Transactional analysis

Transactional analysis is a psychoanalytic theory developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne.

He identified three "ego states", the Parent, Adult and Child states [1] (, that co-exist in all people. He then considered how individuals interact with one another, and the ego states that were participating, both ostensibly and actually, in each set of transactions.

He sketched common stereotype sets of interactions involving ulterior motives, identifying these as "games". The first such game theorized was Why don't you, yes but in which one player (White) would pose a problem and the other players (Black) would propose solutions. White would point out a flaw in every Black player's solution, until they all gave up in frustration.

In addition to scholarly work, Berne wrote two popular books on transactional analysis, which summarize his ideas for the layman.

Originally treated as "pop psychology" due to (1) Berne's preference for layman's language rather than academic terminology, and (2) Berne's launch of TA to the mass market via popular books, TA has long outgrown its pop roots. It generates several subtle models for human interaction directed at answering "why does it go that way and how can people free themselves from it".

Many of Berne's more subtle observations have been simplified and trivialised in common TA literature, as some writers took advantage of its surface simplicity to remove the full richness of the underlying subject and re-present it as a very superficial model.


TA outline

TA is a theory of personality and a systematic psychotherapy for personal growth and personal change.

  • 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. This same model helps understand how people function and express themselves in their behaviour.
  • As a theory of communication it extends to a method of analysing systems and organisations.
  • it offers a theory for child development.
  • It introduces the idea of a "Life (or Childhood) Script", that is, a story one perceives about ones own life, to answer questions such as "What matters", "How do I get along in life" and "What kind of person am I". This story, TA says, is often stuck to no matter the consequences, to "prove" one is right, even at the cost of pain, compulsion, self-defeating behaviour and other dysfunction. Thus TA offers a theory of a broad range 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.

Key ideas of TA

Like Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), TA is pragmatic, that is, it seeks to find "what works" and where applicable develop models to assist understanding. Thus it continually evolves. However some core models are part of TA 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:

  • Adult: a state in which they behave, feel and think in response to what is going on here and now, using all their resources as an adult human being with many years of experience of life to guide them.
  • Parent: a state in which they behave, feel and think in response to an unconscious mimicking of how their parents (or other parent figures) acted - thus 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 that worked.
  • Child: a state in which they revert to behaving, feeling and thinking close to how they did in childhood - thus a person being told off by the boss at work may look down and feel shame or anger, as they used to when told off as a child.

Within each of these are sub-divisions. Thus parental figures are often either nurturing (permission giving, security giving) or controlling, childhood behaviours are either natural (free) or adapted to others. Each of these tends to draw an individual to certain well-worn behaviours, feelings and ways of thinking, which may be beneficial (positive) or dysfunctional/counterproductive (negative).

Ego states are not intended to correspond to Freud's Ego, Superego and Id (though some have compared the two). They are consistent for each person and more observable (rather than purely hypothetical). That is, one can tell from external observation and experience what kind of ego state a given person may be communicating from.

Neither do they correspond directly to thinking, feeling, and judging. These are present in every ego-state.

There is no "universal" ego state, each state is individually and visibly manifested for each person. Example: A child ego state is individual to the specific human being, that is, it is drawn from the ego state they created as a child, not some 'generalised childlike' state.

Ego states can become contaminated, for example when a person mistakes Parental rules and slogans, for here-and-now Adult reality, and beliefs are taken as facts. Or when a person "knows" that everyone is laughing at them, because "they always laughed". This would be an example of a childhood contamination, insofar as here-and-now reality is being overlaid with memories of previous historic incidents in childhood.

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 or negative. 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. Thus 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 labelled 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.

Reciprocal Transactions

A simple, reciprocal transaction occurs when both partners are addressing the ego state the other is in.

Example 1:

A: "Have you been able to write the report?" (Adult to Adult)
B: "Yes - I'm about to email it to you." (Adult to Adult)

Example 2:

A: "Would you like to come and watch a film with me?" (Child to Child)
B: "I'd love to - what shall we go and see?" (Child to Child)

Example 3:

A: "Is your room tidy yet?" (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 exchanged of strokes can continue for some time).

Crossed Transactions

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.

Example 1a:

A: "Have you been able to write that report?" (Adult to Adult)
B: "Will you stop hassling me? I'll do it eventually!" (Child to Parent)

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"

Example 2a:

A: "Is your room tidy yet?" (Parent to Child)
B: "I'm just going to do it, actually." (Adult to Adult)

is a more positive crossed transaction. However there is the risk that "A" will feel aggrieved that "B" is acting responsibly and not playing his 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.

Duplex or Covert transactions

Another class of transaction is the 'duplex' or 'covert' transactions, where the explicit social conversation occurs in parallel with an implicit psychological transaction. For instance,

A: "Would you like to come and see the barn?"
B: "I've loved barns ever since I was a little girl."

Social level adult-to-adult; psychological level child-to-child flirtation.

Life (or Childhood) Script

  • Script is a life plan, directed to a pay-off.
  • Script is decisional and responsive, ie decided upon in childhood in response to perceptions of the world and as a means of living with and making sense of. 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 their own life story (script) very young, as they try to make sense of the world and their 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 themselves up for this, by adopting behaviours in childhood that produce exactly this effect. Or it could as easily be positive.

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 and state they are just 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 the actual problem, or to not choose 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 a child, Don't grow up, Don't make it in your life, 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."

Against these, a child is often told other things they must do. There are five of these 'drivers':

Be perfect! Please (me/others)! Try Hard! Be Strong! Hurry Up!

Thus in creating their 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 their 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 they themselves don'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.

Rackets and Games

  • A racket is the dual strategy of getting "permitted feelings" and covering up those which we truly feel, as being "not allowed".
  • A game is a repetitive, usually predictable, sequence of transactions, characterised by a sudden "switch" at the end. Thus the husband bullies the wife and the wife acquiesces (thus both experience racket feelings). The husband bullies more, the wife gives in more. Suddenly she walks out. This is the switch. Both parties feel a sudden change of feelings, but are not consciously aware of their part in engineering them.

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 and reinforcement for a childhood script belief that "People will always let you down".

In other words, rackets and games are devices used by a person to create a circumstance where they can legitimately feel the racket feelings, thus abiding by and reinforcing their childhood script. They are always a substitute for a more genuine and full adult emotion and response which would be a more appropriate response to the here-and-now situation.

Games can be classed as level 1, 2 or 3 according to the stakes played. Level 1 would be lots of small paybacks (the girl who keeps meeting nice guys who ditch her, and feeling bad). Level 3 would be payback built up over a long period to a major level (ie court, mortuary, or similar).

They 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!").

(This section with thanks to: TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis by Ian Stewart, Vann Joines)

Philosophy of TA

  • People are OK - thus each person has validity, importance, equality of respect.
  • Everyone (with only few exceptions) has full adult capability to think.
  • People decide their story and destiny, and this is a decision, it can be changed.
  • Freedom from historical maladaptations embedded in the childhood script is required, in order to become free of inappropriate unauthentic and displaced emotion 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 behaviour, and repetitive dysfunctional life patterns).
  • TA is goal oriented, not merely problem oriented.
  • The aims of change under TA are autonomy (freedom from childhood script), spontaneity, intimacy, problem solving as opposed to avoidance or passivity, cure as an ideal rather than merely 'making progress', learning new choices.

Pop TA

Berne's ability to express the ideas of TA in common language and his popularisation of the concepts in mass-market books inspired a boom of 'popular' TA texts, some of which simplify TA concepts to a deleterious degree.

One example is a caricature of the structural model, where it is made out that the Parent judges, the Adult thinks and the Child feels. Most serious TA texts, including those aimed at the mass market rather than professionals, avoid this degree of oversimplification.

Thomas Harris's higly 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 out in the "I'm OK position" whereas Harris feels life starts out "I'm not OK, you're OK". Many transactional analysts have regarded Harris too far enough away from core TA beliefs to be considered a transactional analyst.

See also


Books by Eric Berne (Popular)

Books by Eric Berne (Other)

Books by other authors

  • Ian Stewart, Vann Joines - TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis
  • (1990)(Paperback reissue ed.) Scripts People Live: Transactional Analysis of Life Scripts. New York: Grove Press By Claude Steiner ISBN 0394492676.

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