Transactional analysis (TA to its adherents), is an integrative approach to the theory of psychology and psychotherapy. It is described as integrative because it has elements of psychoanalytic, humanist and cognitive approaches. TA was first developed by Canadian-born US psychiatrist Eric Berne, starting in the late 1950s
- As a theory of personality, TA describes how people are structured psychologically. It uses what is perhaps its best known model, the ego-state (Parent-Adult-Child) model, to do this. The same model helps explain how people function and express their personality in their behavior
- As Berne set his Psychology up, there are four life positions that a person can hold and holding a particular psychological position has profound implications for how an individual operationalizes his or her life. The positions are stated as:
- I’m OK and you are OK. This is the healthiest position about life and it means that I feel good about myself and that I feel good about others and their competence.
- I’m OK and you are not OK. In this position I feel good about myself but I see others as damaged or less than and it is usually not healthy,
- I’m not OK and you are OK. In this position the person sees him/herself as the weak partner in relationships as the others in life are definitely better than the self. The person who holds this position will unconsciously accept abuse as OK.
- I’m not OK and you are not OK. This is the worst position to be in as it means that I believe that I am in a terrible state and the rest of the world is as bad. Consequently there is no hope for any ultimate supports.
- It is a theory of communication that can be extended to the analysis of systems and organisations.
- It offers a theory for child development by explaining how our adult patterns of life originated in childhood. This explanation is based on the idea of a “Life (or Childhood) Script”: the assumption that we continue to re-play childhood strategies, even when this results in pain or defeat. Thus it claims to offer a theory of psychopathology.
- In practical application, it can be used in the diagnosis and treatment of many types of psychological disorders and provides a method of therapy for individuals, couples, families and groups.
- Outside the therapeutic field, it has been used in education to help teachers remain in clear communication at an appropriate level, in counselling and consultancy, in management and communications training and by other bodies
People are OK; thus each person has validity, importance, equality of respect.
- Positive reinforcement increases feelings of OK.
- All people have a basic lovable core and a desire for positive growth.
- Everyone (with only few exceptions, such as the severely brain-damaged) has the capacity to think.
- All of the many facets of an individual have a positive value for them in some way.
- People decide their story and destiny, therefore these decisions can be changed.
- All emotional difficulties are curable.
Freedom from historical maladaptations embedded in the childhood script is required in order to become free of inappropriate, inauthentic and displaced emotions which are not a fair and honest reflection of here-and-now life (such as echoes of childhood suffering, pity-me and other mind games, compulsive behavior and repetitive dysfunctional life patterns). The aim of change under TA is to move toward autonomy (freedom from childhood script), spontaneity, intimacy, problem solving as opposed to avoidance or passivity, cure as an ideal rather than merely making progress and learning new choices.
TA is a neo-Freudian theory of personality. Berne’s ego states are heavily influenced by Freud’s id, ego and super-ego, although they do not precisely correspond with them. A primary difference between Berne and Freud is the former’s treatment of the observable transactions known as “games”. A number of books popularized TA in the general public but did little to gain acceptance in the conventional psychoanalytic community. TA is considered by its adherents to be a more user-friendly and accessible model than the conventional psychoanalytic model. A number of modern-day TA practitioners emphasize the similarities with cognitive-behaviorist models while others emphasize different models.
TA is not only post-Freudian but, according to its founder’s wishes, consciously extra-Freudian. That is to say that, while it has its roots in psychoanalysis, since Berne was a psychoanalytically-trained psychiatrist, it was designed as a dissenting branch of psychoanalysis in that it put its emphasis on transactional, rather than “psycho-“, analysis.
With its focus on transactions, TA shifted the attention from internal psychological dynamics to the dynamics contained in people’s interactions. Rather than believing that increasing awareness of the contents of unconsciously held ideas was the therapeutic path, TA concentrated on the content of people’s interactions with each other. Changing these interactions was TA’s path to solving emotional problems.
TA also differs to Freudian analysis in explaining that an individual’s final emotional state is the result of inner dialogue between different parts of the psyche, as opposed to the Freudian hypothesis that imagery is the overriding determinant of inner emotional state. (For example, depression may be due to ongoing critical verbal messages from the inner Parent to the inner Child.) Berne believed that it is relatively easy to identify these inner dialogues and that the ability to do so is parentally suppressed in early childhood.
In addition, Berne believed in making a commitment to “curing” his patients rather than just understanding them. To that end he introduced one of the most important aspects of TA: the contract—an agreement entered into by both client and therapist to pursue specific changes that the client desires.
Revising Freud’s concept of the human psyche as composed of the id, ego, and super-ego, Berne postulated in addition three “ego states”—the Parent, Adult, and Child states—which were largely shaped through childhood experiences. These three are all part of Freud’s ego; none represent the id or the superego.
Unhealthy childhood experiences can lead to these being pathologically fixated in the Child and Parent ego states, bringing discomfort to an individual and/or others in a variety of forms, including many types of mental illness.
Berne considered how individuals interact with one another, and how the ego states affect each set of transactions. Unproductive or counterproductive transactions were considered to be signs of ego state problems. Analyzing these transactions according to the person’s individual developmental history would enable the person to “get better”. Berne thought that virtually everyone has something problematic about their ego states and that negative behavior would not be addressed by “treating” only the problematic individual.
Berne identified a typology of common counterproductive social interactions, identifying these as “games“.
Berne presented his theories in two popular books on transactional analysis: Games People Play (1964) and What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1975). I’m OK, You’re OK (1969), written by Berne’s longtime friend Thomas Anthony Harris, is probably the most popular TA book.
By the 1970s, because of TA’s non-technical and non-threatening jargon and model of the human psyche, many of its terms and concepts were adopted by eclectic therapists as part of their individual approaches to psychotherapy. It also served well as a therapy model for groups of patients, or marital/family counselees, where interpersonal (rather than intrapersonal) disturbances were the focus of treatment. Critics have charged that TA—especially as loosely interpreted by those outside the more formal TA community—is a pseudoscience, when it is in fact better understood as a philosophy.
TA’s popularity in the U.S. waned in the 1970s, but it retains some popularity elsewhere in the world. The more dedicated TA purists banded together in 1964 with Berne to form a research and professional accrediting body, the International Transactional Analysis Association, or ITAA.
Leaving psychoanalysis half a century ago, Eric Berne presented transactional analysis to the world as a phenomenological approach supplementing Freud’s philosophical construct with observable data. His theory built on the science of Wilder Penfield and Rene Spitz along with the neo-psychoanalytic thought of people such as Paul Federn, Edoardo Weiss, and Erik Erikson. By moving to an interpersonal motivational theory, he placed it both in opposition to the psychoanalytic traditions of his day and within what would become the psychoanalytic traditions of the future.
From Berne, transactional analysts have inherited a determination to create an accessible and user-friendly system, an understanding of script or life-plan, ego states, transactions, and a theory of groups.
Fifty years later
Within the overarching framework of transactional analysis, more recent transactional analysts have developed several different and overlapping theories of Transactional Analysis: cognitive, behavioral, relational, redecision, integrative, constructivist, narrative, body-work, positive psychological, personality adaptational, self-reparenting, psychodynamic, and neuroconstructivist..
Some transactional analysts highlight the many things they have in common with cognitive-behavioral therapists: the use of contracts with clear goals, the attention to cognitive distortions (called “Adult decontamination” or “Child deconfusion”), the focus on the client’s conscious attitudes and behaviors and the use of “strokes”.
Cognitive-based transactional analysts use ego state identification to identify communication distortions and teach different functional options in the dynamics of communication. Some make additional contracts for more profound work involving life-plans or scripts or with unconscious processes, including those which manifest in the client-therapist relationship as transference and countertransference, and define themselves as psychodynamic or relational transactional analysts. Some highlight the study and promotion of subjective well-being and optimal human functioning rather than pathology and so identify with positive psychology. Some are increasingly influenced by current research in attachment, mother-infant interaction, and by the implications of interpersonal neurobiology, and non-linear dynamic systems.
Many of the core TA models and concepts can be categorised into
- Structural analysis – analysis of the individual psyche
- Transactional analysis proper – analysis of interpersonal transactions based on structural analysis of the individual’s involved in the transaction
- Game analysis – repeating sequences of transactions that lead to a predetermined outcome subconsciously agreed to by the parties involved in the game
- Script analysis – a lifeplan that may involve long term involvement in particular games in order to reach the life pay-off of the individual
These concepts can be understood as follows:-
The Ego-State (or Parent-Adult-Child, PAC) model
At any given time, a person experiences and manifests their personality through a mixture of behaviours, thoughts and feelings. Typically, according to TA, there are three ego-states that people consistently use:
- Parent (“exteropsyche”): a state in which people behave, feel, and think in response to an unconscious mimicking of how their parents (or other parental figures) acted, or how they interpreted their parent’s actions. For example, a person may shout at someone out of frustration because they learned from an influential figure in childhood the lesson that this seemed to be a way of relating that worked.
- Adult (“neopsyche”): a state of the ego which is most like a computer processing information and making predictions absent of major emotions that could affect its operation. Learning to strengthen the Adult is a goal of TA. While a person is in the Adult ego state, he/she is directed towards an objective appraisal of reality.
- Child (“archaeopsyche”): a state in which people behave, feel and think similarly to how they did in childhood. For example, a person who receives a poor evaluation at work may respond by looking at the floor, and crying or pouting, as they used to when scolded as a child. Conversely, a person who receives a good evaluation may respond with a broad smile and a joyful gesture of thanks. The Child is the source of emotions, creation, recreation, spontaneity and intimacy.
Berne differentiated his Parent, Adult, and Child ego states from actual adults, parents, and children, by using capital letters when describing them. These ego-states may or may not represent the relationships that they act out. For example, in the workplace, an adult supervisor may take on the Parent role, and scold an adult employee as though they were a Child. Or a child, using their Parent ego-state, could scold their actual parent as though the parent were a Child.
Within each of these ego states are subdivisions. Thus Parental figures are often either more nurturing (permission-giving, security-giving) or more criticizing (comparing to family traditions and ideals in generally negative ways); Childhood behaviors are either more natural (free) or more adapted to others. These subdivisions categorize individuals’ patterns of behavior, feelings, and ways of thinking, that can be functional (beneficial or positive) or dysfunctional/counterproductive (negative)..
Berne states that there are four types of diagnosis of ego states. They are: “behavioral” diagnosis, “social” diagnosis, “historical” diagnosis, and “phenomenological” diagnosis. A complete diagnosis would include all four types. It has subsequently been demonstrated that there is a fifth type of diagnosis, namely “contextual”, because the same behavior will be diagnosed differently according to the context of the behavior.
Ego-states do not correspond directly to Sigmund Freud‘s Ego, Superego and Id, although there are obvious parallels: Superego/Parent; Ego/Adult; Id/Child. Ego states are consistent for each person, and (argue TA practitioners) are more observable than the components of Freud’s model. In other words, the ego state from which someone is communicating is evident in his or her behavior, manner and expression.
There is no “universal” ego-state. For example, each Child ego state is unique to the childhood experiences, mentality, intellect, and family of each individual; it is not a generalized childlike state.
One ego state can become contaminated from another ego state. For example, when a person mistakes Parental rules and slogans for here-and-now Adult reality (the Adult ego state has become contaminated with the Parent), and when beliefs are taken as facts (the Adult ego state has become contaminated with the Child). Or when a person “knows” that everyone is laughing at him because “they always laughed”. This would be an example of a childhood contamination (a Child contamination of the Adult), insofar as here-and-now reality is being overlaid with memories of historic incidents in childhood.
Ego-state symbiosis is also possible according to Berne. In a symbiotic relationship, one participant borrows an ego state from the other participant and incorporates it into their personality. For instance, soldiers may absolve themselves of the question of the morality of their actions by deferring to their superiors. In this case, the soldier has incorporated their superior’s Parent ego state into their persona (e.g. Banality of evil).
Although TA theory claims that Ego states do not correspond directly to thinking, feeling, and judging, as these processes are present in every ego state, this claim appears to be self-contradictory to the claim that the Adult is like a computer processing information, therefore not feeling unless it is contaminated by the Child. A deeper understanding of TA is necessary in order to resolve this paradox. For example Berne discusses  how each ego state (Parent, Adult and Child) can be perceived to be a further division of Parent-Adult-Child within the ego state itself.Born to Win discusses how one of the goals of TA is to achieve integration of the other ego states into the Adult (an integrated Adult ego state) so that the awareness of the entire persona is elevated to the level the Adult’s perception of reality.
Berne suspected that Parent, Adult, and Child ego states might be tied to specific areas of the human brain; an idea that has not been proved.
The three ego state model has been questioned by a TA group in Australia, who have devised a “two ego-state model” as a means of solving perceived theoretical problems:
“The two ego-state model says that there is a Child ego-state and a Parent ego-state, placing the Adult ego-state with the Parent ego-state. […] How we learn to speak, add up and learn how to think is all just copied from our teachers. Just as our morals and values are copied from our parents. There is no absolute truth where facts exist out side a person’s own belief system. Berne mistakenly concluded that there was and thus mistakenly put the Adult ego-state as separate from the Parent ego-state.” It is not clear if the concept of a learnt perception of reality is counterindicative to Berne’s theory of identifiably separate modes of rational and moral thought, however.
Transactions and Strokes
- Transactions are the flow of communication, and more specifically the unspoken psychological flow of communication that runs in parallel. Transactions occur simultaneously at both explicit and psychological levels. Example: sweet caring voice with sarcastic intent. To read the real communication requires both surface and non-verbal reading.
- Strokes are the recognition, attention or responsiveness that one person gives another. Strokes can be positive (nicknamed “warm fuzzies”) or negative (“cold pricklies”). A key idea is that people hunger for recognition, and that lacking positive strokes, will seek whatever kind they can, even if it is recognition of a negative kind. We test out as children what strategies and behaviours seem to get us strokes, of whatever kind we can get.
People often create pressure in (or experience pressure from) others to communicate in a way that matches their style, so that a boss who talks to his staff as a controlling parent will often engender self-abasement or other childlike responses. Those employees who resist may get removed or labeled as “trouble”.
Transactions can be experienced as positive or negative depending on the nature of the strokes within them. However, a negative transaction is preferred to no transaction at all, because of a fundamental hunger for strokes.
The nature of transactions is important to understanding communication.
Kinds of transactions
There are basically three kinds of transactions:
- Reciprocal/Complementary (the simplest)
- Ulterior – Duplex/Angular (the most complex)
Reciprocal or Complementary transactions
A simple, reciprocal transaction occurs when both partners are addressing the ego state the other is in. These are also called complementary transactions. Example 1:
- A: “Have you written the report?” (Adult to Adult)
- B: “Yes – I’m about to email it to you.” (Adult to Adult)
- A: “Would you like to skip this meeting and go watch a film with me instead?” (Child to Child)
- B: “I’d love to – I don’t want to work anymore, what should we go and see?” (Child to Child)
- A: “You should have your room tidy by now!” (Parent to Child)
- B: “Will you stop hassling me? I’ll do it eventually!” (Child to Parent).
Communication like this can continue indefinitely. (Clearly it will stop at some stage – but this psychologically balanced exchange of strokes can continue for some time).
Communication failures are typically caused by a ‘crossed transaction’ where partners address ego states other than that their partner is in. Consider the above examples jumbled up a bit.
- A: “Have you written that report?” (Adult to Adult)
- B: “Will you stop hassling me? I’ll do it eventually!” (Child to Parent)
This is a crossed transaction likely to produce problems in the workplace. A may respond with a Parent to Child transaction. For instance:
- A: “If you don’t change your attitude, you’ll get fired.”
- A: “Is your room tidy yet?” (Parent to Child)
- B: “I’m just going to do it, actually.” (Adult to Adult)
This is a more positive crossed transaction. There is however the risk that A will feel aggrieved that B is acting responsibly and not playing their role, and the conversation will develop into:
- A: “I can never trust you to do things!” (Parent to Child)
- B: “Why don’t you believe anything I say?” (Child to Parent)
… which can continue indefinitely.
Another class of transaction is the ulterior transactions, where the explicit social conversation occurs in parallel with an implicit psychological transaction. For instance:
- A: “I need you to stay late at the office with me.” (Adult words), body language indicates sexual intent (flirtatious Child)
- B: “Of course.” (Adult response to Adult statement), winking or grinning (Child accepts the hidden motive).
Phenomena behind the transactions
In TA theory,”Life Position” refers to the general feeling about life (specifically, the unconscious feeling, as opposed to a conscious philosophical position) that colours every dyadic (i.e. person-to-person) transaction. Initially four such Life Positions were proposed:
- “I’m Not OK, You’re OK” (I-U+)
- “I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK” (I-U-)
- “I’m OK, You’re Not OK” (I+U-)
- “I’m OK, You’re OK” (I+U+)
Australian TA analyst, Tony White, claimed that in order to better represent the Life Position behind disorders that were not, allegedly, as widespread and/or recognized at the time when TA was conceptualized as they are now (such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder) the above list requires alteration. Also, two additional Life Positions are proposed:
- “I’m not-OK, You’re OK” (I-U+)
- “I’m not-OK, You’re not-OK” (I-U-)
- “I’m not-OK, But You’re Worse” (I-U–)
- “I’m not-OK, You’re Irrelevant” (I-U?)
- “I’m a Bit More OK Than You Are” (I++U+)
- “I’m OK, You’re OK” (I+U+)
- “I’m OK, You’re Irrelevant” (I+U?)
The difference between one’s own OK-ness and other’s OK-ness captured by description “I’m OK, You’re not-OK” is proposed to be substituted by description that more accurately captures one’s own feeling (not jumping to conclusions based only on one’s perceived behavior), therefore stating the difference in a new way: “I’m not-OK, but You’re worse” (I-U–), instead.
Berne further developed life position theory to included more complex three handed life positions such as:
- “I’m OK, You’re OK, They’re not OK”
In children responses such as, “Let’s go and play and then we’ll deal with those not OK people later” may be expected from this position, whereas in adults this position may lead to gang criminality.
Life (or Childhood) script
- Script is a life plan, directed to a reward.
- Script is decisional and responsive; i.e., decided upon in childhood in response to perceptions of the world and as a means of living with and making sense of the world. It is not just thrust upon a person by external forces.
- Script is reinforced by parents (or other influential figures and experiences).
- Script is for the most part outside awareness.
- Script is how we navigate and what we look for, the rest of reality is redefined (distorted) to match our filters.
Each culture, country and people in the world has a Mythos, that is, a legend explaining its origins, core beliefs and purpose. According to TA, so do individual people. A person begins writing his/her own life story (script) at a young age, as he/she tries to make sense of the world and his place within it. Although it is revised throughout life, the core story is selected and decided upon typically by age 7. As adults it passes out of awareness. A life script might be “to be hurt many times, and suffer and make others feel bad when I die”, and could result in a person indeed setting himself up for this, by adopting behaviours in childhood that produce exactly this effect. Though Berne identified several dozen common scripts, there are a practically infinite number of them. Scripts discussed in psychotherapy are mostly destructive as the patient’s script is psychopathological, however scripts may just as easily be mostly positive or beneficial.
Redefining and Discounting
- Redefining means the distortion of reality when we deliberately (but unconsciously) distort things to match our preferred way of seeing the world. Thus a person whose script involves “struggling alone against a cold hard world” may redefine others’ kindness, concluding that others are trying to get something by manipulation.
- Discounting means, to take something as, worth less than it is. Thus to give a substitute reaction which does not originate as a here-and-now Adult attempt to solve an actual problem, or to choose not to see evidence that would contradict one’s script. Types of discount can also include: passivity (doing nothing), over-adaptation, agitation, incapacitation, anger and violence.
Injunctions and Drivers
TA identifies twelve key injunctions which people commonly build into their scripts. These are injunctions in the sense of being powerful “I can’t/mustn’t …” messages that embed into a child’s belief and life-script:
- Don’t be (don’t exist)
- Don’t be who you are (Don’t Be You)
- Don’t be a child
- Don’t grow up
- Don’t make it in your life (Don’t Succeed)
- Don’t do anything!
- Don’t be important
- Don’t belong
- Don’t be close
- Don’t be well (don’t be sane!)
- Don’t think
- Don’t feel.
- In addition, there is the so-called episcript:
“You should (or deserve to) have this happen in your life, so it doesn’t have to happen to me.” (Magical thinking on the part of the parent(s).)
Against these, a child is often told other things he or she must do. There is debate as to whether there are five or six of these ‘drivers’:
- Please me/others!
- Be perfect!
- Be Strong!
- Try Hard!
- Hurry Up!
- Be Careful! (is in dispute)
Thus in creating his script, a child will often attempt to juggle these, example: “It’s okay for me to go on living (ignore don’t exist) so long as I try hard“.
This explains why some change is inordinately difficult. To continue the above example: When a person stops trying hard and relaxes to be with his family, the injunction You don’t have the right to exist which was being suppressed by their script now becomes exposed and a vivid threat. Such an individual may feel a massive psychological pressure which he himself doesn’t understand, to return to trying hard, in order to feel safe and justified (in a childlike way) in existing.
Driver behaviour is also detectable at a very small scale, for instance in instinctive responses to certain situations where driver behaviour is played out over five to twenty seconds.
Broadly speaking, scripts can fall into Tragic, Heroic or Banal (or Non-Winner) varieties, depending on their rules.
Ways of time structuring
There are six ways of structuring time by giving and receiving strokes:
This is sorted in accordance with stroke strength; Intimacy and Games in general allow for the most intensive strokes. Berne actually ordered them: Withdrawal, Ritual, Activity, Pastimes, Games, Intimacy.
This means no strokes are being exchanged
A ritual is a series of transactions that are complementary (reciprocal), stereotyped and based on social programming. Rituals usually comprise a series of strokes exchanged between two parties.
For instance, two people may have a daily two stroke ritual, where, the first time they meet each day, each one greets the other with a “Hi”. Others may have a four stroke ritual, such as:
B: Hi! How are you?
A: Getting along. What about you?
B: Fine. See you around.
The next time they meet in the day, they may not exchange any strokes at all, or may just acknowledge each other’s presence with a curt nod.
Some phenomena associated with daily rituals:
- If a person exchanges fewer strokes than expected, the other person may feel that he is either preoccupied or acting high and mighty.
- If a person exchanges more strokes than expected, the other person might wonder whether he is trying to butter him up or get on good terms for some vested interests.
- If two people do not meet for a long time, a backlog of strokes gets built up, so that the next time they meet, they may exchange a large number of strokes to catch up.
A pastime is a series of transactions that is complementary (reciprocal), semi-ritualistic, and is mainly intended as a time-structuring activity. Pastimes have no covert purpose and can usually be carried out only between people on the same wavelength. They are usually shallow and harmless. Pastimes are a type of smalltalk.
Individuals often partake in similar pastimes throughout their entire life, as pastimes are generally very much linked to one’s life script and the games that one often plays. Some pastimes can even be understood as a reward for playing a certain game. For example, Eric Berne in Games People Play discusses how those who play the “Alcoholic” game (i.e., alcoholics, their Persecutors and their enablers) often enjoy the “Morning After” pastime in which participants share their most amusing or harrowing hangover stories.
Activities in this context mean the individuals work together for a common goal. This may be work, sports or something similar. In contrast to Pastimes, there is a meaningful purpose guiding the interactions, while Pastimes are just about exchanging strokes. Strokes can then be given in the context of the cooperation. Thus the strokes are generally not personal, but related to the activity.
Intimacy as a way of structuring time allows one to exchange the strongest strokes without playing a Game. Intimacy differs from Games as there is no covert purpose, and differs from Activities as there is no other process going on which defines a context of cooperation. Strokes are personal, relating to the other person, and often unconditional.
Games and their analysis
Definition of game
A game is a series of transactions that is complementary (reciprocal), ulterior, and proceeds towards a predictable outcome. Games are always characterized by a switch in roles of players towards the end. Games are always played by Parent and Child ego states, and games can have any number of players; however, an individual’s role can shift, and people within games can play multiple roles. If a person uses their Adult in a game then this would be a manoeuvre and not a game on the part of the person using their Adult ego state. Adult functioning is conscious. Game playing is out of awareness.
Berne identified dozens of games, noting that, regardless of when, where or by whom they were played, each game tended towards very similar structures in how many players or roles were involved, the rules of the game, and the game’s goals.
Each game has a payoff for those playing it, such as the aim of earning sympathy, satisfaction, vindication, or some other emotion that usually reinforces the life script. The antithesis of a game, that is, the way to break it, lies in discovering how to deprive the actors of their payoff.
Students of transactional analysis have discovered that people who are accustomed to a game are willing to play it even as a different “actor” from what they originally were.
Analysis of a game
One important aspect of a game is its number of players. Games may be two handed (that is, played by two players), three handed (that is, played by three players), or many handed. Three other quantitative variables are often useful to consider for games:
- Flexibility: The ability of the players to change the currency of the game (that is, the tools they use to play it). In a flexible game, players may shift from words, to money, to parts of the body.
- Tenacity: The persistence with which people play and stick to their games and their resistance to breaking it.
- Intensity: Easy games are games played in a relaxed way. Hard games are games played in a tense and aggressive way.
Based on the degree of acceptability and potential harm, games are classified as:
- First Degree Games are socially acceptable in the players’ social circle.
- Second Degree Games are games that the players would like to conceal, though they may not cause irreversible damage.
- Third Degree Games are games that could lead to drastic harm to one or more of the parties concerned.
Games are also studied based on their:
- Social and Psychological Paradigms
- Advantages to players (Payoffs)
Contrast with rational (mathematical) games
Transactional game analysis is fundamentally different from rational or mathematical game analysis in the following senses:
- The players do not always behave rationally in transactional analysis, but behave more like real people.
- Their motives are often ulterior.
Some commonly found games
- YDYB: Why Don’t You, Yes But. Historically, the first game discovered.
- IFWY: If It Weren’t For You
- WAHM: Why does this Always Happen to Me? (setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy)
- SWYMD: See What You Made Me Do
- UGMIT: You Got Me Into This
- LHIT: Look How Hard I’ve Tried
- ITHY: I’m Only Trying to Help You (becoming a neglected martyr)
- LYAHF: Let’s You and Him Fight (staging a love triangle)
- NIGYYSOB / NIGYSOB: Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of a Bitch (escalating minor disagreements or errors into major interpersonal conflicts)
- RAPO: A woman falsely cries ‘rape’ or threatens to; related to Buzz Off Buster, a milder version in which a woman flirts with a man and then rejects his advances
Berne argued that the logic of games is wholly subjective; one person’s Parent state might interact with another’s Child, rather than as Adult to Adult.
Games can also be analysed according to the Karpman drama triangle, that is, by the roles of Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer. The ‘switch’ is then when one of these having allowed stable roles to become established, suddenly switches role. The Victim becomes a Persecutor, and throws the previous Persecutor into the Victim role, or the Rescuer suddenly switches to become a Persecutor (“You never appreciate me helping you!”).
Why Don’t You/Yes But
The first such game theorized was Why don’t you/Yes, but in which one player (White) would pose a problem as if seeking help, and the other player(s) (Black) would offer solutions (the “Why don’t you?” suggestion). This game was noticed as many patients played it in therapy and psychiatry sessions, and inspired Berne to identify other interpersonal “games”.
White would point out a flaw in every Black player’s solution (the “Yes, but” response), until they all gave up in frustration. For example, if someone’s life script was “to be hurt many times, and suffer and make others feel bad when I die” a game of “Why Don’t You, Yes But” might proceed as follows:
- White: I wish I could lose some weight.
- Black: Why don’t you join a gym?
- White: Yes but, I can’t afford the payments for a gym.
- Black: Why don’t you speed walk around your block after you get home from work?
- White: Yes but, I don’t dare walk alone in my neighborhood after dark.
- Black: Why don’t you take the stairs at work instead of the elevator?
“Why Don’t You, Yes But” can proceed indefinitely, with any number of players in the Black role, until Black’s imagination is exhausted, and she can think of no other solutions. At this point,White “wins” by having stumped Black. After a silent pause following Black’s final suggestion, the game is often brought to a formal end by a third role, Green, who makes a comment such as, “It just goes to show how difficult it is to lose weight.”
The secondary gain for White was that he could claim to have justified his problem as insoluble and thus avoid the hard work of internal change; and for Black, to either feel the frustrated martyr (“I was only trying to help”) or a superior being, disrespected (“the patient was uncooperative”).
Superficially, this game can resemble Adult to Adult interaction (people seeking information or advice), but more often, according to Berne, the game is played by White’s helpless Child, andBlack’s lecturing Parent ego states.
“Drunk” or “Alcoholic”
Another example of Berne’s approach was his identification of the game of “Drunk” or “Alcoholic.” As he explained it, the transactional object of the drunk, aside from the personal pleasure obtained by drinking, could be seen as being to set up a situation where the Child can be severely scolded not only by the internal parent but by any parental figures in the immediate environment who are interested enough to oblige. The pattern is shown to be similar to that in the non-alcoholic game “Schlemiel,” in which mess-making attracts attention and is a pleasure-giving way forWhite to lead up to the crux, which is obtaining forgiveness by Black.
There are a variety of organizations involved in playing ‘Alcoholic’, some of them national or even international in scope, others local. Many of them publish rules for the game. Nearly all of them explain how to play the role of Alcoholic: take a drink before breakfast, spend money allotted for other purposes, etc. They also explain the function of the Rescuer role in the game.Alcoholics Anonymous, Berne said, continues playing the actual game but concentrates on inducing the Alcoholic to take the role of Rescuer. Former Alcoholics are preferred because they know how the game goes, and hence are better qualified to play the supporting role of Rescuer than people who have never played before.
According to this type of analysis, with the rise of rescue organizations which publicize that alcoholism is a disease rather than a transactional game, alcoholics have been taught to play “Wooden Leg”, a different game in which an organic ailment absolves White of blame.
A racket is the dual strategy of getting “permitted feelings,” while covering up feelings which we truly feel, but which we regard as being “not allowed”. More technically, a racket feeling is “a familiar set of emotions, learned and enhanced during childhood, experienced in many different stress situations, and maladaptive as an adult means of problem solving”.
A racket is then a set of behaviours which originate from the childhood script rather than in here-and-now full Adult thinking, which (1) are employed as a way to manipulate the environment to match the script rather than to actually solve the problem, and (2) whose covert goal is not so much to solve the problem, as to experience these racket feelings and feel internally justified in experiencing them.
Examples of racket and racket feelings: “Why do I meet good guys who turn out to be so hurtful”, or “He always takes advantage of my goodwill”. The racket is then a set of behaviours and chosen strategies learned and practised in childhood which in fact help to cause these feelings to be experienced. Typically this happens despite their own surface protestations and hurt feelings, out of awareness and in a way that is perceived as someone else’s fault. One covert pay-off for this racket and its feelings, might be to gain in a guilt free way, continued evidence andreinforcement for a childhood script belief that “People will always let you down”.
TA and popular culture
Thomas Harris‘s successful popular work from the late 1960s, I’m OK, You’re OK is largely based on Transactional Analysis. A fundamental divergence, however, between Harris and Berne is that Berne postulates that everyone starts life in the “I’m OK” position, whereas Harris believes that life starts out “I’m not OK, you’re OK”.
New Age author James Redfield has acknowledged Harris and Berne as important influences in his best-seller The Celestine Prophecy. The protagonists in the novel survive by striving (and succeeding) in escaping from “control dramas” that resemble the games of TA.
The 2nd episode of the 3rd season in the 4th generation of the “My Little Pony” series is called “Games Ponies Play” as an homage to this work.