Alfred Adler – Individual Psychology

Individual Psychology

Freud’s colleague Alfred Adler were irreconcilably different from those of psychoanalysis. An irate Freud “forced the whole Adler gang” to resign from psychoanalytic circles, and forbade his followers to attend any of Adler’s conferences. Longstanding friendships broke up, wives of the combatants stopped speaking to each other, and members of opposing factions refused to sit near each other at dinner parties. Psychoanalysts charged Adler with plagiarism, and were accused in turn of retaining his ideas while expunging his name from their writings. Even Jung, a man known for his tolerance of all races and peoples, described Adler’s group as an “insolent gang” of “impudent puppies.” (See Ellenberger, 1970, pp. 638–645; McGuire, 1974, pp. 447,

534; Roazen, 1975/1976b, pp. 184–193.)

Although Freud’s pungent attacks were excessive, he better understood the way to lasting fame. Today Freud is clearly recognized as the originator of psychoanalysis, whereas Adler’s significant ideas have been widely subsumed, without credit, into the theories of other psychologists.


  • To devise a theory of personality that can easily be understood and used because it is less metaphysical and complicated than Freud’s or Jung’s.

  • To argue that instincts and heredity aren’t important causes of human behavior.

  • To emphasize the social aspects of personality: We must cooperate with others in order to survive, and everyone has an inborn tendency to do so (social interest).

  • To show that striving for superiority over our formidable environment (striving for self- perfection) is the most important human motive.

  • To reject Freud’s emphasis on the depths of personality by showing that the unconscious is relatively unimportant, and that personality is determined by our consciously chosen goals and methods of achieving them (style of life).

  • To argue that personality is an indivisible unity: Conscious and unconscious always work together, and personality is never torn by conflicting wishes and goals that set one part against another part.


  • To emphasize that personality development is strongly influenced by the child’s relationship with his/her parents and birth order.

  • To correct Freud’s belief that mental illness usually has sexual causes by showing that psychopathology most often occurs when pathogenic parenting (notably pampering and neglect) causes the child to develop an inferiority complex, abandon the desire to cooperate, and try to achieve superiority in selfish ways that hurt rather than help other people.

  • To show that successful psychotherapy can be accomplished more easily and quickly than Freud believed.


Alfred Adler was born on February 7, 1870, in Rudolfsheim, a suburb of Vienna. His father was a Jewish grain merchant with a cheerful disposition and a particular fondness for Alfred, and his mother has been described as gloomy, rejecting, and self-sacrificing. Like Freud and Jung, Adler rose from lower middle- class origins to world fame; but unlike his illustrious counterparts, he remained emotionally attached to the lower classes and keenly concerned with their problems. Adler was a second-born (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 576) who grew up in the shadow of a gifted and successful older brother, and his family included an envious younger brother and three other siblings. Alfred never developed strong ties to his Jewish heritage, perhaps because his childhood was spent in liberal and heterogeneous surroundings, and he converted to Protestantism in 1904.

Adler studied medicine at the University of Vienna. Ironically, he never attended any of the lectures on hysteria given there by a relatively unknown psychologist, Sigmund Freud. Adler received his medical degree in 1895, though not with outstanding marks, and soon thereafter began private practice. In 1897 he married Raissa Epstein, an ardent socialist and independent thinker whom he met at a political convention. The Adlers were to have four children (three daughters and a son), two of whom became individual psychologists. His first publication, which appeared in 1898, stressed the pathogenic working conditions of independent tailors and the need of the poor for socialized medicine.

Adler first met Freud in 1902 under circumstances that are shrouded in legend (Ellenberger, 1970,

p. 583). He remained active in psychoanalytic circles for some 10 years, and became the first president of the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society in 1910. Like Jung, however, Adler insisted on the freedom to pursue his own ideas. As he once remarked to Freud, “Do you think it gives me such great pleasure to stand in your shadow my whole life long?” (Freud, 1914/1967, p. 51; Roazen, 1975/1976b, pp. 179–184). Eventually Adler’s theories became so different from psychoanalysis as to precipitate an acrimonious parting of the ways, with Freud accusing him of heresy and imposing the penalty of excommunication. Adler resigned from the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society in 1911 and founded his own organization, known first as the Society for Free Psychoanalysis and later as the Society for Individual Psychology.

Adler suffered a particularly painful rebuff in 1915, when he was denied a teaching position at the University of Vienna because his work was regarded as unscientific. During World War I, he engaged in psychiatric work with the Viennese Army. The postwar period was a difficult one, with the defeated Austria-Hungary suffering from poverty, famine, and epidemics. These trying times reinforced Adler’s socialistic leanings, though he rejected any involvement with militant political activities.

Adler was a short and sturdy man. He was less handsome and charismatic than Freud or Jung, and he often presented an almost sloppy appearance. His style of life was simple and unpretentious, quite unlike the typical man of distinction. He possessed strong emotions that at times yielded to hypersensitivity, as well as the ability to make quick and accurate guesses about a patient’s clinical disturbances, life problems, and birth order. He also impressed people as a witty and inspiring lecturer. Unfortunately, he could be highly impractical as well. Whereas psychoanalytic conferences were conducted in a formal

and proper manner, Adler unwisely acquired a reputation for superficiality by meeting with followers and patients in various Viennese coffeehouses.

Adler’s most significant achievements came during the years 1920–1933. He published numerous important books, and founded a series of child guidance clinics in Vienna. Adler visited the United States frequently from 1926 onward, participating in a symposium at Wittenberg College and teaching extension courses at Columbia University. In 1930 he was honored with the title of Citizen of Vienna, but the mayor unwittingly earned Adler’s deep resentment by introducing him as “a deserving pupil of Freud.” Adler foresaw the Nazi menace at an early date and moved permanently to the United States in 1934, where he taught at the Long Island College of Medicine and continued to strive for the establishment of individual psychology. There is no official standard edition of his works, which number perhaps a dozen volumes.

During his later years Adler developed a heart condition, but he enjoyed working too much to lead a limited life. While on a lecture tour in Aberdeen, Scotland, he suffered a fatal heart attack on May 28, 1937.


Adler called his theory individual psychology, a name that is somewhat misleading. The term individual expresses his belief in the uniqueness and indivisibility of every human personality. It by no means precludes the social element, a factor he considers “all-important.… The individual becomes an individual only in a social context. Other systems of psychology make a distinction between what they call individual psychology and social psychology, but for us there is no such distinction” (Adler, 1929/1969, p. 95).

Individual psychology pays little attention to abstruse metaphysical constructs, or to speculations about the deepest layers of the psyche. Adler emphasizes practical recommendations for dealing with our problems, bringing up children, getting along with others, and upgrading the quality of life in general. (See Adler, 1927/1957, p. 1; 1929/1969, p. 1.)

Social Interest

Whereas psychoanalysis views life as an inevitable struggle between our selfish drives and the demands of society, Adler argues that we have an innate potential for relating to others. This social interest or community feeling (Gemeinschaftsgefühl) involves more than membership in a particular group. It refers to a sense of kinship with humanity, and it enables our physically weak species to survive through cooperation:

Imagine a man alone, and without an instrument of culture, in a primitive forest! He would be more inadequate than any other living organism.… The community is the best guarantee of the continued existence of human beings … [and social interest] is the true and inevitable compensation for all [of their] natural weaknesses.… (Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 35–36; 1929/1964a, p. 31; see also Adler, 1933/1964b, pp. 98–99; 1931/1979e, pp. 210–211.)

It is social interest, rather than a superego or collective unconscious, that establishes the guide- lines for proper personality development. The well-adjusted person learns at an early age to develop this inherent potential, and to assist the common good of present and future generations. Maladjustment is defined not as the failure to sublimate or individuate, as Freud or Jung would argue, but as the denial of one’s social interest. A major task of psychology, therefore, is to understand and alleviate deficiencies in cooperation. “Society has no place for deserters” (Adler, 1927/1957, p. 194; see also Adler, 1933/1964b, p. 283; 1933/1979g).

Teleology, Feelings of Inferiority, and Striving for Superiority (Self-Perfection)

Life Goals and Teleology. Adler differs sharply from Freud and Jung by regarding the idea of inherited personality components as a “superstition” (1931/1958, p. 168). According to Adler, we are not mere pawns of innate instinctual urges. We select our fundamental life goals and the methods that we use to achieve them. Even social interest is only a predisposition, and it is all too possible to deny this tendency and choose to be neurotically self-centered.

The psychic life of man is determined by his goal. No human being can think, feel, will, dream, without all these activities being determined, continued, modified, and directed toward an ever-present objective.… A real understanding of the behavior of any human being is impossible without a clear comprehension of the secret goal which he is pursuing.… (Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 29, 49; see also Adler, 1933/1979a, p. 52; 1932/1979i, p. 87.)

Although Adler emphasizes the importance of teleology, he regards infancy and childhood as a time of considerable importance. Our major goals are usually formed during the first few years of life, and they can be deviated from during adulthood only with great difficulty. Therefore, “no one can understand the grown-up who does not learn to understand the child” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 65; see also Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 18, 31; 1933/1964b, pp. 81–82).

Suppose that a young girl who craves attention from her parents decides to fulfill this goal by becoming ill frequently, so they will spend a great deal of time taking care of her. She is very likely to behave in similar ways as an adult, as by suffering from persistent migraine headaches because they bring welcome concern from her husband. Freud would regard such rewards as only secondary gains, but to Adler they represent fundamental clues for understanding human nature. “We do not suffer from the shock of [traumatic experiences;] we make out of them just what suits our purposes” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 14).

Life goals need not be realistic, for we often act “as if” certain fictions were actually true. A person’s behavior will be significantly affected by the belief that virtue is rewarded with an afterlife in heaven, or by neurotic fantasies of exaggerated self-importance, even though these ideas may not correspond very well with reality.

Feelings of Inferiority and the Striving for Superiority. To Adler, the primary goal of all human behavior is self-perfection. Everyone begins life as a weak and helpless child, and we all possess the innate drive to overcome this inferiority by mastering our formidable environment:

To be a human being means the possession of a feeling of inferiority that is constantly pressing on towards its own conquest.… The goal of the human soul is conquest, perfection, security, superiority.… Every child is faced with so many obstacles in life that no child ever grows up without striving for some form of significance.… Every voluntary act begins with a feeling of inadequacy. (Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 38, 135; 1933/1964b, pp. 73, 145. See also Adler, 1920/1973, pp. 1–15; 1933/1979g, pp. 32–33.)

Healthy striving for superiority (or perfection, or significance) is guided by social interest, and gives due consideration to the welfare of others. Conversely, the selfish striving for dominance and personal glory is distorted and pathological (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 8).

The feelings of inferiority that underlie the striving for superiority are by no means abnormal or undesirable. If a child faces its weaknesses with optimism and courage, and strives for superiority by making the necessary effort to compensate for them, a satisfactory or even superior level of adjustment may be achieved. A famous example is that of Demosthenes, an apparently incurable stutterer, who practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth and became the greatest orator in ancient Greece (Adler, 1929/1964a,

p. 35; Orgler, 1963/1972, p. 67). Or a physically unattractive person may win friends and admirers by

becoming genuinely warm and compassionate. The feeling of inferiority “becomes a pathological condition only when the sense of inadequacy overwhelms the individual, and … makes him depressed and incapable of development.” Such a shattering inferiority complex can occur as early as the second year of life (Adler, 1929/1969, pp. 25, 31; 1927/1957, p. 69).

The child who surrenders to an inferiority complex sees only the possibility of evading difficulties, instead of trying to overcome them. “Imagine the goal of the child who is not confident of being able to solve his problems! How dismal the world must appear to such a child! Here we find timidity, introspectiveness, distrust, and all those other characteristics and traits with which the weakling seeks to defend himself” (Adler, 1927/1957, p. 33).

Even an intelligent or capable person can develop an inferiority complex. Adler devotes considerable attention to developmental factors that can turn normal feelings of inferiority (and healthy strivings for self-perfection) into a pathological inferiority complex (and distorted, selfish strivings), as we will see in a subsequent section.


Since Adler regards personality as an indivisible unity, he makes no assumptions about its structure. He does agree with Freud and Jung that much of personality is beyond our awareness, and that “the hardest thing for human beings to do is to know themselves and to change themselves,” but he attributes this lack of self-knowledge to holistic and teleological forces. We deceive ourselves in order to fulfill our chosen goals, and the unconscious is whatever we do not wish to understand:

There can be no question here of anything like a repressed unconscious; it is rather a question of something not understood, of something withheld from the understanding.… Consciousness and unconsciousness move together in the same direction and are not contradictions, as is so often believed. What is more, there is no definite line of demarcation between them. It is merely a question of discovering the purpose of their joint movement.… Every memory is dominated by the goal idea which directs the personality-as-a- whole.… That which is helpful we are conscious of; whatever can disturb our arguments we push into the unconscious. (Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 21, 50, 90–91; 1933/1964b, p. 16; 1929/1969, p. 15.)

Such socially undesirable traits as vanity, cowardice, and hostility are likely to be deliberately mis- understood (i.e., unconscious) so as to preclude the necessity for changing them. Thus a person who dresses unusually poorly is likely to be concealing powerful (unconscious) arrogance behind a façade of excessive modesty. Socrates is said to have once told a speaker who mounted the podium wearing old and bedraggled clothes, “Young man of Athens, your vanity peeps out through every hole in your robe!” Or hostility may be expressed in a self-deceptive way by forgetting the instructions of a domineering spouse or employer. (See Adler, 1927/1957, p. 158; 1933/1964b, pp. 206–208.)

To Adler, then, conscious and unconscious always work together to achieve those goals (understood or not) that the individual has selected.


Adler shares Freud’s belief that personality is formed during the first 5 years of life. But Adler rejects the idea of specific developmental stages, preferring to stress practical guidelines for promoting social interest and avoiding a disastrous inferiority complex. (See Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 12, 34, 200; 1929/1969, pp. 83, 123–130.)

Pathogenic Factors in Personality Development

Ideally, the child’s potential for social interest is brought to fruition by the mother. She administers the first lesson in cooperation by nursing the baby at her breast, thereby serving as the child’s bridge to social life. “We probably owe to the maternal sense of contact the largest part of human social feeling, and along with it the essential continuance of human civilization” (Adler, 1933/1964b, p. 221; see also Adler, 1927/1957, p. 220; 1931/1958, pp. 17–18, 120, 125–126). If the mother is clumsy, uncooperative, or untrust- worthy, however, the child will learn to resist social interest instead of striving to develop it.

The father’s role is to encourage feelings of self-reliance, and to stress the need for choosing a satisfy- ing and worthwhile occupation. To Adler, all too many parents are poorly prepared for the difficult and challenging task of raising their children:

The first cooperation among other people which [the child] experiences is [that] of his parents; and if their cooperation is poor, they cannot hope to teach him to be cooperative himself.… Unfortunately, however, parents are neither good psychologists nor good teachers.… Few [of them] are inclined to learn and to avoid mistakes … [and those] who most need advice are the [ones] who never come for it. (Adler, 1927/1957, p. 219; 1931/1958, pp. 133, 178; 1929/1969, p. 103. See also Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 134–138.)

PamperingPerhaps the most serious parental error is to shower the child with excessive attention, protection, and assistance. Such pampering (or “spoiling”) robs children of their independence and initiative, shatters their self-confidence, and creates the impression that the world owes them a living.

Under the misguided belief that they suffer from a lack of ability, rather than from a lack of training, pampered children develop an intense inferiority complex. Since they have never learned self-reliance, and have been taught to receive but not to give, they try to solve their problems by making unrealistic demands on other people. Pampered children may use enuresis, nightmares, or temper tantrums as manipulative (albeit unconscious) devices for obtaining sympathy and attention. They may expect to be admired and honored without having to put forth any effort, or insist that everyone treat their wishes as laws. They may rebel against parental authority through active opposition or sulking, and act depressed or even suicidal if they do not get everything they want. As adults they approach work and marriage with a selfish orienta- tion, rather than in the spirit of cooperation. Such behavior provokes sharp criticism and rejections, which intensifies the inferiority complex and strengthens the need for more pampering. “Every pampered child becomes a hated child.… There is no greater evil than the pampering of children.… Grown-up pampered children are perhaps the most dangerous class in our community” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 16; 1933/1964b, p. 154; 1929/1969, p. 10; see also Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 128, 151, 240, 282–283; 1929/1969, p. 33; Orgler,

1963/1972, pp. 72–75).

Pampering may also result in an apparent Oedipus complex, which Adler regards as neither uni- versal nor sexual. “[The] so-called Oedipus complex is not a ‘fundamental fact,’ but is simply a vicious unnatural result of maternal overindulgence.… The victims of the Oedipus complex are children who were pampered by their mothers … [and whose fathers were] comparatively indifferent or cold” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 54; 1933/1964b, p. 21).1 Only a pampered boy wants to eliminate his father and subjugate his mother, and his motive is to preserve the mother’s overindulgence. Adler charges psychoanalysis with the error of restricting its study primarily to pampered children, who follow the pleasure principle and become enraged and defensive if their selfish wishes are not fulfilled, and then overgeneralizing its findings to all of humanity. “Psychoanalysis was [preoccupied with] the world of spoiled children … Its transitory success was due to … the immense number of pampered persons who willingly accepted the views of psychoanalysis as universally applicable rules” (Adler, 1933/1964b, p. 36; see also pp. 51, 154, 213–214).

NeglectThe opposite extreme, failing to provide sufficient care and nurturing (neglect), creates the impression that the world is cold and unsympathetic. The neglected child “has never known what love and cooperation can be: he makes up an interpretation of life which does not include these friendly forces.… He will overrate [the difficulties of life] and underrate his own capacity to meet them

… [and] will not see that he can win affection and esteem by actions which are useful to others” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 17; see also Orgler, 1963/1972, pp. 76–79). Such children regard life as an enemy, and express their inferiority complex through suspiciousness, stubbornness, and maliciousness. In the words of Shakespeare’s Richard III, “since I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain.”

Other Parental Factors. Establishing unattainable standards or resorting to punishment overemphasizes the child’s helplessness, and is therefore likely to bring about an inferiority complex. “Punishment, especially corporal punishment, is always harmful to children. Any teaching which cannot be given in friendship is wrong teaching.… Praise or blame should be given to success or failure in the training and not to the personality of the child” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 135; 1933/1964b, p. 226). Ridiculing a child is “well-nigh criminal,” resulting in the constant dread of being laughed at. Excessive criticism of other people will prejudice the child against sociability and cooperation. So too will a father who adopts the role of family ruler, and who acts superior to the mother because he is the primary breadwinner. (See Adler, 1927/1957, p. 66; 1931/1958, pp. 135, 22.)

Organ Inferiority. In addition to parental errors, a physical deficiency or severe illness may cause strong feelings of helplessness (Adler, 1907/1917b). However, organ inferiority need not result in psychopathology. “Imperfect organs offer many handicaps, but these handicaps are by no means an inescapable fate. If the mind … trains hard to overcome the difficulties, the individual may very well succeed in being as successful as those who were originally less burdened” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 35). One such example is that of Demosthenes, discussed previously. But since organ inferiorities present substantial difficulties, and since the concerned parents are likely to make matters worse by pampering the invalid, the most likely result is a destructive inferiority complex:

Children who come into the world with organ inferiorities become involved at an early age in a bitter strug- gle for existence which results only too often in the strangulation of their social feelings. Instead of interest- ing themselves in an adjustment to their fellows, they are continually preoccupied with themselves, and with the impression which they make on others. (Adler, 1927/1957, p. 65; see also Adler, 1920/1973, p. 81.)

One boy retained his childish soprano and lack of body hair into his late teens. “For eight years he suffered from this failure of development.… During this entire period, he was tortured with the thought that he must always remain a child.” By the time he reached his early twenties, his physical development was entirely normal, but these organ inferiorities had shattered his confidence. He tried to gain some relief by acting supremely important, and this lack of social interest destroyed his marriage. “This error, this wrong evaluation of his inferiority, colored his entire life” (Adler, 1927/1957, p. 72).

Birth Order

Adler attributes considerable importance to a child’s position in the family. “Above all we must rid ourselves of the superstition that the situation within the family is the same for each individual child” (Adler, 1933/1964b, p. 229; see also Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 123–129; 1931/1958, pp. 144–155; 1929/1964a, pp. 96–120; 1933/1964b, pp. 228–241; 1929/1969, pp. 12–13, 90–94).

The oldest child enjoys a temporary period as the unchallenged center of attention. This pleasurable position is likely to involve considerable pampering, however, and it comes to an abrupt and shocking end with the arrival of a younger sibling. Unless the parents carefully prepare the oldest child to cooperate

with the newcomer, and continue to provide sufficient attention after the second child is born, this painful dethronement may well cause an inferiority complex. For this reason, first-born children are the ones most likely to become neurotics, criminals, alcoholics, and perverts (Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 144, 147–148). They also express the fragility of their childhood superiority by having frequent dreams of falling. And they are likely to be politically conservative, and follow in the footsteps of the parent’s occupation. “Oldest children … often … have the feeling that those in power should remain in power. It is only an accident that they have lost their power, and they have great admiration for it” (Adler, 1929/1969, p. 91).

The middle child experiences pressure from both sides. “He behaves as if he were in a race, as if someone were a step or two in front and he had to hurry to get ahead of him” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 148). Second-born children tend to be competitive or even revolutionary, prefer to see power change hands, and have dreams of racing. They are the ones most likely to develop favorably, however, since they never occupy the pathogenic position of a pampered only child.

The youngest child, confronted with the presence of several older rivals, tends to be highly ambitious. Such children often follow a unique path, as by becoming the only musician or merchant in a family of scientists (or vice versa). Although they avoid the trauma of being dethroned by a younger sibling, their position as the baby of the family makes them the most likely target of pampering. Therefore “the second largest proportion of problem children comes from among the youngest” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 151; see also Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 123–125; 1929/1969, pp. 91–92). For example, they may turn away from the challenge of competition and resort to chronic evasions, excuses, and laziness.

Only children are usually pampered, develop unrealistic expectations of always being the center of attention, and form exaggerated opinions of their own importance. They also tend to be timid and dependent, since parents who refuse to have more than one child are typically anxious or neurotic and cannot help communicating their fears to the child. The third of three boys or girls often faces a most unenviable situation, namely parents who longed to have a child of the opposite sex. And a first-born boy who is closely followed by a girl will probably suffer the embarrassment of being overtaken in maturity by his younger sister, since the girl’s physiological development proceeds at a faster rate. (See Adler, 1927/1957, p. 127; 1931/1958, pp. 149–154; 1933/1964b, pp. 230 41; 1929/1969, pp. 92–94.)

Adler emphasizes that the effect of birth order is only a tendency, not a certainty. “Individual psychology is opposed to fixed rules” (Adler, 1933/1964b, p. 233). A bright first-born child may defeat a younger one and not suffer much of a dethronement, a weak oldest child may lose the mantle of leadership to the second-born, or parents may pamper a sickly middle child even more than the youngest or oldest. A child born many years after the older sibling(s) will be treated more like an only child—or, if there are younger siblings as well, an oldest child. Individual psychology advises that the best distance between the births of siblings is approximately three years, by which time the older child has matured sufficiently to accept the parents’ preparation for an addition to the family. (See Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 149, 153; 1929/1969, p. 92.)

Character Typology: The Style of Life

The child responds to its feelings of inferiority, birth order, and the parents’ behaviors by developing its own style of life. (See for example Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 17, 133ff; 1931/1958, pp. 12, 200; 1929/1969, pp. 38–47, 83.) The style of life, which is well formed by age 4 or 5 years, consists of the child’s chosen life goals and the methods used to strive for them. It also includes the perceptions and memories that are shaped by these goals. A pampered child may select the goal of receiving constant attention, try to achieve this aim through sulking and temper tantrums, and perceive others as potential providers. A neglected child may choose the goal of revenge, become hostile and dominating, and cast others in the role of probable enemies. Or a child given proper care and nurturing may adopt a style of life that ultimately includes a useful and rewarding

occupation, a mutually satisfying marriage, and a sincere and sympathetic concern for other people.

Every style of life, and every personality, is at least somewhat unique. Adler concedes that some mention of personality types is probably unavoidable, since our language lacks sufficient precision to describe all of the subtle nuances that distinguish one human being from another. Nevertheless, “we do

not consider human beings types, because every human being has an individual style of life. Just as one cannot find two leaves of a tree absolutely identical, so one cannot find two human beings absolutely alike” (Adler, 1929/1969, p. 40; see also Adler, 1933/1964b, pp. 27, 127, 148). According to Adler, there are three valuable sources of information about a person’s lifestyle: character traits, physical movements, and early recollections.

Character Traits. Undesirable character traits indicate that the striving for superiority has become selfish and distorted. Some of these characteristics take an aggressive form, as with vain and arrogant individuals who try to appear more important than everyone else. “No other vice is so well designed to stunt the free development of a human being as that personal vanity which forces an individual to approach every event and every fellow with the query: ‘What do I get out of this?’ ” (Adler, 1927/1957,

p. 155). Since arrogance clashes so sharply with social interest, it often takes on the more acceptable guise of keen ambition, false modesty, or a pedantic emphasis on accuracy and detail.

Other aggressive character traits include jealousy, avarice, and hostility. Jealousy is often expressed by blaming other people for one’s own errors and becoming excessively critical. The avaricious individual rejects social interest and “builds a wall around himself [so as] to be secure in the possession of his wretched treasures.” Powerful hostility poisons one’s interpersonal relationships, and may well lead to a criminal style of life. These misguided forms of striving for superiority are little more than “cheap tricks by which anyone can imagine whatever he wishes to believe.… [and] whereby the personal evaluation is raised at the cost of another’s misfortune” (Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 168, 181, 212; see also pp. 155–184).

Some undesirable character traits are nonaggressive. Shy people seek superiority and safety by turn- ing away from society and excluding close friendships. Some individuals try to gain pity and attention by appearing helpless and anxious, while other lifestyles are characterized by laziness and pessimism. A student who becomes extremely nervous about a forthcoming examination and refuses to prepare for it has a ready-made excuse in case of failure, and avoids the pain and disappointment of trying hard but not succeeding. (See Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 167, 185–198; 1935/1979b, 1935/1979j).

A healthy style of life avoids the “cheap tricks” discussed above. It is typified by such desirable char- acter traits as social interest, cheerfulness, optimism, sympathy, and genuine modesty (Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 199, 216–217).

Physical MovementsThe style of life is also revealed by a person’s physical movements. For example, constantly leaning on something may reflect dependency and the need for protection. Persistent slouching, remaining a great distance from other people, avoiding eye contact, and sleeping in a fetal position may indicate cowardly tendencies. However, such tentative clues should be checked against other evidence about the individual before firm conclusions are drawn. (See Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 28, 34, 41, 72; 1933/1964b, p. 208; 1929/1969, pp. 35, 58–62.)

Early Recollections. The best way to identify someone’s style of life is by obtaining the person’s early recollections of infancy and childhood. Even inaccurate memories provide vital information, for any distortion in our recollections is deliberately (if unconsciously) designed to serve our chosen life goals (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 74).

The earliest recollection is noteworthy because it reveals the person’s fundamental view of life. One man’s first memory was that of being held in the arms of his mother, only to be deposited on the ground so she could pick up his younger brother. His adult lifestyle involved persistent fears that others would be preferred to him, including extreme and unwarranted jealousy of his fiancée. Another man, whose style of life was marked by fear and discouragement, recalled falling out of his baby carriage. A woman who developed a lifestyle that emphasized the distrust of others, and the fear of being held back by them, recalled that her parents prevented her from attending school until her younger sister was old enough to accompany her. (See Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 30–31; 1931/1958, pp. 19–22, 71–92; 1929/1964a, pp. 121–127; 1929/1969, pp. 44, 48–57.)

In each of these cases, Adler attributes the sufferer’s problems to the faulty goals chosen in child- hood and maintained in adulthood, rather than to the childhood incidents themselves. “It is not the child’s experiences which dictate his actions; it is the conclusions which he draws from his experiences” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 123).


Dream Interpretation

To Adler, dreams are merely another expression of a person’s style of life. Conscious and unconscious are united in the service of our chosen life goals, rather than in opposition (as Freud would have it), so there is no need for a special key to the unconscious. In fact, the information provided by dreams can usually be obtained just as well from early recollections, character traits, and physical movements.

Adler also rejects Freud’s contention that virtually all dreams deal with sexuality and wish-fulfillment; this is true only in the case of the pampered individual. However, he does agree with Jung and Freud that dream theory cannot be reduced to a handbook of procedures or symbols. Every dream is at least somewhat unique because every style of life is different, so a firsthand knowledge of the dreamer is essential for accurate interpretation. “One individual’s symbols are never the same as another’s” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 108; see also Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 92–100; 1931/1958, pp. 93–119; 1929/1964a, pp. 162–168;

1933/1964b, pp. 242–268; 1929/1969, pp. 69–79; 1931/1979e, pp. 214–216).

To Adler, virtually every dream serves the purpose of self-deception. When a person protects a misguided style of life by relegating undesirable character traits to the unconscious, dreams create an emotional state that remains present upon awakening and helps to achieve those life goals that the dreamer does not want to understand.

Suppose that a student’s style of life is highlighted by cowardice and pessimism. On the eve of an important examination, the student may dream of being chased by assailants (or fighting a difficult and losing war, or standing at the edge of a terrifying abyss). This dream enables the student to awaken with feelings of discouragement and fright, emotions that support the secret goal of delaying or avoiding the examination. The student may therefore take an unexcused absence without having to recognize the distasteful personality characteristics that underlie this behavior. (See Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 103–104, 108; 1929/1969, p. 70.)

However, this line of theorizing leads Adler to the dubious conclusion that some people do not dream. Included in this category are healthy people whose lifestyle involves little need for self-deception. “Very courageous people dream rarely, for they deal adequately with their situation in the daytime.… [I myself] stopped dreaming as soon as [I] realized what dreaming meant” (Adler, 1929/1964a, p. 164; 1929/1969,

p. 76). Much research has refuted this contention by showing that everyone does dream, and people differ only in the extent to which they forget their dreams. (See, for example, Foulkes, 1966.) Furthermore, Adler seems unable to maintain his conviction that all dreams are unique. He concludes that dreams of falling, “certainly the commonest of all,” indicate that the dreamer’s delusion of being superior to other people is in imminent danger of being shattered. Dreams of flying reflect a desire to become superior to others, and are often accompanied by warning dreams of falling. And dreams about being improperly clothed express the fear of making an embarrassing mistake (Adler, 1933/1964b, pp. 263–264).

Adler does make a relevant point about the teleological nature of dreams. Since dreams prepare us for the future, it is not at all surprising (or prophetic, or “synchronistic”) if they correspond with subsequent reality. For example, the ancient Greek poet Simonides dreamed that the ghost of a dead man warned him against taking an impending sea journey. He therefore remained home and, surely enough, the ship sank in a storm and all hands were lost. Adler argues that Simonides probably did not want to make the trip, since he knew that travel by sea was quite dangerous in those days, and the dream created the emotional state that made it easier for him to follow his true (but unconscious) wishes. The actual disaster was hardly

unusual, if somewhat coincidental, and indicated that Simonides’s assessment of the situation was an accurate one (Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 98–99; 1929/1969, pp. 73–74).


The well-adjusted individual fulfills his or her obligations to present and future generations by success- fully meeting the three major challenges of life: social interest, work, and love and marriage. (See Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 239–286; 1933/1964b, pp. 13–14, 42–67, 147, 167; 1929/1969, pp. 87, 100.) However, even

relatively healthy people possess some undesirable and selfish character traits. Thus Adler agrees with Freud and Jung that psychopathology represents a difference in degree, rather than in kind:

The psychic anomalies, complexes, [and] mistakes which are found in nervous diseases are fundamentally not different in structure from the activity of normal individuals. The same elements, the same premises, the same movements are under consideration. The sole difference is that in the nervous patient they appear more marked, and are more easily recognized.… [Therefore,] we can learn from the abnormal cases. (Adler, 1927/1957, p. 16.)

Adler’s theoretical differences with psychoanalysis and analytical psychology are reflected in his approach to abnormal behavior. Freud and Jung attribute psychopathology to divisive intrapsychic conflicts, but Adler’s holistic and unified conception of personality rules out this possibility. Nor can Adler accept Freud’s idea of pathogenic fixations and regressions, since he argues that all behavior is designed to serve some future purpose. “Neurosis is a creative act, and not a reversion to infantile and atavistic forms” (Adler, 1933/1964b, p. 131; see also pp. 158, 172). Instead, Adler explains psychopathology as the result of a misguided style of life. “I should compare [the pathological individual] to a man who tries to put a horse’s collar on from the tail end. It is not a sin, but it is a mistaken method” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 272).

Origins and Characteristics of Neurosis. Neurosis originates during the first few years of life. Influenced by such factors as pampering, neglect, birth order, and organ inferiorities, the child selects a misguided style of life that clashes with reality. For example, instead of receiving constant attention, pampered children find that they are expected to be cooperative and helpful—behaviors for which they have not been prepared. This unwelcome discovery acts like an “electric shock,” intensifying the child’s pathology and resulting in the two conditions typical of all neuroses: an inferiority complex and a lack of social interest. (See Adler, 1912/1917a; 1931/1958, pp. 8, 49; 1930/1963; 1933/1964b, pp. 30–31, 106–107, 162–180; 1932/1979i, p. 91.)

Since the neurotic feels unable to cope with the difficulties of everyday life, he or she resorts to various cheap tricks for gaining superiority. These include relegating unpleasant character traits to the unconscious, evading responsibilities, attempting only the easiest of tasks, imposing unrealistic demands or expectations on other people, blaming errors or short-comings on others, avoiding others, anxiety, or any other strategy that appears to turn the apparently inescapable inferiority into an advantage. Such people often become “virtuosos of neurosis, continually extending their repertory, … [dropping] symptoms with astonishing rapidity and [taking] on new ones without a moment’s hesitation” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 63). Even the suffering caused by their pathology is preferable to the crushing defeat of trying but failing to achieve superiority more legitimately, and having to confront their inferiority complex. “The easy way of escape is neurosis” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 186; see also Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 133–218; 1933/1964b, pp. 111, 164, 171–174; 1929/1969, pp. 105–106; 1936/1979d, pp. 239–247; 1936/1979f, pp. 102–105).

Inferiority and Superiority Complexes. One common form of neurotic evasion is to conceal the painful inferiority complex behind a superiority complex, which involves the deluded belief of being better than other people. “It is as if a man feared that he was too small, and walked on tiptoe to make

himself seem larger” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 50; see also Adler, 1933/1964b, pp. 40, 120–122, 173; 1929/1969, pp. 27–37, 84, 104). Alternatively, a superiority complex may be hidden by manifestations of weakness.

Whereas healthy striving for superiority is reflected in socially interested abilities and achievements, the superiority complex is another cheap trick. It establishes grandiose and unreachable goals that result in eventual failure, intensifying the underlying inferiority complex and leading to still greater reliance on the pathological sense of superiority. “It is as if [the sufferer] were in a trap: the more he struggles, the worse his position becomes” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 146; see also p. 51).

Masculine Protest. Psychopathology is also caused by inequalities in society, notably those concerning men and women. In contrast to Freud, who argues that a woman’s place is in the home, Adler emphasizes her right to pursue an occupation. He criticizes men who contend that helping with the housework is beneath their dignity. He regards motherhood as perhaps the highest of all forms of social interest. And he relates many unhappy marriages and personal miseries to the myth of sexual inequality:

All our institutions, our traditional attitudes, our laws, our morals, our customs, give evidence of the fact that they are determined and maintained by privileged males for the glory of male domination.… Nobody can bear a position of inferiority without anger and disgust.… That woman must be submissive is … [a] superstition.… (Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 104, 202–203; 1931/1958, p. 267; see also Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 111–122; 1931/1958, pp. 122, 241; 1929/1969, pp. 66–68.)

When a girl perceives that men are favored, she may develop the form of superiority complex known as the masculine protest. This may include dressing like a boy, insisting on being called by a boy’s name, or turning away from heterosexual relationships and marriage. Or a boy may dress and behave like a girl because he doubts his ability to fulfill his supposedly superior role, thus also falling victim to society’s irrational stereotype of males. (See Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 191–192, 276; 1929/1964a, pp. 41–45; 1929/1969, p. 68.)

Adler strongly condemns all varieties of social prejudice. He warns that serious inequalities can lead not only to inferiority complexes and psychopathology, but also to such disastrous attempts at compensation as war and revolution.

Varieties of Psychopathology. Although Adler draws some distinctions among the various kinds of psychopathology, he views them all in much the same way: as serious errors in living, designed to achieve an easy and distorted form of superiority.

For example, paranoid behavior helps to preserve a superiority complex by blaming errors and defeats on other people. Depression is an attempt to dominate others by requiring frequent assistance and attention. Suicide is an act of anger and revenge by a pampered individual who expects too much of life, and is therefore easily disappointed. Compulsions may also express hostility, as when an unhappily married woman greatly annoyed her husband by spending entire days washing her home. Phobias may serve to control other people, as with a woman whose fear of leaving home by herself required her errant husband to remain by her side. Alcoholism provides a convenient excuse for not trying to achieve superiority in socially interested ways. Homosexuality represents the masculine protest of a fearful individual who was not properly prepared for heterosexuality during childhood, rather than an innate biological condition. Finally, as we have seen, such psychosomatic symptoms as headaches may support a pampered style of life. (See Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 55, 115–119; 1931/1958, pp. 53, 90, 274–275; 1933/1964b, p. 186;

1929/1969, pp. 47, 117–118; 1920/1973, pp. 51–58, 184–207 55–260; 1931/1979c.)

Adler is unique among the early personality theorists in devoting considerable attention to the problem of criminality. He regards the criminal as a coward hiding behind a weapon, thereby gaining the only triumph that the underlying inferiority complex will allow. There are no “born criminals,” but only individuals who have developed a superiority complex so lacking in social interest that they have little or no concern about the consequences of their behavior. “Crime is [another] one of the easy escapes before the problems of life, and especially before the problem of economics and livelihood.… Crime is a coward’s

imitation of heroism” (Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 185, 205; see also Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 197–238; 1933/1964b, pp. 136–140; 1929/1969, pp. 8–9, 37, 107). Adler strongly opposes the use of corporal punishment, arguing that this only increases the criminal’s feelings of resentment and bravery. Unlike Freud, who preferred not to have criminals as patients, Adler accepted them and achieved some significant successes.

Adler attempts to explain psychosis in much the same way as neurosis. However, his interpretation of psychosis as a more severe expression of inferiority and discouragement is generally regarded as a serious oversimplification. (See for example Arieti, 1974; Fromm-Reichmann, 1950; Searles, 1965; Sullivan, 1962/1974.)


Theoretical FoundationThe goal of Adlerian psychotherapy is to promote a new and more socially interested style of life. For this to happen, the painful inferiority complex that underlies the patient’s selfish and cowardly mode of striving for superiority must be brought to light. “The important thing is to decrease the patient’s feeling of inferiority.… The method of individual psychology—we have no hesitation in confessing it—begins and ends with the problem of inferiority” (Adler, 1929/1969, pp. 45, 131).

The all-important inferiority complex is unearthed by examining the patient’s misguided life goals, and the childhood factors that influenced their selection. The patient then makes an important and encouraging discovery: His or her problems result from a deficiency in training and social interest that can be overcome with effort, rather than from an innate lack of ability. The therapist facilitates this reeducation by serving as a model of healthy behavior, and by providing a ready target for the patient’s fledgling attempts at cooperation.

Therapeutic ProceduresA healthy style of life cannot be imposed by coercion, punishment, criticism, or authoritarian displays of omniscience by the therapist, for such tactics are all too likely to reinforce the patient’s exaggerated sense of inferiority. Instead, individual psychology attempts to awaken the patient’s latent social interest through encouragement and equality. Therapist and patient sit face to face, in chairs of similar size and style. The therapist takes appropriate opportunities to be informal and good-humored, whereas the patient is free to get up and move around the consultation room. Except for the early stages, the patient attends therapy only once or twice per week. And Adlerian therapy rarely lasts more than a single year, with every correctly handled case expected to show at least partial improvement by the third month of treatment. (See Adler, 1929/1964a, pp. 73, 88; 1933/1964b, pp. 286–298; Ellenberger, 1970, p. 620.)

Like Freud and Jung, Adler is not overly fond of hypnosis. (See Adler, 1929/1969, p. 79.) His techniques for unveiling a disordered lifestyle include an analysis of the patient’s dreams, early recollections, and body movements, as well as key questions and verbal ploys. Often he would ask a patient: “If you did not have this ailment, what would you do?” The answer usually pointed to the life task that the patient feared, such as get- ting married (or divorced), making more friends, becoming more aggressive, finding a job, and so forth.

Adlerian therapy consists of three stages. The first task of the therapist is to establish rapport and gain an understanding of the patient’s problems and style of life, which may take from 1 day to 2 weeks. Early recollections, dream interpretation, and “The Question” play a prominent role during this period. In the second stage of treatment, the therapist gently and gradually helps the patient become aware of his or her pathogenic lifestyle, secret goals, and inferiority complex. Here the therapist must proceed fairly slowly, for the patient is actually (albeit unconsciously) much more afraid of being proved worthless than of remaining ill. The third and final stage occurs if and when the patient decides to expend considerable effort and adopt a new and more cooperative lifestyle, with the therapist providing both emotional support and appropriate factual information. (See Adler, 1929/1964a, p. 73; 1933/1964b, pp. 165–166; Ellenberger, 1970, pp. 620–621.)

In any of these stages, the therapist may use carefully chosen strategies. Adler might tell a patient, “You can be cured in two weeks if you follow this prescription, but it is difficult and I do not know if you

can.” At this point he would look doubtfully at the patient, whose curiosity and attention were thereby ensured. Then he would add, “Try to think every day how you can please someone.” If the patient objected that this task was impossible, or that others were not worth pleasing, Adler would respond with his “strongest move in the game” by saying: “Then you will need four weeks.… Perhaps you had better train your- self a little thus: Do not actually do anything to please someone else, but just think out how you could do it.” If this also proved to be too difficult, Adler would suggest that at least the patient could please him by paying particular attention to dreams or early recollections and reporting them at the next session. (See Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 256–260; 1929/1964a, pp. 8, 25–26.)

Adler developed therapeutic techniques for use with children, including treating them in the natural setting of the home and seeing the parents during part of each session, and he is credited as one of the originators of family and group psychotherapy. However, he stresses that prevention (in the form of proper parenting and training of children) is far easier and less costly than having to cure psychopathology. (See Adler, 1933/1964b, pp. 153, 299–304; Mosak & Dreikurs, 1973, p. 37.)

Resistance and Transference. Adler rejects Freud’s approach to resistance and transference. Patients do resist and frustrate the therapist; but this reflects their inability to cooperate and lack of courage to change, and/or is a protest against the therapist’s threatening aura of superiority. Adler regards transference as the result of a therapeutic error that triggers a pampered individual’s wishes for excessive love and attention. He even concludes that transference should not occur in properly conducted Adlerian therapy, a contention that appears rather dubious in view of the established tendency to generalize behavior from one authority figure (such as a parent) to another (such as a therapist or teacher). (See Adler, 1931/1958, p. 72; 1933/1964b, pp. 288–290; 1920/1973, pp. 46 44–152.)

Ideally, the patient in Adlerian therapy learns that he or she is not inferior and has the ability to overcome important problems through appropriate effort. The patient therefore abandons the selfish (and self-defeating) strivings for a cheap and easy superiority, develops a more socially interested style of life, and achieves through courage and cooperation those rewards that the real world can provide.


Adler expressed keen interest in the sociological and psychological aspects of work, and was a strong advocate of humane working conditions and protective labor legislation. He recommends that the choice of vocation should be consistent with one’s style of life and early recollections. For example, a patient’s first memory was watching through a window while others worked. This man ultimately found satisfaction as an art dealer, a career that enabled him to continue the desired role of onlooker in a socially interested way. Similarly, the earliest recollection of many doctors is a death in the family. (See Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 79, 85–86; 1929/1969, p. 52.)

To Adler, the inability to select a future occupation during childhood and adolescence indicates the existence of an underlying inferiority complex. Therefore, all schoolchildren should be required to write compositions on “what I want to be later in life” to make them confront this important issue (Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 239–251; 1929/1969, pp. 100–101, 121).


Adler regards “loving thy neighbor” and preferring giving to receiving as desirable expressions of social interest, and he characterizes Freud’s cynical rejection of these precepts as the selfishness of the pampered individual. But he stops well short of embracing Jung’s belief in an innate religious need, and emphasizes the practical reasons for cooperating with other human beings. The primary purpose of religion is to increase social interest, God symbolizes the goal of self-perfection to which we all aspire, and reincarnation symbolizes the belief that one can change a disordered lifestyle to a healthy one.

Adler does regard the Bible as a wonderful work, but he warns that teaching its contents to children may lead to fanciful and misguided strivings for superiority. For example, a psychotic may misuse religion by developing a superiority complex that involves hearing the voice of God. Or a neurotic may choose to evade the difficulties of present-day living by concentrating on an existence in the hereafter. (See Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 81, 169, 172–174, 187, 207–208; 1931/1958, pp. 60–61 53; 1933/1979g, p. 33; 1933/1979h.)


Adler devotes considerable attention to the effect of education on personality development. School provides the acid test of a child’s readiness for social living, and offers perhaps the only possibility for correcting whatever parental errors may have occurred. “The school is the prolonged arm of the family.… It would be our hope, if all the teachers could be [well] trained, that psychologists would become unnecessary” (Adler, 1931/1958, pp. 156, 180; see also Adler, 1927/1957, p. 222). Unfortunately, few educators know how to help each child’s personality develop along proper lines. And classes are often far too large, making it difficult for even a skilled teacher to do much more than merely impart the prescribed curriculum.

Adler sees the educator as facing the difficult and challenging task of preparing the child for cooperation, and inculcating the social ideals that enable civilization to continue. “The true purpose of a school is to build character … [and] the principal aim of education is social adjustment” (Adler, 1929/1969, pp. 82, 103). The role of heredity in personality development must be minimized by the teacher, lest the child evade responsibility (and the educator excuse poor teaching) by blaming failures on genetic factors. “It may ease [the teacher’s] position if he can say to a child, ‘You have no gift for mathematics,’ but it can do nothing but discourage the child” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 170). The importance of individual ambition and competition must also be downplayed, so as to further the development of social interest.

To Adler, coeducation is an excellent way to prepare the child for cooperation between the sexes. However, special classes for “slow” children should be avoided because they are all too likely to produce discouragement and inferiority complexes. “Where there are brilliant children in a class, the progress of the whole class can be accelerated and heightened; and it is unfair to the other members to deprive them of such a stimulus” (Adler, 1931/1958, p. 171). As always, Adler regards encouragement as far superior to punishment and threats. And teachers must serve as models of social interest, treat their pupils with respect, and genuinely wish to contribute to the welfare of humankind. (See Adler, 1927/1957, pp. 31, 122, 137; 1931/1958, pp. 59, 156–181; 1933/1964b, p. 55; 1929/1969, pp. 80–94.)


Criticisms and Controversies

Oversimplification. Parsimony is an appealing attribute of any theory, and Adler’s practical prescriptions for living offer a refreshing contrast to Jung’s abstruse metaphysics. However, it would seem that individual psychology seriously underestimates the complexity of human behavior.

Adler’s holistic model rejects the possibility of troublesome intrapsychic conflicts, which many other theorists (including Freud, Jung, and Horney) regard as extremely important. Furthermore, Adler’s emphasis on our consciously chosen goals leads to a conception of anxiety that is at best a partial truth and at worst astonishingly naive. Anxiety often involves intense suffering, and it is hardly likely that this emotional tur- moil is merely a manipulative attempt to gain the attention of other people. Psychoanalysts would argue that even if a patient consciously selects new life goals and works diligently to achieve them, these efforts may be undermined by powerful opposing unconscious forces that have not been sufficiently analyzed.

Adler frequently implies that the choice of a disordered lifestyle is triggered by one or two key incidents in childhood, such as the birth of a sibling or an organ inferiority. To many psychologists, however, the causes of psychopathology are often more complicated and overdetermined. Adler’s claim that transference does not occur in properly conducted psychotherapy is also dubious. And his conclusions that heredity does not influence personality, that healthy people do not dream, and that psychosis is simply a more severe version of neurotic discouragement must be regarded as major errors.

Overemphasis on Social Factors. Adler defines personality wholly in terms of interpersonal relationships. Social psychology is an important discipline, but it represents only one facet of modern psychology. Most current theorists agree that personality exists, and can be studied, in isolation from other human beings.

Overemphasis on Inferiority. Yet another source of controversy concerns Adler’s contention that every neurotic, criminal, and psychotic suffers from an inferiority complex. Exaggerated feelings of powerlessness do play an important role in many disorders, but it is questionable whether the myriad varieties of psychopathology can be explained in similar terms. Adler even detects an underlying inferiority complex from such behaviors as sleeping in a curved position and craving strong black coffee, suggesting that “inferiority” is to individual psychology as “sexuality” is to psychoanalysis—a construct so pervasive as to be in danger of losing its explanatory power.

Excessive OptimismWhereas Freudian theory has been taken to task for being overly pessimistic, individual psychology may well err toward the opposite extreme. If human beings do not have any inherent destructive or illicit traits, and do possess the innate potential for social interest, how can we explain the occurrence of so many wars, murders, crimes, and other human-made disasters? The psychological and sociological influences on growing children would have to be virulent indeed to bring about so much carnage. For this reason, the less sanguine views of Freud or Jung impress some observers as more consistent with the evidence of recorded history.

Other Criticisms. Adler’s work (like that of Freud and Jung) reflects a total lack of statistical analysis, with all of his conclusions justified by his own subjective observations. Nor does he establish any quantitative guidelines for distinguishing between substantial but healthy parental love and pampering, or between minimal but sufficient nurturing and neglect. In addition, Adler fails to maintain his professed belief in the uniqueness of every human personality. He makes frequent mention of character traits, types of dreams, and other similarities among human beings, and he implies that pampered (or neglected) children have lifestyles that include many common factors.

Like Freud, Adler is vulnerable to criticism by those theorists who believe that personality continues to develop after the fifth or sixth year of life. Although modern psychologists have often failed to give Adler sufficient credit, he himself seems to overlook his significant agreements with Jung. Self-realization, teleology, pathology as a sick system of social relationships, and the idea that people establish much of the meaning of their own lives are all prominent in analytical psychology as well, yet there is almost no reference to Jung in Adler’s writings. Finally, although Adler’s literary style is clear and understandable, it is also extremely repetitious. Many of his books consist of unedited lectures, and suffer from an irritating verbosity and lack of organization.

Empirical Research

A considerable amount of research has been devoted to the effects of birth order on various personality and behavioral variables. These variables range from fundamental concerns like success in school and

work, peer relationships, dependency, self-confidence, and competitiveness to more singular issues like hypnotizability and handedness. The results suggest that there is a tendency for first-born children to be more successful, more dependent, more fearful, more readily influenced by authority, and less likely to participate in dangerous sports; that later-born children tend to be more readily accepted by their peers; and that, contrary to Adlerian expectations, middle children may well represent the highest proportion of delinquents. delinquents. However a review of this extensive literature is beyond the scope of the present text.

These research findings are by no means clear-cut, however. Numerous studies indicate that birth order is important, yet other studies do not. Some studies support Adlerian hypotheses, although others do not. One possible reason for the conflicting results is the problem stated previously: A person’s nomi- nal birth order need not correspond to the psychological position in the family. For example, consider the second of two children born 6 years apart. This child is likely to be treated differently from the younger of two siblings whose birth is separated by only a single year—namely, more like an only or oldest child. Perhaps the most warranted conclusion is that a child’s position in the family probably does have some general influence on personality development (as Adler contended), but that specific predictions about a person’s behavior based solely on this one rather unsophisticated variable are unlikely to be very accurate. Nevertheless, interest in the effects of birth order remains high (e.g., Sulloway, 1996).

A substantial amount of research supports Adler’s belief concerning the importance of exaggerated feelings of inferiority, albeit using different terminology (e.g., self-esteem, perceived self-efficacy). Since this research is not specifically designed to evaluate Adlerian theory, it will be discussed further in Chapters 9 and 16.

Other research concerning Adlerian theory has dealt with such issues as developing written scales to measure social interest and lifestyles, the relationship of social interest to cooperative behavior and to interpersonal attraction, and the relationship of early recollections to vocational choice and to college achievement. Much of this research has been published in the Journal of Individual Psychology and tends to support Adlerian theory, with some exceptions. (See for example Manaster & Corsini, 1982, pp. 288–300.)

With regard to psychotherapy, Fiedler (1950) compared the procedures used by psychoanalytic, non- directive, and Adlerian therapists. He found that skilled therapists tended to use similar methods regard- less of their theoretical orientation, and had significantly more in common than did expert and inexpert therapists of the same psychological persuasion. Several studies have proclaimed positive results for Adlerian therapy, including those of Heine (1953) and Shlien, Mosak, and Dreikurs (1962). Also available is a collection of papers dealing with the use of early recollections in psychotherapy (Olson, 1979).


  1. The basic nature of human beingsSocial Interest: Every human being has the innate potential to relate to and cooperate with other people. Social interest establishes the guide- lines for proper personality development, and enables us to tame the superior forces of nature through cooperation. It is only a tendency, however, and it is all too possible to reject our inherent social interest and become pathologically self-centered. According to Adler, heredity exerts virtually no influence on personality. Life Goals and Teleology: We select our own life goals and the means of achieving them, usually by the fifth year of life. It is these future aspira- tions, rather than prior causes, that determine one’s personality. Feelings of Inferiority and the Striving for Superiority: The primary goal underlying all human behavior is that of striving for superiority (or self-perfection), which is motivated by the child’s feelings of inferiority relative to the formidable environment. Healthy strivings for superiority are guided by social interest, whereas pathological strivings are characterized by selfishness and a lack of concern for oth- ers. Everyone grows up with at least some feelings of inferiority, which may stimulate socially interested forms of compensation. If the child is exposed to pathogenic conditions, however, the feelings of helplessness may become overwhelming and result in a shattering inferiority complex.
  2. The structure of personality. Adler’s holistic theory treats personality as an indivisible unity, and he makes no assumptions about its structure. He does accept the existence of some sort of unconscious, which includes those unpleasant character traits that we do not wish to understand. But he views conscious and unconscious as united in the service of the individual’s chosen life goals, rather than as engaged in conflict.

  3. The development of personality. The mother serves as the child’s bridge to social life, and proper maternal contact is responsible for the child’s development of social interest. The father’s role is to encourage feelings of self-reliance, and to stress the need for choos- ing an appropriate occupation. Pathogenic Developmental Factors: Personality development is strongly influenced by such potentially pathogenic factors as pampering, neglect, and organ inferiorities. It is not so much the child’s experiences that determine personality, however, but the conclusions drawn from them. Birth Order: The child’s position in the family influences personality development. Style of Life: The child responds to the various developmental fac- tors by choosing its life goals and the means of achieving them. These goals and methods, and the corresponding perceptions and memories, are known as the style of life. Every life- style is unique and is reflected by a person’s character traits, physical movements, and early recollections.
  4. Further applications. Dream Interpretation: Dreams are merely another expression of an individual’s style of life. They create a self-deceptive emotional state that remains present upon awakening and furthers the chosen life goals. Psychopathology: Psychopathology always involves an underlying inferiority complex and a lack of social interest. Common symptoms include the superiority complex and masculine protest. Neurosis originates in childhood, when the various pathogenic factors lead to the selection of a misguided style of life. Psychotherapy: The goal of Adlerian psychotherapy is to facilitate the development of a new and more socially interested style of life. To this end, the painful inferiority complex that underlies the patient’s selfish and distorted mode of striving for superiority must be brought to light. The thera- pist is encouraging rather than stern or omniscient, and strives to appear as an equal. Other Applications: Adler expressed a keen interest in work and education.

  5. Evaluation. Individual psychology has been criticized for presenting an oversimplified picture of human behavior, placing too much emphasis on social factors and inferiority feel- ings, expressing an inordinate optimism about human nature, and relying on an unscientific

  6. methodology. On the other hand, many of Adler’s ideas have been incorporated into the theo- ries of modern psychologists. He is credited with calling attention to the social determinants of personality, originating the well-known terms inferiority complex and lifestyle, champion- ing the equality of the sexes, emphasizing the role of self-selected goals on personality devel- opment, helping to originate group and family therapy, and furthering our understanding of criminality and childrearing.