by Claude Steiner

Abstract: The author attempts to answer the question: “What does transactional analysis have in common with body-centered, somatic points of view?” Transactional Analysis began as an Adult centered and rational theory but with the introduction of the concept of strokes Berne opened the way, perhaps unwittingly, for a somatic—Child and body centered—investigation of love and the emotions.

The importance of maternal love.

Eric Berne’s well known colloquialism “If you are not stroked your spinal cord will shrivel up,” was first put in writing in 1961, in Games People Play. He was referring to the “hospitalism” studies (1954) by Renee Spitz. Spitz found that in an orphanage where the children were raised in a sterile environment with minimal nurturing or handling, motor and intellectual development were markedly depressed, mortality was high and physical growth was retarded.

Spitz’s methodology has been questioned but the validity of his findings has been validated by much further research, which, over the last years, has demonstrated that physical nurturing strongly affects physical and psychological health. Many researchers followed in Spitz’s footsteps; excellent reviews of these studies, showing the pervasive relationship between stroking and health, are provided by Lynch (1977) and Ornish (1997).

Berne also drew on Harlow’s “monkey studies” with wire and cloth mothers (1978) which indicated that diminished physical strokes in infancy had more than just physical effects. Harry Harlow wanted to study love; he found that young monkeys reared with live mothers and young peers learned to play and socialize with other young monkeys without difficulty. Babies raised with real mothers but no playmates were often fearful or inappropriately aggressive. Baby monkeys without playmates or real mothers became socially incompetent, and when older, often unsuccessful at mating while those that did have babies were neglectful of them. Harlow concluded that normal sexual and parental behavior depended on a wide array of affectionate ties with peers and family, early in life.

All these studies focused on the importance of mother love, but no connection was made by Spitz or Berne between the findings about infants and mother love and love of a different sort, that is, love between adults; between various family members, between people in couples, between grown relatives or coworkers—a larger, more comprehensive spectrum. The study of love in these various forms was virtually non-existent in academic research.

That there is a connection between physical nurturing and physical and psychological well-being should not to be surprising; Spitz and Harlow’s work merely offered scientific proof for what had been suspected by healers for centuries. And very importantly, it silenced pediatric “experts” who were continuing to uphold John Watson’s once widely held views (see Watson, 1928) that parental emotional responses should be controlled and that there were serious problems ahead for the “over-kissed” child. Wilson frowned on outward displays of affection with children and admonished parents not to pick children up when they cried or hold them for pleasure. According to Wilson and his followers infants were to eat, sleep, even excrete at specified, not to be modified, times.

But a strong reaction against that controlling point of view was building in the 50’s, with Dr Benjamin Spock (1945) leading the charge. Berne’s thinking on the subject followed the changing trends of the times and would not have been a major theoretical contribution.

Beyond maternal love

But Berne went far beyond the thinking of the times when he:

1. Introduced the concept of strokes

2. Defined strokes as transactional units of recognition, needed for physical as well as psychological survival,

3. Defined recognition hunger

4. Postulated that recognition can be both positive and negative and that,

5. in spite of their undesirable nature, negative strokes have survival value compared to total stroke deprivation and were therefore sought by people.

With these concepts Berne’s thinking went far beyond the importance of nurturing physical strokes and extended into psychological realms of stroking. He defined strokes as transactions, specifically units of interpersonal recognition; physical strokes were only a part of the larger realm of recognition transactions. Thus, he established the possibility for the study of the psychological effect of strokes and their scarcity.

Strangely, this opportunity did not result in an interest in strokes and their relationship to love. One might surmise that it would have generated all manner of research but it turns out that there is a pervasive aversion to the study of Love. In the introduction of A Natural History of Love Diane Ackerman writes:

“As a society we are embarrassed by love. We treat it as if it were an obscenity. We are reluctant to admit to it. Even saying the word makes us stumble and blush. Why should we be ashamed of an emotion so beautiful and natural? Love is the most important thing in our lives, a passion for which we would fight or die, and yet we’re reluctant to linger over its name.”

And the ban on love is not merely a speaking ban; among psychological research projects love is not the subject of the intense inquiry it deserves. As an symptom of this, the classic book about emotions, The Emotional Brain; The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph LeDoux, fails to mention love even once in its index. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence has twenty index entries related to anger, and only three index entries on love in Chapter One, and none in the rest of the book. A search of the complete Annual Review of Psychology in 1996 (23 volumes) found no single reference to love.

Berne might have extended his colloquialism to say that “If you are not stroked your love life will shrivel up.” But he did not. Berne was not conversant with emotions and did not see the need to be. One of his colloquialisms, “feelings, schmeelings (as long as you love your mother)” was his way to keep group therapy members in their Adult and downplay the expressions of emotions, which he regarded to be principally “Greenhouse” games or pastimes.(1964, pp 141-3) When he revisited my concept of the script check list in What do you say after you say hello,(1972, pp 417-39) he left out—unwittingly, I am sure—the somatic component which I considered to be central to the diagnosis of scripts. His book

Sex and Human Loving (1970) was nominally about love and contained a good deal of inspired writing about bodily processes including orgasm, but it was not a book about transactional analysis. My guess is that Berne was a feeling person but consistent with the white, male, middle class, professional personality profile of the times he did not have an Adult grasp of bodily processes.

In his writings, Berne’s attention was drawn away from the matter of strokes, to which he actually never fully returned. In all his total work contained less than twenty pages on the subject. In my opinion his innovative and brilliant contribution on strokes was a purely Adult and rational/scientific product that had no emotional correlates and held virtually no interest for him as a psychotherapist.

Strokes and Love.

For myself—also a white, male, middle class, professional—I didn’t initially suspect any relationship between love and strokes either. But I had developed a dual personality; on one hand the mild mannered, buttoned down, pipe smoking transactional analysis psychologist with a full group therapy practice in the Berkeley hills who attended Berne’s seminars, weekly. On the other the New Left hippie, writer of the “Expanding Shrink” column in the Berkeley Tribe and pot smoking founder of the Radical Psychiatry movement, steeped in the body-centered writings of Wilhelm Reich (1933) and under the influence of highly emotionally literate, feminist women determined to break down my barriers to emotional experience.

I began to conduct a “Stroke City” group in our storefront RAP Center. Hogie Wyckoff and I had developed the theory of the Stroke Economy as part of a larger theory of alienation—inspired, in part, by Wilhelm Reich’s writings (1933) on the “sex economy”—that included the alienation of our capacities to love. The stroke economy, we believed, resulted in a severe diminution of stroke exchanges leading to stroke starvation and depression. (Wyckoff 1971, Steiner 1971) Consequently Stroke City was a group whose contract was “permission to stroke” and to liberate the participants from the Stroke Economy. We should not have been surprised when we discovered that after these stroke-exchanging sessions there were always one or more people who emerged with an oceanic feeling of love for everyone in the group. At first I failed to see the significance of this but eventually made the obvious connection between the exchange of strokes and people’s loving emotions.

Berne, unbeknown to his TA colleagues, had been badly frightened by the US Government’s House of Un-American Activities into an absolutely apolitical stance. I assumed he would not be sympathetic to my activities in Berkeley especially since he had made it clear that “a transactional analyst does not touch his clients.” I did not touch my clients in my work as a licensed psychologist but, needless to say, there was a lot of shaking going on in my political incarnation. The Child egos state was our royal road to the body. When working with scripts we began to look for somatic components of the script; how people’s Child’s make up was reflected in their bodies; how they moved and held themselves. It was in that environment, heavily infused with Wilhelm Reich’s somatic and sex economy concepts that it became clear that people were chronically stroke hungry and that, with simple transactional analysis methods, it was possible to feed stroke hunger and repair the damaged alienated capacity to love. This bridged the social psychological practice of transactional analysis with the somatic, body-centered theory and methods of psychotherapy.

Over the next thirty years Stroke City evolved into Emotional Literacy Training; a method to train people’s emotional capacities, love foremost among them.

My work with strokes led me to amplify Berne’s contribution as follows:

1. Most people live in a state of chronic stroke hunger,

2. caused by the strictures of a stroke economy that severely restricts the exchange of strokes.

3. The stroke economy and other body-inhibiting processes are enforced by the Critical Parent ego state, both internally within each person, and externally between people.

4. People who are stroke starved will accept and even seek negative strokes with their toxic side effects, when what they really want is positive strokes.

5. Games are social behaviors that generate mostly negative strokes that can become the principal source of strokes for some people.

6. The most effective intervention for people who play games is to help them regain their capacity to love, by teaching them how to give, ask for and accept strokes


Transactional Analysis’ beginnings, firmly grounded in Eric Berne’s pragmatic interest in science, were arguably overly invested in Adult-centered, rational theories and relatively disinterested in people’s bodily and emotional aspects. Yet in his book Games People Play Berne introduced, out of the blue it would seem, the concept of strokes, which he virtually abandoned in his writings from then on. The concept of strokes offers us a bridge between the Child and the bodily processes of the emotions, especially love, as communicated through strokes. (Steiner, 2002) In addition, a stroke-centered theory of emotional literacy offers a transactional method to help reduce the harmful, somatic effects of games and scripts.


Ackerman, Diane. (1994) A Natural History of Love. New York, Vintage.

Berne, Eric (1964) Games People Play. New York, Grove Press

Berne, Eric (1970) Sex and Human Loving. New York, Grove Press.

Berne, Eric (1972) What do You Say After you Say Hello, New York, Grove Press

Goleman Daniel (1996) Emotional Intelligence. New York, Bantam.

Le Doux, Joseph (1996) The Emotional Brain; The Mysterious Underpinning of Emotional Life. New York, Touchstone.

Harlow, Harry (1978) Learning to Love. New York, Jason Aronson.

Lewis, Thomas et al (2001) A General theory of Love New York, Vintage.

Lynch, James (1988) The broken heart; the medical consequences of loneliness. New York; Basic Books.

Ornish, Dean (1997) Love and Survival. The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy. New York, Harper-Collins.

Reich, Wilhelm. (1980) The Mass Psychology of Fascism, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Translated from the German Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (1933)

Spitz, Renee(1954) “Hospitalism,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child I, New York, International Universities Press,

Spock, Benjamin(1945) The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. New York, Duell, Sloan & Pierce.

Steiner, Claude (1977) The Warm Fuzzy Tale. Sacramento CA, USA Jalmar Press.

Steiner, Claude (1971) “The Stroke Economy” TAJ, 1(3), pp.9-15

Steiner, Claude (2002) Emotional Literacy; Intelligence with a Heart. Personhood Press. Fawnskin CA, USA

Watson, James (1928) The Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Wyckoff, Hogie (1971) “The Stroke Economy in Women’s Scripts” TAJ I,3 pp 16-30

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