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Karpman drama triangle

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The drama triangle is a psychological and social model of human interaction in transactional analysis (TA) first described by Stephen Karpman, in his 1968 article Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis.[2] The Drama Triangle model is used in psychology and psychotherapy.[3][4]

The three rolesEdit

The model posits three habitual psychological roles (or roleplays) which people often take in a situation:

  • The person who plays the role of a victim
  • The person who pressures, coerces or persecutes the victim, and
  • The rescuer, who intervenes, seemingly out of a desire to help the situation or the underdog.

Of these, the "rescuer" is the least obvious role. In the terms of the drama triangle, the "rescuer" is not a person helping someone in an emergency. It is someone who has a mixed or covert motive that is actually benefiting egoically in some way from being "the one who rescues". The rescuer has a surface motive of resolving the problem, and appears to make great efforts to solve it, but also has a hidden motive to not succeed, or to succeed in a way that they benefit. For example, they may feel a sense of self-esteem or status as a "rescuer", or enjoy having someone dependent or trusting of them - and act in a way that ostensibly seems to be trying to help, but at a deeper level plays upon the victim in order to continue getting their payoff.[citation needed] (See below). As Transactional Analyst Claude Steiner says:

... the Victim is not really as helpless as he feels, the Rescuer is not really helping, and the Persecutor does not really have a valid complaint. [1]

The situation plays out when a situation arises and a person takes a role as victim or persecutor. Others then take the other roles.[5] Thereafter 'the two players move around the triangle, thus switching roles',[5] so that for example the victim turns on the rescuer, the rescuer switches to persecuting -- or as often happens the rescuer ends up entering the situation and becoming a victim.

The covert purpose for each 'player' and the reason the situation endures is that each gets their unspoken (and frequently unconscious) psychological wishes/needs met in a manner they feel justified, without having to acknowledge the broader dysfunction or harm done in the situation as a whole. As such, each player is acting upon their own selfish 'needs', rather than acting in a genuinely responsible or altruistic manner.[citation needed]. Thus a character might 'ordinarily c[o]me on like a plaintive victim; it is now clear that she can switch into the role of Persecutor providing it is "accidental" and she apologises for it'.[6]

In transactional analysis, the drama triangle is sometimes referred to in the context of mind games - 'the unconscious games played by innocent people'[7] - such as: – Why Don't You/Yes But; If It Weren't For You; Why does this Always Happen to Me?; See What You Made Me Do; You Got Me Into This; Look How Hard I've Tried; I'm Only Trying to Help You; and Let's You and Him Fight.

The relationship between the victim and the rescuer can be one of codependency.[8][9] The Rescuer keeps the Victim dependent on them by playing into their Victimhood. The Victim gets their needs met by having the rescuer take care of them.

"Rescuer" vs rescuerEdit

The "game" position of Rescuer is distinct from that of a genuine rescuer in an emergency, such as a firefighter who saves a victim from a burning building or a lifeguard who saves a victim from drowning. As a drama role, there is something dishonest or unspoken about the Rescuer's attempts, or at best, a mixed motive or need to be a rescuer or have a victim to help. In fact, 'The Karpman Triangle game inhibits real problem-solving...creates confusion and distress, not solutions'.[10] A drama triangle "Rescuer" plays the role more because they are driven to be a rescuer as a way of avoiding looking at their own anxiety, underlying feelings than because the victim needs their involvement, as in the case of a fireman/rescuer.

In Eric Berne's words, 'The first group, is playing "I'm Only Trying to Help You", while the others are helping people'.[11]

Overview and theoryEdit

A "game" in Transactional Analysis is a series of transactions that is complementary (reciprocal), ulterior, and proceeds towards a predictable outcome. Games are often characterized by a switch in roles of players towards the end. The number of 'players' may vary.

Games in this sense, are devices used (often unconsciously) by a person to create a circumstance where they can justifiably feel certain resulting feelings (such as anger or superiority) or justifiably take or avoid taking certain actions where their own inner wishes differ from societal expectation. They are always a substitute for a more genuine and full adult emotion and response which would be more appropriate.

Three quantitative variables are often useful to consider for games:

  • Flexibility: The ability of the players to change the currency of the game (that is, the tools they use to play it). 'Some games...can be played properly with only one kind of currency, while others, such as exhibitionistic games, are more flexible',[12] so that players may shift from words, to money, to parts of the body.
  • Tenacity: 'Some people give up their games easily, others are more persistent,[12] referring to the way people stick to their games and their resistance to breaking with them.
  • Intensity: 'Some people play their games in a relaxed way, others are more tense and aggressive. Games so played are known as easy and hard games, respectively',[12] the latter being played in a tense and aggressive way.

Based on the degree of acceptability and potential harm, games are classified into three categories, representing socially acceptable games, undesirable but not irreversibly damaging games, or games which may result in drastic harm. Their consequences may vary from lots of small paybacks (the girl who keeps meeting nice guys who ditch her) through to payback built up over a long period to a major level (i.e. court, mortuary, or similar). Each game has a payoff for those playing it. The antithesis of a game (that is, the way to break it) lies in discovering how to deprive the actors of their payoff.

The first such game theorized was Why don't you/Yes, but in which one player (White) would pose a problem as if seeking help, and the other player(s) (Black) would offer solutions. White would point out a flaw in every Black player's solution (the "Yes, but" response), until they all gave up in frustration. The secondary gain for White was that he could claim to have justified his problem as unsolvable and thus avoid the hard work of internal change; and for Black, to either feel the frustrated martyr ("I was only trying to help") or a superior being, disrespected ("the patient was uncooperative").

In the Drama Triangle, the "role switch" is 'the same switch that is included in the formula for games'[13] - occurs when one player, after stable roles have become established, suddenly changes role. The victim becomes a persecutor, and throws the previous persecutor into the victim role, or the rescuer suddenly switches to become a persecutor ("You never appreciate me helping you!/Why are your eyes so far apart?").

'Karpman has many interesting variables in his fully developed theory, besides role switches. These include space switches (private-public, open-closed, near-far) which precede, cause, or follow role switches, and script velocity (number of role switches in a given unit of time)'.[13]

See alsoEdit


  2. Eric Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (London 1975) p. 198
  5. 5.0 5.1 Berne, Hello? p. 186
  6. Berne, Hello? p. 346
  7. Eric Berne, Games People Play (Penguin) p. 45
  10. Randi Kreger, The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder (2008) p. 65
  11. Berne, Hello? p. 307
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Berne, Games p. 57
  13. 13.0 13.1 Berne, Hello? p. 188

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

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