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Transactional Analysis (TA) is a psychology concept developed in the 1950s by Eric Berne.
Contemporaneous with and often regarded as part of the humanistic psychology trend, TA is actually a highly behaviorist approach to psychology, holding that behaviors are the result of early childhood conditioning. TA tends to reject the disease model of mental illness, viewing mental illnesses as life scripts one picks up from early childhood conditioning rather than as diseases; said mental illnesses can be cured by recognizing the script and the conditioning that led to it, and making a conscious decision to stop "living" that script.
Parent — Adult — Child
The basic concept of TA is each person has three different aspects to their personality:
- The Parent, which consists of what persons do and tell others to do because they were told it was the right way by authority figures, such as their parents, teachers, and governments.
- The Adult, which consists of thoughts and behaviors resulting from reason, careful consideration, and the intellect.
- The Child, which consists of purely emotional thoughts and behaviors, such as anger and humor.
Compare Sigmund Freud's superego, ego and id, respectively.
In TA, any use of the three concepts of Parent, Adult, and Child is capitalized to avoid confusion, as seen below with the child's Adult addressing the parent's Adult followed by the parent's Parent addressing the child's Child.
TA then analyzes interpersonal interactions in terms of which personality aspects are being communicated. These interpersonal interactions are called "transactions", and the most basic unit of a transaction is called a "stroke". Transactions between two people are analyzed by both the personality aspect of the one speaking, and of the one being spoken to. For example, a child may attempt to hold an Adult-Adult conversation with their mother or father (the child's Adult personality addressing the Adult personality of their parent), but the parent may respond with a Parent-Child response (the parent's Parent addressing the child's Child). This is an instance of a transaction where the roles are "crossed" instead of symmetrical. In this case, one may expect misunderstandings and possibly hurt feelings on the part of the child, who was not expecting to be spoken down to.
TA also seeks to help people identify which of their behaviors are Parent and Child behaviors, and to understand that those behaviors are not always appropriate and to help people bring them under the direction and control of their Adult. TA further posits different types of human activity, in increasing order of the social interaction involved: withdrawal, procedures, rituals, games, intimacy. Intimacy is seen as the only purely honest form of social interaction; the next lowest level, games, is the most common form of transaction. A great deal of emphasis in TA is on identifying and naming the various social games, which have acronyms like "SWYMD" (See What You Made Me Do?), "NIGYSOB" (Now I've Got You Son of a Bitch), and "AIA" (Ain't It Awful?). Social games involving three persons are categorized in terms of each person assuming a different role: Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer.
TA posits that there are four "life positions":
- I'm OK, you're OK — a healthy well-balanced person
- I'm OK, you're not OK — someone who views themselves as a good person at war with the world
- I'm not OK, you're OK — someone who views other people as normal and themselves as inadequate or flawed
- I'm not OK, you're not OK — someone with a nihilistic or antisocial worldview
One claim of TA is that everyone is born with a natural "I'm OK, you're OK" life position, but most people then make a decision at some point during early childhood to change it to "I'm not OK, you're OK" as a result of scolding or perceived slights from authority figures. This is seen as a source of later unhappiness and discontent. The other two life positions are considered less common but carry even worse implications: "I'm OK, you're not OK" is the life position of social crusaders and remorseless sociopaths, "I'm not OK, you're not OK" the life position of bitter misanthropes, hermits, and miserable people. TA further claims that making a conscious decision as an adult to adopt an "I'm OK, you're OK" position is an integral part of recovery.
The social games in TA in turn are claimed to occur to reinforce (or prove) that either the person playing the game or the target of the game is "not OK". Another part of recovery, then, is claimed to be to identify and recognize the games one is playing and to stop playing them.
Eric Berne's 1963 book Games People Play was intended for the psychiatric community but became an unexpected best-seller on the self-help market. Thomas Harris' 1969 book I'm OK, You're OK became an even bigger best-seller. Claude Steiner's Games Alcoholics Play (1970) applied TA game analysis to the more specialized area of alcoholism and recovery. Other popular TA books include Scripts People Live (1974) by Claude Steiner, and Born to Win (1971) by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward.
The three major limitations of Berne's work are:
- Berne's emphasis on structural explanation (rather than on those derived from an energy theory)
- His failure to develop a script reversal technique which would satisfy his own criteria of conciseness and theoretical consistency
- An apparent dependence upon content analysis.
Tarnished reputation and backlash
TA was initially regarded with some promise in the psychology field. The popularity of Games People Play and subsequent books instead led to it becoming, in the words of the introduction by James Allen to the 2004 edition of that book, a "pop-psychology circus". TA's tendency to use silly-sounding terms and game names on the grounds that ordinary people would relate to them more than to the cold language of psychotherapy did not help its acceptance. The 1970 book All My Children by Jacqui Schiff popularized a quack therapy, reparenting, which became the source of a split in the TA movement over whether to embrace or disavow the new therapy; failure of the TA community to disavow it quickly left TA as a whole with a tarnished reputation by association. (Indeed, much of the TA community initially embraced it: reference the popular 1971 book Born to Win giving unwarranted enthusiasm to this untested and potentially abusive therapy, assuming it had to be good because it was based on concepts from TA. The TA community in general did not disavow reparenting entirely until the 1990s.)
Further demise of TA's reputation came about because some of its assumptions which were in vogue in 1950s-1960s psychology in general are now almost universally agreed to be wrong: TA's purely behaviorist approach held that homosexuality and alcoholism, among other things, were caused by scripts picked up from parental figures in early childhood, and that autism is congruent with an "I'm not OK, you're not OK" life position and a "refrigerator mother" upbringing, all views rejected by most of modern science today.
After the dust settled and TA was left on the fringes by the 1980s, TA changed some of its earlier assumptions, nowadays rejecting Eric Berne's views on homosexuality, and took off in a more postmodernist direction incorporating ideas from leftist critical theory. In the United States, TA is no longer as widely practiced as it once was but it remains popular in some countries, and the old TA books are still staples in the self-help section of the bookstore.
Fringe offshoots aside, a primary criticism of TA is that it is a simplified and arbitrary categorization of human interactions that does not meet the definition of a scientifically tested hypothesis; in other words, a pseudoscience. Instead of observable human behaviors being used to test and either confirm or falsify the hypothesis (and analyzed in their own right to determine their actual causes), they are merely shoehorned into the existing categories, as noted above with autism being claimed as a result of an "I'm not OK, you're not OK" life position, and alcoholism as a "life script" one can simply make a decision to stop following. Jacqui Schiff's reparenting is another example of such shoehorning; as little was known at the time about the causes of schizophrenia (it was widely believed at the time to be the result of bad parenting rather than being genetic/biochemical in origin), Schiff's explanation of it in terms of TA's Parent-Adult-Child model may have sounded plausible. TA promoters made grandiose claims regarding its potential, with the popular book I'm OK, You're OK concluding that TA held the key to erasing racism and other societal ills. This has obviously failed to materialize, despite that book spending two years on the best seller lists.
- John M. Dusay, Eric Berne: Contributions and Limitations. Taylor and Francis Online, 28 December 2017.