Karpman drama triangle

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The original Karpman Drama Triangle as it appears in Karpman, S. (1968). Fairy tales and script drama analysis. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7(26), 39-43.[1]

The drama triangle is a psychological and social model of human interaction – typically between the roles of Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer. The drama triangle model is a tool used in psychotherapy, specifically transactional analysis.


The Drama Triangle was originally conceived in 1968 by Stephen Karpman, M.D. as a way to graphically display a type of destructive interaction that can occur between people in conflict.[2] The Karpman Drama Triangle models the connection between personal responsibility and power in conflicts, and the destructive and shifting roles people play.[3]

Karpman graduated from Duke University Medical School after completing his undergraduate degree there in the early-60's. After graduation, he moved to California and studied under Eric Berne, M.D.. Berne embraced and encouraged Karpman to publish what Berne referred to as "Karpman's triangle". Karpman's article on the Drama Triangle was published in 1968.[1]

Karpman's model[edit]

Karpman drama triangle

Karpman used triangles to model conflicted or drama intense relationship transactions. He defined three roles in the relationship; Persecutor, Rescuer (the one up positions) and Victim (one down position). Karpman placed these three roles on an inverted triangle and referred to them as being the three aspects, or faces of drama. Karpman, who had interests in acting and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, choose the term "drama triangle" rather the term "conflict triangle" as the Victim in his model is not intended to represent an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like a victim.[2]

  1. The Persecutor: The Persecutor insists, "It's all your fault." The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior.
  2. The Victim: The Victim is of course persecuted. The Victim's stance is "Poor me!" The Victim feels victimized, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight. The Victim, if not being persecuted, will seek out a Persecutor and also a Rescuer who will "save" the day but also perpetuate the Victim's negative feelings.
  3. The Rescuer: The rescuer's line is "Let me help you." A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if he/she doesn't go to the rescue. Yet his/her rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the rescuer. When he/she focuses their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also very pivotal, because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the victim’s needs.[citation needed]

Initially, a drama triangle arises when a person takes on the role of a victim or persecutor. This person then feels the need to enlist other players in to the conflict. These enlisted players take on roles of their own that are not static and therefore various scenarios can occur. For example, the victim might turn on the rescuer, the rescuer then switches to persecuting — or as often happens, a rescuer is encouraged to enter the situation.[4]

The motivations for each participant 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 participant is acting upon their own selfish needs, rather than acting in a genuinely responsible or Altruistic manner.[citation needed] Thus a character might "ordinarily come on like a plaintive victim; it is now clear that she can switch into the role of Persecutor providing it is 'accidental' and she apologizes for it".[4]

The motivations of the rescuer is the least obvious. In the terms of the drama triangle, the rescuer is someone who has a mixed or covert motive and 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 get a self-esteem boost or receive respected rescue status, or derive enjoyment by having someone depend on them and trust 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 a payoff.[citation needed].

In some cases, the relationship between the victim and the rescuer can be one of codependency.[5] The rescuer keeps the victim dependent on them by encouraging their victimhood. The victim gets their needs met by having the rescuer take care of them.

In general, participants tend to have a primary or habitual role (victim, rescuer, persecutor) when they enter into drama triangles. Participants first learn their habitual role in our family of origin. Even though participants each have a role with which they most identify, once on the triangle, participants rotate through all the positions, going completely around the triangle.[6]

Each triangle has a payoff for those playing it. The antithesis of a drama triangle lies in discovering how to deprive the actors of their payoff.[2]

Historical context[edit]

Family therapy movement. After World War II, therapists observed that while many battle-torn veteran patients readjusted well after returning to their families some patients did not; some even regressed when they returned to their home environment. Researchers felt that they needed an explanation for this and began to explore the dynamics of family life – and thus began the family therapy movement. Prior to this time, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts focused on the patient’s already developed psyche and downplayed outside detractors. Intrinsic factors were addressed and extrinsic reactions were considered as emanating from forces within the person.[2]

Transactions analysis. In the 1950s, Eric Berne, MD developed Transactional Analysis – a method for studying interactions between individuals. This approach was profoundly different than that of Freud. While Freud relied on asking the patient about themselves, Berne felt that a therapist could learn by observing what was communicated (words, body language, facial expressions) in a transaction. So instead of directly asking the patient questions, Berne would frequently observe the patient in a group setting, noting all of the transactions that occurred between the patient and other individuals.[7]

Karpman triangles. Stephen Karpman, M.D. received the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award in 1972 for his work on the Drama Triangle (1968-1972). It was through popular usage and the work of Karpman and others that the Karpman's triangle has been adapted for use in structural analysis (defining the conflict roles of persecutor, victim, and rescuer) and transactional analysis (diagraming how participant switch roles in conflict).[8]

Transactional analysis[edit]

The Karpman Triangle was initially conceived as a way to analyze the play-action pass and the draw play in American football and later adapted as a way to analyze movie scripts. Karpman credits the movie, Valley of the Dolls, as being a testbed for refining the model. Karpman is reported to have doodled thirty or more diagram types before settling in on the triangle.[8]

Karpman has many interesting variables of the Karpman triangle 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).[4] These include the Question Mark triangle, False Perception triangle, Double Bind triangle, The Indecision triangle, the Vicious Cycle triangle, Trapping triangle, Escape triangle, Triangles of Oppression and Triangles of Liberation, Switching in the triangle, and the Alcoholic Family triangle.[9]

All of these triangles are "games". The term game in transactional analysis refers to 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",[10] 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", 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",[10] the latter being played in a tense and aggressive way.[10]

Their consequences of games may vary from small paybacks to paybacks built up over a long period to a major level. Based on the degree of acceptability and potential harm, games are classified into three categories, representing first degree games, second degree games, and third degree games:

Socially acceptable,
Undesirable but not irreversibly damaging, or
May result in drastic harm.[10]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]




  1. ^ a b Karpman MD, Stephen (1968). "Fairy tales and script drama analysis". Transactional Analysis Bulletin 26 (7): 39–43. 
  2. ^ a b c d Johnson, R. Skip. "Escaping Conflict and the Drama Triangle". BPDFamily.com. Retrieved June 10, 2015. 
  3. ^ Murdoch, B.Ed., Edna. "The Karpman Drama Triangle". Coaching Supervision Academy. Retrieved June 10, 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c Berne, MD, Eric (1973). What Do You Say After You Say Hello?. Bantam Books. pp. 186, 188, 307, 346. ISBN 9780553232677. 
  5. ^ "Codependence Treatment". Cirque Lodge. Retrieved 2013-10-05. 
  6. ^ Forrest, SW, Lynne. "The Three Faces of Victim — An Overview of the Drama Triangle". lynneforrest.com. Retrieved June 11, 2015. 
  7. ^ Eric Berne Family. "Transactional Analysis". Eric Berne, M.D. Retrieved June 10, 2015. 
  8. ^ a b Karpmen, MD, Stephen. "Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award" (PDF). karpmandramatriangle.com. Retrieved June 10, 2015. 
  9. ^ Karpman, M.D., Stephen B. "The New Drama Triangles USATAA/ITAA Conference Lecture" (PDF). karpmandramatriangle.com. Retrieved August 11, 2007. 
  10. ^ a b c d Berne, M.D., Eric (1996). Games People Play. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 45, 57. ISBN 978-0345410030.