by John Suler, Ph.D.

Let's do a quick exercise.

Think of your husband or wife, or your romantic relationship, or a close friend. Think about some important characteristic of that individual's personality - a characteristic or trait in that person to which you have a strong emotional reaction, positive OR negative.... Now think about one of your parents, or perhaps a sibling. Do they have that very same characteristic, and are the reactions you have to that aspect of them similar to those concerning your current close relationship?

The phenomenon of "transference" is one of the cornerstones of psychoanalytic theory. Rows of bookshelves could be filled with what has been written about it. The basic premise is that we tend to recreate in our current relationships the patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that were formed early in our life, most importantly in the relationships with our parents and siblings when we were children.

Critics challenge this idea. They accuse psychoanalytic theory of dwelling too much on the effects of childhood and family dynamics on the evolution of one's personality. Surely, one's personality does develop and change throughout the course of one's life as a result of our friends, lovers, and new life experiences. It is not solely determined by how our parents raised us as children.

I think this is a perfectly valid criticism. We are not SIMPLY the products of our families. Nevertheless, our parents (or other parental figures) and siblings did indeed spend a great deal of time with us during those formative years, when our minds were young, impressionable, and eager to learn about how we humans relate to each other. Based on our relationships with them, we created models or templates in our mind about what constitutes the expected ways in which people will behave in relationships. We formed basic impressions about the kinds of needs, wishes, fears, and hopes that shape relationships and our image of ourselves in those relationships. Often we don't realize these are OUR OWN models. They may be very different than the models taking shape in the heads of other people. Think of a time when, as a young person, you went to a friend's house and were totally surprised, maybe even shocked, at how differently that family behaved as compared to your own family.

As we grow up we take these models with us. Often operating at an unconscious level, they affect the choices we make in the kinds of people we get involved with as well as how we experience those people. For example, think of your first boyfriend or girlfriend, and how similar that person might have been to one of your parents (usually your opposite sex parent). How often have young men said to their girlfriends "You're just like my mother!"... or vice versa.

These models also shape how people select and experience things in their lives that are NOT human, but so closely touch our needs and emotions that we want to imbue them with human characteristics. We humans can't help but anthropomorphize the elements in the world around us. It's in our blood. We use our internal models to humanize and shape our experience of cars, houses, pets, careers, the weather.... and COMPUTERS.

Yes, computers can be a prime target for transference because they may be perceived as human-like. They are complex machines that almost seem to "think" like humans think. In fact, some people say they WILL someday be able to "think" like us. Unlike TV, movies, or books, they are highly interactive. We ask them to do something and they do it - at least, they usually do (like humans they sometimes disobey and surprise us). With the new generation of highly visual, auditory, and customizable operating systems and software applications, we also have a machine that can be tailored to reflect what we expect in a companion. The science fiction fascination with robots and androids is the culmination of this perception of machines as being almost like one of us.

What makes computers especially enticing targets for transference is that they are VAGUELY human and PROGRAMMABLE to be whatever we make them out to be. Psychoanalysts discovered that if they remain relatively ambiguous and neutral in how they behaved with their clients, the clients would begin to shape their perceptions of the analyst according to their internal models from childhood. When faced with an indistinct, seemingly malleable "other", we instinctively fall back on our familiar mental theories about relationships and use those theories to shape how we think, feel, and react to this new, somewhat unclear relationship. This whole process often is unconscious. We are so used to these old templates that they automatically start to mold our perceptions and actions without our really thinking about it.

So now we go back to the exercise at the beginning of this article. Only now we substitute in "computer" for husband, wife, lover, or friend. Do we unconsciously experience the computer as being like our mother or father, or sibling? At first glance the question may seem silly. Keep in mind, though, that I am not saying that we think the computer IS our parent or sibling, but rather that we recreate in our relationship with the computer some ASPECT of how we related to our family members. Still, even if you apply the exercise to an important person in your life or to your computer, you may insist that they are nothing like your mother or father! Here's where we need to examine the process of transference more carefully - for there are curious twists and turns in this phenomenon that make it considerably more complex than what I have described so far. We'll see that the same pattern of relating to a family member can be played out in various ways in one's relationship to the computer. In the descriptions that follow, I'll focus mostly on relationships with parents, though these also could apply to other family members.


yellow arrow button You as You, Computer as Parent
yellow arrow button You as Parent, Computer as You
yellow arrow button You are Me, I am You, We are All Together

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.


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