TA: An Elegant Theory


Ego States and Transactions Cluster

In his last book, What Do You Say After You Say Hello?, Berne (1972) made it clear that analysis of transactions between ego states is the fundamental activity of a transactional analyst. He focused on ego states and transactions because they are eminently observable. Ego states and their representation as three stacked circles are the icons of transactional analysis.

Berne postulated three basic ego states-Parent, Adult, and Child-each with an important function. However, he quickly introduced possible additional ego states by subdividing each of the three. For example, the Child had three options: Adapted Child, Little Professor, and Natural Child. Others followed suit until the numbers of potential separate ego states became unmanageable. Dusay (1972) narrowed the large number of potential ego states to five: Nurturing Parent, Critical Parent, Adult, Adapted Child, and Natural Child. These five ego states have been widely researched with varying degrees of scientific rigor. A number of researchers have attempted to demonstrate reliability and construct validity for these ego states. The Tokyo University Egogram is reportedly very much in use in Japan. Unfortunately, no translations of that work were found.

Loffredo, Harrington, Munoz, and Knowles (2004) reviewed reliability research and updated their own research in a study in which they measured the reliability of a questionnaire designed to identify the five ego states. This rigorous research demonstrates that their questionnaire reliably identifies these five ego states in people. In addition, Loffredo et al. determined substantial construct validity, that is, the five ego states defined by their questionnaire represent five distinct forms of thought, feeling, and behavior (i.e., ego states).

However, Berne’s crucial idea-that all behavior fits in one of these specific ego state categories-has not been demonstrated, nor does it seem likely that it will be. This tends to support the notion that while ego states are credible phenomena, the specific division into the three that Berne chose is largely a wise, useful, intuitive choice that is best seen as a metaphor of heuristic utility rather than a proven reality. The fact that the three ego states are most often named as the reason why people find transactional analysis useful is a powerful reason for maintaining them as our flagship concepts.

That there is such a phenomenon as separate manifestations of the ego (if not necessarily the three Berne mentioned) has been widely observed and postulated as multiple “egos,” “selves,” or “personalities.” There is ample evidence of the occurrence of multiple personalities, but they have been consistently regarded as pathological abnormalities, thus ignoring the possibility that multiple states of the ego may be normal and, in fact, desirable. Rowan and Cooper (1999) introduced the notion of pluralistic models of the self, in which a normal person is seen as a multiplicity of subpersonalities.

According to Berne (1961), “Federn is the one who first stressed on psychiatric grounds what Penfield later demonstrated in his remarkable neurosurgical experiments . . . [namely] that psychological reality is based on complete and discrete ego states” (p. 19). The hypothesis that there are several different, coherent functions of the ego that find a parallel in brain structures is being reflected in the findings of neuroanatomists and evolutionary psychologists, who refer to them as “mind modules.” Mind modules are evolutionary structures that specialize in certain functions, such as language, empathy, attachment, emotions, movement, and so on. The research of evolutionary psychologists shows a great deal of corroborative potential, especially if it can be shown that there are three major mind modules that parallel the three ego states. One ego state, the rational Adult, is a well-validated function that resides in the human prefrontal lobe.

Regarding transactions, if we accept that people transact socially, it would follow that they will transact between specific ego states if such entities exist. However, transactions between ego states seem to have escaped the attention of researchers, except for those within transactional analysis who have produced several respectable, although not statistically significant, studies. In these studies, transactions emanating from predefined separate complexes of behavior (ego states) have been judged with significant levels of reliability.

Posted in Frontpage Article, TA Articles.

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