Berne’s Three Ego States

In addition to the analysis of the interactions between individuals, Transactional Analysis also involves the identification of the ego states behind each and every transaction. Berne defined an ego state as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behavior.”4
As a practicing psychiatrist in Carmel, California in the early 1950s, Berne treated hundreds of patients. During the course of their treatment, he consistently noted that his patients, and indeed all people, could and would change over the course of a conversation. The changes would not necessarily be verbal – the changes could involve facial expressions, body language, body temperature, and many other non-verbal cues.
In one counseling session, Berne treated a 35 year old lawyer. During the session, the lawyer (a male) said “I’m not really a lawyer; I’m just a little boy.” But outside the confines of Dr. Berne’s office, this patient was a successful, hard-charging, attorney. Later, in their sessions, the lawyer would frequently ask Dr. Berne if he was talking “to the lawyer or the little boy.” Berne was intrigued by this, as he was seeing a single individual display two “states of being.” Berne began referring to these two states as “Adult” and “Child.” Later, Berne identified a third state, one that seemed to represent what the patient had observed in his parents when he was small. Berne referred to this as “parent.” As Berne then turned to his other patients, he began to observe that these three ego states were present in all of them. As Berne gained confidence in this theory, he went on to introduce these in a 1957 paper – one year before he published his seminal paper introducing Transactional Analysis.
Berne ultimately defined the three ego states as: Parent, Adult, and Child. It should be carefully noted that the descriptions of these ego states do NOT necessarily correspond to their common definitions as used the English language.
Before describing each of the three ego states, it is important to note that these are fundamentally different than Freud’s Ego, Id, and Superego. Berne describes this best when he writes in Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy:
“It will be demonstrated that Parent, Adult, and Child are not concepts, like Superego, Ego, and Id, or the Jungian constructs, but phenomenological realities.“5 Stated another way, Freud’s ego states are unobservable, theoretical states; but Berne’s three ego states can be confirmed with observable behaviors.
The following are detailed descriptions of the three ego states:
Parent – The parent represents a massive collection of recordings in the brain of external events experienced or perceived in approximately the first five years of life. Since the majority of the external events experienced by a child are actions of the parent, the ego state was appropriately called Parent. Note that events perceived by the child from individuals that are NOT parents (but who are often in parent-like roles) are also recorded in the Parent. When Transactional Analysts refer to the Parent ego state (as opposed to a biological or stepparent), it is capitalized. The same goes for the other two states (Adult and Child).
Examples of recordings in the Parent include:
• “Never talk to strangers”
• “Always chew with your mouth closed”
• “Look both ways before you cross the street”
It is worth noting that, while recording these events, the young child has no way to filter the data; the events are recorded without question and without analysis. One can consider that these events are imposed on the child.
There are other data experienced by the child that are not recorded in the Parent. This is recorded in the Adult, which will be described shortly.
Child – In contrast to the Parent, the Child represents the recordings in the brain of internal events associated with external events the child perceives. Stated another way, stored in the Child are the emotions or feelings which accompanied external events. Like the Parent, recordings in the Child occur from childbirth all the way up to the age of approximately 5 years old.
Examples of recordings in the Child include:
• “When I saw the monster’s face, I felt really scared”
• “The clown at the birthday party was really funny!
Adult – The Adult is the last ego state. Close to one year of age, a child begins to exhibit gross motor activity. The child learns that he or she can control a cup from which to drink, that he or she can grab a toy. In social settings, the child can play peek-a-boo.
This is the beginning of the Adult in the small child. Adult data grows out of the child’s ability to see what is different than what he or she observed (Parent) or felt (Child). In other words, the Adult allows the young person to evaluate and validate Child and Parental data. Berne describes the Adult as being “principally concerned with transforming stimuli into pieces of information, and processing and filing that information on the basis of previous experience”6 Stated another way, Harris describes the Adult as “a data-processing computer, which grinds out decisions after computing the information from three sources: the Parent, the Child, and the data which the adult has gathered and is gathering”7
One of the key functions of the Adult is to validate data in the parent. An example is:
“Wow. It really is true that pot handles should always be turned into the stove” said Sally as she saw her brother burn himself when he grabbed a pot handle sticking out from the stove.
In this example, Sally’s Adult reached the conclusion that data in her Parent was valid. Her Parent had been taught “always turn pot handles into the stove, otherwise you could get burned.” And with her analysis of her brother’s experience, her Adult concluded that this was indeed correct.
In an attempt to explain Transactional Analysis to a more mainstream audience, Dr. Thomas Harris developed the following summary. Although this is a very good tool for beginners to learn, keep in mind that this a wildly simplified approach, and can have the effect of “dumbing down” Transactional Analysis. The summary is as follows:
Parent – taught concept
Child – felt concept
Adult – learned concept
A more comprehensive understanding of Berne’s ego states can be obtained by consulting Games People Play or Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy, both by Dr. Berne. Information on both of these books can be found in the Bibliography page.

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