Saturday, January 6, 2018

I’m OK -- You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris, M.D.

I think I mentioned this before. I like picking up pop psychology books from generations past at used book stores. It’s fun, I think, to read what past generations had “figured out” about the human condition, and to see if it still holds water today. I had a recent experience with Games People Play by Eric Berne that was especially challenging on that level and, unbeknownst to me when I picked it up, I’m OK -- You’re OK relies heavily on Dr. Berne and the work he laid out in Games People Play.

But I found I’m OK -- You’re OK much more accessible. Even useful on a certain level. It’s basic premise relies on two formulations of human behavior.

The first, taken from Berne, is that we all have not one, but three personas within ourselves, two of which develop at an early enough age that we can do little about them. Before the age of two our Parent and our Child have been more or less fully formed -- the Parent with all its strict rules about human behavior, and the Child who is the helpless, emotional reaction to that, often faulty, understanding. Only later with maturity do we develop the third persona, the Adult, who can test the assumptions of the Parent and shelter the feelings of the Child.

The quest for healthy human relationships, then, under this construction, is for your Adult to interact with the Adults of other people. Too often, however, we fall into unhealthy “games,” where a Parent becomes co-dependent with another’s Child, or two Parents wind up butting heads, or two Childs conspire to avoid all painful reality. The power of this model is in giving people a common language for acknowledging and discussing what is otherwise too difficult to put into words.

The second formulation is what gives the book its title. That, within the context described above, our Child inevitable starts life in what Harris calls the I’m Not OK -- You’re OK life position. It comes from an infant’s early and inescapable need to be cared for. He’s hungry, he’s tired, he’s wet: he is Not OK, and it is not he but only his caregiver that can alleviate all of that suffering. I’m Not OK, but you’re OK. You have everything you need to be you, and you also have the thing that I need to be me.

That, according to Harris, is the life position we all begin in, and many people never leave it. Their whole lives they need someone else to alleviate the psychological pain of being Not OK. But some people migrate to one of the other three obvious life positions: either I’m Not OK -- You’re Not OK, where the child is not adequately cared for and concludes that no one is OK, that no one can alleviate his own feelings of being Not OK; or I’m OK -- You’re Not OK, where the child who has been neglected or abused learns how to help himself and becomes self-reliant (often, according to Harris, to a criminal degree); or I’m OK -- You’re OK, which is a conclusion that only a healthy Adult persona can reach, the true understanding that we’re all in the soup together, each in charge of our own happiness and able to help others reach theirs.

Like the three personas of Parent, Child, and Adult, these four life positions have some explanatory power, and can provide all of us with a simple framework and vocabulary for working out our psychological problems. The challenge I found with the book didn’t lay in these structures, but in their frequently archaic applications and assumed mechanisms of action.

First off, like all psychology I’ve read from the 1960s, it’s often best to just skip over the case studies.

One modern housewife with every up-to-date convenience in her home found she simply did not have any interest in buying a garbage-disposal unit. Her husband encouraged her to get one, pointing out all the reasons this would simplify her kitchen procedures. She recognized this but found one excuse after another to postpone going to the appliance store to select one. Her husband finally confronted her with his belief that she was deliberately not getting a garbage disposal. He insisted she tell him why.

A bit of reflection caused her to recognize an early impression she had about garbage. Her childhood years were the Depression years of the 1930s. In her home, garbage was carefully saved and fed to the pig, which was butchered at Christmas and provided an important source of food. The dishes were even washed without soap so that the dishwater, with its meager offering of nutrients, could be included in the slops. As a little girl she perceived that garbage was important, and as a grown woman she found it difficult to rush headlong into purchasing a new-fangled gadget to dispose of it.

You just can’t relate to things like that. Next it’ll be Ma Joad talking about the pig getting loose and eating the baby.

But, more important, probably, are the pieces that, with forty more years of scientific progress, we know now are pretty much wrong.

For example, Harris takes as one of his fundamental premises, based on the state of brain science at the time, that “the brain functions as a high-fidelity tape recorder,” and that “everything which has been in our conscious awareness is recorded in detail and stored in the brain and is capable of being ‘played back’ in the present.”

This, based on everything more contemporary that I have heard or read, however, is not actually how the brain -- or at least how memory -- works. Memories are not perfect recordings of past events. They are reconstructions based on the current biochemistry of the brain. As has been shown again and again -- memory is malleable and imperfect.

It is unfortunate, then, that Harris makes the “fidelity of brain recordings” such a crucial foundation of his resulting theory, both because it is essentially wrong and, I think, unnecessary. One doesn’t have to have a tape recorder in one’s head in order to find utility in Harris’s therapeutic approach and vocabulary. The personas of Parent, Child and Adult, and even the dichotomy of the OK and Not OK life positions, have, I believe, a certain utility, regardless of the scientific discoveries that do or do not support brain recordings.

Another troubling section is Harris’s analysis and defense of free will. His purpose, I think, is to provide reassurance to his readers that they, in fact, do have the power to change themselves and their lives, despite several distressing traditions of determinism that have permeated science in general and psychology specifically.

Can man really change if he wants to, and if he can, is even his changing a product of past conditioning? Does man have a will? One of the most difficult problems of the Freudian position is the problem of determinism versus freedom. Freud and most behaviorists have held that the cause-and-effect phenomenon seen in the universe also holds true for human beings, that whatever happens today can theoretically be understood in terms of what has happened in the past. If a man today murders another man, we are accustomed by Freudian orientation to look into the past to find out why. The assumption is that there must be a cause or causes, and that the cause or causes lie somewhere in the past. The pure determinist holds that man’s behavior is not free and is only a product of his past. The inevitable conclusion is that man is not responsible for what he does; that, in fact, he does not have free will.

If you're a regular reader of this blog you know what I’m going to say. Why does the absence of will “inevitably” lead to the absence of responsibility? As is so often done, Harris makes the knee-jerk comparison to criminality and the courts.

The philosophical conflict is seen most dramatically in the courts. The judicial position is that man is responsible. The deterministic position, which underlies much psychiatric testimony, is that man is not responsible by virtue of the events of his past.

As if this is some kind of existential crisis. We have to deny determinism because to do otherwise would be to open up all the prisons and let all the criminals go free! Of all the arguments against determinism, this one makes about the least amount of sense to me. Whether man is a free agent or a deterministic machine, I don’t see any difference in the appropriate response to criminal behavior. Shouldn’t broken machines be prevented from harming other machines, just as criminal humans should be prevented from harming other humans?

But rather than admit that simple solution, Harris, and many, many others, decide that they must weave together a bunch of over-thought philosophical concepts in order to lull everyone into believing that free agency can be retained -- for humans -- in an otherwise deterministic universe.

We cannot deny the reality of cause and effect. [But you will.] If we hit a billiard ball and it strikes several more, which then are impelled to strike other billiard balls in turn, we must accept the demonstration of the chain sequence of cause and effect. The monistic principle holds that laws of the same kind operate in all nature. Yet history demonstrates that while billiard balls have become nothing more than what they are as they are caught in the cause-and-effect drama, human beings have become more than what they were. The evidence of evolution -- and of personal experience -- convinces us that man has become more than his antecedents.

Did you catch that? Billiard balls are billiard balls, but human beings are something different. Why? Because we’re human beings, and we know we’re different.

There is an essential difference, however, between a man and billiard ball. Man, through thought, is able to look to the future.

Here’s another place where Harris’s 1960s understanding of brain science does him a disservice. How would he react, I wonder, to the modern understanding that thought itself is another billiard ball -- a manifestation of similar deterministic realities, this time across biochemical synapses rather than across a green felt table?

He is influenced by another type of causal order which Charles Harteshorne calls “creative causation.” Elton Trueblood elaborates this point by suggesting that causes for human behavior lie not only in the past but in man’s ability to contemplate the future, or estimate probabilities:

“The human mind … operates to a large extent by reference to final causes. This is so obvious that it might seem impossible to neglect it, yet it is neglected by everyone who denies freedom in employing the billiard ball analogy of causation. Of course, the billiard ball moves primarily by efficient causation, but man operates in a totally different way. Man is a creature whose present is constantly being dominated by reference to the nonexistent, but nevertheless potent, future. What is not, influences what is.”

Let me be blunt. The above paragraph is incoherent, as most arguments against determinism eventually become. A nonexistent, but nevertheless potent, future? I guess that’s easier for some to swallow than the idea that they are billiard balls. And our evidence for this nonexistent thing? Well, who needs evidence when its potency is “obvious”?

Ortega defines man as “a being which consists not so much in what it is as in what it is going to be.” Trueblood points out

“ is not enough to say that the outcome is determined even by one’s previous character, for the reality in which we share is such that genuine novelty can emerge in the very act of thinking. Thinking, as we actually experience it daily, is not merely awareness of action, as it is in all epiphenomenalist doctrine, but is a true and creative cause. Something happens, when a man thinks, which would not have occurred otherwise.”

Enough. Statements such as these are pervasive in the books I’ve read on the subject, but they rely on facts not in evidence. Something happens when we think. We don’t know what that something is, and everything we learn about the brain makes the possibility of that something more and more remote, but we will still assert that this something is real. Why? Because we can feel it. We feel, and therefore we have to be something more than unfeeling billiard balls. Harris, and many others, will twist themselves into logical and philosophical knots before they admit to being that.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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