Adler called his approach individual psychology because it expressed his belief that every
human personality is unique and indivisible (Ewen, 1988). His emphasis on the individual did
not preclude the social. The social element was an “all-important” factor since it is only in a
social context that an individual becomes an individual.
Adler has been considered to be a disciple of Freud but he vehemently rejected that. As Adler
Freud and his followers are uncommonly fond of describing me in an unmistakably
boastful way as one of his disciples, because I had many an argument with him in a
psychological group. But I never attended one of his lectures, and when this group
was to be sworn in to support the Freudian views I was the first to leave it. (1938, p.
by Freud, with his unacceptable views. I profited by his mistakes. I was never psycho-
analyzed, and I would have at once rejected any such proposal, because the rigorous
acceptance of his doctrine destroys scientific impartiality which in any case is not
very great. (1938, p. 254)
Adler opposed Freud's insistence on sexuality as the center of human instinctual life. Instead,
in his early theory he proposed that the basic human motive was aggression (which he
admitted he borrowed from Freud—Freud would accuse him of plagiarism and heresy later
Adler emphasized conscious thought and social determinants. Personality was shaped by
not do justice to the fact that people are generally conscious of the reasons for their behavior.
They are capable of making rational decisions regarding goals and plans. Individual
psychology developed into a theory that is optimistic in contrast with Freud’s pessimistic
ideas about humanity. Over time the person develops, gains mastery over the environment,
and forms a self. If all goes well, this person will be responsible to, and caring toward others.
The only way to study a human being is to study how the person moves in solving life
problems (Adler, 1938). Each person enters life with their own unique set of potentialities
and possibilities for development, and their actions are a means of determining these
The influences of both heredity and environment become the child’s possession, and
he uses them for the purpose of finding his path of development. But neither the path
nor the movement can be thought of, or adopted, without a direction and a goal. The
goal of the human soul is conquest, perfection, security, superiority. (Adler, 1938, p,
psychological difficulties to their origins in childhood. To Adler the person’s earliest
memories give clues to the person’s present and future identity (Ewen, 1988). Memories of
infancy and childhood, whether accurate or not, provide important clues regarding one’s style
of memories was due to Adler’s belief that it was how the person remembered childhood not
the actual childhood. It reflected the person’s perspective on, and interpretation of, that life.
According to Adler, “The individual’s interpretation of life is not a trivial matter, for it is the
plumb-line of his thinking, feeling, and acting” (1938, p. 32). The same situations and the
same experiences, the same life-problems, affect each person differently. To come to grips
with this, the person’s style of life (the unique mode of adjustment that characterizes an
individual) has to be identified.
Just as mind evolved over millions of years, the traits of the individual themselves are a
formed during the first five years. The style of life is established early and reflects the manner
in which the individual has confronted three problems: the sense of inferiority, the struggle to
overcome, and social feeling. Some years earlier Adler (1927) identified two major
tendencies that are dominant in psychological life: the person’s social feeling and the striving
of the person for power and domination. Every activity and every attitude are influenced by
these as the person strives to achieve security and to fulfill life’s three main challenges: love,
work, and society.
Social feeling referred to the person’s innate sense of kinship with all of humanity and that
was tied to evolved practices. As a species humans are rather weak and ill-equipped to stand
alone against the forces of potential destruction. Humans overcame this weakness through
collective action by banding together into communities. By working together humans have
taken a dominant role in nature. It is our duty, he believed, and our nature to be responsible to
each other. To lead an effective life, we must play our part in the collective operations of
humanity. We have developed a division of labor that supports the operation of society and
each person must either play her or his part or become anti-social and resign from that
position. “Any man’s value, therefore, is determined by his attitude toward his fellow men,
and by the degree in which he partakes of the division of labor which communal life
demands” (1927, p. 121).
Each person must play their part but their place in productive society is determined by their
abilities. This division of labor is disturbed by those who do not take up their responsibilities
or by those who block the effectiveness of communal life by their cravings for power. Self-
serving personal power and dominance and class divisions are a reflection that collective
social interest has not been perfected. Whether one will play their part will depend on their
character development and that will depend on how they struggle with feelings of inferiority.
Adler began his career as a physician and early on concluded that a person’s physical
condition can have an impact upon their future development. Due to physical deficits, some
children repeatedly experience weakness and helplessness. Adler called this organ (as in
organic) inferiorities. One way to adjust weakness was through compensation (making up for
a weakness by developing strengths in other areas). Another way to adjust was through
compensation and overcompensation could also be directed to psychological inferiorities. All
humans begin life completely dependent upon others for survival and, therefore, experience
feelings of inferiority. Such vulnerability may be further complicated by one’s place in the
1989). Thus, “to be a human being means the possession of a feeling of inferiority that is
struggle for security the person is impelled to conquer current reality in an effort to secure a
better future, an “impulse toward upward development.”
A Major Motive: Will to Power
Adler originally theorized that a major motive was will to power (the striving to feel strong
and powerful in interacting with the world). One wants to avoid feelings of weakness or
inferiority. Feelings of inferiority can motivate personal growth but they can also disable
rather than motivate. Whether inferiority facilitates growth or disables a person is a matter of
personal attitude. This can manifest in impaired personal adjustment or difficulty in personal
relationships (Pervin, 1989). One may develop an inferiority complex—a condition of being
overwhelmed by one’s feelings of inferiority rather than being motivated toward success by
The concept will to power was eventually abandoned in favor of striving for superiority (an
upward drive leading to perfection, completion, and wholeness). With this transformation,
organ inferiority was re-conceptualized. It referred to any feeling of weakness arising from
incompletion or imperfection in any sphere of life. Associated with striving for superiority
was the concept of social feeling and, when that fails, there is its opposite mistaken lifestyle—
any lifestyle lacking sufficient social interest. The well-adjusted individual strives for
superiority and wholeness in the environment while expressing a love for and communion
with other people.
As an individual person, and after World War I, he developed socialist tendencies spurred by
the famine and poverty in Austria. Between World War I and 1934 he promoted 31
systematic couples and family counseling/education centers in Europe. In 1922 he proposed
that children should be prepared and educated for the community. From a community feeling
and spirit would come the leaders of the future. In 1927, he established 22 child guidance
clinics. Psychologists he believed had a responsibility to the welfare of society:
child from becoming a part of the community and from feeling at home in the world.
And which allow him to grow up as though he lived in an enemy country. Thus the
psychologist must work against nationalism when it is so poorly understood that it
harms mankind as a whole; against wars of conquest, revenge and prestige; against
unemployment which plunges people into hopelessness; and against all other
obstacles which interfere with the spreading of social interest in the family, the
school, and the society at large. (Adler, 1935, in Rudmin and Ansbacher, 1989)
Adler, A. (1938). Social interest: A challenge to mankind. London: Faber & Faber.
Aikins, H. A. (1927). Woman and the masculine protest. Journal of Abnormal and Social
Pervin, L. A. (1989). Personality: Theory and research (5th ed.). New York: John Wiley &
Rudmin, F. W. and Ansbacher, H. L. (1989). Anti-war psychologists: Alfred Adler.