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 – Livius.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3479030

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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.

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