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Psychological Games

There are a number of different ways to explain what is meant by ‘a psychological game’. In the sense that we are talking about, a game can be defined as when we do one thing, whilst pretending that we are doing another thing. For example, I could be extra nice to the person sitting next to me in order to hurt somebody who used to be my friend, but no longer is. The overt reason for my behaviour is simply to ‘be nice’ to someone, but the covert or hidden reason is to be mean to someone else who is going to feel bad because they are being excluded. Actually, I don’t care about the person I am talking to at all really, they are just a means to an end, and so what we are talking about here is the situation where a legitimate activity is secretly hijacked in the cause of some unacknowledged gain.



We could also say that a game is a way which I kid myself that my motivations are one way, whilst actually they are another. What this comes down to is self-deception. Although self-deception sounds like rather an extreme sort of a thing, and not at all the way we would like to imagine ourselves behaving on a regular basis, it is actually a very basic part of human psychology – we all deceive ourselves to some extent simply because the truth tends to be too painful to deal with directly. Because of the pain associated with seeing things as they really are we (almost always) look at things in a way that makes them a bit more palatable to us, a bit more acceptable. To put this another way, we are selective about what we allow ourselves to see. Reality itself might be uncompromising and hard, but we usually have the option of ‘spin-doctoring’ it – presenting the facts to ourselves and others in a way that doesn’t look so bad. We can sweeten the pill. That way we can live with it; that way we can carry on as we always have done.



There is another side to this business of spin-doctoring that we ought to mention briefly here and that is the reverse side of the coin – whilst it is true that we have the option of being selective in our attention so that we can see things in a more favourable light, it is also true that this can ‘power’ also turn against us so that we involuntarily focus on the pessimistic view of things instead. This is the other side of the game of spin-doctoring – the side we never pay any attention to. We think that it’s great to see things positively – to ‘see the glass half-full’ as everyone always says – but somehow we fail to appreciate the fact that the reverse way of looking at things is just as valid, and that if we’re going to buy into this business of selective attention we’re going to have to be prepared to not have it our own way the whole time…



Saying that games are how we do one thing whilst pretending to do another is one way of defining what a psychological game is; another way of looking at this is to say that psychological games are our way of ‘not changing’ (i.e. defending our static or entrenched position) whilst at the same time giving the impression that we genuinely are trying to progress. What this means is simply that we are ‘secretly working to stay the same, while fooling ourselves that we are committed to change’. This is a very common state of affairs and it is a manifestation of our ‘split-sincerity’ – I say that I want to be free, and I believe that I want to be free, but really (deep-down) I’m terrified at the prospect! If I saw that I was ‘holding on’ to my comfort zone, then this would not be a game at all and this in itself would be a very big change. But because I’m not being honest with myself, because I am fooling myself into thinking I want to change when the truth is that I don’t, then this stuck situation can go on forever.




We can now put forward our final and most essential definition of psychological games and say that a game is a way of avoiding pain without admitting to ourselves that this is what we are doing. The most basic way of understanding this is by thinking in terms of procrastination. Procrastination is a universal human ‘vice’ – it is a trait with which we are all deeply familiar. Basically, I have something difficult to do, and rather than do it right now, I find some excuse to put it off until later – only saying that I’m going to do it ‘later’ actually means that I’m not going to do it at all!  We can see therefore that procrastination is a classic example of a psychological game because it involves [1] the avoidance of pain and [2] the avoidance of seeing our avoidance.



But isn’t it possible to put off things that we have to do whilst being perfectly aware that this is what we are doing? In answer to this question we would have to reply that it is possible, but it’s not the usual state of affairs because the inevitable result of being a ‘self-aware procrastinator’ is that I am going to feel bad about myself. The first rule of psychology is that we do not like feeling bad; feeling bad is difficult and if I have a tendency to ‘put things off’ in the first place then this must be because I have a reluctance to subject myself to difficult situations. The logic is therefore inescapable – if the reason I am procrastinating in the first place is because I don’t like pain, and if seeing that I am in fact procrastinating is itself painful then obviously I am not only going to avoid the original pain, I am also going to avoid seeing that I am avoiding that pain. Once avoidance starts at all, then it has to go on to its logical conclusion.



We can give a few examples to show how this works. One would be the avoidance of filling in official forms of some kind – income tax returns or something. This is a disagreeable task, but at the same time I have to do it otherwise I am going to be in major trouble later on and so it simply isn’t worth not doing it. Now when I avoid filling in the forms I don’t ‘avoid doing it whilst at the same time bearing in mind the difficult situation that I am putting myself in later on’ because in this case I would clearly see that dodging the issue isn’t worth it. Why would I avoid a small difficulty if the price of this avoidance is a much more difficult situation later on? The whole point is that I don’t focus on the long-term cost: I say to myself “Oh I’ll do it later. I’ll do it tomorrow…” Needless to say, this is really a lie because when tomorrow comes I will say the same thing again! The reason this game of self-deception works is precisely because I refrain from seeing the fact that tomorrow never comes – in this way I get to avoid the work of doing what I don’t want to do, and I also get to avoid the pain of seeing what I am doing.




Another example of this is using a visa card when you can’t really afford to. When we do this we ignore the fact that the instant boost to our spending power has to be paid for later on – it feels like ‘money for nothing’ at the time because we do not have to worry about making the repayments until another day and another day is not now! Of course the truth is (as we all know perfectly well) is that the ‘net gain’ is zero because the apparent gain is cancelled out later on. There is no free lunch because we pay back more than we borrow. From these two examples it can be seen that any situation where I focus on the short-term gain whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the long-term cost is ‘a game’. I can’t escape payback time but I can escape thinking about it at the time and so – for a brief while – I can fool myself that I am getting something for nothing and the result of this self-deception is that I feel good.




So far we have been concentrating on apparent pay-offs that exist in the external world. In the first example we looked at the pay-off was the good feeling that I obtain when I escape from having to fill in an official form, and in the second case the pay-off comes in the form of instant cash, and the instant euphoria this creates! One is getting something we don’t like (in the outside world) to go away, and the other is obtaining some (external) thing we do like, but the result is the same in both instances – I experience a ‘lift’ due to the lessening of discomfort. The range of possible psychological games goes beyond the unacknowledged manipulation of the external world though – there is also the possibility of secretly manipulating the internal world. The way that I do this is very straightforward: I either avoid seeing stuff that I don’t want to see, or I focus narrowly only on the stuff that I do want to see.



What we are talking about here is ‘spin-doctoring’ and the general principle of spin-doctoring is that I exercise selective attention without acknowledging to myself that this is what I am doing. As we said earlier, this sort of thing is normal – this is how the everyday mind operates. There are very few times in life that we find ourselves in a situation which we cannot manage to put a ‘helpful’ spin onto to make it feel better to us.  This is however a perverse type of freedom – the freedom to lie to ourselves without knowing that this is what we are in fact doing is of course a type of ‘freedom’ that (in the long run) always acts against our own best interests.




The statement we just made raises the question, “What is so wrong with not always facing up to a painful reality – wouldn’t we crack up sometimes if we didn’t do this?” This isn’t a moral issue and so it hasn’t really got anything to do with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but there is nevertheless a problem because as we have said we don’t actually gain anything as a result of self-deception. We only obtain a temporary holiday from our problem as a result of pretending that it is not there, and then we pay an extra penalty. The comfort we obtain is ‘the false comfort of forgetting’ because the problem we were so reluctant to face is still there, waiting for us, only it has grown horns in the meantime. If avoiding pain merely creates extra, ‘superannuated’ pain further down the line then what’s the point?



Another problem with pain-avoidance is that we stop growing and instead we start going around and around in futile circles. We get stuck, in other words. For example, suppose that I am suffering from anxiety and I really can’t face certain situations. What I do therefore is to work away every day at finding ‘ways around’ these difficult bits – I get very clever at never having to do what I don’t want to do, and never having to be where I don’t want to be. It’s as if everyday I am faced with all sorts of rough edges which I have to smooth out, but which will invariably re-occur the next day. Alternatively, we could say that it is like me noticing bumps in the carpet in my living room (where the ‘bumps’ simply stand for the difficult or awkward or painful aspects of my life) which I want to get rid of. I spend the whole day trying to squash down the bumps by repositioning the furniture, but all I have really done with the bumps is to move them around, so that tomorrow I am going to have to do the same thing all over again. I am going back to square one every morning, trapped in an eternally recurring time-loop. I am expending serious amounts of effort but without obtaining anything at all for it.




There are a few examples of ‘psychological games’ that we can look at here in connection with this general idea of ‘futile pain-avoidance’. These might not be what we would normally consider to be ‘games’ but in fact we can easily see that they fulfil the criteria of games. One example is what we call negative emotions such as self-pity, jealousy, anger and sulking. These are ‘games’ because they always involve unconsciously distorting the way we are seeing the world in order to obtain some sort of ‘false comfort’. In other words, there is an immediate pay-off but the price is that we get stuck in a ‘useless and counterproductive’ state of mind. We all know that sulking (for example) is a total waste of time and it doesn’t get us anywhere but at the time we just can’t resist it  – just like we can’t resist buying something with a visa card even though we know we can’t afford it. At the time all we can see is the PLUS – the PLUS is all we can think about…



We can therefore look at negative emotions in terms of the two-step process of [1] succumbing to the temptation to obtain instant satisfaction, and [2] turning a blind eye to the fact that this satisfaction will in time show itself to be hollow or empty. It is important to note that the process of ‘falling into a sulk’ (or ‘flying into a rage’, or ‘becoming eaten up by jealousy’, etc) seems to happen all by itself – we don’t experience ourselves as actively participating in what goes on. This ought not to be surprising since the whole point of a psychological game is to allow us to obtain what we secretly want without having to see that this is in fact what we are doing…




Another – somewhat unexpected – example that we can give is that of social roles. We can say that socially defined roles are games for exactly the same reasons that we can say that negative emotions are games, i.e. because they consist of a short-term benefit which motivates us to enter into the game, and a long-term disadvantage which we don’t think about until we have already incurred it. The immediate benefit can be explained in terms of increased security – when we are ‘in role’ we know who we are, and we also know what we are supposed to do. In addition, we also obtain the recognition of other people, which makes us feel accepted and valued. In short, our social identities are our comfort zones. The long-term cost of these comfort zones is however that they are ‘dead-ends’ – these roles are not who we really are and it is impossible for us to grow as a result of identifying with them. The security of ‘being this’ or ‘being that’ appeals at first but then we discover that we are stuck and we don’t know how to get out, just as in the case of a negative emotion. We’ve not gained anything as a result of identifying with these roles. We put all our effort into becoming what we thought we wanted to become (in terms of having a socially-validated identity) but by doing this we’ve lost touch with who we really are, and this brings about huge suffering.




Our next example is very broad and is even less likely to fit our preconceptions regarding what constitutes a game. All the same, when we think about it we can identify the same key elements. What we’re talking about here is our ‘pattern of being in the world’ – i.e. our established habits of behaving. The point about our habitual patterns is not that they necessarily represent the best or most effective way to interact with our environment, but rather that they give us comfort because they are so familiar. They provide us with ‘ontological security’. They’re what we know, and as such they offer us a safe, reliable and essentially unchallenging route through the day. On the face of it, we engage in our routines because they have a genuine utility, because they ‘make sense’, but the hidden motivation is to play it safe. When faced with a new and uncharted day, the temptation is for me to react to its challenges the same way that I reacted to the challenges of yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that; in other words, the temptation is to reiterate the same basic pattern over and over again. This is a well-worn route and at every stage I know ‘what to do’ in order to get safely to the next stage. There is a method to it and once I have mastered the method life becomes easy, life becomes unchallenging.



The long-term cost of ‘reiterating the known’ in this way is obvious once we think about it – by repeating the known I am effectively denying the unknown, which basically means that I am not allowing anything new to happen. We said earlier that the function of games is to avoid pain whilst avoiding seeing that we are avoiding pain, and the secret function of a habitual pattern of behaving is a direct parallel to this, i.e. it allows us to avoid change (or growth) without having to face up to the fact that this is what we are doing. We don’t have to face up to what we’re doing because we have validated our pattern as being ‘the right way to live life’.



We don’t see that the patterns which make up our routine existence as being ‘ways to avoid change’ because they have been socially validated; the truth is that we faithfully enact these routines not because we really need to, but because they give us something or other to be getting on with so that we don’t have to look at what we are actually doing with our lives. Routines, like negative emotions, are ‘space-fillers’ – they take up all of our attention so that we don’t have time to think too deeply about our situation.  That is the ‘pay-off’ of tried-and-trusted behaviour patterns and the long-term cost is that they are a dead end, which is the case for all the examples of psychological games that we have been looking at.



Our next example, which is positive knowledge, follows on from the idea of behaviour patterns and it is a way of talking about habitual patterns of thinking. What ‘positive knowledge’ means is stuff that we know for sure – stuff that we rely on as being definitely true. Positive knowledge stands for all of our beliefs, opinions, ideas, and generally any sort of ‘theory’ we might have about ourselves and the world that has over time become taken for granted as being actually true, rather than just a ‘guess’. Obviously positive knowledge is linked with ‘fixed modes of behaviour’ because it is our ideas about the world that govern how we (purposefully) interact with the world. The short-term gain associated with positive knowledge is an increase in security, the security of feeling ‘right’. When we know that we’re ‘looking at things in the right way’ then we don’t have to question our thinking – we can ‘stick with it’. The long-term cost – as always – is that our secure place becomes our prison.



Positive knowledge is a dead-end, it doesn’t go anywhere; what we think we know obstructs learning, which is the process of discovering that what we thought was true, isn’t so true after all! Learning is basically a ‘letting go’ of the known and letting go of the known requires us to face the pain (and the excitement) of uncertainty. Although having a cast iron, unquestionable map of life makes us feel good at first, it causes long-term suffering – suffering that will ultimately prove unsupportable – by stopping us growing, by keeping us effectively stuck, as do all psychological games.



When we talk about ‘psychological games’ (i.e. focussing narrowly on the short-term gain and conspiring against ourselves so as we never see the price we pay for this ‘gain’) we we’re really talking about is the psychological state of unconsciousness. In the state of unconsciousness we are – it could be said – forever grasping as illusory gains, and fleeing from equally illusory set-backs. The gains are illusory because they never deliver us from the game we’re playing, and the set-backs are illusory for exactly the same reason. The ‘game’ is all that is known and familiar to us – it is our comfort zone, and at the same time it is our prison. It’s what we love, and it’s also what we hate…




There is one final psychological game that we can mention – the one that we would probably be least likely of all to ever come close to thinking of as a game – and that is the self. The self is a game because it consists of two elements – an obvious short-term advantage, and a hidden long-term disadvantage. The ‘advantage’ (as ever) is the sense of security and comfort we find in the known and the familiar, and the disadvantage (also as ever) is the fact that by clinging to the known and the familiar we have guaranteed for ourselves that we will never change. This isn’t perceived as a way of dodging change for the simple reason that I constantly validate this fixed pattern of being in the world as being ‘me’! 



Me’ is the ultimate validation – it is a validation that is extremely unlikely ever to be questioned. In this respect it is like patriotism, which is an extension of the same principle. If I belong to a particular nation, and I hold – as all good patriots do – that this nation of mine is the greatest country in the world, that it is the benefactor of the world, that it can do no wrong, etc, etc, etc then I will obtain an intensely good feeling from this uncritical state of identification, and because I feel such a powerfully rewarding feeling I am of course most unlikely to ever kill the goose that is laying the golden egg. I am not going to question the arrangement that is providing me with this tremendous feeling of security. So as a consequence of my addiction to this ‘source of security’, I will have effectively blocked any chance of psychological growth – I will be ‘stuck’ in my sterile comfort zone.



When I play the game of the self I reiterate my fixed identity over and over again – I reiterate this fixed pattern of thinking and behaving under all circumstances so that it becomes a constant, so that it becomes an invariant. Everything that I experience is always perceived as it relates to this fixed viewpoint, and the result of this strategy is that everything that happens to me always gets to be interpreted in what is essentially the same old way. Its always “What X, Y or Z means to me…” and because this ‘me’ consists of a fixed set of evaluative criteria, along with a fixed set of automatic cognitive and behaviour reactions, it all gets to be the same old thing. Everything – the whole of life – gets subsumed in the same tired old game, becomes part of the same tired old game…



The gorgeous intoxicating honey-sweet euphoria that is caused by identifying with an invariant mental posture is the PLUS that I cling to as hard as I can, and the unbearably harsh dysphoria that is the inevitable result of this same clinging to a fixed position is the MINUS which I can never run away from. The gain we obtain from playing the game of self is that we never have to face the new, that we never have to take a risk, whilst the cost we pay is we can never get away from the old – the cost is that we have to keep on repeating the old, over and over again, forever and ever, whether we like it or not…










Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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