Alfred Adler (1870-1937)

Adler's psychology is an example of optimistic individual and social liberalism. This means we can see and even produce a brighter tomorrow and later experiences matter more for learning and improvement than earlier ones. It is about hopes and ideals both of us as individuals and in society. He broke with the pessimistic ideas and followers of Freud about being limited by childhood. He was fairly pessimistic early in his career but changed as he investigated selfish childhood into a more social experience with growing up. The social and cultural not the sexual is the key, along with the family. Adler formed his own group, later known as Individual Psychology, with its own followers. The future can bring possible neuroses but there was much to be overcome about difficulties to achieve a rounded personality in a social setting. Adler and his individualism was combined with his Protestant turn, coming from a Jewish family.

This liberal individualism in society means that there is a real self with its own creative power. The creative self is a meaning and personality maker, finding experiences and building them into the production of a style of life for the individual. It is personal and is subjective whilst interrelating with others. The self looks for integrity and consistency within and makes each one of us who we are: unique, valuable and valued human beings. This is a humanism of objective values right inside the personality and one where we extend ourselves into the world.

The produced style of life is seen in everything we do: a collection of traits, values, motives and interests within the personality. It forms at four or five years old and sets up the persons's future path. The collection certainly is visible in education and behaviour, and furthermore (the important part) determines what experiences will be added into this ongoing style of life. So everyone is different.

Alfred Adler by Henry Benson - click for the beginningDespite this personality set in motion, we look to the future and this is our main driving force. It is inherent in every person to strive for individual superiority, meaning to achieve the maximum in oneself. We set up ideals in hope, which pull on our behaviour in trying to achieve them. It is called fictional finalism. Striving for superiority generates the inferiority complex from either having something incomplete or imperfect in any sphere of a person's life. We attempt compensation in making ourselves better and trained up to achieve the ideal hope. Nevertheless, some ideals may well not be reached and here the ordinary person realises where reality is found and adjusts healthily, having achieved the best. The problem is when the powering fictions take someone over and they live in a condition of never ending, always wanting, never achieved, expectations. This creates a neurosis. Also the neurotic person is self-obsessed, and many struggle with their inferiority complex with negative behaviours (like aggresssion). The superioroity complex is a cover up for ongoing inferiority complex.

Examples of maladjusted personalities include those who want power over others, those who want to receive through others without self-effort, and decision avoidance. To get over these, people need to stop pretending their personality to others and tackle goals themselves. They become good citiizens. The positive person indeed seeks socially responsible and related goals. Adler argued that the social interest is inborn, and that healthy adjustment is to help society achieve what cannot be achieved on one's own and in the self. Even our dreams combine the definition developed of the self with the socially acceptable. Social gain is the best form of compensation for what is lacking in individuals: as individuals we succeeed when in society.

Adler was interested in dreams, but as a way to discover one's style of life. The narrative or theme of the dream shows the stance the person takes in imagined or recreated social situations and the tension between individual and immediate society all in a microcosm. The dream life is continuous with the waking life. Dreams are not analysed alone, however, but along with birth order (e.g. the first child who loses out to the next, the second child who may seek to overcome the first, the youngest child who is spoiled), family history, and the client's own responses in terms of personal meaning to events.

So in a nutshell people feel inadequate, they strive to improve themselves, they find various ways to compensate and the well adjusted individual has come to terms with the past (if need be) and is a positive member of society.

This notion of health seems too optimistic to be the case. Why should inadequacy as a healthy individual in the end translate into a social good? Is it not "healthy" for some people for failure in the inner life to result in attempts to acquire power, to compensate in this manner? The common person's view of the inferiority complex is very social and in this sense: inferiority is not measured in oneself but always compared with others, and these others are the competition to be overcome. It takes quite a saint to accept one's own inferiority and translate it into improving other people.

Also it is unconvincing why so much the style of life is formed so early, becoming a filter for subsequent experiences, when we anyone can change through accumulated experience at any time. Children react in all sorts of ays to their beginnings of course, including a complete lack of memory. The style of life can change fundamentally when it matters, either through evolving into something different or some instant overpowering experience.

There is no reason to suppose that ideals should be positive and good. Some people work to quite different ideals which others interpret as harmful. There is huge social and linguistic impact here, and experience is as much the absorbed linguistic method as something that humans process as individuals.

The social invades us all the time through language, and language first of all filters experience. Communication breaks down the boundary of the self. Who we are individually has social symbolic cause, and our output as individuals is social and symbolic. We receive and create in a process of talking and listening (and probably in this order: what we hear and so experience is so much determined by how we speak, although speaking is socially learnt and is socially meaningful).

This is the debate between liberalism and post-liberalism/ postmodernism, and between an ultimately optimistic objective individualism (in society) and one where the individual is a transitory and changing collection of traits, values, motives and interests in constant communicative flux with the social.


Scanned and coloured picture of Alfred Adler from the line drawing by Henry Benson in Nordby, Hall, 1974, 7.

Nordby, V. J., Hall, C. S. (1974), A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts, San Fransisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 7-10.

Refers to or uses:

Adler, A. (1927), Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Adler, A. (1929), The Science of Living, New York: Greenberg.

Adler, A. (1931), What Life Shouid Mean to You, Boston: Little, Brown.

Adler, A, (1939), Social Interest, New York: Putnam.

Ansbacher, H. L., Ansbacher, R. R. (eds.) (1956), The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, New York: Basic Books.

Ansbacher, H. L., Ansbacher, R. R. (eds.) (1964), Superiority and Social Interest by Alfred Adler, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Durbin, P. G. (nd), Alfred Adler's Contribution to Hypnotherapy, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed December 31, 2003, 18:05].