Control Theory by William Glasser

A book review of a classic work by William Glasser.

Updated, April 2020. Over 11 years have passed since I first read this book (Originally published Feb. 18, 2009), yet I still reflect on the ideas Glasser set forth in it, applying those ideas in my own life and sharing them with others.

Control Theory by William Glasser

This review covers many components of William Glasser’s 1985 book Control Theory, “A New Explanation of How We Control Our Lives.”

Control Theory details a model for understanding why people behave the way they do to assert control over the world. Glasser doesn’t delve into the science of the brain. Rather, he offers a framework for understanding why people do what they do—and how behavior maps to the desire to control the environment.

Control Theory focuses on behaviors like depressing, angering, phobicking (e.g. the act of applying phobias), and others. As you can tell by the tenses used, Glasser reframes all feelings as behaviors that you choose. As such, individuals go from being something—”I am depressed”—to doing something—”I am depressing.”

This is expressed right out the gate in the Author’s Note:

Much of this book is concerned with the behaviors we choose as we attempt to control our lives. As I will explain in great detail, all behavior is made up of three* components: what we do, what we think, and what we feel. Doing and thinking are always expressed as verbs, like running or meditating, but feelings are usually expressed as adjectives, like depressed, or nouns, like depression …

To say the man is depressed would be to infer that the depression happened to him. What I will explain in this book is that it is a behavior he is choosing in order to deal with the difficulty of losing his job. To describe accurately what this man is feeling as a behavior and also be grammatically correct, I would have to say that he is depressing or choosing to depress.

— William Glasser, Control Theory

When feelings turn into things we do

Though you might be inclined to write-off talking about feelings like “anxiety” as “anxieting,” having read Glasser’s work and reflected on my own behaviors, Glasser was on to something. The sign of a good idea is it’s usefulness, and it has become incredibly useful to view my own behaviors and those of friends and family from the perspective of control theory.

The sign of a good idea is it’s usefulness, and it has become incredibly useful to view my own behaviors and those of friends and family from the perspective of control theory.

— William Glasser, Control Theory

Those familiar with Clayton Christensen’s Jobs to Be Done framework, would think of “anxieting,” “depressing,” “manicking,” etc., as learned behaviors that “do the job” of reasserting control.

They are methods to the madness.

For example, when a friend starts depressing about their job, Glasser argues he’s, in fact, trying to assert control over a situation because he has lost control. Through depressing about it, he can exact behavioral change — for example, on hearing a friend depressing, you might react to the depressing by trying to cheer your friend up. The act of depressing will not replace the lost control from one area of your life; it will result in you controlling another part of your life (i.e. if your friends react to depressing through support, you will be reasserting control by controlling your friends — yikes).

The thing with methods to the madness is they have a reason behind them. For yourself or others, the question you need to ask is “How is this right?”

What does the behavior accomplish for you. This self-evaluation takes serious courage. When looking at others, it takes incredible consideration and empathy.

In this way, Control Theory offers us a way to understand relationships in a complete, holistic way.

We can see how seeking to exert control over our lives explains all sorts of behavior. Most helpfully, once we’re aware of how we use painful emotional behaviors (like depressing) to re-exert control over our lives, we can see how we might choose other, more productive behaviors. Rather than depressing to regain control, we can exercise, read a book, or do chores. While in the moment, we may not want to do something more productive (personally, sometimes I just want to depress, rage, pity), but if we can simply change our actions, even in simple ways, we can improve our circumstances—perhaps even in only a small way.

In the short term, our reaction to losing control is usually some form of painful emotion. It’s the longer-term reaction whereby we either choose to emote our way back into control—which is almost always counterproductive, emotionally painful, or a waste of energy—or we do something which may change our feelings, giving us time or improve our situation, snapping us back into control of our lives.

Pictures in our heads

Glasser explains how people convert experience into mental “pictures” we file away in our memory for future reference. For example, a chocolate-chip cookie satisfies a baby’s hunger for something sweet. If you’re familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s “what you see is all there is” (WYIATI), you will understand these pictures as the stories people use to make sense of their world.

Chapter 3, The Pictures in our Heads Glasser writes:

This means that we store in our personal picture albums the pictures of anything in the world that we believe will satisfy one or more of our basic needs. For the rest of his life, when that baby gets hungry, he will start turning the food apges of his album. Many times, when he comes to the pictures of chocolate-chip cookies, he will say to himself, “That’s what I want right now,” and he’ll try to find a chocolate-chip cookie in the real world. . . . With a little thought, it will become apparent that your personal picture album is the specific motivation for all you attempt to do with your life.

And later:

It is not easy to change our own pictures, but it is even more difficult to persuade others to change theirs. To change a picture, we have to replace it with another that, if not equally satisfying to the need in question, is at least reasonably satisfying. This can be done only through negotiation and compromise; force will not work.

We behave to satisfy the pictures in our heads. It’s a simple truth that has some profound implications, particularly with regard to relationships. In particular, Glasser discusses how relationships that succeed are those where the friends, family or lovers have enough common pictures to share. In a situation like a marriage (or with parents or children), it is paramount to the ongoing success of the relationship to share common pictures.

Sometimes one person may have a picture that is irreconcilable with the picture of their significant other. Compromise and negotiation are key in these situations. What more, the couple should work towards finding ever more pictures that both can share with each other. Success in relationships is dependent on sharing mutually satisfying pictures (This doesn’t mean all the pictures have to be the same).

The process of creative reorganization

Another great concept that Glasser describes in Control Theory is that of “creative reorganization,” which is a process by which our minds attempt find usable ideas and behaviors. In Chapter 10, Creativity and Reorganization, Glasser writes:

The behavioral system is a two-part system. One part contains our familiar organized behaviors; the other part, which is the source of our creativity, contains the building blocks of all behaviors in a constant state of reorganization. By themselves these building blocks could not be recognized as discrete actions, thoughts, or feelings; but as they reorganize, they may become recognizable and usable. . . .

As active as this process is, we may have little or no awareness that it is going on …

From this bubbling, ongoing creative reorganization comes a random stream of mostly minimal but occasionally well-organized new behaviors that are available to us to try if (1) we pay attention to them and (2) we decide that those two which we pay attention may help us gain or regain control over our lives.

— William Glasser, Control Theory

Glasser importantly notes that creative reorganization often produces junk ideas. It’s up to us to sort out the good ideas from the bad.

Creative reorganization hits on an idea so pervasive in life: the best ideas, businesses, and, well, things emerge from massively iterative processes. Great ideas aren’t simply born all at once. They emerge, fail—or survive—by being most fit and useful. Look at markets, biology, businesses, relationships, products … these things are rarely predicted in advance. They are outputs of the stochastic iterations of life.

And the most robust, dynamic, and successful systems provide for huge volumes of iterations.

Other useful clippings

While reading the book, I typed up some more insightful quotes.

From Chapter 17, Taking Control of Your Life:

In an effort to deny what they really want, people like Susan often sigh and say, “What’s the difference what I want? I’ll never get it.” But her sighs and depressing are still her way of choosing to suffer to try to get what she denies she wants. From the standpoint of the pain she chooses, it makes no difference if she is aware of what she wants or not. If we don’t have what we want, we will choose to anger or suffer just the same. Once you know control theory, you will not waste your time and energy refusing to face what you want just because it is hard to get, because you know that you will choose to suffer just the same.

Chapter 18 Control Theory and Raising Children:

Try as hard as possible to teach, show, and help your children to gain effective control of their lives.

I was remarking yesterday about extending the above quote on child-rearing to managing employees. A powerful manager empowers employees to improved responsibility and control over their job. The opposite is also true: the manager who strips control from employees will have miserable employees who essentially do very little productive work.


Glasser discusses control theory as it pertains to drugs and alcohol, child-rearing, health and more. This idea-packed, paradigm-shifting book weighs in at a paltry 236 pages. It is out of print, but as you can see there are some 70+ copies at Amazon. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

Afterward: Glasser discusses towards the end of Control Theory a book he wrote in 1976 titled Positive Addiction (Update: I read this, too). Glasser describes Positive Addiction as an activity where, while in a state of control, you achieve a period of creative reorganization. The example of positive addiction he describes is running. Running allows for a period of “in-control time” (Something we all need every day) and can take the runner into a meditative state of creativity. Because creative states have the potential to produce unpredictably good ideas via the iterative process, finding and pursuing positive addictions could be incredibly beneficial. Since I’m no runner, I’ve been on the lookout for other activities that might fit this purpose. To date, the one that comes most readily to mind for me is weight lifting. While it’s not repetitive, lifting heavy weights—especially squatting—seems to trigger a meditative, reflective, and creative state for me.

Hat tip to Dr. Michael Eades for alerting me to this great book.

* Glasser actually writes about a fourth component of behavior, the physiological response (i.e. the way our bodies react to a stimulus—usually a reaction we cannot control).

Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:

  • Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
  • Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on achieving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
  • Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.

4 replies on “Control Theory by William Glasser”

Thanks for a concise synopsis on Control Theory.

Glasser’s theory and sub-theories applied to educational psychology were touted while I was in my masters in the early nineties. I bought several of his books, including Schools Without Failure, in which he posits that the drive to quantitatively assess learning deleteriously affects the learner’s desire or capacity to think about qualitative, even unanswerable (at the moment) questions.

I still think back to who is in control and what to do about my personal response to events in life, based on control theory….

I don’t hear much about Wm Glasser or his theories any more, and I wonder why.

There is a worldwide organisation the William Glasser Institute with institutes in 27 different countries. Dr Glasser lives in LA where there will be an International Convention in 2012. He has just released an updated re-write of this book.

I am concerned about this book. My son has been reading it and has changed his behavior towards our whole family. He seems sad, depressed somewhat and angry about everything that we have always shared as a family. Is this book speaking in anyway to a difference in adult behaviors?

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