Games People Play
In 1961, psychiatrist Eric Berne published a book with a very boring title, Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. It became the foundation work in its field, much referenced, and was a reasonable seller.
Three years later he published a sequel based on the same concepts but with a more colloquial feel. With its brilliant title and witty, amusing categories of human motivation, Games People Play was bound to attract more attention. Sales for the initial print run of 3,000 copies were slow, but two years later, thanks mostly to word of mouth and some modest advertising, the book had sold 300,000 copies in hardback. It spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list (unusual for a non-fiction book) and, creating a template for future writers who suddenly got wealthy by writing a pop psychology bestseller, the 50-something Berne bought a new house and a Maserati, and remarried.
Though he did not realize it at the time, Games People Play marked the beginning of the popular psychology boom, as distinct from mere self-help on one hand and academic psychology on the other. Mainstream psychologists looked down upon Berne's book as shallow and pandering to the public, but in fact the first 50 or 60 pages is written in a rather serious, scholarly style. If published today with a popular audience in mind, there is no way it would get through the editing process intact. Only in the second part does the style lighten up, and this is the part most people bought the book for.
Today, Games People Play has sold over five million copies and the phrase has entered the English idiom.
Strokes and transactions
Berne begins by noting the research that infants, if deprived of physical handling, often fall into irreversible mental and physical decline. He points to other studies suggesting that sensory deprivation in adults can lead to temporary psychosis. Adults need physical contact as much as children, but it is not always available, so we compromise, instead seeking symbolic emotional 'strokes' from others. A movie star, for instance, may get their strokes from hundreds of adoring weekly fan mail letters, while a scientist may get theirs from a single positive commendation from a leading figure in the field.
Berne defines the stroke as the 'fundamental unit of social action'. An exchange of strokes is a transaction, hence his creation of the phrase Transactional Analysis (TA) to describe the dynamics of social interaction.
Why we play games
Given the need to receive strokes, Berne observes that in biological terms any social intercourse – even if negative – is considered by human beings to be better than none at all. This need for intimacy is also why people engage in 'games' – they become a substitute for genuine contact.
He defines a game as “an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome”. A game is played to satisfy some hidden motivation, and always involves a 'payoff'. From this, we begin to understand why people do not readily rid themselves of the games they play.
Most of the time people are not aware they are playing games; this is just a normal part of social interaction. Games are a lot like playing poker, in which one hides one real motivations as part of the strategy to achieve the payoff – to win money. In the work environment the payoff may be getting the deal; people speak of being in the 'real estate game' or the 'insurance game' or 'playing the stock market', an unconscious recognition that their work involves a series of manoevers to achieve a certain gain. And in close relationships? The payoff usually involves some emotional satisfaction or increase in control.
The three selves
Transactional analysis evolved out of Freudian psychoanalysis, which Berne had studied and practiced. He had once had an adult male patient who admitted that he was really 'a little boy in an adult's clothing'. In subsequent sessions, Berne would ask him whether it was now the little boy talking or the adult.From these and other experiences, Berne came to the view that within each person were three selves or 'ego states' which often contradicted each other. They were characterized by:
In any given social interaction, Berne argued, we will be exhibiting one of these basic Parent, Adult or Child states, and can easily shift from one to the other. For instance, we can take on the creativity, curiosity and charm of the child, but also the child's tantrums or intransigence. Within each mode we can be productive or unproductive.
What is the link between the three selves and game-playing? In playing a game with someone we will take on an aspect of one of the three selves. Instead of the neutral, genuine, intimate mode, to get what we want we may feel the need to act like a commanding parent, or a coquettish child, or take on the sage-like rational aura of the adult.
The main part of the book is a thesaurus of the many games people play, such as:
'If it weren't for you'
The most common game played between spouses, in which one partner complains that the other is an obstacle to doing what they really want to do in life.
Berne suggests that most people unconsciously choose spouses because they want certain limits placed upon them. He gives an example of a woman who seemed desperate to learn to dance. The problem was that her husband hated going out, so her social life was restricted. In desperation she enrolled in dancing classes, but found that she was terribly afraid of dancing in public and dropped out. Berne's point is that what we blame the other partner for is more often revealed as an issue within ourselves. Playing 'If it weren't for you' allows us to divest ourselves of responsibility for facing our fears or shortcomings.
'Why don't you – yes but'
This game begins when a person states a problem in their life, and another responds by offering constructive suggestions on how to solve it. The subject says 'yes, but...' and proceeds to find issue with the solutions. In adult mode she would examine and probably take on board a solution (an Adult stance), but this is not the purpose of the exchange. Its purpose is to allow the subject to gain sympathy from others in her inadequacy to meet the situation (Child mode). The problem-solvers, in turn, get the opportunity to play wise Parent.
A man playing this game will have the defensive attitude of 'What do you expect of someone with a wooden leg/bad childhood/neurosis/alcoholism?' Some feature of themselves is used an excuse for lack of competence or motivation, so that he does not have to take full responsibility for his life.
Berne’s many games include:
The games we play, Berne says, are like worn-out loops of tape we inherit from childhood and continue to let roll. Though limiting and destructive, they are also a sort of comfort, absolving us of the need to really confront unresolved psychological issues. For some, the playing of games has become basic to who they are. Many people feel the need to get into fights with those closest to them or intrigues with their friends in order to stay interested. However, Berne warns, if you play too many 'bad' games for too long, they become self-destructive. The more games you play, the more you expect others to play them too; a relentless game-player can end up a psychotic who reads too much of their own motivations and biases into others' behavior.
Though Games People Play was reviled by many practicing psychiatrists as too 'pop' and inane, and even spawned a rock tune of the same name, Berne's transactional analysis continues to be influential and has been added to the armory of many psychotherapists and counselors needing to deal with difficult or evasive patients. It seemed like a ground-breaking book because it brought a psychologist's precision to an area that was normally the preserve of novelists and playwrights. Indeed, Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five, wrote a celebrated review which suggested its contents could inspire creative writers for years.
Beware that Games People Play, despite Berne's having consciously wished to leave behind his training as a psychoanalyst, is quite Freudian, with many of the games based on Freud's ideas about inhibition, sexual tension and unconscious impulses. It is also clearly a relic of the 1960s in its language and social attitudes.
Yet it can still be a mind-opening read, and is a classic for the simple insight that people always have and probably always will play games. As Berne notes, we teach our children all the pastimes, rituals and procedures they need to adapt to the culture and get by in life, and spend a lot of time choosing their schools and activities – yet we don't teach them about games, an unfortunate but realistic feature of the dynamics of every family and institution.
Games People Play can seem to offer an unnecessarily dark view of human nature. This, however, was not Berne's intention. He notes that we can all leave game-playing behind if we know there is an alternative. As the result of childhood experiences we leave behind the natural confidence, spontaneity and curiosity we had as a child and instead adopted the Parent's ideas of what we can or cannot do. Through greater awareness of the three selves, we can get back to a state of being more comfortable within our own skin. No longer do we feel that we need someone's permission to succeed, and we become unwilling to substitute games for real intimacy.
Source: Tom Butler-Bowdon Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do. Insight and inspiration from 50 key books (Nicholas Brealey, London & Boston).
Born Eric Bernstein to a doctor father and writer mother, the author grew up in Montreal, Canada. He graduated from McGill University in 1935 with a medical degree, and trained to be a psychoanalyst at Yale University. He became a US citizen, worked at Mt Zion Hospital in New York and in 1943 changed his name to Eric Berne.
During World War Two Berne worked as a US Army psychiatrist, and afterwards resumed his studies under Erik Erikson at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. Settling in California in the late 1940s, he grew disenchanted with psychoanalysis, and his work on ego states evolved over the next decade into transactional analysis. He formed the International Transactional Analysis Association, and combined private practice with consulting and hospital posts.
Berne wrote on a range of subjects. In addition to his other bestseller, What Do You Say After You Say Hello (1975), which examined the idea of 'life scripts', he also wrote the Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1957), Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups (1963), Sex in Human Loving (1970) and, posthumously, Beyond Games and Scripts(1976). See also the biography by Elizabeth Watkins Jorgensen, Eric Berne: Master Gamesman (1984).
Berne admitted he had a well-developed Child, once describing himself as 'a 56 year old teenager'. He was a keen poker player and was married three times. He died in 1970.