by Claude Steiner PhD, TM

Abstract: The author presents a set of core concepts that satisfy the author’s idea of “What is Transactional Analysis?”


Below I present a set of core concepts of a Stroke Centered Transactional Analysis. When he finished Games People Play, Eric Berne’s transactional analysis theory had almost ten years to differentiate itself from psychoanalytic thinking and to mature in its own right. In the Introduction of the book he laid out stroke theory and made clear that he considered strokes to be the fundamental motive for human behavior and the reason why people play games. He writes:

“the individual for the rest of his life (after infancy) is confronted with a dilemma upon whose horns his destiny and survival are continually tossed. One horn is the social, psychological and biological forces which stand in the way of continued physical intimacy in the infant style and the other is his perpetual striving for its attainment.” (pg 14)

The following core concepts of a stroke-centered transactional analysis are substantially based on Berne’s theory of strokes. However the concepts here presented, while based on Berne’s theories represent a substantial elaboration over many years after Berne’ death. Unfortunately Berne was prevented from hearing many of these ideas. The presentation of my work on strokes and the Stroke Economy that I had prepared for a presentation on July 1, 1971 at the Tuesday Seminars in San Francisco fell a few days after his deadly heart attack. Those ideas in their mature development are presented here as a tribute to his prescience and openness to original thinking.

Core Concepts of a Stroke-Centered Transactional Analysis.

PURPOSE and FUNCTION of Transactional Analysis

Concept #1: The principal activity of a transactional analyst is the analysis of transactions for the purpose of contractually improving people’s lives.

Concept #2: Through the analysis of the information contained in transactions it is possible to understand human behavior and experience.

Concept #3: Through the contractual modification of human interaction it is possible to beneficially modify human behavior and experience.


Concept #4: People need strokes to survive physically and psychologically. Stroke hunger is a form of information hunger, which is a fundamental, constant and pervasive drive in all living beings.

Notes: Strokes are transactional units of recognition. Research has shown that strokes are required for actual survival in young children and psychological survival and health in grows ups. Strokes can be generally divided into positive and negative based on the subjective experience of the recipient; positive strokes are pleasurable, negative strokes are painful.(Click her for more on this subject)

Concept #5: Positive strokes are in endemic scarcity due to a set of inhibiting social and internalized rules that prevent people from exchanging them freely. The scarcity of strokes creates heightened stroke hunger that stimulates stroke-seeking behavior.

The stroke economy is a set of rules that seek to interfere with the exchange of positive strokes; asking, giving and accepting strokes that are wanted and rejecting those that are not wanted.

Concept #6: People prefer positive strokes but will seek and accept negative strokes when stroke hungry and positive strokes are not available.


Concept #7: A transaction is an exchange of information. Every stroke is a transaction. However a transaction can contain more information than a simple stroke does. Transactions can be seen to emanate from separate, distinct systems in the person each with its own specialized function. Berne constructed three such systems and called them ego states: the Parent, the Adult, and the Child.

Notes: Normal human behavior can fall into distinct, internally coherent patterns or behavioral systems. Berne called these systems “ego states” because they are three separate manifestations of the ego as defined by Freud. The three egos states are distinct enough that it makes sense that they have a biological basis in distinct neural networks in the brain. Each ego state is associated with separate, observable modes of perception, emotion and behavior.

The three ego states are the visible manifestations of evolutionarily developed neural expert networks, each with a different function: The Adult is expert in predicting events. The Child is expert in maintaining emotional motivation and the Parent is expert in evolving value judgments.

The Adult is the rational, problem solving ego state. It is devoid of powerful emotions, which tend to disrupt understanding and logic. Of the three ego states it is the most likely to have a specific brain correlate–the neocortex–which is the seat of imitation, language and abstract thinking. Research shows that the neocortex has and can develop connections with other brain systems and can affect and modify them as well as be affected and modified by them. (Click here for more on this subject)

The Child. The Child is the emotional ego state. All the primary emotions and their combinations: such emotions as anger, sadness, fear, shame, on one hand and love, joy, hope, on the other have their origins in the Child. Research shows that the emotional portions of the brain have the capacity to flood and disable the neocortex with stimulation in what can be interpreted as an asymmetrical relationship of dominance of Child over Adult or “contamination” of the Adult by the Child.

The Parent. The Parent is the judging, tradition based, prejudiced, regulatory ego state. The separation of the Critical Parent from the Nurturing Parent is essential to the effective application of transactional analysis. Of the three ego states, the Parent is the most metaphorical in nature. It is can be visualized as a microchip implant with recorded external messages, and has been referred to as a witch or ogre, an electrode and so on.

The Critical Parent. Authoritarian systems in place for millennia are highly dependent on the dominance of the Critical Parent. Starting at the end of the second millennium AD there has been a global struggle to replace coercive, authoritarian methods with democracy, equality, universal human rights, cooperation and non-violence in support of every person’s goals. The premise of this movement in TA terms, is that every child is OK, that the Child’s needs are legitimate and that the most desirable and beneficial form of interaction is a cooperative, non-violent, nurturing relationship. This premise stands in contradiction with the function and assumptions of the Critical Parent, whose premise is that the Child is not OK (stupid, bad, crazy, ugly, sick or doomed) that children require physically and emotionally violent power plays to be educated including, especially, the curtailment of strokes (hence the Stroke Economy). This cultural sea change requires that the functions regulating the Child, heretofore performed by the Critical Parent, be performed by the Adult and Nurturing Parent instead.

It is therefore desirable to sharply limit the Critical Parent’s control of human affairs. On the other hand, given the goals of transactional analysis–to improve people’s lives by teaching them more effective ways of interacting–it is essential to strengthen the Adult ego-state. Just as important, since the Adult’s interactions are not the most powerful source of strokes, is the strengthening of the Nurturing Parent.

The Nurturing Parent. The Nurturing Parent is as prejudiced as the Critical Parent except that instead of judging the person not OK it argues instead that the person is OK: smart, good, sane, beautiful, healthy and deserving and capable of succeeding and getting as many strokes as he or she needs.

The Nurturing Parent though essentially beneficial nevertheless can overtake the personality and by excluding the Adult damage the person’s capacity to deal rationally with reality.

Concept #8: Each ego state represents an evolutionary achievement and survival depends on the independent function of the three ego states in coordination with each other. The ego states seldom appear in their potentially pure form and are usually “contaminated” or influenced by each other. The influence of the Child or the Parent on the Adult is especially significant because effective Adult functioning detached from emotional, “irrational” influences and prejudices is essential to the contractual goals of transactional analysis. Contaminations of the Adult are the metaphorical representations of neural connections between the neocortex and more primitive areas of the brain, caused by repeated or dramatic events in the person’s life.


Concept #9: Interaction can be divided into competitive and cooperative. Competition is transacted through power plays, cooperation is free of free of power plays.

Notes: Competitive, adversarial interaction is based on the assumption that it is acceptable to coerce others into giving up their rights and to undermine their power. Power plays are interactions to coerce others. Cooperative interaction is based on the assumption that everyone is OK and has equal rights and that it is not considered acceptable to coerce others at any level. (Click here for more on this subject.)


Concept #10: Games are power plays for strokes; habitual, dysfunctional patterns of stroke procurement usually learned in the family early in life, which undermine health and human potential.

Concept #11 Every person who plays games has a favored set of games and resulting emotions to which he is habituated. Every instance of games played, and the ongoing playing of games, reinforces the life script which is an overall plan acquired and sometimes consciously decided upon in early life. Scripts, the life long patterns built on habitual games, can be re-decided.

Concept #12: People play games by taking on roles in the game. Three roles: The Persecutor, the Rescuer and the Victim appear in all games. Any one who plays one of the roles will eventually play the other two. Since the particular manner in which any one person performs these three roles are the daily building blocks of the script, giving up these roles will also facilitate the abandonment of the script.


Concept #13: Transactional analysis was designed for, and is ideally practiced, in groups. The role of the Transactional Analysis practitioner is defined by a contract arrived at consensually between the client and the therapist, teacher or consultant.

Concept #14: The basic existential position–“I am OK, you are OK”–reflects the belief that people are born with an inherent tendency for health and healing. Nature’s helping hand, “Vis Medicatrix Nature,” the tendency to heal, is the transactional analyst’s principal ally. To facilitate natures helping hand by encouraging beneficial behavior and discouraging toxic behavior are the transactional analyst’s principal tasks.

Concept #15: The three operations of the process of Transactional Analysis are permission, protection and potency. Permission to change unwanted behaviors, protection from the Critical Parent and other influences that will resist or counteract the desired changes, and potency-the transactional analyst’s information, skills and personal support and investment in the process.

Avoiding the three basic game roles (Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim) by learning how to get strokes directly is the fundamental lesson of the transactional analyst. A potent transactional analyst will also bring all additional available science, and proven, practice-based information to the completion of the contractual relationship with the patient or client.

Notes: Transactional analysis is a contractual process in which a promise is made and performance is expected. This requires difficult hard, and at times exhausting action. It is difficult to run groups, it is difficult to establish and assiduously pursue contracts. It is difficult to offer creative suggestions or to make contract driven demands. It is difficult to stay current on the research literature and to acquire regular supervision. Regarding psychotherapy many practitioners are satisfied to do only individual one-to-one work, passive and not always contractual, hoping that attunement, kindness and intuitive analysis will suffice to effectuate a successful outcome.

It incumbent upon any health professional, regardless of training background, to practice empathy, attunement and kindness, while avoiding co-dependency or Rescuing. A competent mental health or education professional should to stay in touch with well researched and validated areas of knowledge such as substance use and abuse, diet, exercise, sexual and emotional trauma, spirituality, cognitive-behavioral techniques, attachment theories and research, death and dying, to name a few. Finally she or he should seek supervision and/or therapy when needed and pursue a healthy life.

In addition to all these basic requirements for any modern professional it behooves the transactional analyst to make contracts, analyze transactions and stroking patterns, practice group psychotherapy, tender permissions and deliver protection for those permissions and maintain focused attention on a satisfactory completion of the contract or “cure.”

This is the art, knowledge and pragmatic skills that transactional analysis brings to the behavioral sciences. (Click here for more on this subject)

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