Monthly Archives: January 2018

Power, Roles, and Projective Identification


‘Control the Options: Get others to play with the cards you deal’ – Law 31, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

(this blog entry begins with a discussion about the way in which roles are imposed, both as a means of exercising power and of extracting scarce resources from others, before analysing a recent example where this was attempted but failed during the recent Peterson / Newman debate on Channel 4).

An individual’s life is lived out through the putting on and acting out a series of roles and frequently these roles conflict both with the individual’s adopted identity, and with the identity assigned to them by others1. Such identity-role discrepancies deserve consideration, especially from a power-dynamics perspective.

In ‘Games People Play’, Eric Berne (1964) sets out a series of scenarios that he terms ‘games’. These games collectively encapsulate most of the dysfunctional group interactions that an individual will encounter in life, features of which, according to Berne, include a set of identified roles for each ‘player’, along with a protagonist (Berne uses the term ‘agent’) who seeks to have the other players ‘do what he would have them do’. Besides considering each game in terms of the resources at stake and the specific actions and outcomes that will result in ‘victory’, questions to be considered here are who is it that selects the particular game to be played, what is it that motivates their actions, and how do they go about assigning the requisite roles upon others?


Expressed in terms of resources, the protagonist perceives that another individual is in possession or control of resources that they either need or want. Such resources might be material goods but will often be of the intangible variety: approval, respect, fear, desire, service, protection, worship. The chosen game thus becomes framed around the leveraging of resources that are controlled, with the purpose of extracting from others those resources that are not.

The protagonist will already be the most powerful member of the group in question and will therefore be in a position to select the game that is to be played. This selection will be based upon the particular game that they are most skilled at and experienced in playing, the game that affords them the most effective use of the resources already under their control, the perceived weaknesses of their opponents (which, in resources terms, can be expressed as those scarce resources that their opponents are most in need of), and the resources that the protagonist is actually seeking to acquire.

The game and the tactics employed will vary considerably between games and within different contexts. Certain games are played out on reasonably transparent terms where the resources at stake are clear and the protagonist’s relative power is readily apparent throughout. However, in other situations, protagonists might deliberately present themselves as weak and helpless in order to have others perform a task that they are supposedly too weak to perform. This will result in the apparent assignation of the role of ‘Strong One’ upon their opponent, whereas in reality the role that has been assigned is the role of ‘Slave’. There are situations where the protagonist will deliberately discredit themselves in order to manipulate their opponents into speaking kindness over them. This will result in the apparent assignation upon their opponent of the role of ‘Encourager’, whereas in reality this role is the role of ‘Worshipper’. And there are yet other situations where the protagonist will present themselves as stupid for the purpose of manipulating others into solving their problems for them. This will result in the apparent assignation of the role of ‘Wise One’, whereas in reality the role being assigned is that of ‘Parent’.

person on a leash

In order to engage others in the game of their choosing, the initiator of the game must assign roles. Since the game at hand will have been selected primarily with the protagonist in mind, the associated roles that require assigning may be ill-fitted to the individuals available. As such, and in order to extract, say, worship from individuals naturally disinclined to offer it, the protagonist may be compelled to leverage certain resources already under his control in order to obtain that which is desired, i.e. through the use of flattery, of bribes, the inducement of fear, or by employing some other tactic that exploits the perceived resource needs of the opponent. This can be viewed as a sort of trade where the balances are weighted heavily in favour of the protagonist. The attempted imposition of roles upon those perceived as being weaker or less powerful shares certain features with the phenomenon of projective identification whereby an individual splits off an unwanted part of his or her personality (such as anger), and places it upon another individual or group (Laing, 1969). This, however, is achieved through the use of interpersonal aggression or violence such that the target is forced into adopting those projected elements and into adopting the role, such as that of ‘Angry Person’, that has been assigned to them. For the target, such a development will often be accompanied by feelings of a loss of contact with the true self as they find themselves acting out their assigned role, often unaware of the interpersonal dynamics and events that have led to this outcome.

Nonetheless, while a form of projective identification might at times subconsciously influence the game that has been chosen, oftentimes the imposition of a particular role is a primary function of the drive to power itself, the drive to control the behaviour of others, and the drive to victory as an emblem of superiority.


The recent Channel 4 debate between Professor Jordan B Peterson and the journalist Cathy Newman is a good example of an attempt by one party to impose a particular role upon another, and of the intended target, the opponent, resisting these attempts.

In Berneian terms Newman attempted to set up a classic three-handed version of the game ‘Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch’ (NIGYSOB). In this she sought to introduce a Parent-Child dynamic between herself and Peterson which in fact played out as a sophisticated Child-Child game that featured the on-looking public cast in the role of Parent and tasked with making a determination as to which of the two ‘children’ was in possession of the moral high ground and, thus, of being victorious. Newman repeatedly sought to impose upon Peterson the role of ‘Misogynist’ in the same emotionally violent manner characteristic of an individual engaged in projective identification. Her intended purpose for Peterson was utilitarian – a mere patsy in her pursuit of victory and of the desired scarce resource of worship, the prize to be extracted from the public at large at the point of victory. The object of the game was framed as a battle of ideologies, but the method by which ascendancy would be achieved was established early on by Newman as the obtaining of dominance through the attainment of intellectual superiority. It soon became apparent, however, that framing the game in this manner was a spectacular miscalculation.

Right away Peterson recognised what was unfolding and applied Berne’s recommended antithesis for NIGYSOB by acting in a meticulous, careful, and irreproachable manner. His ‘gotcha’ moment towards the end of the half hour was the fruit of these labours, underlining his resistance to Newman’s attempts at role imposition. Additionally, by maintaining this dedication to the antithesis and by keeping Newman focussed upon the game that she herself had formulated, he was able to covertly establish his own counter-game of NIGYSOB. The ‘gotcha’ moment was effectively the big reveal of what had actually been taking place – the successful imposition by Peterson upon Newman of a whole set of roles of his own design including ‘Lazy Journalist’, ‘Morally Inferior Person’, and ‘Intellectual Amateur’.


Attempts to control others through the violent imposition of roles and through the setting up of games is not an activity restricted merely to those who might be considered pathologically manipulative. All individuals, to a greater or lesser extent, engage in such behaviour as a way of extracting from others that which is wanted or needed. Where this becomes pathological, however, is the point at which there develops an inability to relate to others in any other way and in circumstances where, unless an individual dutifully conforms to a certain set of prescribed behaviours within a prescribed role, the relationship, along with the autonomous individual in question, is considered to be of no value.

  1. It is important to note that identity formation is a function both of self-identification and of other-identification, acting together in concert (see previous post on this blog here).

Berne, E. (1964), Games People Play, Grove Press

Laing, R.D. (1969), Self and Others, Penguin