Games People Play (1964) explores the fascinating and bizarre world of psychological games, where players unconsciously manipulate each other into acting in alienating and self-destructive ways. Eric Berne dissects the hidden dynamics beneath the games people play – and shows how to escape from them and find true intimacy.
You might have noticed that, despite the general chaos of human behavior, there are certain recurring behavioral patterns.
The author certainly noticed this.
After observing thousands of patients, he posited that, when interacting, people act from one of three ego states – Parent, Child and Adult. These states comprise systems of feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and are developed over the course of a lifetime. Which ego state you’re acting from at any given moment depends on both your past and the present moment.
For example, while growing up, each child imitates its caretakers – and that’s where the Parent ego state comes from. Say your mom got angry with you when you did something wrong, and showed her anger by shouting. As an adult, you may unconsciously adopt this kind of behavior, raising your voice when your child misbehaves. Of course, the Parent state needn’t be negative – just an unconscious imitation of your parent or parents.
Then there’s the Adult ego state, the source of our rational thinking. It develops as we learn how to reflect on our experience throughout childhood, and allows us to make decisions based on what is present in the here and now. It’s the state that processes information and tackles problems with assertive, logical thinking. It emerges when you ask someone to stop crunching popcorn in the cinema, for instance, or when you analyze a broken engine to see what needs to be fixed.
Finally, the Child ego state is the spontaneous way of being that we’re born with. It’s the origin of our emotions, creativity and intimacy. But, over time, the Child can get buried beneath the Parent and Adult states; it is possible, however, to free the Child of these influences, and return to the spontaneity of the natural Child.
For instance, we often act from the Child state during sex – an activity that isn’t taught by parents or consciously learned.