By Claude Steiner PhD
Fifty years ago Eric Berne invented Transactional Analysis (TA). From the beginning, TA, which is at once a theory of social and personal psychology, and a method of psychotherapy and education, ran into difficulties. This was because Berne expressed his theory not only in scientific terms, but also in terms of his personal idiosyncrasies. He had a penchant for provocative, intuitive neologisms, generalizations, aphorisms, simplifications and fairy tales that were suited to the rebellious style of the 1960’s and made sense to some but shocked, and even revolted, others. He wrote a sensational best seller; Games People Play.(101 weeks on the NY Times “Best Seller” list), In the first fifty pages of that book he gave a summary of his thoughts at a peak moment in his thinking. As a consequence Berne, Transactional Analysis, the three circles, games, strokes and even scripts became part of US popular culture in the 70’s.
In time TA was reduced to an “I’m OK you’re OK” parody of itself. As is the case with all such media promoted fads, TA sunk into oblivion, with editors of major publishing houses refusing to publish anything that had any overt transactional analysis concepts in it.
As the dust settled, the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA) now truly international in scope, lost the majority of its 10,000 members and TA ceased to be a money cow for anyone willing to sell it. Berne had died suddenly and prematurely at age 60 and the organization was left rudderless. But TA was undeniably attractive and useful and had gathered a sturdy and varied group of enthusiasts and followers. In spite of its demise in the media, TA began its new post-celebrity life. TA books were still widely read, workshops on TA were presented world wide, and a training and certification program remained an active source of new interest and fresh faces. Today, while the ITAA’ membership has dwindled to 1500 members, transactional analysis is nevertheless a global movement with easily 10,000 adherents of varying levels of allegiance and theoretical sophistication.
As is the case in any such theory and practice, many bright ideas emerged and many of them faded from view. Some ideas kept their supposed importance but came into disuse–mere icons of an earlier period. Other ideas developed on their own and created whole new movements within TA. Still other ideas stand alone and are used constantly, inside and outside TA. For instance:
Bright ideas that disappeared: The intimacy experiment, the script fairy tale, game names such as “nigysob” and others, redefining hexagon, etc.
Ideas that have become icons in disuse but often referred to and tested for in TA advanced membership examinations: The script matrix, time structure, Formula G, levels of discounting, etc
Ideas that became a separate movement: The redecision movement of Bob and Mary Goulding. John Dusay’s egogram which is a subject matter seriously studied at Japanese academic institutions. Steiner et al’s stroke-centered emotional literacy training. Erskine and Trauttman’s Integrative Transactional Analysis.
Single concepts that stand alone: Contracts, the drama triangle, the stroke economy, scripts, the (inner) Child, power plays, the Adult, etc
To summarize Berne’s TA can be at least three things:
- A set of ideas based on belief. Intuitively connected myths, metaphors and neologisms which are very helpful to people who want to understand and change their lives and other people’s lives but which make more sense as morality tales than as scientific or philosophical postulates. This is the basis of TA’s early popularity.
- Useful techniques based on heuristic development. Modern(ized) methods of psychotherapy/educational practice based on trial and error, pragmatic findings, the creative use of techniques from other methods and generally supported by scientific research. This is the most likely path for a revival of transactional analysis in the professional community.
- A theory and practice based on scientific research. This is the only possible basis for a place for transactional analysis in the scientific community and depends on just how prescient Berne was fifty years ago. His vision regarding the nature and importance of strokes and the effectiveness of contracts as examples, has already been demonstrated by independent researchers in the social sciences.
These three aspects of TA: metaphor, method and science, are intermingled in the minds of TA’s adherents, creating puzzling contradictions for veterans and students alike. One of the outcomes of this is that many think of themselves as “in TA” but are aware of and sympathetic to only a part of the broad scope of transactional analysis.
The work on strokes, as an example, encompasses all three aspects:
Strokes as metaphor. Berne’s aphorism “People need strokes or their backs will shrivel up,” which inspired The Warm Fuzzy Tale which impacted popular culture by creating the ubiquitous turn of phrase; “warm and fuzzy.”
Strokes as method. The use of strokes as a method of therapy/education is thoroughly supported by decades of experience with the efficacy of methods which emphasize TLC, groups, contact, interaction and touching.
Strokes as science. The scientific aspect of the stroke concept is demonstrated throughout a large number of research findings on children and adults which show the importance of human contact for survival.
Not all TA concepts have that strong a representation in all three areas (metaphor, method and science). Some have none at all except as metaphors.
As an example ego states are only dimly confirmed by research and are useful mainly as metaphors. The hypostantiating tendencies of TA (turning words that seek to describe phenomena into entities, then speaking of those entities as if they exist) read as naïve, insular, unsophisticated and disconnected to professionals in the field. That is why, in my opinion, it makes little sense to debate fine points of ego state theory. If ego states are metaphors how can we “study” them as if they were validated and replicated realities? More than a handful of ego state subdivisions or, for that matter, arrows on the script matrix or drivers become, to me, increasingly less meaningful and akin to the medieval debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They remain extremely useful metaphors but cannot be taken as hard core realities.
Another example of largely metaphorical concepts are scripts and script decisions which have little basis in research. Yet they have proven effective in psychotherapy and have become the basis for a respected method; redecision therapy.
HOW TA DEVELOPS; CORE CONCEPTS and BEYOND
During his life, Berne and his followers generated a great number of interlocking ideas. Until he died Berne was the sole arbiter of what would be incorporated into the theory; his intuitive decision to commit to an idea defined what would be included as new theory or practice. Since his death, debates about “what is TA?” have no set system of resolution. Some, a vocal minority, go so far as to argue that there should be no attempt to determine when new ideas are too far afield to be described as TA theory or method.
But common sense indicates that any theory has to have some basics parameters to maintain coherence. Based on this premise the ITAA commissioned a task force chaired by the author to develop a set on core concepts. The work of this task force resulted in the 1999 Core Concepts. (1999CC’s) The 1999CC’s is a compilation of concepts considered core by a sample of the membership woven into a narrative.
Others, notably members of the Integrative Transactional Analysis movement, have postulated their own core concepts. You may read the “Core Concepts of a Stroke Centered Transactional Analysis” substantially different from the 1999CC’s which satisfies the author’s idea of “What is TA?”