to develop a plan for how he will avoid disrupting in situations like the one where he disrupted before. Adults and students are responsible for the consequences of their own actions, and not for the actions of any other person.

When Ford designed RTP, he had in mind a specific mathematical theory of behavior: perceptual control theory, as developed by Powers and his colleagues beginning in the 1950s. Since 1981, Ford has worked to better understand PCT and to modify his clinical practices, bringing them into closer agreement with principles from the science. (Ford's RTP is not PCT; rather, RTP is his attempt to apply principles from PCT.) In PCT, Powers says a person decides that some of his own perceptions should be a certain way, and then he acts to make them be the way that he intends. The person's actions are understood to be the uncontrolled, or variable, means to a specific end: controlled perceptions. PCT scientists recognize that people do not always try to control the same perceptions—sometimes people control remarkably different perceptions.

Furthermore, a person is often unaware of the details of her own actions that control her own perceptions, and she is often unaware that her actions disturb other people.


Ford's RTP is designed to help students and teachers control their own perceptions, in school, without unnecessarily disturbing other people. When one person does disturb someone else, perhaps unavoidably or unknowingly, RTP provides a way to deal with the disturbance in a way that minimizes conflict. In schools where RTP is used well, teachers and students are equally likely to say that their lives have changed for the better. The procedures in RTP, and some of the basic principles of PCT, are described in more detail throughout this book and in Discipline for Home and School, Book One.

Cause-effect theories of behavior: In nearly every theory of behavior other than PCT, a person's behavior is said to be the end result (effect) of previous events (causes). In cause-effect (C-E) theories, the prior causes of a person's actions are said to reside in places like the environment; or the person's family history and social history; or the person's mind; or brain chemistry; or genes. The list of possible locations for the alleged "causes" is almost endless.

Most often, people who use C-E theories to design clinical or disciplinary interventions say that a person is not responsible for his actions or for their consequences. Instead, responsibility resides in the place that is alleged to cause the actions: in the environment; in the person's family history; in the person's brain chemistry; in the person's genes; in inherited "drives" or "needs"; and so on. Not surprisingly, applications of C-E principles in clinics and schools usually hold one person or group of people responsible for another person's actions and their consequences. For example, if a student, Sally, disrupts a school classroom, a teacher, Mr. Amos, is held accountable for Sally's disruption, under the idea that Mr. Amos had created an environment that caused Sally to disrupt. Had Mr. Amos created the proper environment, it would have caused Sally to behave without disruption to others.

If the explanation of behavior in PCT science is correct, then all C-E theories of behavior are wrong. Behavior is not an end result or effect, caused by forces that operate elsewhere. Behavior is the variable means by which a person controls some of her own perceptions.

Glasser's ideas about cause-effect: From the 1960s until now, William Glasser has created a series of programs for schools incorporating features from his Reality Therapy (RT). Glasser designed RT, and all of his school programs, around a traditional cause-effect theory that he used to call Control Theory but now calls Choice Theory (still CT). He says that a person chooses all of her behavior to satisfy a fixed number of inherited "needs" that all people have in common. The number of the alleged "needs" identified by Glasser has varied from two in 1965 to four or five (or maybe five or six) as I write this chapter in early 1999. But that is of little importance; no scientific evidence supports a claim that all people share any number of needs.

Glasser's C-E theory of behavior leads to a natural conclusion that, if a student disrupts in school, the environment of the school was the cause. Had the adults in the school created an environment that met all of the student's needs, then she would not have disrupted. In other words, had Mr. Amos met all of Sally's needs, then she would not have disrupted his class. Glasser says that disruptions cease when a teacher "does Choice Theory" in the classroom. (Glasser often writes about "doing" Choice Theory. Whenever he does that, he fails to distinguish between his theory, which is supposed to be an explanation of facts, and its application, in the form of whatever is his current discipline program for schools.)

I do not think Glasser intends for CT to include ideas of traditional cause-effect. In all of his writings, he says that his ideas are different from stimulus-response (S-R) theory, which is the most widely recognized version of C-E theory. But in spite of what Glasser says about S-R theory, in CT, his explanations of behavior clearly depend on principles of cause-effect that are identical to the ones used in S-R psychology. All Glasser has done is to move the alleged causes from the environment to somewhere inside the person, where a majority of contemporary psychologists and brain scientists have also moved them. Glasser says that behavior is internally motivated, but he also says that environmental conditions are responsible for behavior. Perhaps I am wrong, but it is my impression that Glasser's message to educators is that Sally's behavior is "driven" by her inborn "needs," but when he fails to meet Sally's needs, Mr. Amos is responsible for her misbehavior, while Sally always controls her own "total behavior." (Later in this chapter, I cite examples of the many places where Glasser says these contradictory things.) While Glasser says that Sally controls her own behavior, he also rejects the idea that she uses her behavior to control her own perceptions.

You tell me: I see significant differences between the ideas of Powers and Ford, on the one hand, and those of Glasser, on the other. Unlike me, many people think that there is no difference at all between Ed Ford's Responsible Thinking Process and William Glasser's Reality Therapy and Quality Schools. Many of the same people think that Bill Powers's perceptual control theory is identical to something that Glasser used to call Control Theory. In the rest of this chapter, I describe some of the differences between Powers's ideas and Glasser's, and between Ford's RTP and Glasser's programs. I also describe some of the ways in which Powers, Ford, and Glasser have interacted. After you read my accounts, you tell me whether Glasser's ideas are identical to Powers's and Ford's.

A Simple Mental Exercise

Too hot, too cold, just right: For a few minutes, forget about all of the things I discussed in the above paragraphs. Imagine that you are alone in a large room equipped with a thermostat and an air-conditioning system. If you think that the temperature of the room feels "too hot" or "too cold," you will adjust the thermostat until the air conditioner changes the temperature, and the room feels "just right" to you. By the way, that is what PCT is all about: the ways that you use your actions to make your perceptions of something (in this case "degree of coolness or warmth") be just right for you.

Now suppose that one other person joins you in the room. Will that person necessarily agree that the temperature feels "just right?" Not necessarily. What will happen if the two of you disagree? Keep that question in mind while you continue to read. We will return to it later.

Mission impossible: Now imagine that 100 people join you in the room. The thermostat is set to the temperature that felt "just right" to you when you were alone. How likely is it that the room will feel "just right" to all 100 people, simultaneously? Could you ever change the temperature of the room to make it feel "just right" to 100 people, simultaneously? Of course not. When the room feels "just right" to some people, it will simultaneously feel "too hot" or "too cold" to some other people. "Too hot," "too cold," and "just right" are not objective physical conditions of the room, on which we can all agree; they are perceptions in the minds of people in the room, and different people have different perceptions of the same physical condition.

In this example, we are considering a simple perception directly related to a physiological state that each of us controls. Each of us feels "too hot," "too cold," or "just right," depending on the temperature of our skin, relative to the core temperature of our body. In humans, core temperature is controlled by a neural system in the brainstem, and the temperature of the air around us affects the temperature of our skin. Left to ourselves, each of us would create a different temperature of the room and declare that the condition that satisfies us individually is "just right." There is no physical temperature that can satisfy all of us at the same time.

Now imagine that you are told by a person who evaluates your performance that you must keep the 100 people in the room comfortable—all of them at the same time. If even one of the 100 people thinks the room is "too hot" or "too cold," the evaluator says that you have failed as a professional person, and you will be penalized. Is that fair? If there are only 50 people in the room, is it fair? Does it matter if there are only 20 or 30 people?

Is it possible for one person to alter the environment so as to make the perceptions of temperature be "just right" for all other people, simultaneously? Is it possible for one person to adjust any aspect of the environment so that it satisfies all other people, simultaneously? Is it reasonable to expect Mr. Amos to accomplish such an impossible task? Is it fair to tell him that he has "failed" and, as a consequence of his failure, he is responsible for the subsequent behavior of all of the other people, including Sally? You tell me.

The remainder of this chapter has four parts: first, a brief history of Powers's perceptual control theory, Glasser's Reality Therapy, and the relationship between them; second, a comparison of Powers's PCT and Glasser's Control Theory; third, a chronology of PCT, Ed Ford's work, and Glasser's Reality Therapy and Control Theory; and fourth, a comparison of RTP and Glasser's Quality Schools and Choice Theory.


A Brief History of PCT and RT/CT

Powers and PCT: Historically, William T. Powers and PCT come before both William Glasser and his ideas, and Ed Ford and his RTP. In the early 1950s, Powers made the brilliant observation that people act to control many, but not all, of their own perceptions. A person who controls her perceptions must act to affect parts of the world. From our vantage point outside the person, we see events and relationships and processes in her world that would otherwise vary, but that she controls, which is to say that she keeps them at some predetermined states or conditions.

Many factors affect the temperature of the air in a room and cause it to vary. However, a person uses the thermostat to affect the air-conditioner, which keeps the air in the room at a temperature that feels "just right" to her, no matter what else, including other people, might cause the temperature of the air to change. A car hurtling along the road at high speed would soon end up in a ditch, or against a tree, or crashing into another car, except for the driver's actions. The driver keeps the car moving toward the destination he selects, along the route he selects, at the speed he selects, in the lane he selects, at his selected distance behind a car ahead. Think about all of the perceptions a driver controls while driving from one destination to another, and think about how different the events that we observers see in the world would be if the driver were not controlling those perceptions.

To explain how people control their perceptions, Powers developed control system theory (CST), which was the early name for what is now called perceptual control theory. The current name was adopted early in the 1990s to distinguish Powers's theory from many incorrect ideas that some people had begun to call "control theory." Glasser's Control Theory (now called Choice Theory) is of those incorrect versions.

In a nutshell, Powers says that people do not plan or control their actions, which most behavioral scientists call their behavior. Instead, they act, in any way necessary, to eliminate, or prevent, differences between actual and intended perceptions. As observers, we see the person's actions, but we are often unaware of what the person is really doing; we are unaware of the perceptions that the person is controlling by way of the actions we see. (Much of Powers's earlier writing is available in two collections: Living Control Systems I (previously published papers), 1989; and Living Control Systems II (previously unpublished papers), 1992. Both books are available from Benchmark Publications, New Canaan, Connecticut.)

In 1973, more than 20 years after he began his work on PCT, Powers published a book, Behavior: The Control of Perception (BCP), and a companion article, "Feedback: Beyond Behaviorism," in the journal Science. (BCP was published by Aldine, in Chicago; it is currently available from Benchmark Publications.) In 1973, I read those two publications. Immediately, I saw that Powers had resolved many of the terrible fallacies I knew existed in traditional psychology. I became part of a small group of behavioral scientists working to develop PCT through behavioral research and computer modeling.

PCT is a mathematical theory of behavior, and it is radically different from any major traditional theory in the behavioral, social, or cognitive sciences, or in the brain sciences and life sciences. At the core of PCT is a testable model of behavior, not just a system of ideas that Powers believes. When we do PCT science the way we should, any time we think that there is a way to change the theory to make it better, we test the change to see if it produces the expected results. If it does not, then we must reject the change, no matter how much we like it. We accept proposed changes to the basic PCT model only if they improve the way the model works.

Glasser and RT/CT: William Glasser is a psychiatrist, an M.D. In 1965, he published a book in which he described his Reality Therapy. For many years, I taught about RT as one of many kinds of psychiatric therapy. I always thought that RT was more sensible and humane than many of the other therapies. It belongs in the group of therapies that are present-centered, rather than centered on events in the client's past. Present-centered therapists treat a client as an active agent, capable of changing the course of her own life.

William Glasser is a psychiatrist, not a research scientist, even though as a very young man he did study chemical engineering. Those are facts, not criticism. In the 1960s, Glasser had no scientific explanation for RT. Eventually, he discovered Powers's 1973 publications about CST. He asked Powers to explain CST to him, and he decided that CST explained RT. In 1981, Glasser published his book Stations of the Mind. It included a Foreword by Powers. In the book, Glasser introduced his own version of what he called Control Theory. It bore only slight resemblance to Powers's theory. In 1984, Glasser published a book called Control Theory. From then until 1996, Control Theory was prominent in most of his writings and in the name of his institute. During that time, Glasser claimed he had developed CT and improved it far beyond what Powers had done. Glasser's claim is not justified for scientific control theory. Glasser's misappropriation and misuse of Powers's name has led to decades of confusion in which many people innocently believed, because the names of Glasser's speculations and Powers's scientific theory were similar, that the sets of ideas were the same. That conclusion is absolutely incorrect.

I think Glasser never realized that his Control Theory was merely a non-functional verbal statement of his own beliefs about behavior. Glasser's CT was not, in any way, a formal, testable, scientific theory of behavior. It was never intended to be such a theory. In fact, when we organize a formal model of behavior according to the principles that Glasser describes, the model cannot function in anything like the way Glasser believes it does. To the degree that Reality Therapy works in psychiatry and the Quality School program works in schools, they cannot work solely for the reasons that Glasser stated in his Control Theory.

For example, as an aid to understanding how his CT explains therapy, Glasser, like PCT scientists, uses the example of a person driving a car. PCT scientists model the successful driver as a person who has learned which perceptions to control, by means of any actions that are necessary, but I believe Glasser would say that the driver is successful because she learned to select and control her behavior, so that she makes the "real world" match a "picture in her mind." Which of the two explanations, Powers's PCT, or Glasser's CT, can tell us how a person successfully drives her car on a long trip, in spite of countless unexpected events that occur along the way? You tell me.


A Comparison of PCT and CT/RT

Above, I summarized the history of PCT, and I described how William Glasser began to use a nonfunctional version of PCT to explain his popular and effective Reality Therapy. I also made a brief comparison between PCT and Glasser's ideas. Now I make a more detailed comparison between the ideas. Later I will show some implications of those differences, as they play out in Ford's and Glasser's approaches to working with students.

There have always been many issues to address when comparing Powers's and Glasser's ideas, but the task was made even more difficult in 1996, when Glasser decreed that, in all of his earlier writings where he had used the term Control Theory, readers were to substitute the term Choice Theory. In the present comparison, I quote from Glasser's Introduction to "Programs, Policies & Procedures of the William Glasser Institute," distributed in September 1996. In doing so, I have honored Glasser's request and substituted Choice Theory for Control Theory. I apologize for any confusion caused by this, but it is as Glasser wants. Following quotes from Glasser, I contrast what he says with ideas in PCT.

Definitions of "Behavior"

Glasser: "Choice Theory attempts to explain both the psychological and physiological behavior of all living creatures. In Choice Theory, these two aspects of behavior are combined and called, Total Behavior."

"This theory maintains that all we do from birth to death is behave, and all of our behavior is Total Behavior. Total Behavior is made up of four components, acting, thinking, feeling and the physiology, which always accompanies the other three components."

Bourbon: There is nothing new to the idea that, in humans, processes like those Glasser identifies as thinking, acting, feeling, and physiology occur together. Even many die-hard radical behaviorists would agree with that idea. B. F. Skinner certainly said similar things. The familiar idea that many things are going on at the same time is not unique to Glasser's thinking.

Remember, Glasser said that his CT is supposed to explain the behavior of all living creatures. I cannot imagine what kind of evidence he might use to support the idea that slugs, bacteria, and amoebae always act, think, and feel, along with their physiology. This is not a trivial matter: either the terms that Glasser invokes are part of a scientific theory that explains the behavior of all living things, or they are not. Which is the case

PCT theorists intend for PCT to explain the behavior of all living things. In PCT, what most scientists call behavior is identified as the observed actions of a living thing. The actions are the means by which the living system controls its perceptions, however simple they might be, of the states of certain variables in the world. In PCT, we do not assume that every action is accompanied by subjective states of thinking and feeling. In the formal mathematical model for PCT, there are only "signals" that can vary in magnitude and "functions" that receive input signals and compute output signals. In the formal model, there is no necessity to assume that all perceptions reach "conscious" subjective awareness, although it is obvious that many human perceptions reach that level. In a bacterium like Escherichia coli, there are internal chemical "signals" proportional to the concentrations of various substances in the environment. It looks like E. coli acts to control the magnitudes of those signals, making some increase and others decrease. In PCT, we treat those chemical signals like perceptions, and we use the same basic model to explain how E. coli controls those simple perceptions as well as to explain how a person controls her subjective experiences of the loudness of a radio or the size of her bank account.


"Choice" of Behavior

Glasser: "Choice Theory explains that all Total Behavior is chosen and all the choices are an ongoing attempt to change the real world so that it coincides with a small, simulated world that we build into our memory called the Quality World."

Bourbon: First, in PCT we recognize that living things do not choose their behavioral actions. Rather, they choose which perceptions should occur, then their actions vary in any ways necessary to create the selected perceptions, and to defend them against changes that might otherwise be produced by independent disturbances from the environment. We have demonstrated that a system that selects its actions in advance cannot possibly select and control any intended consequences of its actions. Consider a person driving a car. Can the driver select, before the fact of driving over a particular stretch of road, the specific movements of his hands and feet that will be needed to manipulate the steering wheel, the gas pedal, and other devices in the car? Of course not. It is impossible to drive that way, unless, of course, one is deliberately courting disaster. Instead, the driver decides in advance on which perceptions will occur —perceptions of the route, speed, acceptable proximity to other cars, and other aspects of the trip—and then acts as needed to create and defend those intended perceptions.

Second, an organism does not directly perceive "the real world." All that an organism experiences directly are its own perceptions. PCT uses models that portray living systems as acting to control some of their own perceptions, often by acting on the external world. But an organism "knows" the world only as perceptions, not as something that is independent of perceptions and more real than they are. Among perceptual control theorists, a favorite saying used to summarize our ideas about behavior is "It's all perception."

This brings us to a summary of some clear differences between Glasser's ideas and those in PCT. Glasser says that Alfredo selects his behaviors so as to make the real world match Alfredo's "picture" of what the real world should be. In PCT, we say that Alfredo acts, any way necessary as demanded by immediate circumstances, to make his perceptions of the world match the perceptions he intends. If Alfredo is to control his perceptions, he cannot select his actions; they must be free to vary. In the document from which I quoted, Glasser would require, first, that Alfredo know the world just as it is, and second, that Alfredo select in advance the actions that will make the real world match his pictures of an ideal world. PCT requires, first, that Alfredo decide which perceptions he will have of some part of the world, and then, if there is a discrepancy between what he intends to perceive and what he does perceive, he acts, in any way that is sufficient to eliminate the discrepancy. PCT does not require that Alfredo directly perceive the "real world." Which assumption do you think is the most reasonable, Glasser's or Powers's?


Glasser: The "Quality World" is built "starting shortly after birth, from all we have perceived that feels very good. What feels very good is anything we do that satisfies, or in the case of addictions, seems to satisfy, one or more of five basic needs built into our genetic structure: survival, love, belonging, power, freedom and fun."

Bourbon: The subject of "needs" provides one of the clearest differences between scientific PCT and Glasser's personal opinions about behavior. The idea that organisms are born with a fixed set of "needs," serving to motivate or energize their behavior, has a long, troublesome history in philosophy and psychology. Theorists have often claimed that needs are products of our nature, genes, anatomy, and physiology, or some other internal predisposing factor. They have claimed that we have needs numbering between one and many dozens. When they say there is one, it is usually called a "need for survival." When there are dozens . . . I won't bother you with that. When there are five, they might be, or might not be, assigned the same names that Glasser uses. When it comes to "needs," any guess is as good as any other. There is no scientific reason to choose one list of needs over any other list, or to rely on the idea of needs at all.

From the beginnings of RT, Glasser has insisted that all people share the same needs, and that those needs motivate our behavior. Even many professional people who have broken away from Glasser over fundamental issues still cling fiercely to his idea of needs. In contrast to Glasser and his followers, perceptual control theorists see no evidence for the presence or importance of a fixed set of needs. How do we resolve this disagreement? I know only one way out. One of my areas of specialization as a student and professor was the history of science, in particular, the history of psychology. Let me tell you just a little about the many different ways the idea of needs has been used in behavioral science. After you see what I say, you tell me if there is any scientific reason to accept any person's list of alleged "needs."

A short history of "needs" in behavioral science: The idea that people behave to satisfy certain needs became part of modern science largely through the work of Charles Darwin in the 19th century. Darwin used the ancient idea of "instinct" to explain animal behavior. He said behavior is one of the features by which "natural selection" determines which individuals live and which die. Darwin called instincts the internal driving and steering forces in animal behavior; he said that instincts motivate or energize behavior, and that they guide behavior in particular directions. Following Darwin's publications on evolution, the idea that instincts motivate and direct behavior became popular among psychologists. In 1892, the great American psychologist William James used instincts as part of his explanation of human behavior.

In 1908, William McDougall described 12 "instincts" that motivate and direct behavior. By 1932, he changed the list to between 14 and 18 "propensities." (As you will see, the names and numbers of these alleged "internal motivators" change with the wind!) In 1915, Sigmund Freud wrote that internal instincts or "drives" are the main motivators of behavior. At first, Freud said that there are two groups of motivators, one for self-preservation and the other for sexual matters. Later, Freud said that there is only one internal influence, the libido; later still, he again said that there are two, the life instinct and the death instinct. (More of those easy changes.)

In 1922, Kurt Lewin said that behavior is internally motivated by a set of "determining tendencies," but by 1928, they had become a set of "needs," divided into "biological needs" and "quasi [psychological?] needs." In 1932, P. T. Young wrote about 17 "primary drives." In 1938, Henry A. Murray defined needs this way: "A need is a construct (a convenient fiction or hypothetical concept) which stands for a force (the physico-chemical nature of which is unknown) in the brain region, a force which organizes perception, apperception, intellection, conation, and action in such a way as to transform in a certain direction an existing unsatisfactory situation. . . . each need is characteristically accompanied by a particular feeling or emotion . . ." Murray listed approximately 40 needs: 13 he called "viscerogenic" (physiological?), and the remainder were called "psychogenic." By 1951, Murray changed the term "need" to "thematic disposition."

Are you confused by now? I am. You see, once a scientist says that all behavior is energized and guided by a set of common internal causes shared by all people, there is no limit (upper or lower) on the number of causes the scientist can imagine, or on the names the scientist gives to them. It is all a matter of aesthetics, preferences, and personal biases. It is not a matter of science. By the time we reach Murray in our tour of history, there are shelves filled with research articles, graduate theses, and books on subjects like Freud's instincts (two, one, or a different two), Young's 17 primary drives, and Murray's 40 needs (and his later similar number of thematic dispositions). There is no scientific way to decide which of these alternatives is correct. Young was right when he said that none of these "things" exist, except as convenient fictions. Let's look quickly at a few more fictions.

In 1959, R. B. Cattell wrote about 16 "ergs" that energize and guide behavior. (Yes, there were research theses and dissertations on "ergs.") By 1953, David McClelland was doing extensive work with Murray's "Thematic Apperception Test," which became a tool in research and clinical practice. McClelland first wrote about "needs," then later called them "expectations." The early version of the list included things like the needs for hunger, sex, aggression, fear, affiliation, power, achievement, deference, and on and on and on. The clinical and research literature on those "needs" is immense. They are all convenient fictions.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Abraham Maslow developed his immensely popular idea of "self-actualization." Scientists and the general public loved it, even though, by Maslow's definition, Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin were highly self-actualized persons. As part of his thinking about self-actualization, Maslow created an arbitrary "hierarchy of needs": physiological needs, safety needs, esteem needs, and the self-actualization need. Practically everyone loved Maslow's fictions, and scientists and clinicians created another huge body of literature. Today, much of that literature sits neglected on library shelves, just like the literatures for all of the fictitious needs that came before. In 1959, K. B. Madsen wrote about 12 "primary motives." You already know the rest of that story.

In 1965, William Glasser wrote Reality Therapy. In it, he described two "needs" that all people share. Later, he expanded his list of needs to five. In 1999, he seems to imply that there might be six needs; he calls "love and belonging" a single need, but he says that a person can be high on need for love and low on need for belonging, or the reverse. To me, it looks like he is describing two needs, not one, and that would make a total of six.

To see some recent examples of people who talk about needs, or similar alleged internal motivators, especially as those ideas are applied in schools, look at J. M. Jenkins, Transforming High Schools: A Constructivist Agenda (Technomic Publications, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1996). The discipline program in that book relies on "control theory," but it is Glasser's Control Theory, which he now calls Choice Theory. On page 111, you will see the following: "The behaviors that people choose are related to the satisfaction of one or more of the five basic needs. The behaviors they continue to choose are behaviors that in each person's mind reduces the disparity between what they want and what they have.

The behaviors and their accompanying perceptions are specific and individual. In this context behavior actually controls perception (Glasser, 1981). Consequently, the key to controlling student behavior in school is to get them to behave differently so that their perception of school as a need-satisfying place changes." This source says that there are five needs. The author talks about "the key to controlling student behavior in school." Does that sound "just like RTP" or "exactly like PCT"?

Another recent source on the importance of needs in the classroom is V. F. Jones and L. S. Jones, Comprehensive Classroom Management: Creating Positive Learning Environments for All Students, fourth edition (Allyn & Bacon, Needham Heights, Massachusetts, 1995). It includes material about Rudolf Dreikurs, Stanley Coopersmith, William Glasser, David Elkind, and Joan Lipsitz. The authors also advance their own set of needs that children allegedly bring to the classroom. Of course, the numbers and names of the needs described by all of those people are different. Such is the nature of convenient fictions.

My visits to schools began in 1995. I have encountered several discipline programs whose creators argue that there are more, or fewer, needs than Glasser claims, and the names of the needs are not always the same. The multiplicity of numbers and names for alleged needs reflects the individual preferences of the authors, rather than something we all share because it is built into each of us by our common genetic heritage.

There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support William Glasser's claim that there are five (or is it six?) needs like the ones he proposes. His variable list of needs is a creation of his imagination. Please do not misunderstand me. It is not necessarily a bad thing in itself if Glasser imagines that several needs are important in human behavior, but it is bad that many people believe the list is scientifically validated, and that, consequently, it should govern their actions in their private lives or in schools.

People who want to act on their own beliefs that Glasser's list of needs is important should do that, but they should not tell anyone else that the "reality" of the needs on the list is "proven" by scientific research.

William Glasser's needs are abstract words. I doubt that any project designed to identify the entire set of genes in a species, like the human genome project or the E. coli genome project, will locate a single gene, or a set of genes, for anything like a "need for survival," much less for alleged needs like power, or freedom, or fun and belonging. This is one of several reasons that Glasser's "theory" cannot apply to all living things.

In PCT, we work with the idea of physiological "needs," or physiological requirements, that are generally recognized in biological science, like the required concentrations of certain nutrients and gases in the blood, or the required temperature at the core of the brain. We treat those required physiological levels as reference perceptions, specified in systems that control the magnitudes of perceptual signals related to actual physiological conditions. In other words, we construct our model of "physiological regulation" (which biologists call "homeostasis") as an example of perceptual control. We also construct our models of more "abstract" or "higher-level" perceptions, like "belonging" or "love," as examples of perceptual control, with people behaving to make the perceptions be the way they want them.

The phenomenon of "survival" is probably something that simply happens as an unintended side effect, whenever an organism successfully controls all of the physiologically specified conditions. There is no convincing evidence that survival depends on an independent "need," or "instinct," or "drive."

Internal Motivation

Glasser: "Therefore, all behavior is internally motivated. This means that Choice Theory is diametrically opposed to the traditional, externally motivated, common sense psychology of the world, Stimulus-Response (S-R) Theory. Since our motivation is completely intrinsic, the only behavior we can control is our own."

Bourbon: The idea that behavior is internally motivated runs as one of two uninterrupted and competing themes through the entire history of philosophy, from ancient to modern. The other theme asserts that the environment controls behavior.

The concept of internal motivation is central to nearly all cognitive theories, neurological theories, and neurocognitive theories. That concept, alone, is inadequate to explain behavior, for reasons I explained earlier. People do not control their actions. They control their perceptions. To do that, they allow their actions to vary, in any ways that are necessary, given the varying conditions of the world.

In all of his writings, William Glasser contrasts his ideas with "S-R theory." The issue is much bigger than that. All theories that explain behavior as the end product in a chain of causality are properly called cause-effect (C-E) theories. In all C-E theories, some antecedent cause, whether in the environment or inside the individual, causes behavior, as the end of the causal chain. No C-E theory can explain how a person controls perceptions by affecting events in the world. Only a properly designed circular-causal model, like the model in PCT, can explain the phenomenon of perceptual control.

I Believe That Glasser Either Misunderstood or Did Not Appreciate What Powers Taught Him

Glasser: "For many years, I used the term Control Theory for what I am now calling Choice Theory. Even though I had always believed that we are intrinsically motivated, I learned from an exponent, William Powers, a theoretician, that there is an actual theory of this motivation called Control Theory. In order for Control Theory to work for me as a practicing psychiatrist, psychotherapist and educator, I made many changes in what Powers taught me." Glasser's changes include the development of his five needs; the ideas of Total Behavior and The Quality World; deletion of Powers's idea that there are multiple levels of perception (replaced by Glasser with "the much more usable perceptual filters—the Total Knowledge Filter and the Valuing Filter"); and so on. "Finally, I replaced the concept of reorganization with creativity, because reorganization implies changing around what is already there. Creativity often means changing what is there to something totally new and more effective; for example, that the earth is round, not flat."

Bourbon: In this passage, I believe Glasser reveals that he did not understand when Powers explained control theory to him. What is more, I believe Glasser reveals his approach to building a "theory" of behavior as making changes that he likes aesthetically—he changed control theory to match his preferences for the way it sounded. Apparently, he did not care, or perhaps did not understand, that perceptual control theory is a formal theory that makes specific quantitative predictions about what will happen in certain circumstances. When we do our work the right way, those of us who recognize PCT as a scientific theory make changes only if they improve the predictive power of the theory, never simply because they make PCT sound nicer. Changes like those Glasser made render the theory useless for scientific work. I have no idea what Glasser means in his passage about how he improved on the idea of "reorganization," which is a process that we hypothesize in PCT to explain many kinds of learning.

I believe that Glasser misunderstood, or did not appreciate, what Powers taught him. I believe the evidence for this claim has been clear for many years. In May 1987, six years after he published Stations of the Mind, Glasser said in an interview published in Phi Delta Kappan: "In the course of my research, I came across a book, Behavior: The Control of Perception, written by William T. Powers and published by Aldine Press in 1973. I found the book obscure and difficult to understand, but Powers was one of the first to give the concepts of control theory (which, at that time, were engineering concepts) a biological application. Working a little bit with Powers and a great deal on my own, I refined those ideas and applied them to human behavior" (page 658).

I accept Glasser's remark that he personally found BCP difficult to understand; evidence to support that claim is abundant in his writings. However, Glasser's characterization of the subject of Powers's book is patently false. From his earliest papers in the 1950s, through BCP in 1973, to the present, there is no doubt whatsoever that Powers wrote about human behavior. The day in 1973 when I read Powers's article in Science, I knew immediately that he had invented an original psychology to explain the behavior and actions of all living things, which obviously includes people. Glasser's claim that Powers only applied control theory to biology, and that he, Glasser, applied it to humans, at the very least reflects Glasser's failure to understand what he read and heard from Powers.

Glasser Dissociates from PCT

For anyone who questions my belief that Glasser does not fully understand how people act to control their perceptions, or how scientific control theory differs from his personal speculations, I offer the following evidence.

Glasser: "Considering that I have always taught that we choose all that we do, I decided in the spring of 1996 to call what I teach Choice Theory. I never liked the name, Control Theory, because it has implied external control. Also, since Powers and I teach so differently, I thought it misleading for me to continue to call what I teach Control Theory. Since I cannot remove the words Control Theory from all I have written, I ask you to read these words as Choice Theory. Everything else I have written that describes or explains this theory is still completely accurate. Changing the name makes it even more so."

Bourbon: Glasser repeats his claim that we choose "all that we do," which, by his definition, means we choose our behavior. He says that, in spite of the new name for his theory, everything he has ever written on the subject of how we choose our behavior is "still completely accurate." I think Glasser should have said that everything he wrote on that subject is still as accurate as it ever was. The scale of accuracy runs from "not at all" to "perfect."

I believe Glasser reveals a mistaken notion that perceptual control theory is like his Control Theory, in the sense that both are things that people can simply decide to teach, or not. For Glasser to renounce PCT is like an aerospace engineer saying that the physical laws of motion are just ideas that physicists teach, and she has decided to teach something different, something that she also uses when she designs airplanes. I would not want to fly in one of her planes.

Again, I think that Glasser's Reality Therapy is more humane and respectful of the client than many other psychiatric therapies. I believe that Glasser could have made RT even more effective, had he modified parts of it that are inconsistent with PCT. Glasser had many opportunities to make such changes, but instead he made wholesale changes to create his Control Theory, then finally changed the name and said that he renounced any association with PCT. One result of Glasser's actions has been decades of confusion, when people discovered his non-scientific CT and innocently believed it to be a scientific theory. Many people still think Glasser's Choice Theory is perceptual control theory. It is not.


Chronology of Powers's PCT,
Ford's Work, and Glasser's RT/CT


William T. Powers and two colleagues began to develop control systems theory, which was later renamed perceptual control theory.

Here is some information to help you decide on my suitability to write about the subjects in this chapter. I began my undergraduate studies in 1957 as a physics major who took a psychology course. Later I changed my major to history, then to psychology. In 1966, I finished my Ph.D. in physiological psychology and human perception. For at least a year after that, I occasionally had a dream in which I heard a knock on the door and awoke in the dream to see the committee of professors from my dissertation examination. They said that they had to take my degree back because "no one should have a degree for knowing that." I am no Freudian, but the meaning of the dream is clear: I thought my degree was not worth having. In spite of the dream, I spent the next seven years using and teaching ideas from "scientific" psychology that I thought were deeply flawed



William Glasser published Reality Therapy (Harper & Row, New York). In it, he said, "Psychiatry must be concerned with two basic psychological needs: the need to love and be loved and the need to feel that we are worthwhile to ourselves and to others" (pages 9–10).


William Glasser published Schools Without Failure. The book contains the basic elements of what Glasser eventually called his "10 Steps to Good Discipline." He still said that there are two basic needs.


Ed Ford began to work with Glasser. Ford learned, taught, and applied many of the ideas described in Glasser's books; he was a therapist in RT and became a trainer for RT.


Powers published a book, Behavior: The Control of Perception, and a Science article, "Feedback: Beyond Behaviorism." (Research and publications on PCT continue to the present, but I won't include any more citations of that work here.)

I read both of Powers's publications, and my life has not been the same since then.


Glasser published an article, "New Look at Discipline," in Learning: The Magazine for Creative Teaching. In it, he further developed his "10 Steps."


Glasser published an article, "10 Steps to Good Discipline," in Today's Education: The Journal of the National Education Association. In it, he further refined his "10 Steps."

Ed Ford and Steven Englund published For the Love of Children: A Realistic Approach to Raising Your Child (Anchor Press/Doubleday). In it, they acknowledged their debts to William Glasser. They relied heavily on techniques from Glasser's Reality Therapy. Scattered through the book are ideas similar to those in Glasser's "10 Steps." Ford and Englund wrote about two basic needs, love and worth.


I have heard that this was the year when someone gave Glasser a copy of Powers's Behavior: The Control of Perception, published seven years earlier. Before long, Glasser invited Powers to visit him to explain control theory. Earlier in this chapter, I discussed some of what ensued.

William Glasser's wife Naomi published an edited book, What Are You Doing? Case Histories in Reality Therapy (Harper & Row, New York), to which Ed Ford contributed two chapters.


William Glasser published Stations of the Mind. (Powers wrote the Foreword.) In this book, Glasser began to add his own arbitrary and non-scientific revisions to control theory. Glasser is a medical doctor, but he tried to ground Reality Therapy and his version of control theory on ideas from pop neurology, as when he said that the five basic needs are located in the frontal lobes of the cerebral hemispheres. Even if we were to grant Glasser the existence of his five basic needs, claims like his about the frontal lobes are completely unverifiable.

Ed Ford was trained as a social worker. He is not a scientist, but in 1981 he began to suspect that there was more to control theory than Glasser said. Ed began to doubt that Glasser's interpretation of control theory was accurate, and he began to communicate with Powers. That was when I first heard of Ed.


I organized the first meeting of people interested in Powers's control theory. Ed Ford was there. That gathering eventually led to the formation of the Control Systems Group (CSG).

Ed Ford taught and used ideas found in Glasser's Schools Without Failure, but Glasser began to move away from, or modify, some of those ideas. Based on his major publications, it appears to me that Glasser had already abandoned his own "10 Steps to Good Discipline."


Glasser published Control Theory: A New Explanation of How We Control Our Lives (originally titled Take Effective Control of Your Life). In it, he repeated his idea that everyone shares the same basic needs, determined by our genes (pages 5 and 9). He discussed four "psychological" needs: a need to belong, a need for power, a need for freedom, and a need for fun. After he gave his standard description of the needs, Glasser wrote the following: "It is not important to the thesis of this book that I establish with any certainty what the basic needs are that drive us. To gain effective control of our lives, we have to satisfy what we believe is basic to us and learn to respect and not frustrate others in fulfilling what is basic to them.

All you will ever know is what drives you, just as I will know only what drives me. We cannot look into other people's heads and see what drives them. We can listen to what they tell us and look at what they do, but we should not make the mistake of assuming we know what drives them. This means that we can never be sure of satisfying anyone else no matter what we do. It is reasonably safe, however, to assume that what drives us is similar to what drives other people, so there is no harm in trying to satisfy another person. But if what we do does not work, we should not persist or we run the risk of losing that person for a friend or lover" (page 16).

To me, that paragraph is remarkable, in the light of all that Glasser wrote in the years that followed. In it, he came close to adopting a position like that in perceptual control theory: he acknowledged that no one can know with certainty what "drives" another person, and that when we satisfy ourselves, we should not frustrate others who are fulfilling themselves. So close! Of course, in PCT, we do not talk about something inside a person that "drives" his behavior. Glasser came close, but he immediately "bounced off" when he insisted that, even though we can never be sure of satisfying another person no matter what we do, we should go ahead and try, because they are probably like us anyway. If only he had stopped while he was ahead!

In the paragraph, Glasser seems to say that every person is driven by his or her own set of needs, which implies that the number of needs, and their names, can vary from person to person. In light of that claim, how could it be that, to the day in 1999 when I am writing this, Glasser and his followers still insist that we all share the same five genetically determined needs, and that those needs drive our behavior? To this day, when they talk about teachers in the classroom, Glasser, present associates, and many of his former associates say that teachers must meet all of the needs of all of their students, simultaneously. Does it sound "exactly like RTP" to say that "we can never be sure of satisfying anyone else no matter what we do," and then to go on and assign precisely that impossible task to all teachers, in all classrooms?

In this book, written in 1984, the "10 Steps" are gone. All that remains of them is a little material about how children must learn rules and about how to get them to make plans when they have broken the rules.

Glasser said, "The purpose of this book is to help increase our knowledge by attempting to teach the control theory through which we attempt to satisfy our needs" (page 18). That is a strange goal. Imagine that someone told you he wanted to teach you the gravitational theory through which you go to the refrigerator to take out the things you will eat for lunch. This is one of many times when Glasser has talked about a theory as something you do in your daily life, rather than as an organized attempt to explain what you do. He said you do something called Control Theory, rather than that control theory explains what you do. That confusion runs through all of Glasser's writings.


Glasser published Control Theory in the Classroom. In it, his presentation of control theory continued to deteriorate. He emphasized the importance of the basic needs and said that "control theory explains that all of our behavior is always our best attempt at the time to satisfy at least five powerful forces which, because they are built into our genetic structure, are called basic needs" (page 14). I have given a critique of that idea above.

Glasser began to describe teachers as managers, in the sense of managers in business and industry. He said that, as managers, teachers are responsible for the happiness of every child in their classes. If the teacher has identified which needs are not met for each child, and if the teacher arranges the classroom so that all of those needs are met for all of the children, then the classroom will be perfect, and there will be no need for discipline. It is obvious that Glasser was moving to the idea that teachers are accountable for everything that happens in classrooms, an idea that ironically places Glasser in perfect agreement with all behavior-management programs that rely on theoretical ideas from operant conditioning and S-R theory.


Ed Ford published the book Love Guaranteed (Harper & Row, San Francisco). In it, he demonstrated the results of his attempts to understand PCT and to incorporate principles from PCT in his counseling practice.

By this time, some differences between Ford and Glasser were very clear. Glasser continued to modify his non-scientific version of control theory to his own aesthetic ends; in contrast, Ford labored to better understand PCT and to modify his own practice accordingly. Ford continued to use many valuable clinical techniques he learned from Glasser, but he understood that those techniques provided him a way to interact with people as living perceptual control systems, whose actions vary any way necessary to control their own perceptions. Glasser moved further into the idea that people are need-driven, and that they plan and select their behavior.


Ed Ford published Freedom from Stress (Brandt Publishing). In it, he gave evidence of further developments in his understanding of PCT as it applied to his counseling practice. By this time, I was using Ford's two books about PCT and counseling in my experimental psychology classes at the university. I had students read one of the books at the start of the semester, as a "teaser." Ed's writing style is conversational and non-threatening. Most of my students, both graduate and undergraduate, "took the bait." They liked the practical techniques Ed described, and they got a small dose of PCT. During the remainder of the semester, I would always refer back to Ed's clinical examples while I led my students through the technical details of scientific PCT, including experiments and exercises in computer modeling. Years later, more of my former students remember and use ideas from Ed Ford's books than remember the technical details I worked so hard to get across to them!


William Glasser published The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. The title reveals that Glasser had moved even further from anything that resembles scientific control theory, toward the idea that teachers are managers, like those in business and industry. Glasser had discovered and become enthralled with the work on management by W. Edwards Deming. Even more than in his book Control Theory in the Classroom, Glasser laid the responsibility squarely on teachers to identify and to meet the needs of all students in their classrooms. I will say more about his specific suggestions for discipline below.


William Glasser published The Quality School Teacher. Scientifically, his presentation of control theory deteriorated even further. He said, "Control theory explains that we will work hard for those we care for (belonging), for those we respect and who respect us (power), for those with whom we laugh (fun), for those who allow us to think and act for ourselves (freedom), and for those who help us make our lives secure (survival)" (page 30). I see no reason at all why some of the relationships Glasser described in that passage should be labeled with the particular names he selected. From the perspective of PCT, the ideas in the passage are arbitrary assertions and do not represent what we know about people, viewed as living perceptual control systems.

Glasser said very little about discipline in this book. Problems are supposed to disappear from schools when teachers recognize and meet all needs for all students.


Ed Ford started his Responsible Thinking Process (RTP) at Clarendon and Solano Schools in Phoenix. He tried to use principles from PCT to guide his development of RTP, and he used ideas from PCT to interpret its effects. It is clear that many features of RTP are similar to Glasser's earlier "10 Steps to Good Discipline." That is no surprise, given Ford's long association with Reality Therapy during the years when Glasser taught and used the "10 Steps." However, the distribution of responsibility and accountability in Ed Ford's process differs sharply from that in William Glasser's current program of Quality Schools and Choice Theory, and, viewed as a total program, RTP is not identical to Glasser's "10 Steps." Some of the questions are the same, but the total "packages" in which they are used, and the ways their roles are understood by their developers, are not at all alike. (I say more about that later.) What is more, by the early 1980s, Glasser had abandoned the "10 Steps," and in 1996, he renounced them altogether. In effect, Ed Ford revived an impressive discipline process that had been abandoned by Glasser, and he made it even more effective.

Ford published Discipline for Home and School (Brandt Publishing) to describe RTP and its effects at Clarendon School. Bill Powers wrote the Foreword. In the book, Ford described RTP as "Teaching children to respect the rights of others through responsible thinking based on perceptual control theory."


News about RTP spread, and Ford began to teach people at schools in several states how to use it.


In January, representing the scientific side of PCT, I traveled to Arizona to observe schools that used RTP. I looked specifically for evidence that RTP actually produced positive changes in schools, and that RTP had anything to do with PCT. I was satisfied on both counts. I obtained a grant to visit schools that use RTP and to study RTP's effectiveness. Under the grant, I also work with Ed Ford to improve the process and to introduce as much of PCT into RTP as is practicable.

Drawing on information gathered during visits to schools with me, Ford published the first edition of Discipline for Home and School, Book Two (Brandt Publishing). In this book, Ford described features of RTP that were found in every school where the process was working very well. He also described practices that led to RTP not working in some schools.

Using ideas from Book Two as his criteria, Ed Ford began to certify schools that used RTP effectively. He also began to certify administrators and teachers directly responsible for RTP in successful schools.

William Glasser visited Australia and discovered that many people in schools there were not using his Quality School program the way he intended. In a flurry of letters, newsletters, and policy statements, he formally renounced all discipline programs, including his own "10 Steps to Good Discipline" that he had stopped using by the early 1980s. He renounced all associations between his own work and Powers's PCT, and he renamed his own theory Choice Theory. Glasser said that whenever you read something that he wrote earlier, you should read the words "Control Theory" as "Choice Theory." Glasser established a new institute, named after himself. He required that anyone who wanted to become a member must renounce all discipline programs and all ties to PCT. Earlier in this chapter, I described other changes that Glasser initiated in his
program in 1996.

In the Winter 1996 issue of The William Glasser Institute Newsletter, Glasser announced that he was working on a new book, Choice Theory: A New Psychology for a New Century.


More than 40 schools, in at least nine states, used RTP. During the summer, Ed Ford conducted workshops on RTP in Australia and presented information about RTP at conferences around the United States. He hosted his second annual workshop on RTP in Phoenix. Many people who attended the workshop also attended the annual meeting of the Control Systems Group in Durango, Colorado.

Ford published a greatly expanded second edition of his book, Discipline for Home and School, Book One (Brandt Publishing). It included numerous revisions, as well as several new chapters written by people who had used RTP successfully at their schools.

Several people who were associated with William Glasser for many years, including some whose work was individually rejected by him in 1996, declined his invitation to join the new William Glasser Institute. Instead, they formed the International Association for Applied Control Theory (IAACT). At the start, it was not clear how IAACT would define "control theory."

The Australian Reality Therapy Newsletter 9(1), 1997, included "A Message From Dr. William Glasser, To All Faculty, The Quality School Consortium Board and All Members of the Consortium." Here, Glasser repeated a now-frequent lament: "I deeply regret ever using my own reality therapy ideas to create the 'ten steps of discipline.' It was an honest mistake" (page 5). A few lines later, he said, "I have not taught or supported that program for over ten years, well before I created The Quality School" (page 5). The newsletter was published in 1997, and The Quality School was published in 1990. The most recent reference I can locate for a publication by Glasser specifically about his "10 Steps to Good Discipline" is from 1977. I conclude that he stopped advocating and developing the "10 Steps" at about the time that he encountered Powers's
control theory. He has not published anything about the "10 Steps" for 20 years, at least not in any easily located source, and certainly not in any of his highly popular books. Anyone who thinks the program of "10 Steps" is still "Glasser's program" is mistaken; from Glasser's perspective in 1997, the "10 Steps" program is an unwelcome artifact from a distant past.

The April 1997 Phi Delta Kappan included "A New Look at School Failure and School Success" by William Glasser. In the article, Glasser described how difficult it was for people in schools to change from stimulus-response (S-R) practices to the practices he advocated for his Quality Schools. He wrote about how easy it was for people to cling to, or lapse back into, manipulative and punitive practices. On that topic, Glasser and Ford agree perfectly, although Ford now recognizes that the problem in many schools springs from traditional cause-effect practices, of which S-R practices are only a subset. (Nearly all so-called cognitive and neurological practices are also grounded in a cause-effect theory of behavior.) It is obvious that staff members who punish students create problems in many schools, and it is difficult for many of those people to give up their punitive techniques.

Glasser wrote that, in schools where people abandoned punitive manipulations and initiated positive, supportive interactions with students, learning improved and discipline problems declined. According to Glasser, students in those schools said that teachers cared about them. Again, I believe Ford would agree completely with that idea. When adults listen to children and politely ask them about what they are doing, the children often begin to believe that the adults care about them.

If Glasser's ideas, as reported in the Phi Delta Kappan article, and Ed Ford's ideas, as presented in his books, are close together on the issues I just described, then does that mean Ford's ideas are the same as Glasser's? No. The reason for my answer is simple. In the Phi Delta Kappan article, Glasser repeated the claim he has made for decades: "Choice theory teaches that we are all driven by four psychological needs that are embedded in our genes: the need to belong, the need for power, the need for freedom, and the need for fun" (page 599). Glasser clung firmly to his arbitrary needs.

He also retained his idea that teachers must change the environment, specifically their own behavior, to meet students' needs: "In school, if he senses that Janet (the teacher) is now caring, listening, encouraging, and laughing, John (the student) will begin to consider putting her into his quality world" (page 600). It looks like Glasser is saying that the teacher must make the student sense her attitudes and emotions, so that perhaps the student "will begin to consider" changing himself. Ford recognizes the impossibility of such demands on teachers.

I do not claim that Glasser's program for quality schools is ineffective, or that it does not work. If the data Glasser reported in the Phi Delta Kappan are correct, then something positive happened in the two schools he described. I do contend that any positive changes that occurred were not caused when teachers met the needs that Glasser insists drive our behavior.


Ford continued to teach his program at schools throughout the United States, in Australia, and in Singapore. He began work on a revised and expanded edition of Discipline for Home and School, Book Two.

The William Glasser Institute flourished. At its site on the World Wide Web, the Institute posted a description of Choice Theory that included Glasser's assertions "that all we do is behaving, that almost all behavior is chosen, and that we are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs." He stated that his CT "is offered to replace external control theory," his label for S-R theory. In a section of the web site titled "The Ten Axioms of Choice Theory," Glasser repeated some of the claims I just described and asserted that we have direct control over how we act and think. Does the material I have quoted from Glasser's web site seem to indicate that he has modified his personal beliefs in cause-effect to make them more compatible with PCT science? Are Glasser's assertions the same as PCT? You tell me.

Glasser published Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom (HarperCollins, New York). In it, he repeated the list of five basic needs and the "ten axioms" that I described from his web site (pages 332–336). He said, "The strength of each need is fixed at birth and does not change" (page 91). Glasser calls for extensive changes in curriculum and instructional practices and says that, when they are accomplished, there will be no discipline problems in schools.

There will be occasional disciplinary incidents, but when they occur, teachers should use Reality Therapy to counsel students (pages 269). There were no fundamental changes in Glasser's program. He still said that teachers must create an environment that meets all of the students' alleged needs (those wonderfully convenient fictions). If a child disrupts, the teacher is responsible, and the teacher must do extra work to make things right. In Quality Schools, teachers do not expect children to change.

In this book, Glasser said some things about needs that seem at odds with what he said in earlier publications. For example, he said, "Even though we do not know what these needs are and may never know them to the extent I explain in this chapter, we start to struggle to satisfy them as soon as we draw our first breath" (page 28). He also said, "Most of us know nothing about our basic needs. What we know is how we feel . . ." (page 45). Those statements seem to contradict what Glasser wrote in 1984: "All you will ever know is what drives you, just as I will know only what drives me."

Once again, Glasser laments that he created the "10 Steps" that he abandoned long ago. He said, "For years, schools all over the country have been buying discipline programs that promise to get students in order in a coercive system. . . . I developed one myself in the 1970s, the Ten-Step Discipline Program based on reality therapy, and unfortunately it is still in use" (page 269).

In Chapter 5, "Compatibility, Personality, and the Strength of Needs," Glasser repeated some ideas from another recent book by him, Staying Together, where he said a person should select a mate by looking for a person with a "needs profile" like his or her own. Allegedly, the needs profile assesses the relative strengths of the five basic needs. One of the alleged needs is "need for love and belonging."

However, Glasser said in Choice Theory that a person might be high in need for love, but low in need for belonging, or the reverse (page 104). To me, he seemed to say that these are really two different needs, which would mean that there are six basic needs, not five. From time to time, Glasser has changed the number of needs on his list, and their names, exactly the way other mainstream behavioral scientists change their lists.

Also in Chapter 5, Glasser asserted that a therapist can predict the needs profiles of people in various psychiatric diagnostic categories. Forget for a moment that the manual of psychiatric diagnostic categories changes every few years, often for reasons that are entirely political. Right now, I urge you to remember my earlier comments about the questionable history of "needs" in philosophy and psychology, and about the idea that needs are convenient fictions.

The fictions created by people like Murray and Maslow were adopted more widely than those advocated by Glasser, and they were the objects of much more research than will ever be directed toward the needs on Glasser's list. Convenient fictions are not necessarily bad. In some situations, they can be very useful, but it is a serious mistake to believe that a particular set of needs has been "scientifically proved" to be real.

The IAACT met in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Any doubts about how the IAACT would interpret control theory were resolved when the group unveiled a logo containing native Canadian symbols for each of "the five basic needs"—Glasser's five basic needs. The IAACT web site also declared "all behavior is purposeful and is intended to meet one of our five Basic Human Needs"; the familiar list followed. Members of the IAACT made the momentous decision to break away from Glasser's organization, but, as of this writing, they have not abandoned the convenient fiction of his five basic needs. [During the time since I wrote that description of the IAACT web site, the organization changed its description of behavior. The new description is somewhat more compatible with Powers's "Perceptual Control Theory," and less like Glasser's ideas about five basic needs. Some members of IAACT continue working to understand and apply PCT. TB, August, 2000.]


It is late on an April evening in 1999. In a few minutes I will use e-mail to send the final revisions of this chapter to the editor. To check on the validity of my comparisons in this chapter, I just "visited" the web sites for the William Glasser Institute, the International Association for Applied Control Theory, and the Responsible Thinking Process. This is what I found at each web site.

At the site for the William Glasser Institute, under a section labeled "What We Stand For," there is a subsection titled "What Is Choice Theory." There, I found the following statement: "CHOICE THEORY is the basis for all programs taught by the Institute. It states that all we do is behave, that almost all behavior is chosen, and that we are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun."

At the site for the International Association for Applied Control Theory, I found the following statement on the first page: "Control Theory is the theory of human motivation and behavior based on the belief that we are internally motivated. That all behavior is purposeful and intended to meet one of our five Basic Human Needs; Belonging, Power, Freedom, Fun, & Survival."

At the site for the Responsible Thinking Process, I found the following statement on the first page: "Responsible Thinking Process (RTP)[:] A school discipline process that trains educators how to teach students to take responsibility for themselves by learning to think on their own, to respect the rights of others, to make effective plans, and to build self-confidence. The process is based on perceptual control theory (PCT)."

Do the program-defining statements on those three web sites look "exactly the same?" You tell me.


Summary of My Conclusions Based on the Chronology

There is no doubt whatsoever that William Glasser's work in schools reflects an understanding of what people are, and how they function, that is different from the understanding in Ed Ford's Responsible Thinking Process. On the one hand, Glasser says that people select and control their behavior so as to satisfy a number of genetically programmed needs. He also says that teachers are responsible for meeting the needs of all children in their classrooms; if the teachers do that, then there will be no problems and no need for discipline. Glasser never tried to modify his practices to match the principles of perceptual control theory; instead, he tried to change control theory to match his practices. Recently, Glasser renounced all ties with perceptual control theory.

On the other hand, Ed Ford has become increasingly involved in the Control Systems Group, comprising people who study and develop perceptual control theory. Even though he is not a scientist, Ford has worked to understand the formal theory and the behavioral model from PCT. (I know about his efforts firsthand from the many hours he spent talking to me on the phone, and into the early morning hours at CSG meetings.)

Each time Ed thought that his understanding had improved, he wrote another book about the implications and applications of PCT in counseling and daily life. He adapted his practices to changes in his understanding of PCT, rather than the other way around. All the while, he continued to use many procedures he had learned as a member of Glasser's organization, including some questions and strategies from Reality Therapy, and elements of the "10 Steps to Good Discipline." However, he continuously modified his use of those techniques to bring them in line with his growing knowledge of PCT.

For example, Ed Ford recognizes that people always act to control how they perceive some parts of the world, and that to do so, their actions must vary to counteract inevitable disturbances that come from the world. When people share an environment, sooner or later, one of them will disturb someone else, either accidentally or deliberately. When that happens, a conflict might ensue. Ed's program tries to help children, and adults, learn how to control their own perceptions without unduly disturbing one another, and to help them learn how to resolve any conflicts that occur, when they inevitably do disturb one another.

The differences between Ford's and Glasser's understandings of people are reflected, directly, in what happens in schools that use their ideas, a topic I discuss next.

A Comparison of Certain Features from
Ed Ford's Responsible Thinking Process and
William Glasser's Quality Schools and Choice Theory


Why Do People Behave?

I have described differences between the explanations of human behavior promoted by William Glasser and those of perceptual control theorists. Those two explanations lead to profoundly different implications for what happens in classrooms. The differences are so great that they offer a classic example of just how important it is for us to examine the theories behind our practices.

Contemporary social scientists often dismiss theories as mere guesses, or as arbitrary declarations of personal bias. That is not true of scientific theories. Far from being a mere guess or a biased statement, a scientific theory is a summary of what we think we know about a subject—a summary expressed in a way that allows us to experimentally test the legitimacy of our ideas. Perceptual control theory is that kind of testable scientific theory. William Glasser's ideas are not. I do not say that in a derogatory sense. It is simply a fact that Glasser's "theories" can be characterized as guesses, or as declarations of personal preference, but not as testable scientific theories.

In his newsletters, Glasser has said that his basic program for schools is the one first described in The Quality School, so we must look there to see what Glasser believes should be happening in schools. Remember that Glasser says every time you read the words "control theory," you should replace them with "Choice Theory."

To understand what motivation actually is, it is necessary first to understand that control theory contends that all human beings are born with five basic needs built into their genetic structure: survival, love, power, fun, and freedom. All of our lives we must attempt to live in a way that will best satisfy one or more of those needs. Control theory is a descriptive term because we try to control our own behavior so that what we choose to do is the most need-satisfying thing we can do at the time. (pages 43–44)

Our genes, which in essence are the biological instructions for what we are to become, not only dictate what our structure is to be (for example, our eye color) but also (and this claim is unique to control theory) how we, as humans, must attempt to live our lives. Just as a northern migrating bird must always attempt to fly south for the winter, we, too, must attempt to live our lives in ways that we believe will best satisfy our needs. If what we are asked to do in school does not satisfy one or more of these needs or we do not care for the teacher who asks us to do it, then we will do it poorly or even not at all.

From birth, our behavior is always our best attempt at the time to do what we believe will best satisfy one or more of our needs. We can no more deny that these needs exist and are constantly on our mind (whether we are aware of it or not), than we can deny the shape of our nose or the color of our eyes. And regardless of our cultural background, we are all members of the same species, and all of us have the same genetic needs.

We spend our lives trying to learn how to satisfy these needs, but most of us do not have a clear idea of what they are, especially when we are young. What we always know, however, is how we feel. And what we actually struggle for all of our lives is to feel good. It is from our ability to feel, essentially from our ability to know whether we feel good or bad, that most of us gain some idea of what our needs are. (page 44)

Glasser goes on to explain that students become disenchanted with school when it does not feel as good anymore. When they question why, they are told to work hard, and the rewards will come later. But, unfortunately, "the genetic needs themselves know nothing about later: They are continually pushing us to do what feels good now" (page 46).

In a nutshell, Glasser's theory says that everyone behaves to satisfy the same five basic needs, that those needs are coded in our genes, and that the needs operate in a cause-effect manner to drive our behavior or our actions. He also says that, when our behavior is right, our needs are met, and that in schools, problems occur when adults fail to meet all of the students' needs. If you are drawn to Glasser's ideas about needs, I urge you to review my analyses of the "needs" concept. Perceptual control theorists believe that not even our genes act as linear cause-effect devices, the way Glasser describes them. In PCT, we work with the idea that genes are parts of biochemical control systems, and that they do not "dictate" anything.

Perceptual control theory explains our actions as the means by which we control our perceptions. In PCT, there are no prior assumptions about which perceptions a person controls at any given time, or about why the person controls those particular perceptions at that particular time. We recognize that most controlled perceptions are not universal; some are highly idiosyncratic. To control a perception, a person must act to eliminate or prevent the effects of environmental disturbances that would otherwise make the perception change from what the person wants it to be.

The person must behave in a way that cancels out the effects of the disturbances, or "opposes" the effects of the disturbances. That kind of opposition is not "good or bad" morally. A man is not necessarily good or bad when his actions cancel the effects of influences that would make his automobile veer from the path he intends.

A woman is not necessarily good or bad when her actions cancel the effects of influences that would cause her lecture to deviate from the topics she intends. Instead, opposition to disturbances is the necessary means by which a person controls a perception. Unavoidably, every one of our actions produces many consequences in the environment, not just the consequences that oppose disturbances to our own perceptions. The additional consequences are unintended by us, and we are usually unaware of them. We don't realize that we just cut in front of another driver, we don't know that we are leaving a thermal image of our backside on the chair, we don't realize that our words uttered to one person were overheard by someone else who took offense.

No person can control another person's perceptions, nor can one person make another decide to control any particular perception. When people are close together in physical space and each behaves to control his or her own perceptions, it is inevitable that, sooner or later, one person will disturb another's controlled perceptions. One way we can disturb another person is unintentionally, by way of unintended consequences of our own actions. Of course, it is also possible for one person to disturb another deliberately. In a school, disturbances are often called "disruptions." It is inevitable that disturbances and disruptions will occur from time to time, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes on purpose. You tell me whether Ford and Powers are saying the same thing as Glasser on the subject of why people behave.

In the Classroom, Who Is Responsible for What?

Both William Glasser and Ed Ford believe that teachers have a right to teach to the best of their abilities, and students who want to learn have a right to learn in safety. That said, Glasser and Ford differ markedly on the subject of who is responsible for what, in the classroom.

Glasser's ideas about responsibility are very clear. Teachers must arrange the environment in the school in general, and in the classroom in particular, so that the environment meets all of the needs of all of the students simultaneously. If they do that, then discipline problems will disappear. If there are any residual discipline problems in a school, then the teachers have failed to satisfy all of the needs of all of the students. Quoting again from The Quality School: "Like boss-managers, lead-managers have the goal of getting their workers to work hard, but to do this, they continually keep the needs of the workers in mind" (page 42). Glasser says that teachers have to work to become part of the students' quality world. Even though he said earlier that people are all intrinsically motivated, he states that "students will not work hard for a teacher who is not firmly embedded in their quality worlds. A teacher must expend more time and effort trying to satisfy a student than an industrial manager needs to do for a worker" (page 66).

All through The Quality School, Glasser repeats the message that teachers must work hard to create conditions that encourage and persuade students to perform well. There is no doubt that he envisions teachers as managers of student behavior. Neither is there any doubt that, if students do not perform well, the responsibility rests on the teachers. That idea leads to his often-repeated claim that we must change the system, not the children.

On the one hand, William Glasser says that everyone is internally motivated, but on the other hand, he says that students do not learn unless the outside world is "just right," and someone other than the students is responsible for making it "just right." The teacher is responsible for making the environment in the classroom "just right." Teachers are to accomplish that task by satisfying the needs that Glasser says all students share. He says repeatedly that when adults make the school satisfy the needs of all students simultaneously, disruptions vanish and there is no need for discipline.

A clear example of how Glasser's needs-driven theory turns into a specific procedure in the classroom is described on page 48 of The Quality School: "Learning together as a member of a small learning team is much more need-satisfying, especially to the needs for power and belonging, than learning individually." In that simple remark, I believe Glasser reveals a willingness to impose an arbitrary system of needs on everyone, and to trivialize the differences among people that might result in some students preferring to work alone.

The preferences of those "loners" would be willfully trampled if a teacher were to follow Glasser's arbitrary system for categorizing behavior according to five basic needs. Perceptual control theorists know that such a flagrant disregard for the interests of individual students would constitute massive disturbances for many of them. Those disturbed students would be highly likely to act to cancel the effects of the disturbances; they might very well disrupt the "cooperative-learning classroom" where they were not allowed to study alone.

Ed Ford realizes that teachers could never meet all of the needs of all students, even if there really were five basic needs. What teachers can do is try to help students learn how to control their own perceptions without needlessly disturbing others. When disturbances occur, either intentionally or unavoidably, teachers can try to help students learn how to resolve the conflicts that are likely to ensue.

In the Responsible Thinking Process, teachers are responsible for teaching to the best of their ability and for following the RTP process. Students are responsible for learning the content of the course, for minimizing avoidable disturbances to others, and for learning how to resolve the results of disturbances that they cannot avoid. Ford's RTP sounds very simple. It is. You tell me whether RTP is identical to Glasser's programs, with regard to who is responsible for what, in the classroom.

What Should Teachers Do When Students Disrupt?

According to William Glasser, once a school becomes a Quality School, the needs of all students are met and there are no discipline problems. In spite of that frequent assertion, Glasser acknowledges that sometimes discipline problems still occur. In The Quality School, and in recent newsletters, he has said that alternative discipline procedures will be necessary for a few years before a school becomes a Quality School. In the book, he described several different procedures to use with students, for disruptions of various degrees of severity. "In the quality school program we should not use any discipline program, even if it is seen as being based on Choice Theory and Reality Therapy, such as the ten steps of discipline and restitution. Also, we should not use any other program labeled or perceived as a discipline program."

How much Glasser's ideas have changed over the years since he wrote The Quality School is apparent when he tells his associates that "we must be strong enough to resist demands for help with discipline and for discipline programs and offer them lead-management practices that will both eliminate the problems and deal with any problem, no matter how severe, that occurs in any school whether it is just beginning or far along the way toward becoming a Quality School."

"To answer the second question, what to do with a highly disruptive student: learn who they are and reach out to them when they are not disrupting." The teacher should use various strategies to engage disruptive students, and should play the role of a "social director" for them. "Finally, if all of this doesn't work, there is only one thing to do when a student is so disruptive that a teacher cannot teach, or students cannot learn.

This is not counseling, it is quick and non-punitive. If you think you can keep the student in the room, get a comfortable chair, like an old easy chair, and immediately when the child disrupts, tell him to go take a rest. It is very important that all you say is: 'Take a rest.' Go to him when he settles down and evaluate if he needs reality therapy counseling, but try not to counsel him at the time.

Try to integrate him back into the class and offer counseling later. If he does not settle down in the chair he must be removed from the room to a time-out room as described in several places in The Quality School. Remember, do this and only this so all children know you do not play games." (All quotations above are from "A Message from Dr. William Glasser," dated May 22, 1996, and reproduced in Australian Reality Therapy News 9(1) 1997.)

In The Quality School, Glasser wrote that a student should stay in the time-out room long enough to satisfy the classroom teacher, and long enough to work out an (unspecified) plan to stay out of trouble in the future. He encouraged classroom teachers to "reward" students who make a plan, for "trying." Also in the book, but not in recent newsletters, Glasser said that any student whose disruptions endanger teachers or other students should be sent home for three days, and the sentence should be renewed as long as the student is unwilling to return to school peacefully. It is difficult to think of a procedure that is any more in the tradition of cause-effect, or stimulus-response, than that one: if you "do time" (serve a sentence) on suspension from school, it will make you behave.

Ed Ford's RTP relies on a series of questions that the teacher asks whenever a student disrupts in a classroom or in any other locale in a school. The questions are like those in the "10 Steps to Good Discipline" that Glasser has repudiated. Ford uses the questions to help students focus their attention on what they are doing, on how their actions are related to the rules that apply in their present setting, and on how they might achieve their own goals (control their own perceptions) without running afoul of the rules in the future. Ford thinks of the rules as guidelines that help students and adults know the limits within which they can act to control their own perceptions, without needlessly disturbing other people. The rules also provide guidelines for how to resolve conflicts that occur when one person disturbs another.

A student who continues to disrupt goes to the responsible thinking classroom (RTC) to think about what has happened and to learn to prepare a specific plan for how to return to the classroom and avoid similar problems in the future. The student negotiates the plan with the classroom teacher. When the plan is acceptable to both parties, the student returns to class. RTP is designed to help students learn to manage their own affairs, controlling their own perceptions without needlessly disturbing other people. In Ford's program, teachers are not responsible for meeting a set of presumed universal needs, shared by all students. Instead, teachers simply teach their subjects and use the process consistently.

In difficult cases, where a student leaves the regular classroom many times and goes to the RTC, the professional staff work to discover which perceptions the student is controlling by going to the RTC. Ford recommends a special intervention team to examine each such case. The team comprises the RTC teacher, the classroom teacher, the parents, perhaps the school counselor or psychologist, and any other people with useful information about the child, or with access to resources that might help the child. In nearly every case where a child makes frequent visits to the RTC, educators discover that the student is experiencing difficult conditions at home or elsewhere, and they develop a special plan to help the student learn how to deal with those circumstances without disturbing other people.

For example, in one school, the intervention team studied the situation of a young man who alternated between long periods when he never went to the RTC, and brief periods when he disrupted and went to the RTC very often. The team discovered that, during the times when he went often to the RTC, the young man was being sold by his older brother as a sexual "boy toy" for wealthy men. The school could not make that boy's situation different when he was away from the campus, but they devised a plan that helped him succeed while he was at school. The key to a successful discipline program is as profound and simple as that. You tell me whether Ford and Glasser say identical things about what teachers should do when a student disrupts


I hope this chapter has helped you to better understand the relationships among Ed Ford's Responsible Thinking Process, William Powers's perceptual control theory, and the ideas of William Glasser. As I have said before, I hold Glasser's Reality Therapy in high regard as one of several effective present-centered therapies. However, I do not have the same high opinion of the scientific merit of Glasser's "theories," or of the way he portrays his role in the development of control theory.

Nor do I think highly of the way Glasser's program, with its needs-driven theory of behavior, requires teachers to explain all behavior as driven by five or six arbitrary needs that teachers must satisfy for all students. In contrast to my assessment of Glasser's theoretical utterances, I respect Ed Ford's attempts to incorporate PCT into RTP. When Ford designed RTP, he attempted to acknowledge the fact that both teachers and students always behave to control their own perceptions. Does that mean that RTP follows, necessarily, from PCT, or that RTP is the only possible process that could incorporate principles from PCT? The answer to both questions is no.

Ed Ford's RTP incorporates principles from PCT; there is no reason to assume that it is the only possible process that could do so. For example, I can imagine a process that more directly incorporated the "method of levels" (MOL), a technique William Powers developed as a way to study the hierarchical organization of human perception.

The MOL is used by a few counselors and therapists. In certain ways, Ford's RTP achieves effects similar to MOL, especially when a student answering the RTP questions begins to think about the context of his or her actions, and about the consequences that he or she causes for other people. Nonetheless, Ed Ford's RTP is not identical to MOL, and neither RTP nor MOL is perceptual control theory.

I can also imagine a process in which someone combined features of William Glasser's program for Quality Schools, like the practices he suggests for developing curricula and for grading, with features of Ed Ford's RTP. Such a process could be consistent with principles from PCT. Of course, its creator would probably abandon Glasser's idea that behavior is driven by a specific set of needs, replacing it with the ideas that all people behave to control their perceptions and that the perceptions some people control are highly idiosyncratic. Probably many different processes could be designed that would be consistent with the principles of PCT science.

Here, I have not discussed any discipline programs other than Ford's and Glasser's, even though there are many other programs. Some people tout their programs as applications of operant conditioning theory, while others say that their programs incorporate the principles of cognitive science and neurological science, and still others assert that their programs embrace principles from both conditioning theory and cognitive science. My analyses of some of these programs reveal that many of them share the same model for how events happen in the world. Virtually all discipline programs rely on theories that say cause-effect operates in a direct, linear fashion. You tell me whether discipline programs like that are identical to Ed Ford's RTP.




WARNING: Some are teaching RTP but are neither accredited or qualified.

Both in the U.S. and in other countries, there are some educators teaching RTP
and some schools claiming to use RTP, that are not accredited by RTP, Inc.

Also, if a person were to give a presentation on RTP without permission,
they would be in violation of the Lanham Act.