In the 1964 book, Games People Play, by psychiatrist Eric Berne, the author describes a psychopathic phenomena he calls the schlemiel, after the Jewish folk stereotype. According to Berne, the schlemiel does deliberately destructive acts and sabotage and disguises them to look like accidents. The purpose of this is to elicit sympathy and compassion in those he has duped, called schlamazels. In other words, it is a game with a purely psychological payoff, but damaging real world effects. According to Berne schlemiels often end up as criminals, playing their "game" with judges and police officers after they have outgrown parents and teachers.

This psycho-type seems to be unique to Berne's book and I have not been able to find any other clinical discussions of the phenomenon. Was this idea invented by Berne and purely unique to his book, or has the idea been studied by other researchers in the cognitive sciences?

  • $\begingroup$ Berne is vaguely inaccurate, a schlemiel is a twit, e.g. Billy Bunter, whose motivations are not malicious. Berne is coming from his "everybody means exactly what they do" perspective, which is not proven correct. Schlemiel's are often happy to have no pay-off ever, which indicates they are not collecting game stamps. $\endgroup$
    – The GRAPKE
    Nov 3 '16 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ Berne is incorrect. A schlemiel is the waiter who spills hot soup. A schlimazel is the one who gets it in his lap. No dark intentions there, rather just a clumsy person and the unfortunate victim. Nothing mysterious nor premeditated about it. I guess that would mean the probable answer to the question would be 'no'. Vince Curto $\endgroup$
    – VinceCurto
    Nov 3 '16 at 18:31
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I am not interested in your personal definition of a schlemiel. I am interested in finding out if other researchers have done clinical psychological studies on the phenomenon as Berne describes it in his book. $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '16 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ I do not know of any psychoanalytic research into schlemielism per se. The word schlemiel is Yiddish and colloquially means a fool. Therefore your question can be translated to, is there any research into people who act the fool, causing damage, which they enjoy, watching from behind a facade. Berne himself has numerous examples of this behaviour in Games People Play, such as the party goer who crushes the baby's toy under his heel and spills his drink by mistake on purpose. $\endgroup$
    – The GRAPKE
    Nov 3 '16 at 21:09

The short answer is that there is no such mental disorder as schlemielism and the characteristics of a schlemiel described in Games People Play (Berne, 1964) are part of Eric Berne's description of Transactional Analysis (TA) and how it comes into play in life and within therapy.

As an arbitrary categorisation of human behavior lacking in empirical evidence, TA is often considered a pseudoscience and a pop psychology fad. (RationalWiki, 2016)

For more about Pseudoscience within Psychology, see this meta post and Hansson, S. O. (1996)

Schlemiel, as pointed out by both you in your question and within comments by others, is a Yiddish term meaning "unlucky bungler" or "chump", or fool.

For more on these games, there are some videos on ericberne.com (Berne, 1966) from a 1966 National Educational Television broadcast in which Dr. Eric Berne was interviewed.


Developed in the late 1950s by Eric Berne (1958), Transactional Analysis (TA) is mainly humanistic, but is an integrative method of therapy combining psychodynamic and humanistic approaches. On the difference between TA and other theories, Eric Berne said

I think most other therapies . . . talk about thinking and feeling. Our question to the patient is not what do you think or how do you feel, but what are you going to do about it? (Berne, 1966)

In TA, the concept is that interactions – transactions – between different people in a given situation when communicating with each other, can be different and changing; and using TA you can analyse these transactions to give you and insight into what is happening. The philosophy behind TA is that

  1. People are ‘OK’ – We may not like or agree with other’s behaviour, but we can accept them as worthy individuals.
  2. People can think for themselves and it is there responsibility to do so.
  3. People make decisions that decide their destiny and these decisions can change.

TA in action

Whilst practicing TA, there are four theoretical foundations to look at individually

  1. Ego States
    There are structural and functional ego states (Short & Thomas, 2015).

    Structural – Parent/Adult/Child
    Functional – Controlling Parent/Nurturing Parent/Adult/Free Child/Adapted Child

    Parent is an exteropsyche or exteropsychic state (e.g. identificatory), adult is a neopsyche or neopsychic state (e.g. data-processing), and child is an archaeopsyche or archaeopsychic state (e.g. regressive) (Berne, 2015).
  2. Scripts
    On-going psychological processes, in which meaning is given to life experiences
  3. Transactions
    Exchanges between two or more people
  4. Games
    Emotional and relational patterns learnt in childhood re-enacted as adults without adult awareness, such as ‘See What You Made Me Do’ or ‘Why Don’t You – Yes But…’ (Berne, 1964)

No.4 here is what we are talking about with the question on schlemiel.

Although Berne defined transactions long before he published Games People Play, his description of transactions in Games is the most easily understood:

The unit of social intercourse is called a transaction. If two or more people encounter each other… sooner or later one of them will speak, or give some other indication of acknowledging the presence of the others. This is called transactional stimulus. Another person will then say or do something which is in some way related to the stimulus, and that is called the transactional response. (Berne, 1964)(Berne Calcaterra, n.d.)

Dr. Thomas Harris stated in I’m OK – You’re OK that in Transactional Analysis,

we have found a new language of psychology. (Harris, 1995)(Berne Calcaterra, n.d.)

The Game of 'Schlemiel'

This is described in ericberne.com with the following — numbers representing the transaction number and W and B representing each person in the game (White and Black):

The moves in a typical game of “Schlemiel” are as follows:

1W. White spills a highball on the hostess’s evening gown.

1B. Black (the host) responds initially with rage, but he sense (often only vaguely) that if he shows it, White wins. Black therefore pulls himself together, and this gives him the illusion that he wins.

2W. White says “I’m sorry.”

2B. Black mutters or cries forgiveness, strengthening his illusion that he wins.

3W. White then proceeds to inflict other damage on Black’s property. He breaks things, spills things and makes messes of various kinds. After the cigarette burn in the tablecloth, the chair leg through the lace curtain and the gravy on the rug, White’s Child is exhilarated because he has enjoyed himself in carrying out these procedures, for all of which he has been forgiven, while Black has made a gratifying display of suffering self-control. Thus both of them profit from an unfortunate situation, and Black is not necessarily anxious to terminate the friendship.

The breakdown of this game scenario is that All the way through the game, White is in the structural ego state of child and Black initially entered either as child or parent with the rage response, but then quickly adjusted to adult.

Both can be seen to have won the first 2 transactions of the game, as well as the 3rd transaction. However, depending on your standpoint, with the 3rd transaction, White could be seen to have won whilst Black has lost because he/she hasn't controlled the child within White.


Berne Calcaterra, N. (n.d.). Transactional Analysis - ericberne.com. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ericberne.com/transactional-analysis

Berne, E. (1958). Transactional analysis: A new and effective method of group therapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 12(4): pp. 735—743.
PMID: 13583264

Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Berne, E. (1966). Games People Play – The Theory Video. [Online] Available at: http://www.ericberne.com/videos

Berne, E. (2015). Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy: A Systematic Individual and Social Psychiatry. United States: Martino Fine Books.

Harris, T. (1995). I’m OK – You’re OK. London: Arrow Books Ltd.

Hansson, S. O. (1996). Defining Pseudoscience and Science In:Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem Pigliucci & Boudry (Eds.) Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

RationalWiki (2016) Transactional Analysis [Online]
Available at: https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Transactional_Analysis

Short, F. & Thomas, P. (2015). Core Approaches in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Hove: Routledge.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, so I gather from your answer that "transactional analysis" and the various games, like the Schlemiel game, are just a one man show from Berne then and other researchers have not really pursued this kind of science. Is that right? $\endgroup$ Dec 23 '21 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ @TylerDurden There is a lot of literature about TA from various sources. You can find many through Google Scholar. But, Eric Berne is the one who started to put it all into the Parent, Adult, Child contexts $\endgroup$ Dec 23 '21 at 15:30

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