Transactional Analysis theory explained

Transactional Analysis - ToolsHero

Transactional Analysis: this article explains the Transactional Analysis, developed by Eric Berne in a practical way. It also gives examples and covers Transactional Analysis Therapy, the different egos, the role of strokes and two communication levels Berne distinguishes. After reading, you will understand the basics of this communication theory. Enjoy reading!

What is Transactional Analysis?

Transactional Analysis (TA) is part of social psychology and was developed by the Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne in 1958.

His goal was to cure people, instead of just making progress in treating them. Eric Berne is known for one of his books ‘Games People Play’. He also founded The International Transactional Analysis Association, a nonprofit, member-driven educational organization.

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TA is based on the idea that people’s early life experiences determine the decisions they’ll make. These can be both positive and negative decisions that influence their quality of life. This is also referred to as the script or life plan.

An practical example of the transactional analysis

The script is central to TA and can be viewed as a well-described approach people use because they already learned and experienced it as a child. One example of this is that many men refuse to ever cry in public, because they learned during childhood that ‘boys don’t cry’.

There are also less innocuous scripts that make people repeat their behaviour and lead to conflicts with their environment.

What is Transactional Analysis Therapy? And how can it help somebody?

Transactional Analysis makes it possible to analyse these scripts. Behavioural change can help alter the scripts. Negative scripts inhibit any individual’s growth and development, whereas positive scripts have a motivating effect.

Within this type of analysis, three different types of scripts are distinguished; the Winner, the Loser and the Non-winner (neutral). All three scripts can be going on in the same person. This makes that TA can be a very effective method in therapy.

Egos and the transactional analysis

Berne distinguishes three different ways to experience the world around us in Transactional Analysis. Based on these three perspectives, people behave differently depending on the situation. These are called the egos, in which thinking, feeling and behaviour are the main factors.

There’s the Parent, the Adult, the Child, which can be compared to the Winner (parent), Loser (child), and the Neutral (adult). These three egos are present in each person as well. The Child and Parent are rooted in the past. The Adult handles based on the presence.

Each ego can interact with others. Eric Berne calls that transactions. Within Transactional Analysis, such a transaction is two-way communication. On the one hand there is the actual and intended communication, and on the other there’s the implied psychological sublayer.

Transactional Analysis - toolshero

Figure 1 – The ego’s of the Transactional Analysis (Berne, 1958)

1. Parent Ego

The Parent ego is the deeply rooted voice of authority that people think, feel and express in the way parents do towards their children. The nurturing Parent ego stands for power and authority, and is pedantic and know-it-ally. The Parent ego is judgemental, critical and uses patronising language. The ‘raised finger’ is typical for this ego.

2. Adult Ego states

The Adult ego lives in the here and now, according to the Transactional Analysis theory. This ego has the ability to carefully think and take action based on available facts and data. If you want to change the Parent ego or the Child ego, it’s best to do it through the Adult ego.

This ego is verbally skilled and asks many open-ended questions and bases its opinion on facts. The Adult ego also makes comparisons to other situations in order to form an objective opinion. The most important characteristics are showing interest in others, emphatic ability and patience.

3. Child ego states

The Child ego thinks, feels and behaves like a small child. This can be positive; for instance feeling excited about an upcoming holiday. Often though, it’s expressed negatively in the form of difficult behaviour, disagreeing with others, wanting to get their way, rude behaviour or anger and rage.

Emotion takes over the Child ego and removes all inhibitions. The Child ego enjoys bragging, twisting the truth and making things seem worse than they are to impress others.


Each person has a need to feel noticed, appreciated and liked by others. Eric Berne has described this need for attention as wanting strokes. There are different ways to get strokes and they can be either positive or negative. That’s also the case for the two meanings of the word ‘stroke’; ‘gentle touch’ and ‘hit’.

By using an action or words to elicit a response from someone, you get a stroke. That makes a stroke part of a transaction. On the one hand, people get recognition through positive strokes such as compliments, friendly remarks and encouragement. On the other, people can also receive negative strokes in the form of humiliation, cynicism, hatred etc.

Combinations of transactions within the transactional analysis

A transaction is an exchange of the previously mentioned strokes. According to Berne, there are three ways for this transaction between people to happen:

Transactional Analysis: combination of transactions - ToolsHero

Figure 2 – Transactional Analysis combinations (Berne, 1958)

1: Complementary transaction

The equal and therefore effective communication between Child-Child, Adult-Adult, Parent-Parent.

2: Ulterior transaction

The equal communication, followed by for instance the Parent ego to the Child ego.

3: Crossed transaction

The communication transaction occurs between two different egos. On the one hand, one person for instance starts as the Parent ego and the other as the Child ego. This leads to inequality and different expectations. The communication is no longer effective and can even turn hostile. The combination of ego styles is then unfavourable.

The three different transactions in communication are not limited to verbal language and words alone. Tone of voice, body language and facial expressions are also incorporated.

The transactional analysis and communication levels

According to Eric Berne, verbal communication is paramount in human social relationships. In particular, it’s about face-to-face communication. When one person starts to talk, it’s called the Transaction Stimulus. When the other responds, it’s called the Transaction Reaction. In addition, people communicate on two levels.

1: The level of the social message

This is about what’s actually being said. For instance, someone says, ‘Thank you for arriving so early!’

2: Level of the psychological message

This is about what is truly meant. If the earlier sentence is spoken sarcastically, it gets a very different meaning.

The message recipient can respond from his Adult ego by indicating that he doesn’t like the way the sender said it and ask them why they did that. From the Child ego, he can respond emotionally to the psychological message and become enraged.

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Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Have you ever heard of the Transactional Analysis? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for personal happiness and well-being?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Berne, E. (2016). Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry. Pickle Partners Publishing.
  2. Steiner, C. (1990). Scripts people live: Transactional analysis of life scripts. Grove Press.
  3. Wills, T. A., & Dishion, T. J. (2004). Temperament and adolescent substance use: A transactional analysis of emerging self-control. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33(1), 69-81.

How to cite this article:
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Original publication date: 07/10/2018 | Last update: 05/06/2023

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Patty Mulder
Article by:

Patty Mulder

Patty Mulder is an Dutch expert on Management Skills, Personal Effectiveness and Business Communication. She is also a Content writer, Business Coach and Company Trainer and lives in the Netherlands (Europe).
Note: all her articles are written in Dutch and we translated her articles to English!


4 responses to “Transactional Analysis theory explained”

  1. Jim Tolmie says:

    Great resource for what Im learning . Currently taking Therapeutic Modalities and Counselling Skills. Is there anything on the Stages of Human Development that Im able to access?
    Thanks for the great concise breakdown of the information.


    • Vincent van Vliet says:

      Hi Jim, thank you for your comment. We have an article on the Sigmund Freud Theory that gives insight on the Psychological Stages of Human Development. If you have other suggestions, please let us know so we can set-up an article on that theory or topic. Kind regards, Vincent

  2. juanit m. de lEOn says:

    Your explanation is easy to understand and more precise.

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