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Transactional Analysis and Games Theory

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Transactional analysis is described by the ITAA (International Transactional Analysis Association) as “a theory of personality and a systematic psychotherapy for personal growth and personal change”. TA is a set of theories and techniques.

The broad timetable for development of TA concepts was:

1955-1962 ego states

1962-1966 transactions and games

1966-1970 script analysis (Hay, p.2)

In general Berne’s theory (1964) outlines the importance of social intercourse for people’s time-structuring, which is vital from biological side – in order to stimulate human’s brain for mental health; the most gratifying examples of these are games and intimacy. After the period of the close intimacy with the mother the individual for the rest of his life strives for its attainment – there are biological, social, psychological forces, which stand in the way of physical intimacy in the infant style. It is possible in a form of compromise, a person learns to do with more subtle, symbolic forms of handling. This process of compromise can be called sublimation, it results in transforming from the infantile stimulus-hunger to the recognition-hunger.

“Stroking” is used as a general term for intimate physical contact, in practice it can appear in different forms. An exchange of strokes constitutes a transaction, which is a unit of social action. Strokes are “units of recognition”, they can be both positive and negative, conditional and unconditional. Strokes are given and received via the senses: hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell. Individuals and organisations develop characteristic patterns of stroking.

The eternal problem of the human being – how to structure his walking hours, hence structure-hunger appears. The operational aspect of time structuring is called programming, it can be material, social and individual. The most common method of structuring time is dealing with the material of external reality – work or in social psychiatric terms “activity”. Examples of activities are studying, typing, attending meetings, negotiating, etc. It can be seen from this that work activities can provide psychological satisfactions as well as material benefits, by enabling people to structure their time in a productive way. This characteristic distinguishes activities from the other four types of time structuring sometimes engaged in at work.

There are several options for structuring time – rituals, pastimes, games, intimacy, activity. The goal of each member of the aggregation is to obtain satisfaction (gains, advantages) from the transactions.

A ritual is a set of transactions which follow an agreed and semi-programmed course, which allows people to interact without intimacy – or more precisely with a predetermined degree of intimacy. The introduction ritual is a common example. Rituals supply security – while they are taking place the danger of uncharted waters is kept away.

Pastimes move relationships forward from rituals – they retain formulaic elements, but allow people to give one another strokes and to get to know each other a little better. They usually occur at parties, allowing individuals to confirm their roles and giving an oppotrunity of social selection.

Consequently the notion of games appears – talking about individual programming, which happens when individuals follow certain regulated patterns – they can be revealed if an illegal move is made giving rise to a cry “Foul!”. A psychological game is defined as a repetitive sequence of complementary, ulterior transactions leading to a well-defined, negative pay-off for all parties. Such sequences based more on individual than on social programming. The vital feature of human play is not that emotions are spurious but that they are regulated.

Pastimes and games are substitutes for the real intimacy. Intimacy begins when individual programming becomes more intense and social patterning and ulterior restrictions and motives give way.

Structural Analysis

Observation of social activity shows that sometimes people change their behaviour (feelings,attitudes) switching (in some particular conditions) to some particular pattern according to their state of mind/psychic attitude – this means that several ego states exist. They are:

1. Ego states which resemble those of parental figures – every individual has had parents, he carries within him a set of ego states that reproduce the ego states of his parents (as he perceived them); more dogmatic, routine, automatic matters – eventually the Parent is essential for survival of the human race. The Parent consists of a set of recordings in an individual’s mind of imposed, unquestioned, external events perceived between birth and age five years. These recordings are permanent and cannot be erased.

2. Ego states which are autonomously directed towards objective appraisal of reality – the Adult is necessary for survival. The Adult is the last ego state to develop, only beginning after the infant is ten months’ old.

3. Those which represent archaic relics, still-active ego-states which were fixated in early childhood – emotional, spontaneous, creative, intuition. The Child consists of recordings of internal events (feelings) experienced in the first five years in response to external events. Like the Parental recordings, those in the Child are permanent.

So Berne actually uses Freud’s terminology, talking about these divided states.

Colloquially their exhibitions are called Parent, Adult and Child. Every person includes those 3 states, each of them is equally vital.

If we do not incorporate the useful parts of Parent and Child into our Adult, we are left with contaminations and/or exclusions.

Contaminations occur when archaic Parent or Child recordings ‘leak’ into Adult. We then believe we are behaving rationally but are actually using logic to justify something that is not true. For example, we claim that we are justified in losing our temper because the other person made a mistake.

Exclusions occur when someone fails to use one or more of their ego state systems. They may be permanently in Parent, telling others how to behave. Or they may have Parent and Child characteristics but have no awareness of their Child emotions(Hay, p.4).

Transactional Analysis

The unit of social intercourse is called a transaction. As people encounter each other in a social aggregation one of them produces the transactional stimulus, while another person will produce the transactional response. There are three types of transactions – complementary (same agents), crossed and ulterior (more complex, involve the activity of more than 2 ego states simultaneously – on social and psychological levels, can be angular and duplex).

Types of Games

Eric Berne (1964) has described and classified over ninety Games: among the most common are the following:

* ‘If it weren’t for you, I could (or could have) …’ This one is common in

family relations(two-handed game, a spouse).At work, convention often prevents this game being played ‘live’, but it may well be rehearsed inwardly or to a colleague: ‘If the boss hadn’t had it in for me, I could have been running Area X by now’.

* ‘Why don’t you …’; ‘Yes, but …’ (many-handed game).

Other Games include ‘You got me into this’, ‘There I go again’, and ‘Why don’t you and he fight?’ (three-handed game).

For games analysis Berne proposes following methodology: defining Thesis, Aim, Roles, Dynamics, Examples (an illustration of the game as played in childhood + an illustration from adult life), Paradigm (critical transactions at the social and psychological levels), Moves (minimum number of transaction stimuli and transactional responses), Advantages, Relatives (complementary, allied, antithetical games).

As Guirdham M. writes (p.11), at work, games inhibit effectiveness. Game analysis, therefore, according to Dave Barker ‘represents a significant way of examining and dealing with dysfunctional relationships in organisations’. Certainly studying TA is one way of increasing awareness both of the self and of communications; in addition it provides a set of tools for motivating others: by addressing their Child, for instance, you may be able to stimulate their enthusiasm better than if you communicate only to their Adult, while by assuaging their Parent, some inhibitors to change can be removed. Finally, it can help you to achieve better work relationships if you, for instance, recognize that a ‘Game’ is about to begin, and counter with a pleasant stroke instead of a (temporarily) ‘winning’ ulterior message.


As an example I would like to describe situation which happens very frequently in our common everyday life, varying to some extent. In a nutshell: an individual faces an organisation and has troubles. It can be depicted in rather pulp/colloquial language, but as we know it gives clearly the notion of the game. “Nigtmare of never-ending debt” says the heading of the article in Luton&Dunstable’s Herald and Post (p. 4-5). A family borrowed � 6000, which resulted in a hundred thousand debt.

Immediately an idea to apply a game “Debtor” becomes obvious. As Berne has already mentioned several decades ago, in modern society this game can be considered as script, a plan for a whole lifetime. Another party, highly concerned by that problem are students. According to the case study of Brassington and Petit (p. 689-691), this sector has become a target market for bankers. That means that as soon as a person pretends to be financially independent, he or she heavily indebts, although for the banks this sector is not very profitable initially, banks expect these people to acieve higher earning potential, so for the people which go to the college it can become approximately a life-term commitment – to pay off their debt. Although the banks are supposed to be socially responsible for this group of younger people, after all they are commercial organisations, aimed on doing profit.

Berne outlines the following example to show how this “Debtor” game dominates in western society, comparing to the analogue situation in jungles of New Guinea where the relatives of a young man buy him a bride at an enormous price, putting him in their debt for years to come. So it indicates that the same custom prevails in civilised countries, instead of bride can be a house or education, instead of relatives a bank can act in this role. “thus the young man in New Guinea with old wrist watch dangling from his ear <…> and the young man in America with a new wrist watch wrapped around his arm <…> both feel that they have a “purpose” in life”(p.71).

So this shows that people everywhere are the same and obey to the same game rules – the theory works for all the people. And the customs are usually like this – the celebration takes place not when the debt is paid of but when it is undertaken – that’s how advertising, public relations and everything related to the media issues work, outlining only positive advantages and hiding the truth. Without such processes of gaining purpose life seems aimless, when people pay off their debts and retire, the society tries to find them some substitution of purpose.

The role of “Creditor” in the form “Try and Get Away With It” is also very typical played on the part of confronting company/organisation (often small). And these two opposite actors can recognize themselves easily and readily become involved with each other, expecting transactional advantages. It can be as thrilling as gambling.

So these consequent debt repayments represent a purpose for the person, like we can see it in the history of that poor single mom, paying her debt for decades because of past arrears. The roots of this situation if for instance cast off her obligations and policy towards the organisation which sticked her to such conditions, can probably be found in her relations with her husband. Then it’s possible to reveal features of “Kick me” game which transfers into “Why does this always happen to me?”. Somehow such people like being under pressure.

And, according to Berne, if people in the environment are restrained by kindheartedness “I’m only trying to help you”, social convention or organisational rules, this person’s behaviour can become more and more provocative until he transgresses the limits and forces them to oblige. In woman’s case this game has a version of “threadbare”. Such women see that their earnings for some reasons never rise much above the subsistence level – still if they have a windfall they always involve someone who helps them to get rid of it.

Also in that case some version of “Now I’ve got you…” game can be recognised on some stage when a person realises that he/she has to pay off the debt, that can be also “Ain’t it awful” game. In these games the agent seeks injustices in order to complain about them to a third party, so this game involves three participators – Aggressor, Victim, Confidant. The organisation which lent money to her is in this case an Aggressor, woman is a Victim, and (we don’t know all the details) the newspaper can be a Confidant.

Secretly on subconsious level the woman can suspect her ex-husband as Aggressor as well, since he was the person to initiate all her miserable events. So in professional form of this game is recognized like “badger game”. In general even something similar to the “Alcoholic” can be revealed (without alcohol) – the person goes through the process of financial or social degradation, which involves the same Adult-adult and Parent-Child as social and psychological paradigms.

Antithesis – the contractual structure of a relationship with the NIGY player (an oragnisation lending money) should be explicitly stated in detail at the first opportunity, it’s better in business situations to calculate all the risks before starting doing anything.

Social paradigm – The woman’s husband behaved himself like Adult: “Please help me, I’ve got a problem”. And the woman also behaved as Adult: “Ok, we’re going to resolve it together”.

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