A little about transactional analysis.

November 22nd, 2019

The following is a translation from the Romanian "Pe scurt despre analiza tranzactionala" by Mircea Popescu.

Transactional analysis is regarded in some academic circles (especially those of psychoanalytic orientation) as a rather unserious concern, if not completely unscientific. Certainly, the particular talent of Eric Berne to speak in terms accessible to the public at large has created sufficient interest and a following of "practitioners", more or less in the way of science or reason. Nevertheless, I think that the discipline is intellectually recuperable, in the following terms:

There exist in principle two paths by which we can understand and represent the processes which have a place within the mind of man: Either by listening to the descriptions produced by the respective man, or else following the facts of the respective man. The fact that a good part of classical psychology uses the first source does not absolutely invalidate the the second.

Regarding phylogeny, it's clear that in its evolution from the most primitive ganglions to the neocortex, the brain was guided by the need to respond to stimuli. This is the function which created this organ. The fact that the types of stimuli which appeared first received solutions and responses of better quality than the types of stimuli that appeared later isn't surprising. For example, we have the capacity to observe light, so much so that we can follow with the free eye millions of stars in a summer sky. Just so, we have the capacity to follow the movement. Specifically because it seems unremarkable, the simple fact that we can catch a ball falling from the sky shows how well-adapted the human brain is. For all technology's worth, there doesn't exist even today a robot that can play basketball, even if there have been robots capable of playing chess for twenty years.

The light was here for a while, but the movement appeared on Earth all at once with living beings. Both are fairly old, like stimuli. Speech, on the other hand, is from a more recent time; it appeared more or less concurrently with people. It wouldn't be surprising then if the brain wasn't capable of responding to the stimulus of speech as quickly, as well as it responded to the stimulus of the basketball.

If a joke is told today, it serves nothing to laugh on Sunday, at church. If you're mocked, you can't go to the post office with a vicious retort. In the majority of social interactions, a spoken response has to come in a few seconds if it's going to be heard. What is asked of our brain, in the end? Nothing more and nothing less than the receipt of information about the sounds heard, to recompose these sounds in the sounds of language, to get words from them, and from these words phrases, and from these phrases to extract understanding, from which to then process into further understanding, from which to make other propositions which then break into words to be vocalized. In a few seconds. It's a lot.

It wouldn't be, then, all that surprising to discover that, faced with such pressure and fairly exaggerate demands, the brain, like any human thing, also commits some simplifications. Up to a point, it's obvious that people don't listen to all that is said by the person being answered when they're forming responses. Still more obvious is that people do not understand, before giving a response, what was said in fact by the person to whom the response is addressed. Sometimes, as though by a miracle, it happens that they hear and understand, but I imagine you'll agree that this'd be quite rare.

This is, evidently, a bad thing, but wherever there's bad there's yet good, and the merit of this theory is that it finds the good in this case. Namely, if the response doesn't necessarily consider what was said, what can it reveal other than the internal structure of he who responds? If you don't speak to the object, you speak about you yourself, as though from nothing, in a vacuum, incapable to produce anything.

If in truth the responses that don't respond to, address, nor take into consideration stimuli describe the respondent, there would have to be then, theoretically speaking, specific modes in which different people fail to respond, recognizable through regular practice. This would be the first prediction a theory of transactional analysis would face on a scientific basis.

Practice confirms this first prediction, through so called "games". One of the most well-known is "Yes, but".

The one: I'd like to get rid of my belly.
The other: You've got to go to a gym.
The one: Yes, but I can't afford the membership fee.
The other: You have to go to work.
The one: Yes, but I'd have to wake up too early.
The other: You have to stop using the elevator.
The one: Yes, but my knees hurt.
The other: You have to change your diet.
The one: Yes, but I have a sensitive stomach and I can only eat certain things.

Obviously, you could continue this dialogue indefinitely, with minimal effort, and just so you could extend it to any given domain. If you get bored of this, you could also play "if it weren't for you", "why does this always happen to me", "look what you made me do", "look how hard I've tried", "I'm only trying to help", the list is long enough.

The next following prediction would be that people can, once they've read these things described, revise their own behavior in the sense of improving the quality of their communication with others; for the one part recognizing those cases in which the discussion transforms into simple transactions without notional content, simply satisfying some necessities of mechanical functioning, and for the other part eliminating from their own repertoire pseudo-responses that don't respond to anything in particular.

To the degree that this second prediction were satisfied in practice, transactional analysis would have to become a school of clinical psychology. To what degree this satisfaction actually happens, only you can say.

One Response to “A little about transactional analysis.”

  1. Briefly on transactional analysis

    Transactional analysis is deemed among some academic circles (especially of a psychanalitical bent) a rather unserious preoccupation, if not outright unscientific. Certainly Eric Berne's particular talent for speaking in terms accessible to the public at large has created significant interest and a halo of "practitioners" more or less astride the road of science or reason. Nevertheless, I think that the discipline is intellectually recuperable, perhaps along in the following terms:

    There are inescapably two approaches to understanding and representing the phenomena occuring in the mind of man : either listening to their description as produced by the man in question, or else following the deeds of the man in question. The happenstance that a good chunk of currently accepted psychology follows the first approach does not necessarily invalidate the second.

    Proceeding from phylogenesis, it's certain that in its evolution from the earliest ganglions to neocortex, the nervous system was driven by a need to respond to stimuli. This'd be the function creating this organ. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that kinds of stimuli encountered earlier might have received better answers than kinds of stimuli encountered later. For illustration, we enjoy the ability to observe light, to such a disproportionate degree we can follow, with unaided eye, millions of stars in the Summer sky. In this same vein, we are capable of following motion. Specifically for its banality, the simple ability of catching balls in flight illustrates how well adapted the human brain actually is. In spite of all technological progress there isn't today such a thing as a basketball playing robot, even if there's been chess playing robots for two decades.

    Light was about for a while, and movement appeared on Earth rather contemporaneously with living things. Both kinds of stimuli enjoy some measure of antiquity. Speech, however, is more recent, it more or less came about with people. It might then not be the most surprising thing if the brain weren't as capable of handling the stimulus of speech quite as well as it handles the stimulus of basketball.

    Yet if a joke is proferred today, laughing Sunday in church's counterproductive. If you're being taken for a ride, the withering riposte can't arrive via snail mail, addressed to general delivery. In most social situations the answer must be presented within seconds. What is the brain thereby asked to do ? No less than receiving noise, recomposing sounds of spoken language out of it, remaking words out of these, and sentences out of the words and then in turn extract meaning out of the sentences, process it towards other meaning, encode that into sentences, which then broken into words be vocalized. All in a few seconds. It's a lot.

    It wouldn't then be quite inconceivable we should discover that, confronted with such pressure, amidst such extravagant demands, the brain, like any other human thing, on occasion resorts to simplification. I'll confess it wouldn't come as a surprise to me.

    Transactional analysis proposes just this, a model describing such simplification. Up to a point it's self-evident people do not hear, in their quest to answer, everything said by those they're answering to. It's even more evident people do not understand, before issuing their answer, what he whom the answer's addressed to actually said. Sometimes, as by a miracle, it happens that yes they listen, and yes they understand ; but I dare expect you'll agree with me that it's a rare bird indeed, this wonder.

    This state of affairs is, of course, bad ; but in all bad there's some good, and the merit of the theory is the finding the good in its application domain. Which is, that if the answer's not necessarily related to what was said, what can it possibly be related to if not the inner structure of he who's answering ? If you're not talking to the topic, you're talking of yourself, for out of nothing, from a vacuum, something can't possibly ever issue.

    If indeed the answers that don't answer, failing to address or even consider the stimuli, describe the person answering, it should then be the case, theoretically speaking, that certain patterns emerge in practice, specific ways in which distinct people non-answer. This'd be the first prediction of a scientific approach to transactional analysis.

    Experience lends support to such prediction, through the so-called "games". One of the best known is "Yes, but" :

    One: I'd like to ditch the belly.
    Another: You could go to the gym.
    One: Yes, but I can't afford the membership fee.
    Another: You could walk to your job.
    One: Yes, but that'd mean I'd have to wake up too early.
    Another: You could use the stairs instead of the elevator.
    One: Yes, but my knees are weak
    Another: You could eat less.
    One: Yes, but I have a difficult stomach and I can only eat certain things.

    Obviously this dialogue could be continued indefinitely with minimal effort, and similarily it could be applied in whatever context. If Yes, but gets boring you could also try "if it weren't for you", "why's everything happen to me", "look what you got me into", "look how much I worked", "I only want to help", the list is rather lengthy.

    The next prediction would be that people can, upon reading these matters decribed, revise their own behaviour, with a view to improving their own communication habits, on one hand recognizing the cases in which discussion turns to mere transaction bereft of cognitive substance, actuated for the mechanical satisfaction of lower order necessities, and on the other hand removing from their own repertoire the false answers which do not respond to anything at all.

    To the degree this second prediction were satisfied in practice, transactional analysis could be a school of clinical psychology. Whether this will actually ever occur is something you can answer for yourself.

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