Alfred Adler: Individual Psychology

Overview of Adler’s Individual Psychology

  • Adler was an original member of Freud’s psychoanalytic group, but he never saw himself as a disciple or a follower of Freud.  If fact, throughout his life he carried with him the note Freud had sent to him proposing the establishment of an organization of physicians.  Adler saw the invitation as Freud’s recognition of Adler as an equal.  After Adler broke from that group, he built a theory of personality that was nearly diametrically opposed to that of Freud.  Whereas Freud’s view of humanity was pessimistic and rooted in biology, Adler’s view was optimistic, idealistic, and rooted in family experiences.

Biography of Alfred Adler

  • Alfred Adler was born in 1870 in a Viennese suburb, a second son of middle-class Jewish parents. Like Freud, Adler was a physician, and in 1902, he became a charter member of Freud’s organization.  However, personal and professional differences between the two men led to Adler’s departure from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1911.  Adler soon founded his own group, the Society for Individual Psychology.  Adler’s strengths were his energetic oral presentations and his insightful ability to understand family dynamics.   He was not a gifted writer, a limitation that may have prevented him from attaining world recognition equal to that of Freud.

Introduction to Adlerian Theory

  • Although Adler’s individual psychology is both complex and comprehensive, its main tenets can be stated in simple form.

Striving for Success or Superiority

  • The sole dynamic force behind people’s actions is the striving for success or superiority.
  • The Final Goal
    • The final goal of success or superiority toward which all people strive unifies personality and makes all behavior meaningful.
  • The Striving Force as Compensation
    • Because people are born with small, inferior bodies, they feel inferior and attempt to overcome these feelings through their natural tendency to move toward completion.  The striving force can take one of two courses—personal gain (superiority) or community benefit (success).
  • Striving for Personal Superiority
    • Psychologically unhealthy individuals strive for personal superiority with little concern for other people.  Although they may appear to be interested in other people, their basic motivation is personal benefit.
  • Striving for Success
    • In contrast, psychologically healthy people strive for the success of all humanity, but they do so without losing their personal identity.

Subjective Perceptions

  • People’s subjective view of the world—not reality—shapes their behavior.
  • Fictionalism
    • Fictions are people’s expectations of the future.  Adler held that fictions guide behavior, because people act as if these fictions are true.  Adler emphasized teleology over causality, or explanations of behavior in terms of future goals rather than past causes.
  • Physical Inferiorities
    • Adler believed that all humans are “blessed” with physical inferiorities, which stimulate subjective feelings of inferiority and move people toward perfection or completion.

Unity and Self-Consistency of Personality

  • Adler believed that all behaviors are directed toward a single purpose.  When seen in the light of that sole purpose, seemingly contradictory behaviors can be seen as operating in a self-consistent manner.
  • Organ Dialect
    • People often use a physical disorder to express style of life, a condition Adler called organ dialect, or organ jargon.
  • Conscious and Unconscious
    • Conscious and unconscious processes are unified and operate to achieve a single goal.  The part of our goal that is not clearly understood is unconscious; that part of our goal we fail to fully comprehend is conscious.
  • Social Interest
    • Human behavior has value to the extent that it is motivated by social interest, that is, a feeling of oneness with all of humanity.

Origins of Social Interest

  • Although social interest exists as potentiality in all people, it must be fostered in a social environment. Adler believed that the parent-child relationship can be so strong that it negates the effects of heredity.
  • Importance of Social Interest
    • According to Adler, social interest is “the sole criterion of human values,” and the worthiness of all one’s actions must be seen by this standard.  Without social interest, societies could not exist; individuals in antiquity could not have survived without cooperating with others to protect themselves from danger. Even today an infant’s helplessness predisposes it toward a nurturing person.
  • Style of Life
    • The manner of a person’s striving is called style of life, a pattern that is relatively well set by 4 or 5 years of age.  However, Adler believed that healthy individuals are marked by flexible behavior and that they have some limited ability to change their style of life.
  • Creative Power
    • Style of life is partially a product of heredity and environment—the building blocks of personality—but ultimately style of life is shaped by people’s creative power, that is, by their ability to freely choose a course of action.

Abnormal Development

  • Creative power is not limited to healthy people; unhealthy individuals also create their own personalities.  Thus, each of us is free to choose either a useful or a useless style of life.
  • General Description
    • The most important factor in abnormal development is lack of  social interest.  In addition, people with a useless style of life tend to (1) set their goals too high, (2) have a dogmatic style of life, and (3) live in their own private world.
  • External Factors in Maladjustment
    • Adler listed three factors that relate to abnormal development: (1) exaggerated physical defects, which do not by themselves cause abnormal development, but which may contribute to it by generating subjective and exaggerated feelings of inferiority; (2) a pampered style of life, which contributes to an overriding drive to establish a permanent parasitic relationship with the mother or a mother substitute; and (3) a neglected style of life, which leads to distrust of other people.
  • Safeguarding Tendencies
    • Both normal and neurotic people create symptoms as a means of protecting their fragile self-esteem. These safeguarding tendencies maintain a neurotic life style and protect a person from public disgrace.  The three principal safeguarding tendencies are (1) excuses, which allow people to preserve their inflated sense of personal worth; (2) aggression, which may take the form of depreciating others‘ accomplishments, accusing others of being responsible for one’s own failures, or self-accusation; and (3) withdrawal, which can be expressed by psychologically moving backward, standing still, hesitating, or constructing obstacles
  • Masculine Protest
    • Both men and women sometimes overemphasize the desirability of being manly, a condition Adler called the masculine protest.  The frequently found inferior status of women is not based on physiology but on historical developments and social learning.  Boys are often taught early that being masculine means being courageous, strong, and dominant.  The ultimate accomplishment for boys is to win, to be powerful, to be on top.  In contrast, girls often learn to be passive and to accept an inferior position in society. In contrast to Adler’s more democratic attitude, Freud believed that anatomy is destiny and that women occupy the ‘dark continent” of psychology.  Near the end of his life, Freud was still asking what women wanted.  According to Adler, Freud’s attitudes toward women would be evidence of a person with a strong masculine protest.  In contrast to Freud’s views on women, Adler assumed that women—because they have the same physiological and psychological needs as men—want more or less the same things that men want.

Applications of Individual Psychology

  • Adler applied the principles of individual psychology to family constellation, early recollections, dreams, and psychotherapy.
  • Family Constellation
    • Adler believed that people’s perception of how they fit into their family is related to their style of life.  He claimed that firstborns are likely to have strong feelings of power and superiority, to be overprotective, and to have more than their share of anxiety.  Secondborn children (such as Adler) are likely to have strong social interest, provided they do not get trapped trying to overcome their older sibling. Youngest children are likely to be pampered and to lack independence, whereas only children have some of the characteristics of both the oldest and the youngest child.
  • Early Recollections
    • A more reliable method of determining style of life is to ask people for their earliest recollections.  Adler believed that early memories are templates on which people project their current style of life.  These recollections need not be accurate accounts of early event, but true or false, they have psychological importance because they reflect a person’s current view of the world.
  • Dreams
    • Adler believed that dreams can provide clues to solving future problems.  However, dreams are disguised to deceive the dreamer and usually must be interpreted by another person.


  • The goal of Adlerian therapy is to create a relationship between therapist and patient that fosters social interest. To ensure that the patient’s social interest will eventually generalize to other relationships, the therapist adopts both a maternal and a paternal  role.

Critique of Adlerian Theory

  • Individual psychology rates high on it ability to generate research, organize data, and guide the practitioner.  It receives a moderate rating on parsimony, but because it lacks operational definitions, it rates low on internal consistency.  It also rates low on falsification because many of its related research findings can be explained by other theories.

Concept of Humanity

  • Adler saw people as forward moving, social animals who are motivated by goals they set (both consciously and unconsciously) for the future.  People are ultimately responsible for their own unique style of life.  Thus, Adler’s theory rates high on free-choice, social influences, and uniqueness; very high on optimism and teleology; and average on unconscious influences.

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