TA: An Elegant Theory


Stroke Cluster

Berne postulated that recognition is a basic, biological need with profound motivational implications. He called the unit of interpersonal recognition a “stroke.” Contact and recognition with and from others is an essential part of human relationships.

A stroke has been defined as a unit of contact or recognition. Contact or strokes are essential to a person’s life. Without them, Berne said, “the spinal cord will shrivel up.” This classic Bernean aphorism refers to research that demonstrates that a very young child needs actual physical strokes to survive and that early development of the human brain is greatly affected by the kinds of contact that the child receives (Siegel, 1999). People of all ages require adequate levels of contact. The exchange of strokes is one of the most important activities in which people engage in their daily lives.

Berne based his theory on Spitz’s (1945) hospitalism studies and Harlow’s (Suomi, Collins, Harlow, & Ruppenthal, 1976) “monkey studies” with wire and cloth mothers. Spitz established that in a foundling home where the children were deprived of maternal care and affection, motor and intellectual types of development were markedly depressed, mortality was high, and physical growth was retarded. Harlow also showed that baby monkeys clearly preferred cuddling with the softer cloth “mother” model, especially if they were scared. Harlow found that young monkeys reared with live mothers and young peers learned without difficulty to play and socialize with other young monkeys. Babies raised with real mothers but no playmates were often fearful or inappropriately aggressive. Baby monkeys without playmates or real mothers became socially incompetent and, when older, were often unsuccessful at mating; those that did have babies were neglectful of them. Harlow concluded that normal sexual and parental behavior depended on a wide array of affection ties with peers and family early in life.

As mentioned earlier, the concepts that we, in transactional analysis, refer to as strokes have been written about and studied as “contact,” “attachment,” “intimacy,” “warmth,” “tender loving care,” “need to belong,” “closeness,” “relationships,” “social support,” and “love.”


That the procurement of strokes-the “need to belong”-is a fundamental human motivation has been investigated by Baumeister and Leary (1995) in an excellent and exhaustive review of the literature. They concluded that “existing evidence supports the hypothesis that the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation” (p. 52). That nurturing physical strokes are needed to maintain physical and psychological health has been investigated in innumerable research studies. Excellent reviews of these studies, showing the pervasive relationship between stroking and health, are provided by Lynch and Ford (1977) and Ornish (1998). These concepts are also embedded in the all-important series of attachment studies by Bowlby (1969) and Ainsworth (1982), which also support the view that secure reliable contact with a caretaker is essential for positive development.

Berne proposed that not only positive stimulation but also negative painful stimulation might be instrumental in maintaining health. This hypothesis is essential to the theory of games, which postulates that people will accept and seek negative stimulation even if they prefer positive stimulation. Berne quoted Levine’s (1960) research on infant stimulation in support of that view.

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