Choice Theory: Too Much of a Good Thing?

choice theory

Choice Theory identifies five basic needs that drive our behavior. One of them is freedom. Advocates of choice theory encourage classroom teachers to offer lots of options so that students can easily satisfy the need for freedom by doing what the teacher wants. I offer this sort of advice in both The Motivated Student and Activating the Desire to Learn. While choice is essential, research suggests that we can have too much of a good thing. In fact, too many choices may actually interfere with optimum performance.

In “Choice is a Matter of Degree,” Bryan Goodwin reviews an analysis of 41 studies conducted in 2008. Researchers found that when students were given options, they were more motivated, performed better, and took on more challenging tasks. However, “the researchers also found diminishing returns when students had too many choices: Giving more than five options produced less benefit than offering just three to five. The researchers concluded that with student choice, ‘too much of a good thing may not be very good at all’ (p. 298).”

While offering choice promotes learning, too many options can overwhelm students. Having to select from too many choices is sufficiently stressful that performance and engagement diminish. Looked at from a choice theory perspective, this makes perfect sense. In addition to a need for freedom, we have a need for safety/survival and a need for power/competence. Being offered too many choices can interfere with our ability to satisfy those needs. People want to feel competent. Give them too many choices and they can be plagued by self-doubt: “Which one should I choose?” “Is this the right choice?” “Suppose I make a bad choice?” Because of our need for safety/survival, we value predictability and routine. While choices are beneficial, giving too many erodes the predictability that promotes a feeling of security.

We all have to find a way to meet all of our needs every day. Any environment – including a classroom – that offers too many choices unintentionally makes it difficult to satisfy other equally important needs. The best advice is to structure an environment that is reasonably balanced so that everyone can more easily meet all of their needs on a regular basis.