Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Psychology of the Aid Profession: "Games People Play"

I've been reading an old (1964) psych book for about game theory. This isn't the quite game theory economists practice in that the payoffs are not what they appear. Eric Berne's definition of what makes a social interaction a game is that the real payoff is different from the stated one: the alcoholic who is less interested in booze as in being reprimanded, the spouse who complains about their significant other's domineering ways but who actually married them specifically so they would dominate them, the robber who isn't interested in the loot but in the chase and in getting caught. None of these are always or even predominantly the motivations of people in that group, but when it surfaces it is clear someone is playing a game. Until the game is realized, real therapy cannot succeed.

Today I read about a delightful game called "I'm Only Trying to Help You" (ITHY). The therapist gives a patient advice. When the patient returns and reports that the advice didn't work, the therapist gives yet more advice - perhaps to continue for longer or follow the advice more stringently or try something else altogether. When this produces repeated failure, frustration and bewilderment grow, which oddly enough is the payoff. It is often accompanied by games on the patient side, such as "Now look what you made me do!" "Look how hard I'm trying," "Why does this always happen to me?" or "Indigent."
This motive is based on the position that people are ungrateful and disappointing. The prospect of success is alarming ... and is an invitation to sabotage, because success would threaten the position.
He tells about entire organizations that can exist to play ITHY and how difficult it can be to cure. Actually helping patients is undesirable, often for both the organization and its clients.

While I recognize that this theme of aid workers needing to want to put themselves out of a job is nothing new, I had never realized there were actual therapeutic tools available for dysfunctional donor/recipient relationships. If you or someone you know is enjoying ITHY a little too much, help may be available.

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