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Berne's Formula G


Explanations > Behaviors > Games > Berne's Formula G

Purpose | Game play | Discussion | So what?



To feel good (though ultimately they feel bad).

Game play

The game plays according to the formula:

C + G = R -> S -> X -> P

Putting words where the letters are, we have:

Con + Gimmick equals Response, leading to Switch, leading to Crossup, ending in Payoff

In play, this gives a starting pair of:

  • Con: A invites B to join in a game that seems worthwhile but has an ulterior motive.
  • Gimmick: B has a weakness or need that makes them respond to the Con.

This now leads to the sequence:

  • Response: B responds to A's invitation.
  • Switch: A suddenly shifts, making a switch of some kinds.
  • Crossup (X): There is a period of confusion.
  • Payoff: The final result is that both experience negative emotion.

Berne's example of this is:

  • Con: Patient asks therapist if they will get better.
  • Gimmick: Therapist does not want the patient to believe they may not get better.
  • Response: Therapist says 'Of course you will'.
  • Switch: Patient gets antagonistic, saying 'What makes you think you know everything?'
  • Crossup: Therapist is thrown off balance. Patient feels a sense of control.
  • Payoff: Therapist feels foolish to have been tricked by a patient. Patient feels frustrated that therapist cannot help them.


This game may well be based around the need for a sense of control, where the Con is a setup and the Switch grabs control through use of confusion and surprise. In therapist-patient settings, where the patient has control issues, submitting to the therapist may make this feel worse, so they resort to such games in order to show that they are still in control, even though this gets in the way of the cure that they seek.

Many games may have Formula G as an inner pattern, particularly where control is an underlying issue and deception is used to take charge or spring a surprise 'gotcha' on the other person.

Formula G games may take place within a single conversation (as above) and make be played out over weeks, months or even years.

So what?

Watch for people gaining control by changing their interaction with you. You can spot this when you feel confused or surprised by what they say or do. When you can see this happening, you can deliberately choose not to play the game. You can also challenge it or shift how it plays out.

See also

Transactional Analysis, Confidence tricks, Confusion principle, Surprise principle


Eric Berne, (1964), Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, Balantine Books


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