Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The two ego state model

Tony White
Transactional Analyst
June 21st, 2011.

Ernst (1971) believes Eric Berne's most significant contribution to psychotherapy was the delineation he made between the Parent and Adult ego states. This, he says, allowed us to distinguish opinions from objectivity. This view is consistent with the general view that science has held up to date. However sat present, the social sciences are experiencing much confusion in certain areas. (Strauss and Hafez [1981], Morgan [1983], John [1984], Eysenk [1983]). It is this distinction between the Parent and Adult ego states that illustrates why the confusion exists.

Steiner (1971) defines the Adult ego state as essentially a computer, an impassionate organ of the personality, which gathers and processes data for the purpose of making predictions. The Adult gathers data through the senses, processes them according to a logical program, and makes predictions where necessary. The Parent ego state is essentially made up of behaviour copied from parents, or authority figures. It is taken as a whole, as perceived at an early age, without modification. A person in his Parent ego state, is merely playing back a tape of of early internalized parent figures. It is a repository of traditions and values.

The above definition of ego states implies that the Adult is not a collection of tapes, that it is not comprised of the incorporation of parent figure information. this paper contends that the above proposal, simply stated, is incorrect. When a child attends school he acquires information, this involves the incorporation of the teacher's instructions. Later on in high school, when the child has more knowledge, he may critically evaluate what he is being taught, yet he can only do this if he has previously incorporated, or learnt how to critically evaluate.

The acquisition of language and basic mathematical principles also involves the incorporation of tapes. The most obvious example is the rote learning of multiplication tables and the alphabet. Brunner (1964) agrees with this, stating that all the techniques of data processing are passed down from generation to generation, in each culture. Each child incorporates data processing methodology from his parents.

The Adult and the Adult in the Parent.
It now becomes apparent that the Adult ego state and the Adult in the Parent ego state are the same. Thus the two ego state model may be represented geometrically as in Figure 1b

Ego state models
Figure 1

For further elaboration, it is necessary to examine Stuntz's (1972) paper on the second order structure of the Parent ego state. He states that the Adult in the Parent (AP) "is an external program of how to use the computer (Adult)" (p. 60). It is the contention of this paper that the Adult in the Parent (AP) is the Adult, and that any division is unnecessary and leads only to confusion. Stuntz suggests that each time Adult processing is required that ego state must consult the Adult in the Parent. See Figure 2a and Figure 2b illustrates that the Adult ego state outside the Parent is redundant, doing only what it is told by the AP. Thus it is an unnecessary middelman that creates four process instead of two.

Ego models transactions
Figure 2

In Figures 1b and 2b, it is seen that the two ego state model places the Adult ego state inside the Parent ego state. This is meant to indicate that those internalized tapes, specifically referring to data processing and manipulation, are encompassed with in the A2. Those tapes not referring to data processing are encompassed within the P2 but outside the A2. Processing which is not based on taping, falls within the realm of the 'Little Professor' or A1.

The Adult as a computer
The Adult ego state is often described as being a computer, this metaphor illustrates the notion presented in Figure 2. Computers are programmed by computer programmers. A computer's computational ability is entirely dependent on the computer programmer's logic. (In this case the 'computer' is defined as that part of the whole system which the computer user communicates with - most commonly the keyboard and visual display unit. The computer will only process data according to the instructions from the 'tapes' or 'disks', to which it is connected. It is these tapes that contain the computer programmer's logic (that is, his opinions, assumptions and beliefs on correct data processing).

As an obvious example assume the computer user asks the computer, "What is 1 + 1?". As indicated in Figure 2a, the computer now asks the tapes, "How do I respond to the stimulus, 'What is 1 + 1?'". If the computer programmer believed the answer or response should be '3', then the computer will respond with '3'. It will see nothing wrong with this. The computer blindly and unquestioningly accepts anything that it is told from the tapes held in its head as does the Adult outside the Parent. The only function the computer (i.e. the keyboard and visual display unit) serves is to convert computer language into human language. If humans could 'talk' computer language, then they could talk directly to the magnetic tapes. Parent ego state tapes are stored in human language, which allows us to talk directly to them. We do not need a conversion process, therefore the Adult ego state outside the Parent serves no purpose.

Tony TSTA Exam
Tony presenting the two ego state model in his TSTA examination in Hawaii, 1989

Assumptions of this presentation
Logically, this paper is written from the Adult in the Parent. It is based on beliefs, programming and information, that is different to those used by Berne, when he outlined the three ego state model. There does appear to be a definite informational difference. When Eric Berne first published his paper outlining three ego state theory, it was the mid 1950s, (Berne [1957]), at that time, there was little evidence to suggest that the great promise of science, was not true. Scientists and theoreticians generally believed that reality could be viewed free from parental programming. However, with the knowledge explosion over the past one and a half decades, it has become obviously apparent that the promise has not, and will not ever be fulfilled.

It is the assumption, belief and opinion of this writer that an Adult external of the Parent illustrates the great promise of science, and the Adult internal of the Parent illustrates why this promise has not been fulfilled. The basis of this belief is presented in the preceding pages.

The second assumption of this presentation is that it believes it is necessary to propose an ego state theory which considers the problems of contemporary social science. This is based on the belief that it offers something to the scientific community, both theoretically and therapeutically, that is not already offered by the three ego state model. The reasons for this assumption will become evident over the next four or five presentations. There are undoubtedly many more assumptions of this presentation, these will become more obvious as the concept of the two ego state is further discussed.

Originally presented in:
Tony White. 1984.
New Ways in Transactional Analysis. TA Books: Perth.

Berne, E. "Ego states in psychotherapy". The American Journal of Psychotherapy. 1957, 11, 293 - 309.

Brunner, J.S. "The course of cognitive growth". The American Psychologist. 1964, 24, 1 - 15.

Ernst, F.H. "The diagrammed Parent. Eric Berne's most significant contribution". Transactional Analysis Journal. 1971, 1, 49 - 58.

Eysenk, H.J. "Personality as a fundamental concept in scientific psychology". Australian Journal of Psychology. 1983, 35, 289 - 304.

John, I.D. "Science as a justification for psychology as a social institution". Australian Psychologist. 1984, 19, 29 - 37.

Morgan, A.H. "Editorial". Australian Psychologist. 1983, 18, 7 - 8.

Steiner, C. 1971. Games Alcoholics Play. Grove Press: New York.

Strauss, J.S. & Hafez, H. "Clinical questions and "Real' research". American Journal of Psychiatry. 1981, 138, 1592 - 1597.

Stuntz, E.C. "Second order structure of the Parent". Transactional Analysis Journal. 1972, 2, 59 - 61.


  1. Is there a single ego-state model? The Parent is somehow differentiated from the Child so is the Parent a sub-division of the Child?

  2. An interesting idea Evan,

    The way I have presented the theory here is the Child ego state results from early decisions and the Parent ego state results from imitations the youngster made. Thus they are differentiated on that basis.



  3. Hi Tony,
    Bravo for your creative model!
    I have a question regarding the Child in the Parent. Many of my clients are Workoholics and they seem to be working to satisfy the Parent's (modelled) needs rather than their Child's needs.
    What do you think?
    Thanks a lot for your help!

  4. Hello Madeleine,
    That seems quite realistic that people could model workaholic behaviour from their parents. If that happened then their own Child ego state needs would be under threat each time the person behaved in a way that followed the modelling from the parents. So yes I agree with the point you make


  5. Hi, Tony!

    I have read your book years ago about the two ego state model. It was one of my first TA books. Your starting point seems to be logical... However your model it is only a model as the three ego state model is. It is only a map, not the reality.

    Opinion and obiectivity - an interesting dilemma. If my opinion is wrong it seems to be clear that is not obiectivity. But if I am right, it is opinion or obiectivity? Let us return to the first case, when I am wrong. I make a logical deduction starting from obiectiv premisses. But I am not a perfect computer, I make a mistake. My conclusion is a new one, is not of a parent figure. It is not from a tape. Is not from my Parent. It is from my (mistaking) Adult. But is not reality. It is only my wrong opinion, coming from my Adult... So it is very complicted...

    My question is, how do you differentiate (graphical) on your model a P-P transaction from an A-A transaction? Or how do you represent a duplex transaction A-A (overt) P-P (covert?)

    Best regards