What Is… Transactional Analysis

Transaction analysis - diagram showing 3 ego states (parent, child, adult)

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is transactional analysis.

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…

In TA, transactions are 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

TA identifies three ego states: 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, even though 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.


Transactional analysis diagram of Parent, Adult, and Child ego states
Yuasan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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 occur 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 person 1’s Child communicating to Parent and person 2’s Parent communicating back to Child.

The diagram above shows 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.

Life positions

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

Out of these, “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. As with Freud’s ideas, I get the 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, the TA stance on homosexuality, alcoholism, and autism was essentially to blame the parent; for example, 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.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

18 thoughts on “What Is… Transactional Analysis”

  1. Not heard of this before.
    Some of Freud’s work came up in my mental health coursework I once did, but not this. So I found this interesting.

  2. I didn’t know that about autism. I wonder if that has been revised since the 60s. Despite that, I’ve found TA quite useful in understanding myself and my interactions. My current therapist is particularly keen on identifying persecutor-victim-saviour interactions in my life.

  3. A friend of ours really likes to use TA to analyse interactions. We found it somewhat helpful for that too, especially with our Mum. But don’t agree with the “mental illnesses is because of refrigerators mums” stuff.

  4. I studied this once during a year’s counselling certificate I took. I think some of its philosophies are helpful when trying to understand interaction with others and where it might break down, and how to resolve it. I used it more as a communication approach rather than a theory causes of mental health and autism. That’s just twaddle as far as I am concerned.

  5. I remember hearing about this theory back in the seventies. At the time I lumped it in with numerous similar trends that were going around, as though we were experiencing a Renaissance of pop psychology. The P-A-C thing can maybe be a good model, but it strikes me as the kind of thing certain people can take too seriously and come to rely on. People have similar relationships with astrology and Myers-Briggs.

    The I’m OK, You’re OK part speaks to my issues with authority and low self-esteem. I think it’s a little bit more useful for me.

        1. Also, when T.A. came out (Transactional Analysis) something called T.M. came out at around the same time (Transcendental Meditation.) I would hear older adults talking about both of them and get them mixed up.

          This was also in the days when E.S.T. was popular before Werner Erhart had to “skip state” on some allegation. Crash courses in Zen Buddhism for like $500 were all the rage, and Wayne Dyer was around publishing books like “Your Erroneous Zones.” Those were the days. 😉

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