The following is an introductory description of Transactional Analysis. It is designed to be understood by the layperson, written with approximately the same level of complexity that Berne used for Games People Play.
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Psychoanalysis before Eric Berne
While there were many theories purporting to explain human behavior before Eric Berne, the most frequently cited and known is the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud emerged in the early 20th century with his theories about personality. Freud believed that personality had three components, all of which must work together to produce our complex behaviors. These three components or aspects were the Id, Ego, and the Superego. It was Freud’s belief that these three components needed to be well-balanced to produce reasonable mental health and stability in an individual. According to Freud, the Id functions in the irrational and emotional part of the mind, the Ego functions as the rational part of the mind, and the Superego can be thought of as the moral part of the mind, a manifestation of societal or parental values.
But perhaps Freud’s greatest contribution (and the one that influenced Berne) was the fact that the human personality is multi-faceted. Regardless of the classification or name given to a particular area of personality (id, superego, etc.), each individual possesses factions that frequently collide with each other. And it is these collisions and interactions between these personality factions that manifest themselves as an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Thus, under Freud’s theories, an individual’s behavior can be understood by analyzing and understanding his/her three factions. But in a point to be emphasized later in this paper, Dr. Berne believes that Freud’s proposed structures are “concepts… [and not] phenomenological realities”1
Another scientist whose contributions impacted Dr. Berne in his development of Transactional Analysis is Dr. Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon from McGill University in Montreal. Penfield’s experiments focused on the application of electrical currents to specific regions of the brain. Penfield discovered that, when applying current to the temporal lobe of live and alert patients, he would stimulate meaningful memories. In addition, not only were vivid pictures of that person’s past revealed, but also the feelings and emotions associated with that event were uncovered.These patients would recite these events, even though in many cases they were events that the patients were unable to recollect on their own.
Penfield carried out these and similar experiments for many years. Some of the key conclusions that he reached that went on to influence Berne in his development of Transactional Analysis include:
• The human brain acts in many ways like a camcorder, vividly recording events. While that event may not necessarily be able to be consciously retrieved by the owner, the event always exists in the brain.
• Both the event and the feelings experienced during that event are stored in the brain. The event and the feelings are locked together, and neither one can be recalled without the other.
• When an individual replays his or her experiences, he or she can replay them in such a vivid form that the individual experiences again the same emotions he or she felt during the actual experience. Or, as Berne’s student Thomas A. Harris said “I not only remember how I felt, I feel the same way now”2
• Individuals are able to exist in two states simultaneously. Individuals replaying certain events are able to experience the emotions associated with those events, but they are also able to objectively talk about the events at the same time.
These contributions by Penfield and Freud, as well as many others, were used by Berne as he developed his theories on Transactional Analysis and games.
Before Berne first published his theories on Transactional Analysis, he spent years formulating the framework of this approach. The key to this methodology was a transaction – the fundamental unit of social intercourse. Berne also defined a stroke – the fundamental unit of social action (strokes are discussed in more detail later in this paper).
Many of the criticisms of the “science” (or lack thereof) behind psychotherapy was the fact that there was no basic unit for study, measurement, and classification. For example, the study of chemistry was revolutionized with the atomic theory of John Dalton; without the atom as a fundamental unit, the advancement of chemistry as a science would have proceeded slowly or not at all. By identifying and defining a transaction, Berne provided to the psychotherapeutic sciences the “atom” that was needed to allow for rigorous analysis.
Although Berne defined transactions long before he published Games People Play, his description of transactions in Games is the most easily understood:
“The unit of social intercourse is called a transaction. If two or more people encounter each other… sooner or later one of them will speak, or give some other indication of acknowledging the presence of the others. This is called transactional stimulus. Another person will then say or do something which is in some way related to the stimulus, and that is called the transactional response.“3
With this definition, Dr. Berne defined the basic unit of analysis. At its simplest level, Transactional Analysis is the method for studying interactions between individuals. By identifying and standardizing upon a single unit, development and promotion of this theory was easily facilitated. Psychotherapists were able to read about Berne’s theories and test them out in their own practices. Dr. Thomas Harris stated in I’m OK – You’re OK that in Transactional Analysis, “we have found a new language of psychology.”
It should be noted that this approach was profoundly different than that of Freud. While Freud and most other psychotherapists took the rather simplistic approach of asking the patient about themselves, Berne took an alternate approach to therapy. Berne felt that a therapist could learn what the problem was by simply observing what was communicated (words, body language, facial expressions) in a transaction. So instead of directly asking the patient questions, Berne would frequently observe the patient in a group setting, noting all of the transactions that occurred between the patient and other individuals.