Discover more from Rob Henderson's Newsletter
Games People Play
The psychology of human relationships
“People wear psychological ‘sweat shirts’: The front may say something like ‘Please love me’—but when the wearer turns around, the back may read, ‘Not you, stupid.’”
—Eric Berne, M.D.
Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships is a classic 1964 book written by psychiatrist Eric Berne.
This post is the first in a series about the book. It introduces the author’s central concepts of “transactional analysis” and “strokes” to interpret and understand social interactions.
“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 others. This is called the 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.”
Transactional Analysis (TA) is the method of examining these interactions. “I do something to you and you do something back.”
TA attempts to understand the regularities and motives of human social behavior. And what hidden payoffs they seek in social exchanges.
Transactional Analysis aims to make it possible for individuals to understand social interactions that cause suffering, with the goal of helping people understand how and why they get entangled in them. And then choose not to.
Many social interactions are in fact games people play.
Here is how Berne defines “game” in his book:
“A game is an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively it is a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or ‘gimmick.’ Games are clearly differentiated…by two chief characteristics: (1) their ulterior quality and (2) the payoff.”
He continues, contrasting honest interactions (procedures, rituals, pastimes, and so on) with games:
“Procedures may be successful, rituals effective, and pastimes profitable, but all of them are by definition candid…Every game…is basically dishonest, and the outcome has a dramatic, as distinct from merely exciting, quality.”
For instance, if someone asks for reassurance and accepts it, that is an honest transaction.
But if someone asks for reassurance, and—after it is given—finds a way to undermine the giver, that is a game. A game looks superficially like an honest interchange, but the moves are often maneuvers.
The word “game” does not imply fun or enjoyment.
Most games cause difficulties between people. They can wreck relationships and produce misery. Understanding games help people to escape from debilitating psychological traps.
Within the context of TA, if you understand the games, you can, to some extent, escape them.
Berne is careful to warn the reader not to be misled. He stresses that, despite some similarities, transactional game analysis is not the same thing as mathematical game theory (Games People Play was published in 1964, only four years after Thomas Schelling’s masterpiece on game theory, The Strategy of Conflict).
Berne likes to use salesmen to illustrate his points, because they are always “on” and always working.
At a social gathering, salesmen engage in pleasant interactions, but they often conceal skillful maneuvers designed to elicit the kind of information they are professionally interested in.
In HBO’s Succession, Logan Roy occasionally asks people “What’s your angle?” Logan is a consummate game player always in pursuit of advantages over both his adversaries and allies. And he assumes those around him are doing the same. Logan is how Saul Alinsky fans imagine all corporate power players are. One of Alinsky’s more famous quotes:
"It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principles but act on power principles; a world where we are always moral and our enemies always immoral."
Berne suggests that in games, people have “angles.”
But unlike salesmen or the Waystar Royco family, people in games are not seeking professional opportunities, but nevertheless they are unconsciously seeking payoffs in games they are unaware they are playing.
The psychiatrist Thomas A. Harris, a colleague of Berne, has written:
“Games are a way of using time for people who cannot bear the stroking starvation of withdrawal…makes the ultimate form of relatedness, intimacy, impossible. Though there is misery, there is something…It is better to be roughed up playing games than to have no relationship at all. ‘The developing child is more likely to survive in the warmth of wrath and to suffer blight in the chill of indifference’…Thus games provide benefits of all players. They protect the integrity of the position without the threat of uncovering the position.”
Games are a ritualized and often vicious way of interacting in order for the participants to experience social contact without risking intimacy or betrayals of trust.
Ironically, games are intended to defend against pain, yet frequently give rise to suffering.
Harris suggests that games are “nearly always” destructive. This is because games contain hidden motives, and “the ulterior quality is the antithesis of intimacy.”
Intimacy (not necessarily just between romantic partners, but between any individuals who truly care for one another) encompasses game-free relationships because no ulterior goals are involved.
Harris gives the example of a person forgetting to get an anniversary gift for their spouse. This would not be a catastrophe for couples in an intimate, trusting relationship, but it often is for those whose relationship is confined within “socially programmed rituals” (i.e., games).
Relatedly, in Sadly, Porn, Edward Teach (AKA The Last Psychiatrist) discussing BDSM, writes:
“’I am asserting my self by submitting myself to a man I trust and love completely, who will respect me and protect me, and within that safety allow me the confidence and freedom to explore my sexuality.’ Well, that sounds fantastic-- but wasn't that the whole gimmick of marriage?...The problem is you can't do these kind of explorations with a husband because marriage requires the very thing that BDSM obliterates, the anathema of our time: dependency…Even though, within a marriage, you can do all the same things, relabeling it as a pornographic performance disavows the emotional dependence. The appeal of this kind of BDSM fantasy isn't in the loss of control but the loss of dependency.”
Berne might say, at least in some circumstances, that BDSM is a game, because it entails ulterior motives and hidden payoffs that allow participants to avoid the risk of intimacy.
To be clear, in Transactional Analysis, games are not the same as rituals.
Birthday parties, holiday traditions, family dinners, sports events, and so on are not games under the TA framework. A birthday party doesn’t typically involve ulterior motives. Everyone knows why everyone else is there and what the gathering is about.
Games are different.
A game is a patterned and predictable series of transactions. On the surface, the interactions appear straightforward. But in fact they conceal motivations that lead to predictable payoffs.
Within Transactional Analysis, a “stroke,” is the recognition and validation one person gives to another.
It’s analogous to receiving a “like” on social media (in many ways, these companies have, unknowingly, weaponized the ideas of TA).
At many elite universities in the U.S., students will snap their fingers when they hear someone express an opinion they like. The speaker hears the snaps and feels good. Transactional analysts would call these “strokes.” The term stems from classic research on the mother-infant bond, which has demonstrated that babies and young children literally need physical strokes to remain alive. Even beyond childhood, humans are deeply social; emotional deprivation can be life-threatening.
Though Berne was a psychiatrist in the 1960s, calling these interactions “strokes” presaged of the work of evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who later observed that for apes, grooming is not primarily about hygiene but rather about forming relationships, cementing bonds, and influencing their fellow primates.
Dunbar then advanced the view that for humans, small talk and idle chatter are the equivalent of grooming behaviors. That is, much of conversation is not entirely about exchanging concrete information (though it is often about that); it is also about building and maintaining social ties.
According to TA, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to obtain strokes. Games are an unhealthy way.
The psychiatrist James R. Allen, in the introduction of Games People Play, provides his definition of games:
“Habitual, dysfunctional methods of obtaining strokes, and the people involved are not fully aware of the two levels of transactions in which they are engaged.”
Berne calls strokes “the fundamental unit of social interaction.”
Humans can exchange strokes through non-physical as well as physical means—through words, gestures, and so on.
Berne observes that each person is unique in their quest for validation (strokes):
“A movie actor may require hundreds of strokes each week from anonymous and undifferentiated admirers…while a scientist may keep physically and mentally healthy on one stroke a year from a respected master.”
The basics of Transactional Analysis in the context of games:
Person A makes a first move/invitation.
Person B responds to the move.
Person A receives Person B’s reaction, and experiences a payoff of some kind.
A simple example from the book:
While his parents are at the kitchen table, a five-year-old boy runs into the living room. Suddenly there is a crash. His parents enter the room and see a glass vase knocked off the coffee table, shattered. The parents asks the boy, “Who did that?”
The boy replies, “Doggie.”
The parents turn red, because they know the dog is outside. Stepping forward, the mother slaps the boy and says, “I will not have a child who lies!”
It was obvious who broke the vase. So the question, which superficially seemed to be a request for factual information, was in fact an invitation for the boy to lie (first move). Which he did (response). Then the parents got to experience righteous anger, which is what they wanted all along (payoff).
The book is clear to point out, though, that the parents did not deliberately and consciously set out to “get” their son and hit him.
But some part of them may have the feeling that people are liars, and by setting up this trap, they got to confirm their worldview. Or perhaps the parents engage in this game to mentally collect bad feelings and justify a guilt-free expression of their dislike for their son, or use such experiences to later justify a guilt-free divorce. In this sense, they use their distress like trading stamps to later turn in for a “prize.”
Again, this isn’t operating at a conscious level. But once they “got” their son, the game concluded, with a sense of finality.
Games serve a purpose. They allow people to interact without intimacy or the risk of betrayal. They can engage in social exchange while holding a part of themselves back.
“Games,” Berne writes, “are substitutes for the real living of real intimacy.” And, of course, any social interaction is better than no interaction at all.
As a kid, sometimes I’d get into trouble in class, and the teachers would call home. Later that day, whoever I was living with at the time would ask “Anything interesting happen in school today?” I’d think, Yes, and I know you know. But I would say: “No, everything was fine.” Even though I knew they knew I was lying. I got locked into these bitter interchanges, maybe because I knew it would prolong adult attention, which was such a scarce resource in the foster homes. If you grow up in a dysfunctional environment, you get used to certain kinds of mind games.
A 2016 study found that instability in childhood was associated with higher scores on all three dimensions of the Dark Triad personality traits (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) in adulthood.
Importantly, childhood family socioeconomic status had no association with Dark Triad traits in adulthood. Being poor doesn’t have the same effect as instability. For a fictional example, think about the Roy kids in Succession, and their parents, Logan and Lady Caroline Collingwood, for whom ulterior transactions reign supreme.
Dark triad types tend to find satisfaction in games. It is possible that because childhood instability has increased over time, games will become more pervasive in social interactions. It is more important to understand these games today than in 1964, when Games People Play was first published.
To illustrate how strokes work, Berne describes American greeting rituals (which are not games, but help to understand them):
1A: “Hi!” (Hello, good morning.)
1B: “Hi!” (Hello, good morning.)
2A: “Warm enough for ya?” (How are you?)
2B: “Sure is. Looks like rain, though.” (Fine. How are you?)
3A: “Well, take care.” (Okay.)
3B: “I’ll be seeing you.”
4A: “So long.”
4B: “So long.”
No information was conveyed. Many people have observed that “How are you?” in American culture really just means “I know you, I am acknowledging you, and want to indicate that from my perspective we are on friendly terms.”
Berne describes the exchange as an “eight-stroke ritual” because each person delivered four strokes to the other.
From the perspective of Transactional Analysis, both individuals in the above scenario have imperceptibly improved each other’s health slightly. For the moment, they have each received recognition and the feeling of being accepted.
The ritual is based on unconscious computations from both parties. They figure four strokes no more than once a day is enough to maintain their casual social relationship. If they ran into each other an hour later, they would likely pass one another with only a slight nod of recognition.
Now take the example of two people who pass each other at their workspace once per day and say hi to each other. If one of them goes away on vacation for several weeks and returns, Berne suggests that if they don’t exchange additional strokes, one or both will be offended.
B: “Haven’t seen you around lately.”
A: “I’ve been on vacation.”
B: “Oh, have you! Where did you go?”
A: “I visited some family in Europe.”
B: “That sounds so interesting. How was it?”
And so on. Berne suggests they have made up for the absence of their routine single stroke exchanges by increasing the intensity of their interaction upon A’s return. The ledger is squared.
Now take the example of two people who have implicitly established a two-stroke ritual of Hi-Hi as they pass each other at work. One day, instead of continuing on his way, one person stops and asks” “How are you?”
A: “How are you?”
B (puzzled): “Fine. How are you?”
A: “Everything’s great. Warm enough for you?”
B: “Yeah” (cautiously). “Looks like rain, though.”
A: “Nice to see you again.”
B: “Same here. Sorry, I’ve got to finish up some work. See you around.”
As B hurries away, he thinks to himself, “What’s going on with A? Does he want something?” In TA terms: “All he owes me is one stroke, why is he giving me five—is he trying to exchange them for something?”
Confusion would arise, too, of course, if someone gave too few strokes rather than too many. If A says hi and B ignores him and continues on his way, A will think “What’s the matter with him?” meaning: “I gave him a stroke and he didn’t give one in return.”
The rules of stroke-giving depend in part on culture and context. For example, members of a tight-knit religious community who wish to speak about serious matters might first go through a two-hundred stroke ritual before getting down to business.
People who play games seek strokes. And most games are played out unconsciously.
However, salesmen are good at sizing people up and often deliberately choose which kinds of games to play. The book supplies a simple, stylized example.
Salesman: “This one is better, but you can’t afford it.”
Customer: “That’s the one I’ll take.”
In this exchange, the salesman made two explicit factual observations. But the implicit ulterior motive is to exploit what he judged to be an insecurity in the customer. His judgment is proven correct when the customer takes the bait: “Regardless of the financial consequences, I’ll show this arrogant fellow I’m as good as any of his other customers.”
In his book, Berne describes about three dozen games. As we’ll see in future posts, the titles of the games are colloquial and playful, and intended to capture the central characteristic of the interactions. Some examples:
“Why Don’t You—Yes But”
“See What You Made Me Do”
“If It Weren’t For You”
“Let’s You and Him Fight”
“Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch”
Berne gave amusing labels to the games, perhaps to soften the reality that the interactions often cause misery for the participants. Maybe he was familiar with the famous line about how if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise—well, you know.
To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or premium member.