Transactional Analysis Made Simple

A modern form of psychology that studies a person’s interactions and relationships, transactional analysis was developed by Dr. Eric Berne, a Canadian-born psychiatrist.  He was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s personality theories, particularly his belief that the human psyche is multi-faceted, and combined Freud’s theory with human interactions that he had personally observed.

When used in therapy, transactional analysis can address a person’s communications and interactions with the goal of developing and strengthening the belief that every person has value and can achieve personal growth and positive change.


In the late-1950s, Dr. Berne used the term “transaction” to define the basic unit of social intercourse.  He used “transactional analysis” as a term to define the study of the social exchanges between people. This theory leaned on Freud’s belief that numerous pieces interact to generate various attitudes, complex behaviours, and emotions, as well as Penfield’s experiments involving the use of electrical currents to stimulate certain regions of the brain. Berne’s approach is often labelled extra- and neo-Freudian.

Understanding the importance of building upon Freud’s philosophical concepts with data that could be observed, Berne created three ego states: Child, Adult, and Parent. This shadowed Freud’s proposal involving the unobservable states of personality known as the Superego (moral element), Ego (realistic and rational element), and Id (impulsive and unconscious component that responds immediately to the instincts).

Berne also paid special attention to the intricacies of communication and stressed that body language, gestures, facial expressions, and tone could be viewed as more significant than the spoken message by the receiver. Bernes’ book, Games People Play (1964), noted that sometimes people may communicate messages that have derived from ulterior motivations.

Examining Transactional Analysis’s Ego States

Just as Freud did, Berne proposed that every person has three ego states. However, they do no directly correspond with Freud’s ego states. Instead, they represent a person’s internal model of parents, adult, and children. When interacting with someone or when engaged in internal monologue, a person may assume any of these roles, which are linked to their usual English definition. Instead:

Parent consists of recorded external events both experienced and observed by a child from birth until roughly their 5th birthday. The child is incapable of analysising or filtering the recordings. They accept them without question. These events tend to involve their own parents or adults in a caregiver role, which is why Berne referred to this ego state as “the Parent.” Instances of recorded observations in this state include:


  • Do not cross the road unless you are holding my hand.
  • Never forget to respond with “thank you” after someone helps you with something.
  • Never play with sharp objects.


Child consists of recordings in the brain of all internal events (emotions or feelings) that are precisely related to any external event a child has observed through his/ her initial five years of life. Examples of recorded events during this state include:

  • Anytime mum hugs me, I feel loved.
  • When mum is sad, I feel sad.
  • The movie I watched yesterday afternoon with mum was frightening.


Adult refers to the period when a child acquires the ability to notice and comprehend situations that differ from what they felt (Child) or observed (Parent). As the final ego state, Adult acts like a data processing centre that takes information from the different ego states and uses them to reach a decision. The Adult is responsible for validating data that has been stored within the Parent. Examples include:

  • Max cut his finger and needed stitches when playing with a knife. Mum was right when she said Max shouldn’t play with any sharp objects.


Transactional Analytic Theory and Communication

A transactional stimulus refers to any indication (gesture, speech, or further nonverbal cue) that recognises that another person is present. A transactional stimulus is used to initiate all transactions. When two people see one another in public and the receiver responds in a way that is linked to the transactional stimulus, the receiver has made a transactional response.

Positive communication from one person to another using transactional analytic theory usually requires identifying the ego state of the person who began the transactional stimulus, as well as the ego state of the person who offered the transactional response.

Transactions can occur between any of the ego states. According to Berne, transactions between two Adults are often the simplest and easiest because of their reasonable, rational nature. When the receiver’s transaction response is geared toward the speaker’s ego state, it is referred to as a complementary transaction. Berne believes that communication will easily continue as long as the transactions continue to be complementary.

A crossed transaction results when an ego state that didn’t get the transactional stimulus relays a transactional response. This can cause a communications breakdown, which may instigate conflict. Here is an example of a crossed transaction. If someone in the Adult ego state asks another person in the Adult ego state, “Where is my hat?” and the second person, who is in the Child ego states, “Why do you always assume that I lost your stuff?”

Communication is both a crucial part of daily life and of being a human. Even a newborn baby needs to be recognised and acknowledged. According to Rene Spitz, infants who are handled, touched, and cuddled less than their peers have a greater chance of experiencing emotional and physical challenges. Berne coined the inborn need for recognition as recognition-hunger and defines the basic unit of social recognition or action as a stroke.

According to Berne’s, the children negatively affected in Spitz’s studies displayed emotional and physical shortages due to not receiving enough strokes. He also applied this to adults, believing that even adults experience hunger-recognition and a desire for strokes. There is a significant difference between the two. Whereas infants tend to require physical strokes, adults may be happy with other types of acknowledgment, including smiles or winks.

Strokes can be both negative and positive with Berne believing that experiencing a negative stroke is better than none at all. For example, when someone asks another person out for dinner and is flatly told “no,” they may perceive the refusal as less hurtful than if their request had been ignored entirely.


Transactional Analysis in Therapy

When used in therapy, transactional analysis’s goal is to help a person reach and retain their autonomy by building up their Adult state. Usually, the therapist and client create a contract detailing what they hope to achieve during therapy. This could make it easier for the client to take responsibility for anything occurring during therapy sessions. Then, the client will become more capable of depending on their Adult ego to recognise and evaluate different behaviours, thoughts, and emotions that may be preventing them from thriving.

An ideal therapeutic environment for transactional analysis is comfortable, provides security, and ensures respect. A client and therapist should build a helpful relationship, which will often serve as an example for relationships the client makes outside of therapy. Typically, therapists who practice transactional analysis used an array of tools collected from multiple disciplines, including cognitive behavioural, relational, and psychodynamic therapies.

Transactional Analysis: Who May Benefit?

In addition to therapy, transactional analysis may be used in areas of business management, education, communications, and medicine. In the education field, it can act as a way to incorporate educational philosophies and principles into a student’s daily life, regardless of their age or social circumstances. It often appeals to professionals, parents, and social workers who are interested in maximising their personal development. It is also ideal for anyone who wants to enhance relationships with oneself, as well as with others.

When used by clinicians and counsellors to examine issues a client in treatment is currently facing, studies indicate that transactional analysis can be effective for treating relationship and emotional difficulties, particularly those that result from chronic health conditions.