Transactional Analysis and Other Games People Play


When Eric Berne published his book GAMES PEOPLE PLAY (New York: Grove Press, 1964), a book based on the school of psychology called Transactional Analysis, there arose outraged howls from the psychiatric community and shouts of glee from an enthusiastic lay audience. The average reader, if he exists, might consider these two responses when deciding whether he should read the book. Anyone with a basic knowledge of 'modern' (actually turn-of-the-century) psychology, who perhaps has heard the Freudian interpretation of Bugs Bunny or his own dreams, can judge that anything displeasing to modern psychologists cannot be all bad. On the other hand, noting some of the other books that have held high positions in the charts (for example, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS…), he might judge a book that has been popularly accepted as not all good.

Of course, his final judgment will probably show that GAMES PEOPLE PLAY is somewhere between bunk and a classic. In fact, it is to assure that more people will see the reasonable sections of Transactional Analysis, and that some may even go beyond to refine it, that I have written this article.

A discussion of TA begins, especially with a TA therapist, with definitions of terms. This is one of the surprises awaiting potential patients who are accustomed to the in-grown, esoteric vocabularies of other psychologists. But TA personnel have a basic commitment to communication; they believe in using words in the everyday vocabularies of their patients. Thomas Harris, in I'M OK—YOU'RE OK (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) a follow-up book to Berne's writes (p. 200):

To say that a person has a Pseudo-Schizophrenic Obsessive-Compulsive Passive-Dependent Anxiety Neurosis, Chronic does not tell you very much except that this is going to take a long, long time.

TA employs three fundamental terms to describe the human psyche. These are not to be confused with the Freudian trilogy. They are Parent, Adult, and Child. It's all quite logical.


When a person is functioning appropriately, his Adult is in command. The Adult is described as his 'computer facility'; it is the observing evaluating, decision making abilities of man in use. It is distinguished from the other two portions by its important alignment with reality and consciousness. This is almost too simple. Either one is functioning correctly or one isn't: if one isn't, he is either irrationally authoritarian or irrationally passive. A Transactional Analyst would say his pushy Parent or whining Child was then in control.

The activities of people, the Transactions of TA, can be categorized as one of six possibilities: withdrawal, rituals, activities, pastimes, games, and intimacy. Again, to describe actions TA uses ordinary words in senses closely related to their common meaning. They take place in social situations and car. briefly be characterized as follows:

withdrawal is the lack of action to continue a social contact—glancing past the elevator operator, being absorbed in one's thoughts on a crowded subway, etc.

ritual is structured actions that primarily pass time—cocktail parties and church services are largely rituals;

activity is purposeful, a procedure dealing with external necessities—washing dishes, going to the office, walking the dog;

pastimes are ways of passing time while gathering information, either factual or on the person one is engaged in the pastime with—some of Berne's names are 'General Motors' (comparing cars), 'Ever Been' (to some nostalgic place), and 'Grocery';

games are NOT for fun, they are transactions that aim toward an outcome other than their logical resolution, played for ulterior motives—'Why Don't You, Yes But' is a conversation in which a person apparently asks a friend for advice, then systematically destroys each suggestion in order to reach the conclusion that nothing can be done, thereby absolving the asker from responsibility for doing anything;

intimacy is a relationship between people who avoid the first five activities—friends talking over dinner, letter writing, lovers with the light on.

Harris' addition to the TA vocabulary is OK, a term designed to represent lay analysis of a person. Four combinations of OK and not-OK exhaust the life positions held about oneself and others: I'm not-OK, You're OK; I'm not-OK, You're not-OK; I'm OK, You're not-OK; I'm OK, You're OK. OK means efficacious, attached to reality, appropriately motivated and acting. It is an evaluation, a judgment, and can be produced by the Parent, Adult, or Child. Correct evaluations, of course, come from the Adult; the other elements introduce distorting factors sufficient to block realistic assessment.

Stroking is a TA term used often enough and differently enough to require definition. A stroke is a response from someone to a person that satisfies at least some of his expectations or needs in the activity in which they are engaged. The early form is actual physical contact, by a parent perhaps but later forms include partner's and adversaries' moves in game situations as well as physical and/or intellectual contact in intimacy.

There are other, less basic, terms that could be considered. Rather than take time on them, however, I would like to view some assumptions of TA.

The philosophical view of determinism is prevalent today, especially in psychology. A child's personality is said to be set by the age of six years. Juvenile delinquents are not blamed so much for their actions as are their parents. Man is seen as an animal shaped by his environment and his toilet training. One comes to expect such statements from psychologists. TA, however, explicitly rejects determinism. Choice is a basic element of TA psychology. Therefore, so is the corollary—change. Harris states (p. 16), 'WHAT WAS ONCE DECIDED CAN BE UNDECIDED.' (Original emphasis.)

This is not to say that TA views humanity sailing through existence untouched by the outside world. In fact, TA holds that most children have concluded the 'I'm not-OK, You're OK' position by the end of two years of life. Note that they have not had this conclusion thrust upon them; they chose this view of the world from the alternatives. And one can certainly see why. A small person is not efficacious, needs a lot of assistance, is told 'no' repeatedly without either being told why or being able to understand why not. He concludes rightly that he is not functioning optimally as a human being.

But as he grows in understanding, he is less a Child and more an Adult. His 'computer' begins to have material to work with, he begins to gain some mastery over his muscles, and he can begin to reevaluate his judgment of himself (and others). I say 'can' because many times a change does not occur. Functioning as a Child, while it is never truly fulfilling to grown people, can have rewards. A child is not expected to be totally successful; he is not, therefore, blamed for failure although he is often met with the Parent response 'I've Told You a Million Times.' A child is also preoccupied with his paradigm game 'Mine is Better' (by which he attempts to negate his feelings that he is not-OK) and wastes a lot of time in activities that cannot satisfy him.

Some children do not grow up to use the Child portion of the psyche but to use the Parent part. Determinists would say they have been unduly influenced by judgment-pronouncing authorities. TA holds that they mistakenly judged such power to be OK at an early stage and continue to labor under this misapprehension; 'Because it is a decision it can be changed by a new decision. But not until it is understood (Harris, p. 37). Whether or not he feels he is OK, he feels others are not-OK and plays 'Ain't It Awful' and other responsibility-relieving games. Like the Child, the Parent avoids real answers and growth, and he too misses the fulfillment available to the Adult.

The problems of choice and change are particularly important to psychiatric practice. But a therapist cannot begin to help his patient if he does not himself have the ability to choose between helpful and harmful change (this spotlights the determinists' problem—their system has shut them out from participating meaningfully in their system). Nathaniel Branden said in a paper delivered before the Psychiatric Division of the San Mateo County Medical Society and is quoted in Harris (p. 216):

Effective psychotherapy requires a conscious, rational, scientific code of ethics—a system of values based on the facts of reality and geared to the needs of man's life on earth.

TA accepts the premise that there is an objective morality for man, however poorly we understand it at a given time or however often the code must be revised to give account to additional information. I think Harris' grounds for accepting the rational road to ethics are shaky, although they are enough to make one consider the possibility that reason can also serve as a moral guide. He employs the concept 'comparative difficulties' and says it is more difficult to view human beings as unimportant, and psychology therefore as a waste of time that gets a nothing-animal nowhere, than to judge otherwise. The problem, of course, is that what is difficult for some.…But in a way he's right. The way things have been going, with moralities chosen on a hit/miss basis depending on one's parents, culture, or era, has been pretty bad. Just count the bodies on psychiatrists' couches, at the barricades, or in the trenches and you will conclude that the present system of judging 'ought' or 'should' needs revision. Without plunging into the specifics (see the writings of Ayn Rand and Branden for those), it looks likely that giving objectivity a chance is not a bad idea.

What about the people who need psychological help? How do they get it in TA? Usually treatment is accomplished in groups. Group therapy in TA does not mean, however, that the whole group acts on certain members to discuss problems. Harris is emphatic in his defense of group treatment where the analyst simply treats more than one person at a time. He argues, justifiably, that assistance cannot be given to all those in need on a one-to-one basis. So a TA therapist will arrange for a person to join a group, often of people who are similar or who have similar problems. Thus, groups of teenagers, their parents, or of housewives might be formed. Upon entrance, the patient is put on 'contract.' That is, the therapist agrees to treat him in a specified number of meetings over a certain length of time (sessions are usually weekly, but daily meetings can be arranged for seriously disturbed persons), and the patient agrees to attend the meetings and to attend to the discussions that go on there.

Transactional analysts make a concerted effort in the first few meetings with patients to establish the basis for treatment: an understanding of TA, the terms (P-A-C, etc.), and the goal. A patient will be told that, in meetings, the group will analyze under the therapist's direction the transactions members have had with people they meet during the day. Activities will be discussed in the vocabulary cited above. This effort is to be expended in order to put each person's Adult into primary control, limiting the powers of the Parent and Child to the status of 'consultants.' Each person will be encouraged to find evidence that he is OK and that others also are (or can be). And finally, he is expected to be able to leave the group as a functioning Transactional Analyst himself! TA wants to spread; it wants more people to be able to use its help. Its proponents firmly believe that it can serve as an ongoing aid to those who are treated with it or who otherwise become familiar with it.