Games people play, and their implications

By Gordon Rugg

There are regularities in how people behave. There are numerous ways of categorising these regularities, each with assorted advantages and disadvantages.

The approach to categorisation of these regularities that I’ll discuss in this article is Transactional Analysis (TA), developed by Eric Berne and his colleagues. TA is designed to be easily understood by ordinary people, and it prefers to use everyday terms for the regularities it describes.

I find TA fascinating and tantalising. On the plus side, it contains a lot of powerful insights into human behaviour; it contains a lot of clear, rigorous analysis; it has very practical implications. On the negative side, it doesn’t make use of a lot of well-established methods and concepts from other fields that would give it a lot more power. It’s never really taken off, although it has a strong popular following.

An illustrative example of why it’s fallen short of its potential is the name of Berne’s classic book on the topic, Games People Play. When you read the book, the explanation of the name makes perfect sense, and the deadly seriousness of games becomes very apparent. However, if you don’t read the book, and you only look at the title, then it’s easy to assume that the book and the approach it describes are about trivial passtimes, rather than core features of human behaviour.

In this article, I’ll look at some core concepts of Transactional Analysis, and how they give powerful insights into profoundly serious issues in entertainment, in politics, and in science.

The image below shows games at their most deadly serious; Roman gladiatorial combat, where losing could mean death.

By Unknown author –, Public Domain,

Continue reading

Reflective reports 101

By Gordon Rugg


There’s a widespread belief in education that getting students to reflect on their learning is a Good Thing. Whether this is actually true or not is another question, for another time. The key point is that if you’re a student, you might well end up having to write a reflective report.

This experience can be challenging, especially if you’re in a discipline like computing, where you might not have expected anything quite so introspective. It’s particularly challenging if the reflection is about a piece of groupwork, as numerous memes about “What I learned from groupwork” will testify.

Many students under-perform when doing a reflective report. However, if you follow a couple of simple principles, then writing the reflective report becomes a lot easier. As an added bonus, there’s a good chance that you’ll get better marks, and even learn something genuinely useful from the experience.

So, what are these principles, and how do you apply them? They involve systematically describing choices. Here, by way of moral support, is a picture of someone making a choice. You may be reassured to know that the choices you’ll be working with are a lot more encouraging…

By Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov – The knight at the crossroads

Continue reading

Content analysis, part 2

By Gordon Rugg

Other types of content analysis

In a previous post, I gave a brief overview of a widely used, vanilla flavour type of content analysis. It’s far from the only type.

There are methodological debates about most things relating to content analysis, which have been running for the best part of a century, and which don’t look likely to end any time soon. There are, in consequence, numerous different types of content analysis, and many approaches to content analysis. The following sections give a very brief description of some of those other types. I’m planning to write in more detail about them at some point, when there’s nothing more exciting to do…

Continue reading

Academic writing versus magazine writing

By Gordon Rugg

Academic writing is very different from most other types of writing. There are sensible reasons for this.

Unfortunately, not many students have been taught about those reasons. The result, predictably and understandably, is that most students, and most members of the general public, think that academic writing is dull and heavy because academics either don’t know how to write in an interesting, accessible way, or because they don’t care.

So, why is academic writing deliberately dull and heavy, and what are the implications, and how can you use academic writing style to your advantage? That’s what this article is about.

Continue reading

Poster design 101

By Gordon Rugg

Every year, students in assorted non-artistic disciplines have to produce a poster. Every year, students who don’t view themselves as artistic complain bitterly about having to do this.

In this article, I’ll look at some of the issues involved in practical poster design at taught degree level, and at how they can be tackled systematically, without needing any artistic skills. The results aren’t likely to win any design prizes, but they should look competent enough to be presentable, and should save non-artistic students from a lot of grief.

In case you’re wondering why I’ve specified taught degrees, the answer is that in research degrees, students often have to produce posters for conferences. The guidelines for these are very different from those for taught course posters, and from publicity posters in the commercial world. This article is just about taught degree posters, and even for those, it comes with the disclaimer that your department may have very different ideas about how to do things, in which case, go with what they want, since they’ll be doing the marking…

I’ll also look at some broader issues in user-centred design, such as the concept of functional distance, which takes us into the origins of the classic command: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes”.

Continue reading

Modeling misunderstandings

By Gordon Rugg

Many problems in life are caused by misunderstandings. Misunderstandings take various forms. These forms themselves are, ironically, often misunderstood.

In this article, I’ll look at ways of representing misunderstandings visually, to clarify what is going wrong, and how to fix it.

I’ll use a positive/negative plot to show the different forms of misunderstanding. This lets you locate a given statement in terms of how positive it is, and how negative it is, as in the image below. This format is particularly useful for representing mixed messages, which are an important feature of many misunderstandings. There’s more about versions of this format here and here.

Continue reading

What academic writing looks like

By Gordon Rugg

Students often ask what good academic writing looks like. It’s an important, simple, question. Answering it in words is tricky. However, answering it with words plus highlighter makes answering easier. The answer is that good academic writing features mainly highlighter 2, with some highlighter 1 at the beginnings or ends of paragraphs, and as little grey as possible.

What does that actually look like? I’ll use a worked example to illustrate it, on the topic of the growth of the Internet. This is a difficult topic, because the key points are well known to the general public, so there’s a real risk that your opening text will look like something that a twelve year old without Internet access has hacked together at the last minute for an overdue essay.

Continue reading

The apparent attraction of average faces

By Gordon Rugg

In a previous article, we looked at what happens when you take two concepts that are normally viewed as opposites, and instead treat them as two separate concepts. We used the example of what happens when you treat liking and disliking as two separate concepts, and ask people to rate items in relation to both liking and disliking.

The result is that people are willing and able to do so. The image below shows types of response that we’ve seen in real data.

Item A has been rated low both for liking and for disliking; it’s just boring, with little to be said for or against it.

Item B has been rated high both for liking and for disliking; it produces strong but ambivalent feelings. An example that we saw involved university departmental websites, where some were strongly liked because they signalled high quality, but simultaneously strongly disliked because that same signal of high quality was viewed as implying unforgivingly high expectations.

Item C has been rated high like/low dislike by some participants, and low like/high dislike by others. This is informally known in the UK as the Marmite effect, where people either love something or hate it, with few people in between.

This approach of uncoupling apparent opposites is well established in some fields, but isn’t yet widely known outside them. We’ve been using it for a while in software evaluation, where it’s invaluable for improving software mockups before committing to the final design. We’ve also blogged about ways of using it to represent expressive and instrumental behaviour; handedness; and gender roles, going back to the literature where we first encountered it, in Bem’s work on androgyny (Bem, 1974).

The advantages of using this approach are clear when you see examples. In the next section, we’ll look at the background theory on which it works. We’ll then apply it to an apparently paradoxical finding about facial attractiveness, to show how the underlying issues can be swiftly and easily teased apart via this representation.

Continue reading

When liking and disliking aren’t opposites

By Gordon Rugg

Treating liking and disliking as opposite ends of the same scale looks so obvious that few people ever think about it. They’ve been viewed as opposites since at least Classical times, when Catullus wrote about the paradox of loving and hating the same person. However, this approach doesn’t actually work very well when you try applying it systematically in contexts like surveys or evaluation or market research. There are usually pros and cons that you’re asking the respondent to compress down into a single number, and respondents usually don’t look very happy about it.

So what happens if you instead try treating liking and disliking as two separate scales? The answer is that it gives you a lot of powerful new insights, because liking and disliking are often not opposites.

Continue reading

Desire, novelty, and the attractions of safe Necker shifts

By Gordon Rugg

So what do wireframe Necker cubes have to do with enigmatic facial beauty, Rothko paintings, Sudoku, and video games? The answer is: Quite a lot.

In this article I’ll look at the deep structure of some popular passtimes, and consider some of the implications. This is the first in a short series of articles about the deep structures of desire.

Continue reading