Mental models, and games people play

By Gordon Rugg

There are patterns in the ways that people interact. This article is about those patterns, and their implications.

I’ll start with a pattern known as “Ain’t it awful”. In this pattern, the other person wants you to agree with them that things are awful. I’ve shown this diagrammatically below. The interaction starts with you saying something; I’ve shown this with a white circle. They then respond with something negative, represented by a grey circle. For instance, you might tell them that you’re thinking of buying an electric car. They react by saying something about problems with electric cars.

They now want you to respond with something negative; for instance, “That’s the trouble with new technology, you can’t depend on it”. The interaction is then supposed to follow the same pattern of “Ain’t it awful” in a nice, predictable way, as shown below.

This may be nice and safely predictable for them, but it’s not so nice for you if you don’t want to be told about things being awful, and it’s not so predictable for you if you’re expecting a different type of interaction.

In the rest of this article, I’ll look at ways in which interactional patterns can play out.

The pattern names in this article come from Eric Berne’s work, in books such as Games people play, and What do you say after you say hello?

A central feature of Berne’s transactional analysis (TA) approach is that it uses a very accessible style, with names for the patterns that come from everyday life. It’s also very practical and hands-on, as regards the implications of the patterns, and what to do about them. He uses the word games rather than patterns; this makes sense in the context where he was working, but it can give misleading impressions in other contexts, which is why I’m using patterns. The TA approach is in essence a subset of script theory, couched in everyday language.

Here’s an example of the Ain’t it awful pattern leading to problems. In the diagram below, you’re trying to pitch something to an Ain’t it awful player. They may be a potential customer, or a client with problems that you’re trying to solve. You start by suggesting something that could make their life better (yellow circle). They respond with something negative. You try again with something positive; they respond negatively. You try again and… and at this point you’ve probably lost them, because you’re not following the pattern that they want you to follow.

There’s a very similar pattern called Why don’t you…? Yes, but… whose name sums up the strategy pretty neatly. In this pattern, you make helpful suggestions, and they come up with objections each time.

The Why don’t you…? Yes, but… pattern can lead to a lot of problems for two main reasons which are diametrically opposite to each other.

Sometimes it causes problems because you don’t realise that the other person is following the pattern, and you waste a lot of time and effort trying to fix a problem that they won’t let you fix. Other times, it causes problems because the professional thinks that someone is following this pattern and writes them off as a time waster, when in fact the person is genuinely trying to get the problem fixed, and the obvious solutions to the problem have all failed.

Once you’re aware of this issue, you can learn ways of telling whether you’re dealing with someone following this pattern, or with someone who has a genuinely difficult problem. You won’t always get it right, but you’ll at least improve your overall success rate.

The two patterns above can be frustrating and can waste a lot of time, but they’re usually not actively harmful. The next pattern I’ll describe, however, can be dangerous. It’s known as Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch, or NIGYYSOB for short. It tends to catch people completely by surprise the first time they encounter it, and to leave people shaken and distrustful for a long time after that first encounter. Here’s how it works.

You’re dealing with someone, such as a client. They make a friendly first response, and invite you to be less formal (light green circle). You respond in kind (darker green circle). This pattern repeats, luring you further and further into informality, until suddenly they respond in a completely different and very negative way (black circle). A classic pattern is the client saying that you don’t need to bother with formal documentation for something, and that a verbal agreement will do, starting with something small and then shifting to bigger and bigger issues by gentle steps. Then, suddenly, they query your invoice for a large amount, and you don’t have the paper trail that should have protected you.

Why anyone would want to behave like this is an interesting question, and is the reason that Berne spent much of his life developing his approach to making sense of human behaviour. I won’t go into that issue, because it goes far beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I’ll cut to the lesson from this pattern, which is that once you know about NIGYYSOB, you can protect yourself from it by simply following a clear, consistent policy that stops you getting sucked into the pattern. If you meet a NIGYYSOB player, they’ll usually lose interest pretty fast when they realise that you won’t let yourself get dragged into their pattern.

I’ll end on a happier note, with another pattern that may waste your time, but that is unlikely to cause actual harm. It’s called General Motors. This pattern involves comparing different types of car (or music, or superhero, or whatever). A key point is that it’s not supposed to end with a decision about one being better than the other; it’s supposed to be an open-ended structure where people can talk in a nice, safe way about a topic of mutual interest.

This can lead to misunderstandings if you’re trying to tell someone about the advantages of your solution, and they think that you’re playing General Motors. The pattern that you want to use looks identical to the pattern that they want to use, with you talking about the advantages of your offering (yellow circle) and them comparing it to the advantages of their favoured option (blue circle). At first, you think that they’re genuinely considering the pros and cons, and that they’re open to being persuaded to buy what you’re selling; eventually, you realise that this isn’t going to happen, and you give up in frustration. On a happier note, if you realise early on that this is the pattern, you can at least have a well-informed conversation about a topic that you love with someone who enjoys discussing it with you…

There’s been a fair amount of interesting work using Berne’s approach. One promising strand was work by Maital and Maital, described in their book Economic Games People Play. This was particularly interesting because it connected Berne’s work with game theory, in an attempt to identify ways of changing workplace and societal behavioural patterns to produce better outcomes for everyone. It didn’t quite take off, but it has a lot of potential, and would bear re-examination.

If you want to find out more about this approach, Berne’s books are very accessible and practical, easy to find, and very reasonably priced. You don’t need to buy in to his underlying psychological theory; you can use the behaviour patterns on their own terms, independent of his model.

This approach interacts in interesting ways with the concepts of instrumental and expressive behaviour, but that’s a topic for another article, another time…

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

You might also find our website useful:

Overviews of the articles on this blog:


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