Friday, June 17, 2011

Alfred Adler

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1870 - 17

Alfred Adler was born on February 7, 1870 in the suburbs of Vienna. He was the second son and third child of a Jewish grain merchant and his wife. Alfred did not walk until he was four because he suffered from rickets. At the age of five, he almost died of pneumonia. These events are what motivated him to become a physician. Growing up, Alfred was a very outgoing, popular, and involved scholar. Like most teens, he was always trying to outdo his brother.

In 185, Adler received his medical degree from University of Vienna. This is where he met his wife Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein. She was an intellectual and social activist from Russia. They married in 187, had four children, and two would become psychiatrists.

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He began his medical career as an ophthalmologist, later switching to general practice. He established his office across from an amusement park and circus in the lower class part of Vienna. Most his clients were circus performers. He studied their unusual strengths and weaknesses, and this gave him insights on his organ inferiority theory.

Later, He turned to psychiatry and joined Freuds discussion groups in 107. He wrote papers on organic inferiority. He also wrote a paper concerning aggression instinct and Freud did not approve. In addition, Alfred wrote a paper on childrens feelings of inferiority. Which agreed with Freuds sexual notions. Freud named Adler president of Viennese Analytic Society co-editor of organization newsletter. In 11, Adler and nine other members established The Society for Individual Psychology.

During WWI, Alfred was a physician for the Austrian Army at first he was on the Russian front and then moved to the childrens hospital. He saw firsthand the damage war can do. After the war, he did various projects such as clinics at a state school and training of teachers.

In 16, Alfred came to the United States to lecture, he accepted a visiting position at Long Island College of medicine. He took his family and moved to the U.S. Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler died of a heart attack while doing a series of lectures at Aberdeen University in Scotland.


Adler examined personality around the same time as Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. They worked on some theories together until Adler rejected Freuds emphasis on sex, and maintained that personality difficulties are rooted in a feeling of inferiority deriving from restrictions on the individuals need for self-assertion.

His best-known work is The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (1). Adler had a tendency to change his theory on personality throughout his life but he ultimately believed that people are focused on maintaining control over their lives. He believed in single drive or motivating force behind our behaviour, claiming that the desire we have to fulfil our potentials becomes closer and closer to our ideals.

Alder calls this theory Individual Psychology because he felt each person was unique and no previous theory applied to all people. Adlers theory included these four aspects the development of personality, striving towards superiority, psychological health, and the unity of personality. Many psychologists excepted Alfreds popular idea of self-actualisation.

In studying personality, Alfred came up with the term inferiority complex. He described this as feelings of lack of worth. He wrote, We all wish to overcome difficulties. We all strive to reach a goal by the attainment of which we shall feel strong, superior, and complete (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 156). Alder was known to use the word superiority complex. This complex developed when a person tried to conquer their inferiority complex by suppressing their existing feelings. He felt that people were constantly trying overcome their feelings of inferiority to reach superiority.

Along with the idea of trying to overcome inferiority, Adler claimed that every person had an idea about what their perfect self would be like (Cloninger, 16). He named this image the fictional finalism. Fictional finalism applies clearer direction to decisions that are to be made concerning oneself. Although individuals may have an idea about their image, but they hardly ever understand it. Although the image may be altered, the common direction throughout ones life stays the same. Adler wrote, “ . . .in every mental phenomenon we discover anew the characteristic of pursuit of a goal, and all our powers, faculties, experiences, wishes and fears, defects and capacities fall into line with this characteristic (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 156).

Unlike Freud, Adler believed the conscious and unconscious worked in union with one another towards the fictional finalism (Cloninger, 16). Adler declared that each individual has an incomparable way of life, some are negative and some are positive. Adler did not like to take big groups of people an put them into general categories but when describing basic lifestyles it was simpler to do so. He studied various types of people and he came to this conclusion. There are the four main types of people, three out of four are negative. The ruling type tries to control others. The getting type tends to be very passive and goes along with others ideas, rarely inventive. The avoiding types try to isolate themselves to avoid defeat, they are usually very cold. The socially useful type, values having control over their lives and strive to do good things for the sake of society.

It is easier to fight for ones principles than to live up to them (Alfred Adler). This statement sums up Alders theory of personality in a nutshell.


Although Adlers theory may be less interesting than Freuds, with its sexuality, or Jungs, with its mythology, it has probably struck you as the most common-sensical of the three. People generally like Adler and his theory. In fact, quite a few personality theorists like him, too. Maslow, for example, once said that, the older he gets, the more right Adler seems. A number of students of personality theories have noted that the theorists called Neo-Freudians- Horney, Fromm, and Sullivan- should really have been called Neo-Adlerians.

And so the positives of Adlers theory dont really need to be listed His clear descriptions of peoples complaints, his straight-forward and common-sense interpretations of their problems, his simple theoretical structure, his trust and even affection for the common person, all make his theory both comfortable and highly influential.


Criticisms of Adler tend to involve the issue of whether or not, or to what degree, his theory is scientific. The mainstream of psychology today is experimentally oriented, which means, among other things, that the concepts a theory uses must be measurable and manipulable. This in turn means that an experimental orientation prefers physical or behavioral variables. Adler, as you saw, uses basic concepts that are far from physical and behavioural Striving for perfection? How do you measure that? Or compensation? Or feelings of inferiority? Or social interest? The experimental method also makes a basic assumption That all things operate in terms of cause and effect. Adler would certainly agree that physical things do so, but he would adamantly deny that people do! Instead, he takes the teleological route, that people are determined by their ideals, goals, values, final fictions. Teleology takes the necessity out of things A person doesnt have to respond a certain way to a certain circumstance; A person has choices to make; A person creates his or her own personality or lifestyle. From the experimental perspective, these things are illusions that a scientist, even a personality theorist, dare not give in to.

Even if you are open to the teleological approach, though, there are criticisms you can make regarding how scientific Adlers theory is Many of the details of his theory are too anecdotal, that is, are true in particular cases, but dont necessarily have the generality Adler seems to claim for them. A first child (even broadly defined) doesnt necessarily feel dethroned, nor a second child necessarily feels competitive, for example.

Adler could, however, respond to these criticisms very easily First, didnt we just finish saying that, if you accept teleology, nothing about human personality is necessary. And secondly, didnt he go to great lengths to explain his ideas about fictional finalism? All of his concepts are useful constructs, not absolute truths, and science is just a matter of creating increasingly useful constructs.

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