Some Further Musing on Egos States

Ego states are the flagship concept of TA, the reason that most people give–along with games and scripts–for their initial attraction to TA because they explains so much so simply and are so usefully.

And yet after many years of research there is no real evidence that people’s behavior really breaks down into only three (or five or seven) separate modalities of behavior. But there is considerable evidence that people do behave in separate modalities which fit the definition of ego states, one extreme example of which are multiple personalities but a phenomenon we can observe daily in human interactions

In the ego state research to date three or five egos states are defined and described. Judges are trained to identify them and the research shows that trained judges will reliably agree on what it is they are witnessing be it Natural or Adapted Child, Critical or Nurturing Parent or Adult. However that is a long way from demonstrating the existance of ego states as defined by Berne. In other words the fact that it is possible to agree that we are witnessing pre-defined Child-like or Parental behavior in a subject does not prove that the personality is divided into three (or five or seven) and only three (or five or seven) ego states.

Structural analysis, which makes considerable sense in the first order, begins to break down at the second order level and becomes completely unmanageable beyond. Ego state development thoroughly stymies me when trying to explain, as an example, how and when the first order structure of the five year old becomes the second order structure of the grown up.

Bottom line however the three ego states are useful. When using my skills as a therapist to help a client with a problem I almost always find draw a diagram of the ego states. I find it useful to explain what part of the personality certain important behaviors emanate from and to speak about transactions between those ego states when people interact. The ego states diagram I find most useful is the so-called functional diagram with the five Dusay egogram egos states.

The only time I use a structural diagram is when I draw the script matrix and I need to explain the location and nature of the electrode, AKA Pig Parent or Critical Parent. I use it to show how the Parent in the Child gets passed down from parent to offspring in a generational sense and why the second order Parent is the locus of the script and the first order Parent is the locus of the counterscript. But I also have to admit that while this is a neat scheme its utility is minimal and I can easily say what I need to say about scripts and counterscripts without getting involved in the structural intricacies of it.

Contrary to the three ego state theory, Integrative Psychotherapy practitioners have taken to boldly assert that the Child and Parental ego states are simply archaic pathologic fixations of the ego and that the healthy state that we should all strive for is the integrated Adult. (The fact that they incorrectly attribute this point of view to Berne himself is infuriating but irrelevant.)  I have also observed that while most people recognize the three egos states in themselves and others there are others who don’t take to the concept at all.

Aver fifty years of dealing with this bedeviling conundrum I am doubly convinced of the usefulness of the five ego state concept (CP, NP, Adult. AC, NC) I took to seeing ego states as useful approximations of reality, virtual representational maps of the person which are not 100% accurate any more than a map is a representation of a city. Others have suggested that ego states are metaphors as a way of dealing with the daunting theoretical issues regarding them.

As I see it we have three choices when speaking of ego states:

  1. Egos states are real; hereditary distinct modes of operation of human beings. Each egos state is based on a brain structure or module that has evolved to execute certain important survival functions. This I believe was Berne’s view.
  1. Ego states are not real but useful metaphors describing three separate important modes of the self reflected in behavior.
  1. The three ego states as described by Berne are pathological; Two archaic entities and an unintegrated Adult. The mature healthy person only has one ego state

My  view is closest to the first view in that I believe that the ego functions in several discrete modalities. I am not sure how many such modalities actually exist I know that there are at least three and less than seven and I do not find the second order structure analysis of them useful. But what find eminently useful is analyzing and diagramming transactions between two or more people using the five Dusay egos states.

When I first heard about the three ego states from Berne I was convinced about the validity of that scheme because I could clearly see these ego states were the source of my behavior so that whenever transacting with someone else I could pretty well state which of the ego states I was transacting from. What’s more I cultivated each ego state for its usefulness. I saw the value of a separate Child, and Nurturing Parent. I rejected the Critical Parent and was aware of its power and destructiveness. The more I used and taught this view the more I believed it and the more sense it made.

But then I ran into Keith Tudor a perfectly reasonable, articulate intelligent and learned English colleague who while not holding to the infuriating opinion that Eric Berne was the originator of this view, sees himself as functioning in the one integrating Adult manner. How was that possible?

A possible explanation:

If we think of human behavior as hugely complex we might decide that it would be useful, in order to make some provisional sense of it, to divide human behavior into separate modalities selected intuitively on the basis of observation.

When I first heard of the egos states from Berne they reflected my behavior in surprising accuracy and I was able to see how they fit other people’s behavior as well. I assume that they made similar sense to Berne in terms of his own behavior and what he saw in others. And it seemed to make experiential sense to many others as well. Ever since, I have seen myself and others in that way and because it works and makes sense and is really quite visible most of the time it has become, with reasonable success, the way I have trained clients, students and even my children to see themselves and even to behave. With the exception of my wife who being from a different planet just can’t get with the program and of course Keith and increasing numbers of others out there in the TA world. To them egos states don’t make the same sense they make to me and they tend to see and prefer to see their behavior to be unitary rather than segmented. Can’t really argue with that…

So what does that mean about egos states and TA? Do I give up the concept? If not, how do I use it? How do I react to those who want to speak of one integrated ego state?

Here is what I have temporarily decided: I will continue use the three egos states approach and invite people to organize their behavior according to that scheme because:


  1. It works and I don’t see a more useful alternative.
  2. It is the leading TA icon and our trade mark.
  3. It is what people all around the world are being taught and use and it would confuse them if we switched to some other, not persuasively better scheme.


I will not pursue elaborate structural analysis because it reifies and hypostatizes the three ego states without sufficient support in reality.

I will argue against the notion that the integrated Adult was Berne’s view because it simply is not true.

I will argue that the integrated Adult is not as useful a concept if we are going to be analyzing transactions between ego states for all people and not just for our pathological clients.

Finally as a transactional analyst I will put emphasis on TA core concepts which have been convincingly substantiated by experience and/or corroborated by research in the social sciences— transactions, strokes, games, scripts, the OK position and contracts.

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