Three years ago, while waiting for a prescription to be filled at the drugstore, I picked up a copy of the current Scientific American. I scanned through an article by Meinard Kuhlmann, a theoretical physicist, who was offering in non-mathematical terms a way that a ‘quantum particle’ might be understood.

He suggested that a quantum particle could be conceptualized as a bundle of statistical probabilities and only when that particle encounters another particle is one of those possibilities actualized and thereby be observed in the ‘real’ world. What is thereby created depends in part on the characteristics of the particle it encounters.

That is a great description of exactly how we experience ‘personality’.   I believe that this metaphor offers insight into why TA can be such an effective psychotherapeutic technique for bringing about change.

Although TA offers many possibilities for helping change to occur, to me the most important aspect of TA is that it is based on empirical observations. Using the quantum particle as a guide, the theory and practice of TA is built on the observation of what is created when two particles (here, personalities) interact. Freud’s ego, id and superego are hypothetical constructs describing an individual personality. The identification of an ego state in TA, on the other hand, is based on what is can be observed when two personalities transact with (encounter) each other. Their identity can be confirmed by independent observations. The ego states are learned ways of responding to the world during the developmental process from the womb to adulthood by experiencing and responding to those who are already adults around them. Such situations can be observed (or remembered) and their outcomes can be predicted.

Such independent observations are required for establishing a true scientific discipline. The scientific method also uses metaphors which guide the scientist in organizing the data which he or she is observing. From such observations, they can then theorize and predict.

Using the metaphor of the personality as a quantum particle, one’s personality can be characterized as a bundle of statistical possibilities. And the particular possibility which is actualized (observed) depends on the characteristics of that which it encounters—that is the ‘transaction’. The cluster of characteristics which is identified as a rebellious Child, for example, can only be observed by observing what is created as it encounters a controlling Parent. Water cannot be understood by studying oxygen or hydrogen independently. Only by examining the new substance they create as they are interacting (transacting) can water be understood.

Likewise, the personality. Once I took the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory in two different situations—once at work and once in my faith community. In the former, my scores were ESTJ but in the latter, they were INFP–the complete opposite. My day job was as a clinical statistician analyzing drugs studies to present to the FDA; my faith community was an experimental church exploring spiritual aspects of life in a communal context. The contexts actualized different possibilities in my ‘personality’.

Those who use the 12-step program of AA realize the danger of putting themselves in a situation where their addiction might be energized (actualized). The antidote is not to try to struggle with that experience—that would tend to strengthen it. They know that by calling their mentor they can help control their behavior because their encounter with their mentor actualizes a different aspect of their personality.

One of the reasons there are so many different theories of personality and therapeutic techniques is that they focus on an individual—whose personality has an almost indefinite number of possibilities. The theory of personality one develops depends on what questions one asks. And they are all true! They are trying to understand the sound of one hand clapping. One must study the sound that two hands make—like Berne did; like the Gottmans did; but like very few therapists do.

When considering the possibility of change, the statistical aspect is critical. The statistical probability is largely set as one figure out how to respond to the world he or she is experiencing. Everyone is born with an almost indefinite number of possibilities. I would claim that every diagnosis in the DSM is one of the indefinite possibilities of every human being (unless one is severely brain damaged). If an appropriate ‘other particle’ encounters them, one of those diagnoses is created. And therein is the opportunity for a therapist to help create change in a client.

As you use the various concepts of TA to transact with a client, consider the quantum particle—what new creations are actualized as your process goes forward? What is being actualized between you and your client? In order to become autonomous, certain probabilities might need to be increased as you and your client transact. The ‘Ego-Gram’ looks very much like a traditional histogram in statistics suggesting what statistical probabilities need to be increased.

It seems to me that Milton Erickson was often so unique but effective because he sensed which of the possibilities of his client needed their ‘statistical probability’ increased so that their life would be freer, more balanced and more autonomous. Then he gave his clients specific orders to do unique things that would actualize those possibilities so they could experience them by encountering that ‘other particle’ —other experience, other person, other entity.

The bottom line for TA practitioners:

  1. Always be skeptical of studies of one hand clapping. Study of body parts can give some information about what a person has been doing and is, therefore, more likely to do in the future, but only when both hands clap, can the sound itself be experienced.
  2. In using TA, always observe the sound of two hands clapping, and consider what might be hindering a full sound from being produced.
  3. Never forget that your client and you are both bundles of infinite statistical possibilities “waiting” to be actualized.