In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is transactional analysis. I got the idea for this from a post by Maja of Lampelina.
Transactional analysis (TA) is a theory developed by psychoanalytic psychiatrist Dr. Eric Berne. This may not be the least bit relevant, but it helps set the scene—he has a pipe in his mouth in the header image on his website. So cliché, yet so perfect…
Transactions are considered the basic unit of social intercourse. The transaction stimulus occurs when one person initiates an interaction, and the transactional response is what the other person says or does in response to the transactional stimulus.
The 3 ego states
There are three ego states identified in TA: Parent, Child, and Adult. Berne defined ego states as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behavior.”
Parent refers to “recordings” that come from the first five years of life. These are things the child perceived as coming from externally. For example, “Johnny, don’t pick your nose!”
The Child consists of the emotions and feelings associated with external events. These recordings range from birth up to age five. For example, you might feel resentment that you’re not supposed to pick your nose when it feels kinda good.
The Adult is what allows the growing child to evaluate Parent and Child messages and validate the messages received from the Parent. Example: Sally saw me pick my nose at preschool and said “ewwwww, gross.” I like Sally, so I guess mom was right that I shouldn’t pick my nose… at least in public.
In transactional analysis, individual transactions are analyzed to determine the dominant ego states that are interacting. These ego states can be shown in a structural diagram, such as the example above. Complementary interactions when the ego state direction person 1 is communicating in is reciprocated by person 2. That may be Adult communicating to Adult and vice versa, or it might be Child communicating to Parent and person 2’s Parent communicating back to Child. What’s shown above is a crossed transaction, where person 1 and person 2 are communicating with mismatched ego states. This is less effective than complementary transactions.
When communicating with someone, statements like “you need” and “you should” may elicit responses in the Child state, even if that was not the original intent (aka the “I’ll pick my nose if I want to” response).
In TA, the therapist analyzes the client’s transactions; nonverbal cues are an important part of this. The therapist identifies which tricks and expedients, also known as games, that they tend to use. Social games may include the roles of Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer. Script analysis is done to uncover the sources of the client’s emotional problems. Scripts are the unconscious life plans that are laid for us early in life and influence our behaviour. The goal is to help free clients from the restraints of these scripts.
TA identifies four life positions that are based on fundamental beliefs about the self and others. They are:
- I’m OK, you’re OK
- I’m OK, you’re not OK
- I’m not OK, you’re OK
- I’m not OK, you’re not OK
“I’m OK, you’re OK” is considered healthy and balanced, but the other positions have assorted problems associated with them.
Is any of this useful?
This isn’t actually Freudian, as Berne took Freud’s theories and branched off into another direction, but it’s got the same early life focus. It also gives me the same sense that there might be something reasonable in there but it might also be wrapped in some nonsense.
RationalWiki’s article on TA refers to it as arbitrary and lacking in empirical evidence. Apparently TA’s stance on homosexuality, alcoholism, and autism were essentially blame the parent, e.g. a cold “refrigerator mother” and an “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” life position caused autism.
I’m thinking that says all you really need to know right there.
For more on transaction analysis:
- Dr. Berne has published a book based for laypeople called Games People Play
- TA-Tutor has handouts and worksheets
- APA Dictionary of Psychology: Transactional analysis
- Eric Berne M.D.: Transactional analysis
- RationalWiki: Transactional analysis
- Wikipedia: Script analysis
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.