This is Part 1 Chapter 2 of my new non-fiction book How to Repair the World. The chapter is titled Transactional Analysis: A Psychological Lingua Franca. You can read the introduction to the first part here, and the first chapter, Elementary Jungian Theory, here.
In this chapter I'll explain the basic principles of Transactional Analysis (TA) and demonstrate them on one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, "The Opposite".
Transactional Analysis - The Theory
Transactional analysis was invented by Eric Berne, a psychologist who became disillusioned with Freudian practice and who thought he could formulate a more accurate and more easily understood psychology (needless to say, he was shunned by the psychological community). Berne is most famous for his best-selling book Games People Play, although the most popular presentation of his theory was written by his colleague, Thomas Harris, in the bestselling "I'm O.K you're O.K". I will mostly be referring to the more simplified theory as presented in that book.
This book is an attempt to understand our interactions with others and with ourselves. It points out, explains, and defines basic psychological phenomenon. Thus it provides a vocabulary that helps us name things and once we have the words, we can communicate with ourselves and others and attempt to understand and eventually change the interactions. It is simple enough to be understood by most people, but still complex enough to be accurate.
T.A. recognizes three basic states of mind: The Parent, The Child, and The Adult. All of these states are formed by the age of five through observation and incessant recording and interpretation of events by the child, and are for the most part unconscious. Every state is accompanied by specific vocabulary, tone of voice, emotional and informational content, and behaviors.
1 - The Parent
Contains all the information we received, and did not receive from the people we were dependent upon as babies and small children. The Parent is the voice of authority, the giver of rules and laws, customs and regulations. The Parent has an ideal picture of an ideal world and we must live up to that ideal, or else the Parent will stop taking care of us and we will not survive.
Common Phrases: You must (or mustn't), Don't (or Do) do it!, You should (not), always, never, everybody (does it), and most famously "Thou shalt not…"
Emotional Tone: The Parent is always judgmental. The judgment can be positive or negative but the evaluation is always there. The Parent cannot be reasoned with and it does not refer to reality. The Parent Knows and that's it. You either do as it says and receive approval, or suffer it's disapproval, which for the baby is equivalent with being disconnected from the life-giving Parent, in other words – equivalent to death.
Content: The content of the Parent can be inexhaustible. It includes mundane details such as how beds should be made, how to entertain guests, how and what to eat and how to feel about it, when to go to sleep and how (Brush your teeth! Say a prayer!), as well as prejudices, religious information (God is watching) as well as non-information (God is a fairy tale), our political outlook and probably our views about most everything in the world. The Parent is an endless store of emotionally-laden directives, laws, admonitions, and real-life examples that we follow, for the most part, unconsciously.
Consequences: As adults we follow the Parental injunctions, feeling that we must but usually not recognizing the force behind it. More importantly, we do not understand why it is so very difficult to disobey the command and do the opposite.
Example: Your parents. Teachers, policemen and military officers also have very dominant Parents.
Basic Life Stance: I'm OK - You're not OK.
2 - The Adult
This is the rational, unemotional player. The Adult receives information, analyzes it dispassionately and files it away or acts upon it. The Adult deals with reality as it is, without any preconceptions and prejudice. The Adult is a data processing computer, gathering information from within and without, checking its utility and filing it away.
Common Phrases: Statements of fact. This is true, this is not. This accords with the facts as known to me, this does not. The facts of the case are these…
Emotional Tone: none, of course.
Content: The information that the Adult objectively (non-judgmentally) observes and catalogues.
Consequences: A strong Adult means that our activities will be effective since they are connected to reality. A strong Adult is constantly learning from experience and adjusting accordingly. A weak Adult means a weak connection to reality, and action dominated by the Parent's decrees and prejudices or by the emotions of the Child.
Example: Famous fictional detectives Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. The Terminator and most other sci-fi robots.
Basic Stance: I'm OK - You're OK
3 - The Child