Transactional Analysis – Part II (The Games We Play)

Transactional Analysis – Part II  (The Games We Play) Image by: Erik Lam

This article is one of a three-part series on Transactional Analysis. This article follows on from the article "Transactional Analysis – Part I (The Masks we Wear)" and comes before Transactional Analysis - Part III (The Scripts we Follow)What follows in this article (Part II) is an outline of two more key concepts in Transactional Analysis – Strokes and Games.


Eric Berne defined a stroke as the “fundamental unit of social action”.  A stroke is a unit of recognition, when one person recognizes another person. A stroke can be physical, verbal or non-verbal and so could be a hand shake, a compliment or a nod of the head. It could also be a “Hello”, “Go away!” or a dismissive wave of the hand. All of these acknowledge that the other person exists.

Berne introduced the idea of strokes into Transactional Analysis based upon the work of Rene Spitz, a researcher who did pioneering work in the area of child development. Spitz observed that infants deprived of cuddling, touching and handling (in other words, not receiving any physical strokes) were more likely to experience emotional and physical difficulties.

Berne took Spitz’s observations of these infants and developed theories about the needs of adults for strokes. Berne postulated that adults do need physical contact just like infants, but have learned to substitute other types of recognition for physical stimulation. So while an infant needs cuddling, an adult craves a smile, a wink, a hand gesture, or some other form of recognition. Berne defined this requirement of adults to receive strokes by the term “recognition-hunger” or “stroke-hunger”. He said that we are all desperately seeking strokes from others and that a lot of what we do is in order to be stroked.

Understanding how people give and receive both positive and negative strokes, and changing the unhealthy patterns of stroking are important aspects of TA.

Types of Strokes

There is a great variety of stroke needs and styles present in the world – this is the result of differences in wealth, culture and parenting methods – but all these can be divided into two big categories of strokes: positive strokes and negative strokes. These can be conditional, or unconditional.

As mentioned above, one major aspect that drives us is our need for strokes (recognition). The ideal for us is to constantly receive positive strokes, but positive recognition is not always possible, so we have to choose between getting negative strokes (negative recognition) or no strokes at all.

Berne reasoned that any stroke (positive or negative), is better than no stroke at all. For example, if you are walking out of your house and you see your neighbour, you will most likely smile and say “Hi.” Your neighbour will most likely say “Hello” back. This is an example of a positive stroke. Your neighbour could also say nothing, but just frown at you. This is an example of a negative stroke. Either case is better than no stroke at all, as when, for example, your neighbour ignores you completely.

Getting some sort of recognition is more appealing than being ignored and feeling as if we are not being seen at all, and so a child who doesn’t receive enough positive strokes will develop behaviours that will at least attract negative strokes. Anything is better than nothing!

As far as “conditional” and “unconditional” strokes are concerned, Berne stated that unconditional strokes are related to what you are (strokes for being), while conditional strokes are about what you do (strokes for doing). Below are some examples of the different types of strokes:

  Positive Strokes (Compliments) Negative Strokes (Insults)
(What you are / Being)

“I love you.”
“I like you.”
“You’re wonderful!”

“I hate you.”
“I don’t like you.”
“You’re an idiot!”

(What you do / Doing)

“I like you when you smile.”
“I like your coat.”
“You look pretty!”
“Well done on taking the exam.”
“You’ve done a great job!”

“I don’t like you when you are sarcastic.”
“Your clothes look grubby.”
“You are really stupid for getting fired!”
“Your work is unacceptable!”

 Of course, strokes can be further classified in a number of ways by differentiating between:

  • verbal and non-verbal strokes,
  • physical or psychological strokes
  • internal (strokes from self as in self-praise and other ways of self-stimulation) and external (strokes we receive from others).

When it comes to strokes it is also important to understand the following concepts:

Stroke Filters

People often have a stroke filter – a mental filter that operates unconsciously all of the time. This filter only allows some strokes to reach the person, while distorting or completely blocking others. They only let in strokes which they think they are allowed to let in. For example, if we have always been told we are the clever one and our brother is the creative one, then we are likely to accept strokes for being clever, but not for being creative. In the same way, we might allow ourselves to receive strokes for being clever but keep out strokes for being good looking.

If a girl considers herself to be intelligent, but (falsely) believes she is ugly, the filter will allow the intelligence strokes to pass, but will block or distort any positive strokes relating to her beauty.

A comment such as, “I see you have a new coat” can also be changed to either a positive or a negative stroke depending on the receiver’s filter. For example, when a person says to him or herself, “He likes my coat”, it is a positive stroke. When the person says to him or herself, “He doesn’t like my coat”, it becomes a negative stroke.

What is significant about stroke filters is that each person maintains his or her own internal life position by using this filter.  [Note: You can read more about life positions in the article Transactional Analysis - Part III]

Stroking Profile

When it comes to giving and receiving strokes most of us use a series of repetitive, unconscious patterns – never thinking about what we are doing. Since strokes are fundamentally involved (directly or indirectly) in everything we do, it can be of great help to become aware of what is known as our ‘stroking profile’.  

The stroking profile helps to measure how a person gives and receives strokes in four categories:

  • Giving strokes is ok
  • Saying no is ok
  • Taking strokes is ok
  • Asking for strokes is ok

The profile takes the form of a table to be completed (see below) and makes us think about how we give and receive strokes. This can be an effective therapeutic tool as a person can then decide if they would like to change any part of their stroking profile.  For example, a person may decide to stop discounting positive strokes and to ask for more of them. The profile can also help people understand their pattern. A person may not have understood why they receive so many negative strokes. The profile can help them to realize that they’ve been constantly asking for these negative strokes on an unconscious level. That may be because these kinds of strokes are familiar to them and they know how to react, whereas receiving positive strokes makes them feel extremely uncomfortable. (Of course, it could also be for a number of other reasons).

Maybe some people complete the table and realize that they have difficulties in giving strokes. By becoming aware of this, they can make a small conscious effort to gradually offer more strokes.

Completing Your Stroke Profile

1. Using the table below, rate yourself in each of the four profile categories as to how often you do these things. Remember that any “transaction” (exchange) between two people represents a stroke.

2. Look at the overall picture. If you score too low or too high in one section and are not happy with this, consider how you wish to change and in which direction, then experiment with doing this. For example, if you think you don’t receive enough positive strokes, you could experiment with asking for some the next time you feel like you need (more) recognition. For example, if you have just received a compliment about your standard of work you could share that with a friend. So you could say, “I was so pleased today - my boss told me that he has never had such a detailed report before and is very impressed with my work. Isn’t that great?”

The aim is to develop the areas in which you have a negative score rather than reducing the areas in which you have a positive score.

(Please note that you will find this table on my website under “Posters and Worksheets”. You can download it here).

Positive Strokes

How often do you:

  Give positive strokes to others? Refuse to give the positive strokes others expect from you? Accept positive strokes? Ask others for positive strokes?
Almost Never        

Negative Strokes

How often do you:

  Give negative strokes to others? Refuse to give negative strokes? Accept negative strokes? Ask others (even indirectly) for negative strokes?
Almost Never        

Implications of Strokes

It is important to recognize each person’s need for strokes and the impact strokes have on each of us. Most of the time we don’t even think about it, but when we greet someone, when a stranger smiles at us, when someone moves their chair slightly in a restaurant so we can pass through, that means we’re being recognized. Every time someone does anything to recognize another, that person is offering a stroke. Most of the time, between people, there are several strokes going back and forth simultaneously.

In a way, needing strokes is the same as needing people to acknowledge that we exist.  The philosophical question about the tree falling in the forest with nobody around to hear the noise is relevant. If nobody hears the noise, did it really ever exist? If a person is not being stroked, is that person’s existence real?

The question sounds terrifying to some, and considering how its roots start growing from the moment of birth (or, according to some theories, from even earlier on), when the infant’s survival depends on his existence being acknowledged, it’s easy to understand why our stroke-hunger is such a powerful driving force.

It is interesting to note that although many people propound the death sentence to be the worst form of punishment, it is not. Solitary confinement is. Numerous studies have documented the negative effects of solitary confinement on prisoners. If prisoners are not mentally ill when entering an isolation unit, by the time they are released their mental health has been severely compromised. However, this is not true for those on death row.

Our need for recognition is vital to our survival.


Berne defined certain socially dysfunctional behavioural patterns as "games." According to Berne, Games are “sets of ulterior transactions, repetitive in nature, with a well-defined psychological payoff.” These repetitive, devious transactions are principally intended to obtain strokes, but instead they reinforce negative feelings and self-concepts, and mask the direct expression of thoughts and emotions.

In his book Games People Play, which achieved wide popular success in the early 1960s, Berne describes a series of games and gave them instantly recognizable names as:

  • "Why Don't You, Yes But"
  • "Now I've Got You, You SOB"
  • "I'm Only Trying To Help You".

Games involve us saying one thing and doing another in an attempt to achieve intimacy, but resulting in a reinforcement of a negative belief we have about ourselves.  Berne wrote a formula for how this happens and he called it formula G: C + G = R > S > X > P

It plays out as follows:

  • An opening con (C), an invite from person A to person B into the game, has to hook person B’s gimmick (G).
  • When B responds (R) the game is on.
  • With B hooked, person A can pull the switch (S) which sends person B into complete confusion or crossup (X).
  • Once the crossup has happened then both parties can claim their payoff (P).

Let’s take an example of how this might look in everyday life.

Bob and Mary are a couple.  Bob likes to play “Yes, But” and Mary’s favourite game is “I’m Only Trying To Help You”.  

Bob’s opening con is complaining that he hates his job (C).  This hooks Mary’s need to make everything right for people (G) and she begins to suggest things that Bob could do to solve the problem (R).  After a good while and several attempts with Bob turning down every suggestion Mary comes up with, Bob throws the switch (S) and tells Mary she is not helping at all.  Mary feels confused (X) and claims her payoff (P) which for her is the familiar feeling that she is inadequate.  Bob claims his payoff too, the familiar feeling of disappointment that no one can help him with his problems. Thus the game is complete and although both want intimacy, neither has achieved it.

Intimacy – this is an open and honest relationship that is game free.  Both individuals give and receive freely without exploiting the other at any point.  It’s what we all want but at the same time what feels most dangerous to us as we are at most risk of being hurt.

We also play many games between these positions, and there are rituals from simple greetings to whole conversations (such as about the weather). We can even take a different position for different events. These are often 'pre-recorded' as scripts we just play out. They give us a sense of control and identity and reassure us that all is still well in the world. Other games can be negative and destructive and we play them more out of sense of habit and addiction than constructive pleasure.

Want to Know More?

This article is one of a three-part series on Transactional Analysis. The article "Transactional Analysis – Part I (The Masks we Wear)" and comes before Transactional Analysis - Part III (The Scripts we Follow).

Useful References

Eric Berne, (1964), Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, Balantine Books

Eric Berne, (1972), What Do You Say After You Say Hello? : The psychology of human destiny

Thomas Harris, (1996), I'm OK-You're OK, Avon books

The stroking profile was first developed by Jim McKenna and was described in the Transactional Analysis Journal, October 1974. THE STROKE ECONOMY: In the book “Scripts People Live” (1974)

Stroking Profile Table concept originally introduced by Jim McKenna; redrawn by Rob van Tol; small changes in aspect by Psychology Muffins; Small changes in order by Claire Newton.

This article is one of a three-part series on Transactional Analysis. The article "Transactional Analysis – Part I (The Masks we Wear)" and comes before Transactional Analysis - Part III (The Scripts we Follow).