Transactional Analysis

Transactional analysis, developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne, is a form of modern psychology that examines a person's relationships and interactions. Berne took inspiration from Freud's theories of personality, combining them with his own observations of human interaction in order to develop transactional analysis. In therapy, transactional analysis can be used to address one's interactions and communications with the purpose of establishing and reinforcing the idea that each individual is valuable and has the capacity for positive change and personal growth. 

Development of Transactional Analysis

Dr. Eric Berne developed transactional analysis in the last 1950s, using “transaction” to describe the fundamental unit of social intercourse, with “transactional analysis” being the study of social interactions between individuals. His influences included contemporaries such as René Spitz, Erik Erikson, Paul Federn, Edoardo Weiss, as well as Sigmund Freud and Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon.

Inspired by Freud’s theory of personality—primarily his belief that the human psyche is multifaceted and that different components interact to produce a variety of emotions, attitudes and complex behaviors—and Penfield’s groundbreaking experiments involving the stimulation of specific brain regions with electrical currents, Berne developed an approach that he described as both neo- and extra-Freudian.

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Discerning the need to build upon the philosophical concepts Freud introduced with observable data, Berne developed his own observable ego states of Parent, Adult, and Child, following Freud’s proposal of the existence of the Id (emotional and irrational component), Ego (rational component), and Superego (moral component) as different and unobservable factions of personality.

Berne also took special note of the complexities of human communication. He highlighted the fact that facial expressions, gestures, body language, and tone may be regarded as more important by the receiver than any spoken words. In his book Games People Play, he noted that people may sometimes communicate messages that are underpinned with ulterior motives.

Examining the Ego States of Transactional Analysis

Like Freud, Berne posited that each individual possesses three ego states. His ego states—the Parent, the Adult, and the Child—do not directly correspond to Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego, however. Instead, these states represent an individual’s internal model of parents, adults, and children. An individual may assume any of these roles in transactions with another person or in internal conversation. These roles are not directly associated with their typical English definitions but can be described as follows:

Parent consists of recordings of external events observed and experienced by a child from birth through approximately the first five years of life. These recordings are not filtered or analyzed by the child; they are simply accepted without question. Many of these external events are likely to involve the individual’s parents or other adults in parent-link roles, which led Berne to call this ego state “the Parent.” Examples of external events recorded in this state:

  • Do not play with matches.
  • Remember to say “please” and “thank you.”
  • Do not speak to strangers.

Child represents all brain recordings of internal events (feelings or emotions) that are directly linked to the external events observed by the child during the first five years of life. Examples of events recorded in this state may include:

  • I feel happy when Mom hugs me.
  • Dad’s late night movie was very scary.
  • I feel sad when Mom is sad.

Adult, the final ego state, is the period in which a child develops the capacity to perceive and understand situations that are different from what is observed (Parent) or felt (Child). The Adult serves as a data processing center that utilizes information from all three ego states in order to arrive at a decision. One important role of the Adult is to validate data which is stored in the Parent:

  • I see that Suzie’s house was burnt down. Mom was right—I should not play with matches.

Communication Using Transactional Analytic Theory

Any indication (speech, gestures or other nonverbal cues) that acknowledges the presence of another person is called a transactional stimulus. All transactions are initiated via the use of a transactional stimulus. When two individuals encounter each other and the receiver reacts in a manner related to the transactional stimulus, that individual has performed a transactional response. The key to successful person-to-person communication generally lies in identifying which ego state (in the speaker) initiated the transactional stimulus and which ego state (in the receiver) provided the transactional response.

Due to the typically rational and reasonable nature of the Adult, Berne believes that the easiest and simplest transactions occur between Adult ego states, but transactions may occur between any of the three ego states. In a complementary transaction, the transaction response from the receiver is directed to the sending ego state in the speaker. For example, if the Adult in the speaker sends a transactional stimulus to the Child in the receiver, then the transaction will be complementary if the Child in the receiver then sends the transactional response to the Adult in the speaker. According to Berne, communication will continue if the transactions remain complementary.

A crossed transaction occurs when an ego state that did not receive the transactional stimulus sends the transactional response. Crossed transactions may lead to breakdowns in communication, which may sometimes be followed by conflict. For example, the Adult state in an individual may send a transactional stimulus to the Adult in another individual, asking “Have you seen my coat?” But the Child in the second individual may instead send the transactional response to the Parent in the first individual by replying, “You always blame me for everything!”

Not only is communication considered to be an important aspect of everyday life, it is also thought to be an integral part of being human. Even newborns exhibit the need to be recognized and acknowledged. Research conducted by Spitz showed that infants who received less cuddling, handling, and touching were more likely to experience physical and emotional challenges. Berne described this innate need for social recognition as recognition-hunger, defining the fundamental unit of social action or recognition as a stroke.

From Berne’s perspective, the adversely affected children in Spitz’s studies exhibited physical and emotional deficits due to a lack of strokes. Berne applied this theory to adults, theorizing that men and women also experience recognition-hunger and a need for strokes. However, while infants may desire strokes that are primarily physical, an adult may be contented with other forms of recognition, such as nods, winks, or smiles.

While strokes may be positive or negative, Berne theorized that it is better to receive a negative stroke than no stroke at all. When one person asks another out on a date, for example, and receives a flat refusal, that person may find the refusal to be less damaging than a complete lack of acknowledgment.

Transactional Analysis in Therapy

The goal of transactional analysis is help the individual in therapy gain and maintain autonomy by strengthening the Adult state. Typically, the individual and the therapist will establish a contract that outlines the desired outcome they wish to achieve in therapy. This may contribute to the person in therapy taking personal responsibility for events that take place during treatment. The individual will generally then become more able to rely on their Adult ego states to identify and examine various thoughts, behaviors, and emotions which might hinder the ability to thrive.

The atmosphere that supports transactional analysis is one of comfort, security, and respect. When a positive relationship is forged between the therapist and the person seeking treatment, this often provides a model for subsequent relationships developed outside of the therapy arena. Analysts who practice this form of therapy generally use a broad range of tools gathered from many disciplines including psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, and relational therapies.

Who Can Benefit from Transactional Analysis?

Transactional analysis is frequently applied in the areas of medicine, communications, education, and business management as well as therapy. The mainstream appeal of this technique has attracted parents, professionals, social workers, and others who strive to achieve maximum personal development. Transactional analysis is considered to be one effective method of enhancing relationships with oneself and with others.

Studies show that transactional analysis, often used by counselors and clinicians to address issues currently faced by the person in treatment, can be an effective tool in the treatment of emotional and relationship difficulties that may develop as a result of chronic health challenges.

Transactional analysis is used widely in the educational arena, and this method can serve as a vessel through which educational principles and philosophy can be incorporated into the daily lives of students. This type of therapy can be administered to children and adults of all ages, regardless of social circumstances.

How to Become a Certified Transactional Analyst

In order to qualify as a certified transactional analyst (CTA), individuals must first complete a Transactional Analysis 101 course and then:

  • Contract a sponsor who is qualified in the same TA field in order to adequately prepare for certification. The International Board of Certification acts as the third party to the contract.
  • Log hours in training (600 hours of tutor contact), supervision (150 hours supervised while professionally applying TA in the field), and application (750 hours of client contact time in the professional field). An additional 500 hours may be spent in any area, bringing the total number of required hours to 2000.
  • Complete and pass a written exam (up to 24,000 words).
  • Take and pass an oral exam.


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Last updated: 09-11-2015

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