Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Games People Play on Facebook: Chapter 2. Need Fulfillment & "Stroking"



2 Need Fulfillment & “Stroking”

We begin with the fundamental concern of human existence: needs. In 1943 the American psychologist Abraham Maslow presented what has become a bedrock for human psychology; the [1] In Maslow’s now famous “pyramid” model, human beings seek to fulfill needs that range from the basic, “physiological,” needs for survival (breathing, food, water, sex, sleep), to the existential need for “Self-actualization,” the need for creativity, morality, spontaneity, and lack of prejudice. Sandwiched between the base needs of the human being and the lofty, self-actualization needs, are the bulk of existential needs. These include the need for safety, love, and esteem.



It was in the late 1950s and the 1960s that Harry Harlow’s now famous experiments took place with rhesus monkeys. Contrary to the claims of the Behavioral psychologists, food was not the single most important driving force of our close relatives, the rhesus monkey. Once the monkey had its fill of food it followed Maslow’s model and sought existential needs of safety and love. The little monkeys would cling to the terry-cloth, surrogate mother while reaching to feed fro the cold, wire, surrogate mother. The little monkey had needs beyond the basic, physiological needs of food, water, sex, and sleep.[2]


The existential needs such as love, a sense of safety, belongingness, and esteem have been thoroughly researched by psychologist and sociologists. We know, as in psychosocial dwarfism, that a baby who does not receive holding, companionship, and loving interaction might suffer from severe physical and emotional underdevelopment. Although this might seem obvious to most, the idea that love, safety, comfort, and belongingness are basic needs, during the age of behaviorism, the popular consensus was the animals (including the human animal) are driven by sex, hunger, and thirst. These were the foundational “drives” that all behavior reduced to; the satisfaction of sex and hunger drives.
Figure 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Erich Fromm, a renegade psychoanalyst who split with traditional, Freudian, psychoanalysis over this very issue, proposed 8 basic needs of human beings. Fromm claimed that as human beings we had transcended the physiological drives of hunger, sex, and sleep, and were mostly driven by existential needs. Fromm listed these as the need for: relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, sense of identity, frame of orientation, stimulation, unity, and effectiveness. Rebelling the classic psychoanalytic doctrine of sexual drives ruling the house (the id), Fromm proposed that as contemporary social beings, humans are more affected by social, emotional, and existential needs than by the satiated biological drives.

The unifying quality of Fromm’s 8 basic needs is acknowledgement. Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, proposed the basic need of all human beings, after the fulfillment of the necessities of life (eating, drinking, and sleeping) to be the need for recognition. The core of all existential needs, from Maslow’s safety and belonging, to Fromm’s transcendence, rootedness, and identity is that which Berne originally proposed; the need to be acknowledged by an other human being.

We have all felt the alienating and painful experience of being ignored. As we know from talking with those who are in abusive relationships, even negative attention is better than no attention, on going unacknowledged by others. Berne suggested that we all have, from birth, a deep, somatic need for acknowledgement of our existence. Starting with the mother and father, this striving towards acknowledgment later extends to family, friends, teachers, and society as a whole. At the foundation of Transactional Analysis is the premise that we all strive towards acknowledgement. Berne calls this recognition-hunger.

Mother and father acknowledge their little baby through stroking. One of the most comforting experiences throughout life, is being stroked, lovingly touched, by another human being. Berne claimed that this physical need had its psychological equivalent in words. When someone says “hello” to us we receive a confirmation of our importance, we are acknowledged by an other. The very act of speaking “hello” is a sort of stroke that is similar to physical stroking. A touch on the hand, or a rub on the arm, these are both emotionally identical to saying, “good job” or “I love you”.

Recognition-hunger is what compels us to interact with others. The payoff for our interactions is a meaningful exchange with others, an exchange of strokes (our transactions) which results in a mutual exchange of I’m okay and you’re okay. We validate each other through simple statements of acknowledgement, “good morning,” “good after noon,” and “goodnight”.

On Facebook[3] we offer strokes through “liking,” “friending,” and “commenting”. We solicit strokes by “posting” images, sounds, and videos on our and other’s “walls”. The transaction that occurs when someone posts a photo of their dog, comes when we “like” or comment of that image, “how cute!” offering recognition and validation to that person. The payoff for sharing something on our wall is the strokes that we get in return –the acknowledgement from others.

Berne’s Transactional Analysis was greatly influenced by the philosophy of existentialism. Existentialism is interested in five major issues of human being (being is used here as a verb, not as a noun). These are: death, freedom and responsibility, isolation, and meaninglessness. The strokes that we give and receive are the fundamental commodity in addressing these five, terrifying, existential issues. Berne theorized that next to strokes, the most important human action was structuring our time.

We have all experienced that torturous moment when we run out of things to say to an other. Stranger, friend, or family, the moment when we awkwardly stammer and stumble, seeking for something to save us from… a silence? Is that what we fear, silence? Is it not silence that we fear, but rather, the confrontation with meaninglessness and isolation. The moment that we “run out of things to say,” we are confronted with the absurdity of existence, the absence of meaning in our existence. Whereas contemporary self-help psychology urges us to “find” ourselves, the existentialists urge us to “create” our self. Life is our canvas, we are forced to acknowledge that we are not permanent (we will die), we have freedoms and responsibilities (one of which is creating meaning for our lives), and we live in isolation from others (at this moment, standing here in silence with another person, we come into painful contact with the reality of isolation).

Time Structuring, Berne proposed, is our human attempt at giving meaning, significance, and purpose to our existence. When we lose sight of our program, when we stop participating in our programming,[4] we feel the sudden suction of the existential vacuum, we experience what Heidegger called angst; anxiety. This anxiety comes from the momentary emptiness that occurs when we lose sight (or faith) in our meaning and purpose. It is the stuff of despair and depression. Berne felt that along with a hunger for strokes, we also had a structure-hunger, a need for purposeful orientation that enframes our temporal existence.

Time Structuring is not merely occupying one’s time, or passing time in the usual sense. It is the framing of time through an orientation towards the material, social , or the individual. Activities, hobbies, work, and games are all ways in which we structure time. Each have a goal, a chance for achieving or failing at the desired goal, a set of rules which govern the timeframe, and a distinct beginning and ending. When the game, activity, or shift ends, we are confronted with the need to establish a new programming of structured time. When we fail to establish our structure of time we encounter the angst of purposelessness. Structuring time allows us to manage meaning in little chunks of life, rather than come into contact with the impossibility of creating an complete time structuring for our entire existence.

Berne proposes that we structure time, that is orient ourselves towards goals and desires, through three forms of programming; material programming, social programming, and individual programming. Each of theses three methods of programming allow us to frame our life, to give it a temporal and special context for meaning making. When we cease to participate, invest, or believe in a given program, we suffer hopelessness, despair, and angst, what Sartre called nausea.

Material Programming serves to structure time through interaction with material substances. This could be building something, playing a solitary game, or any other type of activity that involves only oneself. We become engrossed in these activities and “lose ourselves” in the goal directed behavior. These activities bring us great pleasure, such as practicing the piano, drawing, writing, or reading a book. All too often when the project is done we are confronted with the necessity of finding some other way to structure our time. We might structure our time through a constitutional walk, or a nap. Even walks and naps are a highly structured, goal oriented activity, which serve as programming to fulfill our hunger for time-structure.

A second way in which we program the time-slots of our life is called social programming. These episodes include “idle chatter” of social niceties that are exchanged daily. “How are you today?” “Fine thank you, and you?” Superficial social exchanges like these serve to momentarily set-in-order our daily routines, and serve to secure social bonds between us. The question “How are you today?” is not asked with the intention of gaining insight into one’s health, rather, it is a statement that confirms the other person, it offers them a stroke, accompanied by the expectation of a stroke in return, “fine, thank you, and you?” Individuals whom we superficially interact with offer a mutual exchange of reassurance that “everything is okay”. In fact, Berne pointed out that such a transaction literally communicates “I’m okay, you’re okay”. These social graces, mourning rituals, dating rituals, and protocols of etiquette serve to momentarily structure time and meaning in social situations.

We typically find most people okay until we get passed the rituals and pastimes of socially programmed conversation and interaction. Once acquainted, we begin to reveal more of ourselves to the other, and the other to us. We shift from the idle chatter of, “my isn’t it mild for this time of the year?” to the more personal and less inert, “we sure voted in a real genius this time!” At this moment of the transaction, the exchange of strokes between two individuals, we shift from social programming to individual programming. For Transactional Analysis, this is where fun and games start.

The structuring of time through individual programming utilizes what TA researchers call games. Games in the context of Transactional Analysis, are not fun things we play for amusement. Games refer to the highly structured and ruled, transactions that we engage in for a payoff. The loot, win, or payoff in Transactional Analysis is a stroke, an acknowledgement from another player in the game.
Berne points out that far from fun, games “can be grimly serious”. As we will see, the pattern of transactions that take play in games that lead to suicide or homicide are serious indeed. In the games of life, the stakes can be dramatically high. Berne describes that the rituals (symbolic greetings) and Pastimes (idle chatter) transactions of social programming are relatively harmless. However, the games played out in individual programming can be very dangerous.

Why do people play games? Is it only about acquiring the satisfaction of strokes from another, in order to be affirmed in their existence? A byproduct and function of games is an avoidance of intimacy, of authentic meeting with another. One also achieves an advantage or “gain” over others through games.
In Transactional Analysis, that is the analysis of the transactions that take place between two (or more) players in a game, we analyze from the point of view of what advantages are gained in a given transaction. In this kind of communications and psychological analysis, we understand how the transactions function to achieve the final goal of recognition, avoidance, relief, or maintenance of social equilibrium.[5]



[1] Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50(4) (1943) : 370.
[2] Harry Harlow, “The Nature of Love,” American Psychologist 13 (1958) : 573.
[3] Although we will be using Facebook as our primary source of examples, all social networks are functioning in a similar way, to fulfill our basic needs.
[4] Berne uses programming here as in scheduling, not unlike television stations offer certain programming.
[5] In Games People Play, Berne describes these as the 4 goal that drive social contact. The question to ask when analyzing a transaction is, “what is gained”.