The Development of Transactional Theory and Practice; A Brief History.
By Claude Steiner PhD
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years ago Eric Berne invented Transactional Analysis (TA). From the
beginning, TA, which is at once a theory of social and personal psychology, and
a method of psychotherapy and education, ran into difficulties. This was because
Berne expressed his theory not only in scientific terms, but also in terms of
his personal idiosyncrasies. He had a penchant for provocative, intuitive
neologisms, generalizations, aphorisms, simplifications and fairy tales that
were suited to the rebellious style of the 1960’s and made sense to some
but shocked, and even revolted, others. He wrote a sensational best seller; Games
People Play.(101 weeks on the NY Times “Best Seller” list), In the
first fifty pages of that book he gave a summary of his thoughts at a peak
moment in his thinking. As a consequence Berne, Transactional Analysis, the
three circles, games, strokes and even scripts became part of US popular culture
in the 70’s.
time TA was reduced to an “I’m OK you’re OK” parody of itself. As is the
case with all such media promoted fads, TA sunk into oblivion, with editors of
major publishing houses refusing to publish anything that had any overt
transactional analysis concepts in it.
the dust settled, the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA)
now truly international in scope, lost the majority of its 10,000 members and TA
ceased to be a money cow for anyone willing to sell it. Berne had died suddenly
and prematurely at age 60 and the organization was left rudderless. But TA was
undeniably attractive and useful and had gathered a sturdy and varied group of
enthusiasts and followers. In spite of its demise in the media, TA began its new
post-celebrity life. TA books were still widely read, workshops on TA were
presented world wide, and a training and certification program remained an
active source of new interest and fresh faces. Today, while the ITAA’
membership has dwindled to 1500 members, transactional analysis is nevertheless
a global movement with easily 10,000 adherents of varying levels of allegiance
and theoretical sophistication.
is the case in any such theory and practice, many bright ideas emerged and many
of them faded from view. Some ideas kept their supposed importance but came into
disuse--mere icons of an earlier period. Other ideas developed on their own and
created whole new movements within TA. Still other ideas stand alone and are
used constantly, inside and outside TA. For instance:
ideas that disappeared:
The intimacy experiment, the script fairy tale, game names such as “nigysob”
and others, redefining hexagon, etc.
that have become icons in disuse
but often referred to and tested for in TA advanced membership examinations:
The script matrix, time structure, Formula G, levels of discounting, etc
that became a separate movement:
The redecision movement of Bob and Mary Goulding. John Dusay’s egogram
which is a subject matter seriously studied at Japanese academic institutions.
Steiner et al’s stroke-centered emotional literacy training. Erskine and
Trauttman’s Integrative Transactional Analysis.
concepts that stand alone:
Contracts, the drama triangle, the stroke economy, scripts, the (inner) Child,
power plays, the Adult, etc
summarize Berne’s TA can be at least three things:
A set of ideas based on belief. Intuitively connected myths, metaphors and
neologisms which are very helpful to people who want to understand and change
their lives and other people’s lives but which make more sense as morality
tales than as scientific or philosophical postulates. This is the basis of
TA’s early popularity.
Useful techniques based on heuristic development. Modern(ized) methods of
psychotherapy/educational practice based on trial and error, pragmatic findings,
the creative use of techniques from other methods and generally supported by
scientific research. This is the most likely path for a revival of transactional
analysis in the professional community.
A theory and practice based on scientific research. This is the only possible
basis for a place for transactional analysis in the scientific community and
depends on just how prescient Berne was fifty years ago. His vision regarding
the nature and importance of strokes and the effectiveness of contracts as
examples, has already been demonstrated by independent researchers in the social
three aspects of TA: metaphor, method and science, are intermingled in the minds
of TA’s adherents, creating puzzling contradictions for veterans and students
alike. One of the outcomes of this is that many think of themselves as “in
TA” but are aware of and sympathetic to only a part of the broad scope of
work on strokes, as an example, encompasses all three aspects:
Strokes as metaphor. Berne’s aphorism “People need strokes or their backs will shrivel up,” which inspired The Warm Fuzzy Tale which impacted popular culture by creating the ubiquitous turn of phrase; “warm and fuzzy.”
The use of strokes as a method of therapy/education is thoroughly supported by
decades of experience with the efficacy of methods which emphasize TLC, groups,
contact, interaction and touching.
The scientific aspect of the stroke concept is demonstrated throughout a large
number of research findings on children and adults which show the importance of
human contact for survival.
all TA concepts have that strong a representation in all three areas (metaphor,
method and science). Some have none at all except as metaphors.
an example ego states are only dimly confirmed by research and are useful mainly
as metaphors. The hypostantiating tendencies of TA (turning words that seek to
describe phenomena into entities, then speaking of
those entities as if they exist) read as naďve, insular, unsophisticated
and disconnected to professionals
in the field. That is why, in my opinion, it makes little sense to debate fine
points of ego state theory. If ego states are metaphors how can we “study”
them as if they were validated and replicated realities? More than a handful of
ego state subdivisions or, for that matter, arrows on the script matrix or
drivers become, to me, increasingly less meaningful and akin to the medieval
debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They remain
extremely useful metaphors but cannot be taken as hard core realities.
example of largely metaphorical concepts are scripts and script decisions which
have little basis in research. Yet they have proven effective in psychotherapy
and have become the basis for a respected method; redecision therapy.
HOW TA DEVELOPS; CORE CONCEPTS and BEYOND
During his life, Berne and his followers generated a great number of interlocking ideas. Until he died Berne was the sole arbiter of what would be incorporated into the theory; his intuitive decision to commit to an idea defined what would be included as new theory or practice. Since his death, debates about “what is TA?” have no set system of resolution. Some, a vocal minority, go so far as to argue that there should be no attempt to determine when new ideas are too far afield to be described as TA theory or method.
But common sense indicates that any theory has to have some basics parameters to maintain coherence. Based on this premise the ITAA commissioned a task force chaired by the author to develop a set on core concepts. The work of this task force resulted in the 1999 Core Concepts. (1999CC’s) The 1999CC’s is a compilation of concepts considered core by a sample of the membership woven into a narrative.
notably members of the Integrative Transactional Analysis movement, have
postulated their own core concepts. You may read the "Core
Concepts of a Stroke Centered Transactional Analysis" substantially
different from the 1999CC’s which satisfies the author’s idea of “What is
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