Eric Berne: Games People Play

Games People PlayA seminal, very useful book is turning 50 this coming year. Published in 1964, and the best selling non-fiction book of the 1960s, Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne introduced Transactional Analysis, which looked closely at human relationships. He opted to study interaction as transaction, since he said we communicate to get something out of it.
For example, if one person says hello, and the other person doesn’t respond, the first person feels cheated or irritated, since he or she expected to get something out of saying hello.

Berne said we communicate in three ego states, as the parent, the child and the adult. Everybody has these three people inside their head, which explains the mental cacophony we sometimes experience. When we are emotional, we are the child. Supportive or exerting power over others, we are the parent. Acting rationally, and focusing on the objective problems at hand, we are the adult. And the obvious way to go is to be the adult. This still comes across as fresh to me. It’s good, solid, everyday advice, the very basis of Emotional Intelligence, i.e. applying reason to how we engage in social situations with others.

Berne identified six different ways in which people communicate:

  • withdrawal (disengagement)
  • rituals (highly standardized exchanges)
  • pastimes (predictable conversations, polite exchanges of opinions)
  • activities (eg doing math or building something together)
  • games (underhanded, exploiting others)
  • intimacy (a game-free relationship)

The games we play, he says, like “If it weren’t for you”, are all rackets. Anger is one of those rackets, he says. It makes you feel righteous for a while, but doesn’t solve anything. Instead  he says we have to decide to look at what is making us angry and think about why the other person is doing it. That means not letting the other person win the game by allowing ourselves to get angry. It’s an interesting and engaging challenge, and one that can actually improve the situation.

Every game has three parts:

  • the con – the way of cheating used
  • the gimmick – the weakness that makes the other person play the game
  • the payoff – the feeling that people get from playing the game

Among the aspects Berne identified as worthy of therapy are scripts that he said we develop and follow early in life, and can for instance recognize in fairy tales.

Below is a wonderful 1966 NET Science broadcast special on the book. The reporter interviews Dr. Berne at his home in Carmel where the author explains the theory behind Transactional Analysis. The camera then follows the two of them along the gorgeous Carmel coast – where incidentally Helmut and I spent almost a week last summer. And finally we see Dr. Berne in with other California psychologists, Swinging Sixties style. Watch these four short videos for an exquisite introduction to the theory, and take an evocative journey into the epoch when Transactional Analysis was still new.

Eric Berne passed away in 1970. A website dedicated to him contains selected games he identified. See if any of them ring a bell with you. They did with me. ‘Uproar’, with slamming doors, is a game I used to play a lot with my dad when I was a trouble-making teen. And I find it quite sobering to recognize that I still like to indulge the Child in me.

On this note: I want a sun umbrella just like Dr. Bearne’s.

The power of vulnerability – Brené Brown, academics, and me

I was reminded, while teaching a presentations course to social science PhDs today, of the vulnerability of academics as they conduct scientific inquiry. The whole nature of science is not knowing, but wanting to find out more. Complexity generates new and interesting questions. So vulnerability is a key ingredient in academic presentation. We looked at a photo of a student presenting a poster to an older scientist, and the academics I was teaching commented on what they considered the older man’s critical gaze. They experience an audience looking to punch holes into their methods and results. I conjured up the image of the white night protecting his castle against the hostile red knight. We naturally went on to discuss the opportunities for networking and productive exchange such an encounter provides. In any case, the photo and the ensuing exchange got me thinking – again! – about vulnerability.

Photo: Angelica Omaiye, Beating the Competition II: Tips for Presenting at Research Conferences, The Substrate, The official blog of the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliate Network

I love rewatching Brené Brown’s TED Talk. Her field is psychology, and so any research is necessarily also self-reflective. She begins her TED talk saying that she initially reacted with great insecurity to being billed as a storyteller at an event she was invited to. I’d say most academics would. Storytelling and science inhabit different worlds. But a storyteller is what she is, and it doesn’t make her less of a scientist. Here she is in classic storytelling mode, as she describes her own need for control as a researcher, and her meltdown in the face of recognizing the key role of vulnerability. As a storyteller, she gets by with very little need for explicit explanation.

Source: TED

A key moment comes in minute 12:08:

So I found a therapist. My first meeting with her, Diana, I brought in my list of how the wholehearted live, and I sat down, and she said, How are you, and I said, I’m great, you know, I’m h… I’m OK. And she said, what’s going on? And I said … and this is a therapist who sees therapists. Because we have to go to those, because their BS meters are good. (laughter) Uhm. And so I said, Here’s the thing: I’m struggling. And she said, what’s the struggle? And I said, Well, I have a vulnerability issue, and I know that vulnerability is kind of the core … of shame and fear … and our struggle for worthiness … but it appears it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love … and I think I, I have a problem, and I just … I need some help. And I said, but here’s the thing: No family stuff, no childhood shit, I just … I just … need … some strategies.” (lots of laughter)

She goes on to talk about how we numb vulnerability in minute 15:30:

We are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem is, and I learned this from the research, that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff, here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment, I don’t want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin (laughter) … I don’t want to feel these … and I know that’s knowing laughter … I, I hack into your lives for a living I know that’s … uh uh god … you cannot numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness, and then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so the we have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin, and it becomes this dangerous cycle.

She has a clear agenda as a result of her extensive and intensive exploration: She says that as parents

Our job is to look and say, you know what, you’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. That’s our job.

Ok, and now extend that ad lib to siblings and friends and the people we teach and coach and … it’s simply a good guide to being human.

Thinking through my own vulnerability

So then, thinking through my own vulnerability with my husband in the evening over a glass of red wine, I remembered being nine years old. My parents were just going through a crisis and wanted to have me, the last child still living at home, out of the house while they debated divorce. So I went off to Camp Varsity in West Virginia for six long weeks. It must have cost my parents an arm and a leg. The experience was amazing. I had always been protected physically, being the youngest, the only girl, and the child of rather unphysical parents. We had no sports at school to speak of, and my dad’s idea of a good time was singing mass in Latin.

So here suddenly I was just one of a bunch of wild and fiercely physical kids. I remember this one game in the woods where we had to run for hours, utterly exhausting, and where it often felt like I was running for my life. Talk about vulnerable! Other challenges were learning to shoot a shotgun and a bow and arrow though I’m nearly blind in my right eye, which I needed to sight the goal. Then there were marvelous discoveries like horseback riding, Western-style, and hiking in the mountains. We had never done that before in my family. I even played softball. The only activities that I didn’t have to learn from scratch were canoeing and swimming.

After six weeks, on the last night before we went home, there was this little ceremony up in the Lodge where campers were given awards for being the fastest swimmer or having won some track event or other. The ceremony was just coming to an end when they called me up to the front of the room, and unbelievably, handed me a plaque.

It read: Most Improved Camper.

They must have made up that award for me, and I suspect there was leg-pulling involved. I remember being hugely embarrassed to be noticed at all, and truly proud to have been picked out as an achiever of … something.

You’ll laugh, but it was lovely to have my own vulnerability defined in such simple terms, and to be awarded in such a straightforward fashion.

Remembering to remember

I often struggle to remember the names of my students, especially in large classes. Like most people, using my visual and spacial memory helps. Classes with fixed seating arrangements are out because you want students to mix partners. Attendance lists are frowned upon at the institution I am currently working for.  This had me in a bind.

So Khushi suggested something that I have in fact done: Students formed study groups, made name tags, and I took a photograph of each group holding up their tags. Looking through the pictures I now see myself walking around the room that day to where they were sitting that lesson. Finally, names are starting to stick.

Josua Foer summarizes the technique of the Memory Palace, arguably the best way to memorize individual, unconnected items in sequence by connecting and associating them with 3-D navigation through an imagined scene. He mentions that ancient orators used this topographical technique to learn their speeches by heart, and points to the connection between “topic” (and topic sentence) and “topos”, or place.

The entire art of memorizing is to make items meaningfully connected. But more still, as Foer says about the techniques of the Memory Palace, “They work because they make you work. They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don’t normally walk around exercising. There are no shortcuts.”

Finally, he points out the essential importance of memory,  namely that our lives are the sum of our memories. So we need to process deeply. We must remember to remember.

What psychologists are saying about how technology affects us

Speaking about “The Secret Powers of Time”, Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo (famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment) explains how various perspectives of time – past, present and future – influence our actions and relationships. There are six main orientation time zones:

  • Past: Past positive (nostalgic), or past negative (regretful)
  • Present: hedonistic (seeking pleasure, knowledge), or fatalistic (“It doesn’t pay to plan”)
  • Future: resist temptation for future benefit, or geared to reward after death (both build on trust or expectation)

Catholic nations are more present and past oriented, while Protestant nations are more future orientated.

He says we are going through a time revolution. Children are naturally and essentially hedonistic and present-oriented. What schools around the globe do is to give them a past or future orientation (depending on the predominant culture). Now computer games are increasingly keeping children in their present-hedonistic state, rewiring their brains, so they will be bored in the analogue classroom. Games are indeed addictive, and “all addictions are addictions of present hedonism.” School and education is all about delaying gratification, but present oriented kids will not relate the messages to themselves and their future. I hear echos of my father talking about “instant gratification” as a key element of hedonistic pop culture back when I was a teen in the 1970s.

Philip Zimbardo (2008): The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.


Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, writes that mobile devices are becoming the vehicle for intimate relationships, as robots take on responsibilities previously born by friends and family. The instantaneous, engineered response is in fact allowing us to flee from conversation, which takes effort in terms of time and patience, and hence requires us to build those essential skills.

“Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.”
Sherry Turkle: The Flight From Conversation, NYT April 21, 2012

Sherry Turkle (2011): Alone Together. Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.

Finish your partner’s sentences

I was just on Facebook to Stew when I stumbled across a video… and bingo, here’s a nice task for you learners: Tell a story about something two of you did together. OK, you don’t really have to have done this, ok? You can make it up – invent it. So: It should be a long event with lots of interesting details. Put the details on cards. Sort them into the sequence they “happened in”. Then tell your story. But the rule is: You’re not allowed to complete any sentence, your partner has to pick up and finish it for you. Then he or she continues the story, and you finish the sentence, back and forth.

Watch the first minute of Kermit and Fozzie doing just that here:

Discussion: How do you feel about completing your partner’s sentences, and about your partner completing yours? Does it feel like you are interrupting each other? Do you mind it when others complete your sentences for you in real life? What does it depend on?

Handling pairwork: How do you sort things out when you are not happy with your partner’s part of the story? Language tip: “Well, what actually happened was that we…” “But then…”

You can do this exercise in writing, too, of course: You start writing a story about the two of you, and your partner has to continue.

Have fun!

Goldie Hawn’s MindUP

I find NLP and yoga are great techniques to stay grounded and to be able to tap into your inner resources. In the process of rethinking how these practices feed mindfulness and connect to learning, I’ve stumbled upon a great project: Goldie Hawn, is into strengthening focus in school children, running a project that came out of her experience of post-9/11 America, as attention-deficit issues, depression and over-medication were noted to be on the rise. She’s created an agenda dedicated to bringing children happiness, enlisting the help of neuroscientists and positive psychologists to create a school curriculum called MindUp, helping children get in touch with their feelings, aiming to create a classroom of happiness. It’s a 15-lesson curriculum, including focussed breathing, attention, relaxation and awareness-building. Children are taught how their brain works; that when their mid-brain is overactive, their prefrontal cortex (the executive function) is blocked off and dims. In order to open up for learning, children need to be able to quiet their mind, which controls their cortisol levels, and they learn the necessary techniques to do so. In addition, they are taught empathy and pro-social behavior, which helps them balance their emotions and find their place in the universe. They learn that acts of kindness cause their system to emit dopamine, making them feel good. So overall, then, the curriculum entails:

  • Focus: 1. How Our Brains Work; 2. Attention; 3. Awareness: The Core Practice
  • Senses: 4. Listening; 5. Seeing; 6. Smelling; 7. Tasting; 8. Movement I; 9. Movement II
  • Attitude: 10. Perspective Taking; 11. Choosing Optimism; 12. Savoring Happy Experiences
  • Mindful action: 13. Acting with Gratitude; 14. Acts of Kindness; 15. Community Action

She and Dr. Dan Siegel, who has developed a concept of self-understanding and tuning into others that he calls “mindsight“, presented the program at TEDMED 2009. For more, see the MindPU site.

Recent write-up in the Huffington Post

Published materials for the curriculum

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

Feeling a bit out of sorts with your job or looking for orientation? That’s a good time to do a questionnaire like MTBI, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. That’s a test HR managers and headhunters love to use. It’s based on C. G. Jung’s analysis of how we make decisions, with its opposite pairs:

  • thinking vs. feeling
  • sensing vs. intuition
  • judging vs. perceiving
  • introversion vs. extroversion

“The original developers of the personality inventory were Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. They began creating the indicator during World War II, believing that a knowledge of personality preferences would help women who were entering the industrial workforce for the first time identify the sort of war-time jobs where they would be ‘most comfortable and effective’.” (Wikipedia)

The MTBI  sorts you into one of 16 types, described on the Myers & Briggs Foundation site. You can take the test yourself at Human Metrics. If you’re learning English and do the MTBI you’ll find that the vocabulary is really great!

My type? I’m ENFJ, and the blurb says that means I tend to be

“Warm, empathetic, responsive, and responsible. Highly attuned to the emotions, needs, and motivations of others. Find potential in everyone, want to help others fulfill their potential. May act as catalysts for individual and group growth. Loyal, responsive to praise and criticism. Sociable, facilitate others in a group, and provide inspiring leadership.”

Yeah, right, ok, so in that case I guess I’m the born teacher. No position in the power-broker world of top management for me. Yeah. Grin and bear it!  😉