Transactional Analysis

Transactional analysis (TA) is a therapeutic approach that emphasizes the ritualistic transactions of interactions and behaviors that occur between individuals. Developed by Eric Berne in the 1950s, TA focuses on social interaction, emotional well-being, and responsibility, involving life scripts that people develop based upon early childhood experiences. TA is an understandable, sophisticated structural analysis of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Brief History of Transactional Analysis

Eric Berne, M.D., was born Eric Lennard Bernstein in Montreal, Canada, in 1910. He completed his education in 1935 at McGill University and his residency at Yale’s Psychiatric Clinic. However, he experienced increasing frustration with the psychoanalytic approaches of the time. In response, he developed his own approach. In 1958, he published Transactional Analysis: A New and Effective Method of Group Therapy. He later published the popular best seller Games People Play, and numerous other books, manuscripts, and papers. Berne subsequently founded the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA), continuing as a psychotherapist and writer until his death in 1970.

Basic Elements of Transactional Analysis

TA is a psychosocial approach that uses a concept called structural analysis to understand the interactions or transactions that occur between individuals. Berne’s observations during group counseling sessions led to his identification of three ego states that coexist within personality: Parent, Adult, and Child. According to the theory, all three ego states exist within the individual. Even young children have an Adult and Parent ego state. Transactions occur between ego states.

The Ego States

During Berne’s early sessions, he noted that clients thought or behaved sometimes like children, sometimes like adults. Originally, he designated two ego states, the Child, named the archaeopsyche, and the Adult, named the neopsyche. Later, a third ego state was identified, that of the Parent, or exteropsyche. The Child denoted the creative, intuitive, and pleasure-seeking or sometimes rebellious nature of the person. The Adult formed the realistic, logical part of the person. The Parent was derived from introjection and identification with an individual’s biological parents. Opinionated, judgmental and nurturing, often protective, the Parent completes the tripartite ego states that form personality: Parent (P), Adult (A), and Child (C) (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Parent, Adult, and Child ego states Source: Adapted from Berne, E. (1964).


The Parent state operates as a collection of prerecorded, judgmental rules for living. Like a tape playing in our heads, the Parent reminds us of the correct way to think, feel, or behave. It tells us how to react and how to live, right or wrong. When critical, as it often is, this state is known as the Critical Parent. When supportive, it is Nurturing.

The Adult state can be compared to a computer. Functioning in a factual, logical, and rational manner, the Adult faces facts and makes decisions. If the data are correct, the conclusion follows. If the facts are incorrect, the resultant answers are wrong. One of the key purposes of the Adult state is to provide a factually based appraisal of the effectiveness of behavior in the pursuit of goals. Contamination occurs when information from the Parent or Child state distorts the appraisal.

When in a Child state, individuals act like “the child they once were,” with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors they once experienced. Individuals actually think, see, hear, and react as they may have as children. When the Child is thoughtful, imaginative, and creative, this is known as the Little Professor. When the Child is loving, hateful, or impulsive, this is the Natural Child. Guilt, shame and fearful states are identified in the Adapted Child. All three ego states—Parent, Adult, and Child—are important for healthy functioning; no single ego state should dominate the others.


Transactions are units of social interaction. They are communicative exchanges between people in both directions. Those exchanges originate in and are received by various ego states. When transactions are overt and pass to and from the same ego state (Adult to Adult, for example), these transactions are complementary, and communication flows. When they cross from one state to another (e.g., Adult to Child or Parent to Child), they become crossed and disrupt communication. Covert transactions are deceptive in nature and form the basis of games. Covert transactions also are ulterior in nature and occur when people say one thing and mean another.

Strokes, Rituals, and Games People Play

Strokes are essential for survival. Positive strokes consist of praise, accolades, and commendation. They are verbal and nonverbal expressions of appreciation and value. Negative strokes are demeaning and judgmental. If people are to thrive as individuals, according to Berne, they need strokes. Just as transactions are units of exchange, strokes are units of interpersonal recognition. Counselors focus on this aspect of TA to assist people in the process of reversing unhealthy patterns of stroking.

There are five ways to get strokes: rituals, pastimes, intimacy, work, and games. Rituals are preset exchanges. Pastimes are common small talk. Intimacy and work, although challenging, are the most satisfying sources of strokes, whereas games are devious.

Undesirable or dysfunctional behavioral interactions earned the title of Games within TA. Games are defined by Berne as sets of often repetitious transactions with hidden or ulterior motives that result in predictable, well-defined outcomes.

Some games earned labels by Berne. These include Ain’t It Awful, I’m Only Trying to Help and Please Don’t Kick Me, among others. If It Weren’t for You is often played out between couples so that one member of the couple can blame the other for not being able to achieve desired goals. Why Don’t You…Yes, But (WDYB) is commonly found at social gatherings, committee meetings, and psychotherapy groups, where a problem is thrown out as “bait” and the offered solution results in a Yes, But response, making the transaction a game.

Existential Life Positions and Life Scripts

Popularized by Thomas Harris, M.D., this aspect of TA notes that people are born OK, capable of change, and inherently healthy in human interaction. However, not everyone assumes an OK position. Founded on early and youthful social interactions, people may decide that “I’m OK, but you are not,” “You are OK and I am not,” or “You are not OK and neither am I.” The healthiest perspective is “I’m OK, you’re OK.” The early decisions may be self-limiting, but seemed to offer the best chance of survival at the time. These choices become a pattern resulting in a preconscious life script designed to reaffirm the life position. Some scripts are tragic, some banal, and others are healthy. Changing these self-limiting choices that form the life script is the goal of the psychotherapeutic process of TA. A common technique for doing so involves changing decisions made within the Child state (redecisions).

The Therapeutic Milieu

TA educators or therapists are encouraged to focus on patterns of interaction, particularly seeking those trans-actions that are covert, those that cross-contaminate, or those that lead to delusion or self-limitation. Using symbols, egograms are constructed to illustrate the relative strength of ego states, and transactions are visually presented. Contracts are used as tools to resolve issues and educate clients. Scripts are analyzed. Permission to function in an Adult ego state is granted as a crucial device in overcoming unhealthy parental or child influences. Life scripts are outlined with the intent of changing self-limiting patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In group TA settings, three stages are identified; initial, working, and final. In the initial stage, rapport is developed and contracts for change identified. The working stage allows for analysis of games and restructuring of life scripts. In the final phase, redecisions made from the Child state are validated and participants are encouraged to transfer their redecisions from the therapeutic milieu into real life and to close by sharing positive strokes with other group members.

Future Directions

Transactional analysis provides a useful and comprehensive structural analysis system that can be applied in group, individual, family, and classroom settings. Often combined with Gestalt therapy, TA can be thought of as an educational model, viewing the individual within a systematic social context. Research on the efficacy of TA in educational, occupational, and clinical settings supports TA as a method of promoting mental health and improving interpersonal communication. According to recent research, TA may also help to increase self-esteem.

Although not as popular as in the 1970s, TA continues to thrive, in part through the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA). With more than 10,000 members, ITAA publishes the Journal of Transactional Analysis; sponsors international conferences; and provides training videos, DVDs, and Web resources.


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  9. Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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