By the time 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 to that book, Berne laid out his stroke theory and made it clear that he considered strokes to be the fundamental motive for human behavior and the reason why people play games. He wrote:

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. (p. 14)

The following stroke-centered theory of transactional analysis is substantially based on Berne’s theory of strokes.

Purpose and Function of Transactional Analysis

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

The analysis of the information contained in transactions makes it possible to understand human behavior and experience. In addition, modification of human interaction can beneficially modify human behavior and experience.


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.

Strokes are transactional units of recognition. Wide ranging, recent research has shown that strokes are required for actual survival in young children and psychological survival and health in grown-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.

The Stroke Economy

Positive strokes are in pervasive scarcity due to a set of inhibiting social and internalized rules–the stroke economy– that prevent people from exchanging them freely. The stroke economy is a set of rules that seeks to interfere with the exchange of positive strokes; the asking, giving, and accepting strokes that are wanted and rejecting those that are not wanted. People prefer positive strokes but will seek and accept negative strokes when they are stroke hungry and positive strokes are not available. The scarcity of strokes creates heightened stroke hunger that stimulates stroke-seeking behavior.

Transactions and Ego States

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, internally coherent mental systems, each with its own specialized function. Berne detected three such systems he called ego states and named them the Parent, the Adult, and the Child. The three egos states are three separate manifestations of the ego as defined by Freud. Each ego state is associated with separate, observable modes of perception, emotion, and behavior. The ego sates are distinct enough that it makes sense that they may have a biological basis in distinct neural networks in the brain.

The three ego states are the visible manifestations of neural expert networks developed by evolution, 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 developing 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 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.

The Child is the emotional ego state. All the primary emotions and their combinations—such emotions as anger, sadness, fear, and shame, on the one hand, and love, joy, and 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 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 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 Nurturing Parent is as prejudiced as the Critical Parent except that instead of judging the person not OK, it argues 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, although essentially beneficial, can nevertheless overtake the personality and, by excluding the Adult, damage the person’s capacity to deal rationally with reality.

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.

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 nonviolence in support of every person’s goals. The premise of this movement, in transactional analysis 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, nonviolent, nurturing relationship. This stands in contradiction to the function and assumptions of the Critical Parent, whose premise is that the Child is not OK (stupid, bad, crazy, ugly, sick, or doomed) and that children require physically and emotionally violent power plays to be educated, including, especially, the curtailment of strokes (hence the stroke economy).

A cultural sea change in this area requires that the functions regulating the Child, heretofore exercised by the Critical Parent, should be performed by the Adult and Nurturing Parent instead. It also becomes clear that in the absence of a strong, functioning Adult, the Critical Parent can convincingly argue that the unregulated Child could potentially endanger the person. Therefore, the paradigm shift from control to cooperation and non-violence depends on a culture wide increase of healthy and strong Child, Adult and Nurturing Parent egos states, as Critical Parent influences decrease.

It is, therefore desirable, in an egalitarian, democratic, cooperative society, 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. It is just as important, since the Adult’s interactions are not the most powerful source of strokes, to strengthen the Nurturing Parent.

Power Plays, Games, Roles and Scripts

Interaction can be divided into competitive and cooperative.

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; competition is transacted through power plays while cooperation is free of power plays. 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.

Games are power plays for strokes; they are habitual, dysfunctional patterns of stroke procurement that are usually learned in the family early in life and undermine health and human potential.

Every person who plays games has a favored set of games and resulting emotions to which he or she is habituated. Every instance of games played, in addition to procuring strokes, reinforces the life script. Scripts are overall life plans that are acquired and sometimes consciously decided in early life. These lifelong patterns are built on habitual games, and can be arrested and eventually, redecided.

People play games by taking on roles in the game. Three roles—the Persecutor, the Rescuer, and the Victim—appear in all games. Anyone 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.

The Practice of Transactional Analysis

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.

The basic existential position of “I’m OK, You’re 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 nature’s helping hand by encouraging beneficial behavior and discouraging toxic behavior are the transactional analyst’s principal tasks.

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 the transactional analyst’s potency in the form of information, skills, and personal support and investment in the process.

Avoiding the three basic game roles (Rescuer, Persecutor, and Victim) by learning how to obtain strokes directly is the fundamental lesson taught by 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.

What it means to be a transactional analyst.

In his last book, What do you say After you say Hello (1972) upon which he made his last corrections on his death bed, Eric Berne states:

Transactional Analysis is a theory of personality and a clinical method of psychotherapy based on the analysis of all the possible transactions between two or more people on the basis of specifically defined ego states… Any system or approach which is not based on the rigorous analysis of single transactions into their component specific ego states is not transactional analysis. (pg 20)

To this I would add that since transactional analysis is a contractual process in which a promise is made and performance is expected, it 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 in general, it is my view that successful therapy requires more than individual, one-on-one work and that an effective therapist cannot remain passive or rely on attunement, kindness, and intuitive analysis alone. He or she must remain actively engaged with the client in pursuing a clear contractual goal and using the  group environment to further that process.

Clearly, it is incumbent on any health professional, regardless of training background, to practice empathy, attunement, and kindness while avoiding codependency or Rescuing. A competent mental health or education professional should 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, and death and dying, to name a few. Finally, she or he should seek supervision and/or therapy when needed, and pursue a healthy life style.

In addition to 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 skill that transactional analysis brings to the behavioral sciences.


Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. New York: Grove Press.

Berne E (1972) What do you say after you say hello. New York Grove Press.

error: Content is protected