Games People Play on Facebook

In last month’s guest blog at Lehigh Valley Style Magazine, I introduced Eric Berne’s system of Transactional Analysis and how it can be used to understand the games people play with each other through social media. I am not talking about Candy Crush or FarmVille, but rather games of discourse that have even higher stakes and bigger payoffs than do the highly addictive video games. Here is a continuation of that blog on the Games People Play on Facebook.
As Berne described in his 1964 text Games People Play,  Transactional Analysis (TA) is based on classic, psychoanalytic theory. The personality is described as three ego states: the Child, Parent, and Adult. These correspond to the Freudian Id, Super-ego, and Ego. At any given time, we can respond to another person from one of these three ego states. We can also react to others who approach us from a particular ego state.
Ego States
The child ego state comes in two forms: the happy-go-lucky, curious, and naive, natural child, and the submissive, sheepish, eager to please, adaptive child. The natural child is free-spirited and curious. The adaptive child only expresses their true feelings at the risk of losing their parents’ (or lovers) approval. The child ego state (that we uniquely express) is a result of our own, personal childhood.
The parent ego state is learned from our parents. We can have a loving and supporting, nurturing parent ego state, or a harsh and judgmental critical parent ego state. The parent ego state which we express mimics our youngest experiences with our parents.
The adult ego state is rational, logical, and emotionally reserved. From this ego state we do not react, but rather, we deliberately consider our response in a rational way. Anger, fear, and ecstatic jubilation are replaced by sober contemplation.
Berne’s idea is that the trouble begins when we react to others from a parent or child ego state. Games begin when one habitually approaches us from a child ego state, forcing us to either play along (flirt and tease) from our child ego state, or to take responsibility and control over the situation (from our adult ego state). The ego state from which we approach others can influence from which ego state the respond to us.
Take for example a transaction between a professor and a student.

(Student enters the classroom late)
Professor: “You are late! How dare you disrupt my lecture? Get out!”
Student: “Who do you think you are talking to me like that!”

In this example the professor and the student are both speaking from the critical parent ego state. The winner will be the person who has the most power. Let’s see how a student responds from the adaptive child ego state.

(Student enters the classroom late)
Professor: “You are late! How dare you disrupt my lecture? Get out!”
Student: (head down and leaving) “I’m sorry, I always mess up.”

Here we see that there is a moral sado-masochistic relationship taking place. The professor speaks from the position of critical parent and the student responds, as he probably does with his own father, from the adaptive child ego state. But what happens if the student responds to the critical parent from the adult ego state?

(Student enters the classroom late)
Professor: “You are late! How dare you disrupt my lecture? Get out!”
Student: “You are absolutely correct professor, this was inconsiderate and atypical of me, my car broke down. I did make a considerable effort to make it to class, may I please remain to hear the lecture?”

In this example the critical parent is met with an adult ego state response from the student. The only choice the professor has (without looking like a heel) is to respond from an adult ego state as well, “thank yes, please have a seat”.

Karpman Triangle & Strokes as Payoffs
These transactions can be analyzed into typical patterns which Berne called games. The payoff of a game, the big prize, is a stroking. Emotional stroking is akin to physical stroking as an infant, when we interact with someone we acknowledge their worth as a person, even if we interact with them harshly, we are acknowledging that they mean something to us. To ignore someone is the ultimate insult, to not acknowledge them as having any meaning in our lives. People can get strokes in habitual ways. Stephen Karpman illustrated that we can fall into patterns for getting strokes from others by adopting one of three roles. We can get our strokes by being victims, persecutors, or rescuers.

A victim gets stroked by a rescuer (positive attention) as well as from the persecutor (negative attention). Whether good or bad, the attention affirms that they mean something to someone.

The persecutor and the rescuer both get power strokes to their ego. One comes from a critical parent, the other from a nurturing parent ego state.

Complimentary, Crossed & Ulterior Transactions
There are complimentary transactions and crossed transactions. A complimentary transaction is anything that goes on indefinitely. For example, adult-adult (problem solving) transaction, a parent-parent (“kids these days…” type conversations), or child-child (flirting). Parent-child and child-parent transactions can also continue indefinitely. If you have ever wondered why so and so always makes you feel dumb, or why you always feel superior to such-and-such, there is probably a P-C or C-P transaction taking place.

The trouble begins when we have crossed transactions. A crossed transaction occurs when person A speaks from A-A and person B responds from C-P or P-C. In other words, when we react to a perfectly honest compliment or criticism as if it was coming from a parent or a child ego state.

There are also ulterior transactions, which take place when person B is ostensibly responding to person A, but is really intending the response for person C. This happens all of the time on Facebook. When a person replies to a friend’s post, not as a reply to that friend, but rather, as a cloaked message to a third person, it is an ulterior transaction.

Psychological Games
Before we take a brief look at the most common psychological games found on Facebook walls, let’s illustrate two briefer forms of exchanges that we find; rituals and pastimes. A ritual is a brief, symbolic transaction that serve to “grease the wheels of social interchange” (James & Jongeward). An example often used is the everyday greetings that we symbolically use to acknowledge another; “Hello, how are you?”

A pastime is a longer, superficial, conversation that serves to meet the demands of social interaction while remaining safe in superficiality. We find this conversation amongst strangers at a party (nervous “weather” talk), or about other surface level topics like sports or politics. The defining characteristic of pastime conversation is that it is always general, flimsy, and safe. It serves to avoid any confrontation that is risked when a genuine conversation takes place.

Eric Berne described a psychological game as, “a recurring set of transactions, often repetitive, superficially rational, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, as a series of transactions with a gimmick.” A game prevents honest, open, and authentic relationships between people. A person often uses a psychological game to avoid emotional intimacy, avoid the vulnerability that is a part of any healthful relationship, and to maintain control over others.

Some of the games we play happen between employees and employers, students and teachers, parents and children, and between friends and lovers. All function to either avoid authentic intimacy, maintain control, or stroke one’s ego.

A common game that avoids authentic contact with others is called the harried executive. This person avoids any commitment of responsibility to others by always being in a hurry to get to some pressing, important meeting. The strategy here is; “keeping it brief keeps me out of commitment and the vulnerability of authentic interaction”. It also serves to stroke the individual’s ego by having to attend to important matters.

In Ain’t it Awful takes place when the boss or husband leaves the room. It is banter between fellow employees, husbands, wives, and students who use the game to maintain a sense of control over someone.

More involved games include what Berne called stamp collecting. Authors of Born to Win, James and Jongeward, put it this way:

“When people ‘collect their stamps,’ they manipulate others to hurt them, to belittle them, to  anger them, to frighten them, to arouse their guilt, etc. They accomplish this by provoking or inviting others to play certain roles or by imagining that another person has done something to them… When people manipulate others to re-experience and collect these old feelings, they are indulging themselves (often with the permission and encouragement of the Parent ego state). This form of self-indulgence is a racket. Berne defines rackets as “Self-indulgence in feelings of guilt, inadequacy, hurt, fear, and resentment…”

A commonly found game is called Kick Me, a game that is often people who self-indulge in guilt. In Kick Me, a person wears a sign that says “don’t kick me” which makes it irresistible for others to not want to kick them. Once kicked, his game shifts to Why Does This Always Happen To Me, another game of guilt. This is a game of the constant loser, the person who seems to take pride in their misfortunes. Berne describes this mentality as “My misfortunes are better than yours.” It is a game that strokes ego, and places one on the moral high-ground, thus controlling another. Kick Me is often found in people who put themselves down. It is a way of maintaining control over others by saying, “I will hit myself before you can hit me.”

A variation of Kick Me is called Stupid. Here is a transaction from the text Born to Win:

Son: I am stupid.
Father: You are not stupid.
Son: Yes, I am
Father: You are not. Remember how smart you were at camp? The counselor thought you were one of the brightest.
Son: How do you know what he thought?
Father: He told me so.
Son: Yeah, how come he called me stupid all the time?
Father: He was just kidding.
Son: I am stupid, and I know it. Look at my grades in school.
Father: You just have to work harder.
Son: I already work harder and it doesn’t help. I have no brains.
Father: You are smart, I know.
Son: I am stupid, I know.
Father: You are not stupid! (loudly)
Son: Yes I am!
Father: You are not stupid, stupid!

In Stupid, an individual takes comfort in their feelings of depression or sorrow. It is called collecting “blue” stamps.

In I’m OK, You’re not-OK a person collects stamps (reassures their sense of self) through anger and hostility towards others. Take for example the husband who is always being schooled by his wife, or the friend who is always saying “If you would have listened to me”. In this game, a person builds themselves up at the expense of those around her.

See What You Made Me Do is a classic game of blame. Unwilling to take responsibility for their own failure, which would threaten a fragile ego, this person always has someone to blame for their short-fallings. “Some people can collect feelings of purity, blamelessness, and self-righteousness,” James and Jongeward explain.  This is a common game between companions.

Often we send messages to others, not only through what we say, but how we say it, when we say it, our body language, how we dress, and what we choose to post on our walls. In TA these are called “sweatshirt messages” and are akin to the memes and messages we post on our facebook walls. “The person whose shoulders droop, who whine and look anxious, may wear a sweatshirt message that says, ‘Please Don’t Kick Me. I’m a Victim’. Their invisible messages give their associates a come-on, either to put them down or to try to help them” (James and Jongeward). Some people play “dumb” and wear the “Gee Whiz, what can you expect from a fool like me?” message. Of course this is a way to get others to take over responsibility.

One of the favorite, but serious, games is called RAPO. This happens when a persecutor poses as a victim, and drops the axe on an unsuspecting rescuer. RAPO refers to emotional raping. Other messages that one can observe include:

I’m Going to Get You If You Don’t Watch Out
Lean on Me, I’m the Rock of Gibraltar
Don’t Worry, I’ll Take Care of You
I’m Better Than You
Catch Me if You Can
Keep Your Distance
I’m So Fragile
I’m So Good and Pure
Screw You

If we carefully look at the patterns of our Facebook posts, we will see that certain themes exist in our messages. We are not only sending others a message, we are reinforcing a belief about ourselves, to ourselves. When others validate those messages with a like it serves as evidence that our self-view is accurate; if others believe it about me, it must be true!

But these messages often contain subtextual messages that are the opposite of their surface-level appearance.  Psychologist Fritz Perls described the game of Bear-trappper this way:

“The bear-trappers suck you in and give you the come-on, and when you’re sucked in, down comes the hatchet and you stand there with a bloody nose, head, or whatever. And if you are fool enough to ram your head against the wall until you begin to bleed and be exasperated, then the bear-trapper enjoys himself and enjoys the control he has over you, to render you inadequate, impotent, and he enjoys his victorious self which does a lot for his feeble self-esteem.” (Perls)

 In the game of Uproar two people who enjoy a good fight sit down to play. One takes on the role of persecutor, the other of defendant, but both are persecutors. Person A makes a critical remark to person B, which is almost always a strategy to avoid closeness with others. We see this game played between domineering fathers and teenage daughters (Berne). Father finds fault with daughter, daughter clashes, both storm off to their rooms. The payoff is they both slam the door on genuine intimacy and vulnerability. Sometimes person B will provoke the criticism of person A, just to get the ball rolling.

Life Scripts
In Transactional Analysis, we are also aware of Life Scripts. James and Jongeward explain:

“A psychological script bears a striking resemblance to a theatrical script. Each has a prescribed cast of characters, dialogue, acts and scenes, themes and plots, which move toward a climax and end with a final curtain. A psychological script is a person;s ongoing program for a life drama which dictates where the person in going with his or her life and the path that they will lead there. It is a drama an individual compulsively acts out, though one’s awareness of it may be vague.”

We follow many different scripts, these are the narratives that inform our approach to living. “Does someone like me do this sort of thing” could be as commonly thought as “what would someone whom I’d like to believe myself to be (and like others to believe too) do in this situation” is a more accurate gist of the question. When others interpret our life script in a way that is incongruent with our own self-view, we can react in two, broad ways. If we truly believe in our sense of self, it is at most a minor misunderstanding. If we are hostile and putt-off by their perception of us, perhaps we are not so convinced ourselves that they are not, after all, seeing more clearly than we are.