Skip to main content
Rate us:
Posted on March 2, 2020
Updated on October 13, 2021

Recognising What People Need

Eric Berne (1961) made a significant contribution to TA theory when he recognised that there are certain hungers which are experienced by us all. Recognition hunger is a manifestation of stimulus hunger. Berne called acts of recognition “strokes”. 

René Spitz had observed that babies reared in children’s homes experienced physical and emotional deficits and more specifically lacked touching and stroking by their carers. This is where Berne coined the name “strokes” from the infant’s need for touch. The child then needs stimulus to promote and enable neural development.   

Berne placed importance on the role played by learning and reinforcement in maintaining the script. Transactional analysts, coaches, mentors etc. need to become aware of when and how we use stroking to reinforce healthy or unhealthy behaviours. We need to become aware of how individual and organisational stroking patterns are linked with physis and aspiration. 

Each person has a different stroke quotient and differences in wealth, culture and parenting influence this.

We can obtain strokes both internally and externally. Stimulation can come from nature, stored memories, dreams, movement, and these are all ways in which we can give ourselves strokes. Some people use only their negative stored memories as a way to stroke themselves and visit these memories frequently. 

Woollams and Brown (1978) note that that we can internally stroke ourselves in auditory, visual, kinaesthetic, olfactory, gustatory, and cognitive ways.

Positive strokes are pleasurable and carry a You are OK message and foster self-esteem. Negative strokes carry a You’re not OK message which, if there is little balance, can result in damaging self-esteem. Transactional Analysts usually state that unconditional strokes are for being, whereas conditional ones are for doing.  

However, some people reject the conditional/unconditional split, arguing that they are not polarities and instead that they are closely entwined. It may be more relevant to look where the intention is focused. In unconditional stroking the focus is on the other as a person whereas for conditional strokes the focus is on the giver’s feelings and perceptions of the other’s actions. Is the intention to value the other person or make comment on how we feel about their behaviour? Neither of these is objective – the point of reference is the self (L. Sprietsma cited in van Gorp 1984).

When someone gives up playing a game or moving into a racket then they will need to replace those strokes with the equivalent amount of positive strokes.

Jim McKenna (1973) developed the Stroke Profile:

Cooper (1974) linked Schiffs’ four types of discounts with strokes.  He considers these on three dimensions: 

The first dimension - here Cooper differentiates between relevant (strokes) and non-relevant (discounts). 

For example:  “ I think you are great” is a stroke. 

“Of course I like you, I like intelligent women”. Cooper sees this is a discount as it is not relevant to suggest you are like someone just because they are intelligent. Another example here would be  “Yes I like you, I like everyone”.

The second dimension: positive and negative, e.g. “I like you” and “I don’t like you”.

The third dimension: conditional and unconditional. This differentiates between the person receiving the stroke or discount (unconditional) and what that person does (conditional). For example, “I like you when you get into work on time” is conditional. “I like you for who you are” is unconditional. 

Boyd (1973) noted that when a leader gives few strokes and the culture is one where strokes are in short supply then game playing quickly follows.

Joop van Gorp (1984) outlines that, in his view, the original definition of a stroke as a “unit of recognition” demands a psychodynamic dimension. Van Gorp notes that by confusing strokes with social contact there is an implication that social contact only consists of stroke exchange. 

In contrast, stroke exchange can be measured and counted. Information is exchanged in social contacts and we also express the relation between those who communicate: 

  • This is how I see myself
  • This is how I see you
  • This is how I see that you see me etc.

(Gorp 1984)

Van Gorp also agrees that we all have different needs and therefore the strokes we need will have different values for us.  Someone who has not spoken to another person for days might take contact with a neighbour as “at least there is someone who wants to talk to me”. Sometimes we miss certain strokes which others might notice, and only notice ones which we consider “acceptable”. This is called a stroke filter.

George Homans (1951), stated that the giving of no rewards leads to apathy and yet when we are over stroked the value of the strokes we receive can be reduced.

It can be helpful to ascertain for which Structural ego state we obtain the most strokes and whether this meets our need. If there is a discrepancy between the Structural ego state which receives the stroke and the one we want to be receiving the stroke, this discrepancy needs to be addressed.

For example, if we structure our time in a tense highly pressured work environment, working 50 hours a week obtaining strokes for our Structural Parent ego state whilst requiring strokes for our Structural Child ego state then we will fall short of our stroke quotient and are likely to become stressed.  

However, by paying attention to altering the way in which we structure time, we are able to better meet our stroke needs.


Berne, E. (1961) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy Souvenir Press

Boyd, H. (1973), Strokes and Risks, TAJ 3:2

Cooper, T. and Kahler, T (1974), An Eight Fold Classification System For Strokes and Discounts, TAJ 4:3

Gorp J van (1984) Quantity and Quality of Strokes (in Stern E. 1984TA State of the Art)

Homans, G (1951) The Human Group, Routledge Kegan and Paul 

 McKenna, J. (1973) Stroking Profile: Application to Script Analysis TAJ 4:4

Mountain, A. & Davidson, C. (2011) Working Together - Organizational Transactional Analysis and Business Performance Gower Publishing

Spitz, R. (1946) Hospitalism, in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, volume 1,  International Universities Press

 Woollams and Brown (1978) The Internal Stroke Economy TAJ 8:3