Drama triangle proposed by Stephen Karpman

The Karpman drama triangle is a social model of human interaction proposed by Stephen B. Karpman. The triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur among people in conflict.[1] The drama triangle model is a tool used in psychotherapy, specifically transactional analysis. The triangle of actors in the drama are persecutors, victims, and rescuers.

Karpman described how in some cases these roles were not undertaken in an honest manner to resolve the presenting problem, but rather were used fluidly and switched between by the actors in a way that achieved unconscious goals and agendas. The outcome in such cases was that the actors would be left feeling justified and entrenched, but there would often be little or no change to the presenting problem, and other more fundamental problems giving rise to the situation remained unaddressed.


Through popular usage, and the work of Stephen Karpman and others, Karpman’s triangle has been adapted for use in structural analysis and transactional analysis.[2]


Karpman used triangles to map conflicted or drama-intense relationship transactions.[1] The Karpman Drama Triangle models the connection between personal responsibility and power in conflicts, and the destructive and shifting roles people play.[3] He defined three roles in the conflict; 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.[1]

  1. The Victim: The Victim in this model is not intended to represent an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like one.[1] The Victim seeks to convince themself and others that they cannot do anything, nothing can be done, all attempts are futile, despite trying hard. One payoff for this stance is avoiding real change or acknowledgement of their true feelings, which may bring anxiety and risk, while feeling they are doing all they can to escape it. As such, the Victim’s stance is “Poor me!” The Victim feels persecuted, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight. The Victim will remain with a Persecutor or, if not being persecuted, will set someone else up in the role of Persecutor. They will also seek help, creating one or more Rescuers to save the day, who will in reality perpetuate the Victim’s negative feelings and leave the situation broadly unchanged.
  2. The Rescuer: The Rescuer’s line is “Let me help you.” A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if they do not go to the rescue, and ultimately becomes angry (and becomes a Persecutor) as their help fails to achieve change. Yet their rescuing has negative effects: it keeps the Victim dependent and doesn’t allow the Victim permission to fail and experience the consequences of their choices. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the Rescuer, who can also feel good for having tried, and justified in their negative feelings (to the other actor/s) upon failing. When they focus their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the Victim’s needs.
  3. The Persecutor: (a.k.a. Villain) The Persecutor insists, “It’s all your fault.” The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior. But, if blamed in turn, the Persecutor may become defensive, and may switch roles to become a Victim if attacked forcefully by the Rescuer and/or Victim, in which case the Victim may also switch roles to become a Persecutor.

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 into the conflict. As often happens, a rescuer is encouraged to enter the situation.[4] These enlisted players take on roles of their own that are not static, and therefore various scenarios can occur. The victim might turn on the rescuer, for example, while the rescuer then switches to persecution.

The reason that the situation persists is that each participant has their (frequently unconscious) psychological wishes/needs met without having to acknowledge the broader dysfunction or harm done in the situation as a whole. Each participant is acting upon their own selfish needs, rather than acting in a genuinely responsible or altruistic manner.[citation needed] Any character might “ordinarily come on like a plaintive victim; it is now clear that the one can switch into the role of Persecutor providing it is ‘accidental’ and the one apologizes for it”.[4]

The motivations of the rescuer are the least obvious. In the terms of the triangle, the rescuer has a mixed or covert motive and benefits 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 in which they benefit. They may get a self-esteem boost, for example, 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].

The relationship between the victim and the rescuer may be one of codependency. The rescuer keeps the victim dependent by encouraging their victimhood. The victim gets their needs met by having the rescuer take care of them.

Participants generally tend to have a primary or habitual role (victim, rescuer, persecutor) when they enter into drama triangles. Participants first learn their habitual role in their family of origin. Even though participants each have a role with which they most identify, once on the triangle, participants rotate through all the three positions.[5]

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.[1]

Historical context[edit]

Family therapy movement[edit]

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.[1]

Transactions analysis[edit]

In the 1950s, Eric Berne developed transactional analysis, a method for studying interactions between individuals. This approach was profoundly different than that of Freud. While Freud relied on asking patients 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.[6]


The theory of triangulation was originally published in 1966 by Murray Bowen as one of eight parts of Bowen’s family systems theory.[1] Murray Bowen, a pioneer in family systems theory, began his early work with schizophrenics at the Menninger Clinic, from 1946 to 1954. Triangulation is the “process whereby a two-party relationship that is experiencing tension will naturally involve third parties to reduce tension”.[7] Simply put, when people find themselves in conflict with another person, they will reach out to a third person. The resulting triangle is more comfortable as it can hold much more tension because the tension is being shifted around three people instead of two.[1]

Bowen studied the dyad of the mother and her schizophrenic child while he had them both living in a research unit at the Menninger clinic. Bowen then moved to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where he resided from 1954 to 1959. At the NIMH Bowen extended his hypothesis to include the father-mother-child triad. Bowen considered differentiation and triangles the crux of his theory, Bowen Family Systems Theory. Bowen intentionally used the word triangle rather than triad. In Bowen Family Systems Theory, the triangle is an essential part of the relationship.

Couples left to their own resources oscillate between closeness and distance. Two people having this imbalance often have difficulty resolving it by themselves. To stabilize the relationship, the couple often seek the aid of a third party to help re-establish closeness. A triangle is the smallest possible relationship system that can restore balance in a time of stress. The third person assumes an outside position. In periods of stress, the outside position is the most comfortable and desired position. The inside position is plagued by anxiety, along with its emotional closeness. The outsider serves to preserve the inside couple’s relationship. Bowen noted that not all triangles are constructive – some are destructive.[7]

Pathological/perverse triangles[edit]

In 1968, Nathan Ackerman conceptualized a destructive triangle. Ackerman stated “we observe certain constellations of family interactions which we have epitomized as the pattern of family interdependence, roles those of destroyer or persecutor, the victim of the scapegoating attack, and the family healer or the family doctor. Ackerman also recognized the pattern of attack, defense, and counterattack, as shifting roles.[8]

Karpman triangle and Eric Berne[edit]

In 1968, Stephen Karpman, who had an interest in acting and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, chose “drama triangle” rather than “conflict triangle” as, here, the Victim in his model is not intended to represent an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like one.[1] He first published his theory in an article entitled “Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis”. His article, in part, examined the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood” to illustrate its points. Karpman was, at the time, a recent graduate of Duke University School of Medicine and was doing post post-graduate studies under Berne.[9] Berne, who founded the field transactional analysis, encouraged Karpman to publish what Berne referred to as “Karpman’s triangle”. Karpman’s article was published in 1968. In 1972, Karpman received the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award for the work.

Transactional analysis[edit]

Eric Berne, a Canadian-born psychiatrist, created the theory of transactional analysis, in the middle of the 20th century, as a way of explaining human behavior. Berne’s theory of transactional analysis was based on the ideas of Freud but was distinctly different. Freudian psychotherapists focused on talk therapy as a way of gaining insight to their patients’ personalities. Berne believed that insight could be better discovered by analyzing patients’ social transactions.[10]

Games in transactional analysis refers to a series of transactions that is complementary (reciprocal), ulterior, and proceeds towards a predictable outcome. In this context, the Karpman Drama Triangle is a “game”.

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 people 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 expectations. 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”,[11] 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”,[11] the latter being played in a tense and aggressive way.[11]

The 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
  • may result in drastic harm.[11]

The Karpman triangle was an adaptation of a model that was originally conceived to analyze the play-action pass and the draw play in American football and later adapted as a way to analyze movie scripts. Karpman is reported to have doodled thirty or more diagram types before settling on the triangle. Karpman credits the movie Valley of the Dolls as being a testbed for refining the model into what Berne coined as the Karpman Drama Triangle.[2]

Karpman now has many 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.[12]

While transactional analysis is the method for studying interactions between individuals,[13] one researcher postulates that drama-based leaders can instill an organizational culture of drama. Persecutors are more likely to be in leadership positions and a persecutor culture goes hand in hand with cutthroat competition, fear, blaming, manipulation, high turnover and an increased risk of lawsuits. There are also victim cultures which can lead to low morale and low engagement as well as an avoidance of conflict, and rescuer cultures which can be characterized as having a high dependence on the leader, low initiative and low innovation.[14]

Therapeutic models[edit]

The Winner’s Triangle was published by Acey Choy in 1990 as a therapeutic model for showing patients how to alter social transactions when entering a triangle at any of the three entry points. Choy recommends that anyone feeling like a victim think more in terms of being vulnerable and caring, that anyone cast as a persecutor adopt an assertive posture, and anyone recruited to be a rescuer should react by being “caring”.[15]

  • Vulnerable – a victim should be encouraged to accept their vulnerability, problem solve, and be more self-aware.
  • Assertive – a persecutor should be encouraged to ask for what they want, be assertive, but not be punishing.
  • Caring – a rescuer should be encouraged to show concern and be caring, but not over-reach and problem solve for others.

The Power of TED*, first published in 2009, recommends that the “victim” adopt the alternative role of creator, view the persecutor as a challenger, and enlist a coach instead of a rescuer.[16]

  • Creator – victims are encouraged to be outcome-oriented as opposed to problem-oriented and take responsibility for choosing their response to life challenges. They should focus on resolving “dynamic tension” (the difference between current reality and the envisioned goal or outcome) by taking incremental steps toward the outcomes they are trying to achieve.
  • Challenger – a victim is encouraged to see a persecutor as a person (or situation) that forces the creator to clarify their needs, and focus on their learning and growth.
  • Coach – a rescuer should be encouraged to ask questions that are intended to help the individual to make informed choices. The key difference between a rescuer and a coach is that the coach sees the creator as capable of making choices and of solving their own problems. A coach asks questions that enable the creator to see the possibilities for positive action, and to focus on what they do want instead of what they don’t want.[1]

Nonviolent Communication: Non-violent communication aims at empowering the individual, by bringing him or her to the awareness of his or her needs, and to the ability to formulate demands. NVC seeks to give back to the people in the relationship the means and the capacity to cooperate.

In term of needs, we can therefore say that:

  • the victim is unable to contact/formulate his or her needs, and being unable to make a request, takes the strategy of transferring the problem to someone else (The rescuer);
  • the rescuer takes care of the needs of others, so that they do not have to take care of their own, and so that they do not have to feel the discomfort of their unmet needs;
  • The persecutor listens to their own needs and not to those of others.

In terms of autonomy, the triangle becomes:

  • the victim is not autonomous (does not know how to take care of their needs or make requests);
  • the persecutor denies the autonomy of the other, but needs the victim to believe they are autonomous;
  • the saviour too, by helping the victim without an explicit request, avoids taking care of themselves.

In terms of relationships

  • The victim is unable to contact/formulate their needs, and cannot make a request. They seek a strategy to regain access to their needs;
  • the rescuer will allow the victim to create a relationship, and through the relationship they will seek the mirror of their own needs;
  • the relationship with the persecutor will force the victim to return to the awareness of their needs.

The relationship with the persecutor shows the victim responsibility, and their relationship with the rescuer shows them the possibilities and their power, so that ultimately the victim can achieve autonomy.

Exit strategy: In the triangle, if one of the three acquires awareness of the “deep” needs, it leads them to leave their role. And if they touch the “mutual” needs then presumably they will “unconsciously” influence the other two to leave their roles. Or even to do so “explicitly”, if they have the clarity of the triangle diagram and propose the consideration of the needs of all three.

We could therefore distinguish several levels of awareness of needs (superficial, deep, mutual) and three fields of action (feeding only one’s own needs, unconscious influence to take into account mutual needs, and conscious/explicit influence to take into account mutual needs).

Example: The persecutor touches their individual needs, in a superficial way, like existence and recognition.

If they go deeper, they could access their needs for intensity; harmony; communion.

These “deep” needs will lead them to leave their role of persecutor.

The need for communion would also lead the persecutor to contact recognition, mirrored in the victim (‘mutual needs’).

In the victim, behind the (superficial) need for recognition, there could be the (deeper) needs for: identity; belonging; autonomy.

In the rescuer, behind the (superficial) need for recognition, there could be the (deeper) needs for: support; contribution; responsibility.

Contacting autonomy would transform the victim’s expectation of the rescuer, who would become a coach to help (support and contribute), and in awareness of his or her limits (responsibility) and with the aim of empowering the victim (and no longer of taking charge).

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]




  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Johnson, R. Skip. “Escaping Conflict and the Drama Triangle”. BPDFamily.com. Retrieved June 10, 2015.
  2. ^ a b Karpman, MD, Stephen. “Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award” (PDF). karpmandramatriangle.com. Retrieved June 10, 2015.
  3. ^ Murdoch, B.Ed., Edna. “The Karpman Drama Triangle”. Coaching Supervision Academy. Archived from the original on June 11, 2015. 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. ^ Forrest, SW, Lynne (26 June 2008). “The Three Faces of Victim — An Overview of the Drama Triangle”. lynneforrest.com. Retrieved June 11, 2015.
  6. ^ Eric Berne Family. “Transactional Analysis”. Eric Berne, M.D. Retrieved June 10, 2015.
  7. ^ a b Rabstejnek, P.E., M.B.A., Ph.D., Carl V. “Family Systems & Murray Bowen Theory” (PDF). houd.info. Retrieved June 10, 2015.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Weeks, PhD, Gerald R.; L’Abate, PhD, Luciano (August 15, 2014). Paradoxical Psychotherapy: Theory & Practice With Individuals Couples & Families. Taylor & Francis. p. 47. ISBN 9781138009400.
  9. ^ Karpman MD, Stephen (1968). “Fairy tales and script drama analysis”. Transactional Analysis Bulletin. 26 (7): 39–43.
  10. ^ “Transactional Analysis”. disorders.org. Retrieved September 1, 2011.
  11. ^ a b c d Berne, M.D., Eric (1996). Games People Play. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 45, 57. ISBN 978-0345410030.
  12. ^ Karpman, M.D., Stephen B. “The New Drama Triangles USATAA/ITAA Conference Lecture” (PDF). karpmandramatriangle.com. Retrieved August 11, 2007.
  13. ^ Solomon Ph.D., Carol. “Transactional Analysis”. Eric Berne, MD. University of California at San Francisco. Retrieved 3 January 2018.
  14. ^ Nate Regier (24 April 2017). Conflict without Casualties: A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. pp. 32–33. ISBN 978-1-5230-8262-9.
  15. ^ Choy, Acey (1990). “The Winner’s Triangle”. Transactional Analysis Journal. 20 (1): 40. doi:10.1177/036215379002000105.
  16. ^ Emerald, David (2016). The Power of TED* (3rd ed.). Polaris Publishing. pp. 1–138. ISBN 978-09968718-0-8.

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