There are many ways to interpret human behavior. It can be viewed as a series of ingrained, learned responses and defense mechanisms. Or it can be understood within the stimulus-response paradigm. Our actions may be viewed through the lens of values and ethics (or absence thereof). And the list goes on. In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein affair (no pun intended), I have come to see transactional analysis as an insightful framework for understanding what is happening between accusers and accused.
Dr. Eric Berne’s 1964 classic, Games People Play, introduced transactional game theory to the public. He identified three mental attitudes that we may adopt when interacting with others – the Parent, the Adult, and the Child. The Parent is judgmental and dictatorial (“you should,” “that was dumb,” etc.). The Adult is rational (“Yes, we have a disagreement, but let’s see if we can work it out.”). The Child is dependent and approval-seeking (“I’ll be good,” “please don’t be mad at me”). In analyzing any transaction or “game” between two people, the first step is to identify which each person is playing.
Now here’s where it gets interesting: On the surface, two individuals may appear to be relating as Adult to Adult. But this superficial appearance may actually be a socially acceptable mask that hides the real dominant and submissive game being played out. The players may be either aware of unaware of their motivations and the power dynamics involved. Here’s an example:
A middle-aged lawyer asks his newly-hired, twenty-something legal secretary if she’s busy tonight. She knows the job sometimes involves working after 5:00 p.m., so she assumes he wants her to work late. This has the superficial appearance of an Adult-to-Adult transaction. He’s asking, not ordering. She’s assuming the conversation is strictly work-related. But the lawyer wants her to stay late so he can put the moves on her, with no witnesses around. The actual interaction here is Parent-to-Child (“You’d better stay if you value your job” and “I’ll be good”). When she accuses him of sexual assault – complete with police photos of the bruises on her wrists where he grabbed her – the roles are Parent-to-Child again, but reversed (“Now I’ll teach you a lesson,” and either “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it” or “I don’t know who it was, but it wasn’t me”).
Notice that in the above example, the underlying motivation is aggression – sexual aggression of the male and retaliatory aggression of the female. Aggressor (male) and victim (female) followed, as night follows day, by aggressor (female) and victim (male). The male’s secret delight is in exploiting his position of power, relative to his secretary, for sexual conquest. The female’s secret delight is schadenfreude — the sadistic pleasure of seeing this lout get what he deserves.
Apply this to the current sex scandals with their accusations and subsequent confessions, resignations, or denials, and you begin to see a fairly consistent script – as if the participants were playing a game with established rules and well-defined roles for each person.
– – – – – – – –
Danny DeVito in The War of the Roses