Psychology Degree Guide: Adlerian Psychology
The Adler Graduate School website states, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.” This quote accurately sums up the contributions of Alfred Adler, a key innovator in the field of mental health whose enlightened approach to counseling and child psychology resonates today. Rather than exploring ineffable factors in the development of a child’s personality, such as Freud’s superego, Adler situated children in an external, observable, and social world of which they are constantly striving to be a part. The profound awareness that individuals have about their shortcomings relative to the society around them defines Adler’s approach to understanding the human psyche.
The following page introduces some of the most important theoretical concepts of the Adlerian school, facts about the man’s life, and descriptions of his place in the framework of psychology. The primary purpose of these descriptions to fill in readers who are not familiar with Adlerian psychology about what distinguishes the man from the other two giants of 19th and 20th psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung, and to provide links to resources that may be useful in research and individual study. Publications, societies, and credible websites about the Adlerian framework are available below.
What is Adlerian Psychology?
Another name for Adlerian psychology is individual psychology, an approach to counseling and the study of personality that places emphasis on external variables: society, family, and especially birth order. This school of thought contrasts sharply with Freud’s focus on sex and the internal world (the id, the ego, etc.). Adler believed that a person’s behavioral response to outside influences, especially those encountered during a child’s formative years, shape his/her personality, especially if these influences result in an inferiority complex when the child compares him/herself to others of the same social group.
There are three main behaviors in individual psychology that characterize how people react to inferiority: compensation, resignation, and overcompensation. Compensation is an attempt to overcome faults, which people judge by comparing themselves to others. If they perceive some form of inferiority — or more specifically, an obstacle to their full inclusion in a group — they will ideally attempt to overcome their weaknesses. Resignation, which is the default state for most of society, occurs when people have given into those weaknesses and settled into a fatalistic lifestyle. Finally, overcompensation happens when a person’s efforts to subdue inferiority is taken to fanatical extremes.
Here are some important concepts that can help students gain a more complete understanding of Alfred Adler’s contribution:
- Depth Psychology, which encompasses the Adlerian, Freudian, and Jungian schools, is the idea that much of what motivates people behaviorally is “deep” within them and not immediately recognizable. In the case of Freud, these motivations might be psycho-sexual. In Adler’s cause, a person’s impetus is inferiority. This definition paraphrases an excerpt from the book, Re-engaging the Soul of Place, by Craig Chalquist.
- Differential Psychology, or “individual differences,” is a loose category psychological schools that, as in Adlerian psychology, places the contrasts between people — age, motivation, etc. — at the center of study. Differential psychology was originally an alternative to experimental psychology, which took a more sweeping, categorical approach to patients, its practitioners tending to see individual differences as exceptions and anomalies rather than key variables in their analyses. In recent years, the two branches have come to overlap. The preceding link leads to a 28-page description of the concept intended for the as-yet unpublished Handbook of Individual Differences.
- Holism is a school of analysis that examines phenomena in their entirety, as opposed to reductionism wherein a subject of research is meant to be understood by exploring its individual parts. Holism can apply to multiple fields, including those outside of the social sciences, as the linked resource indicates.
Who was Alfred Adler?
Alfred Adler was born near Vienna, Austria, in 1870 and was compelled to become a physician after a series of illnesses during his childhood. Although he did indeed become a doctor, and lent his skills to the Austrian Army during World War I, his sensitivity to the behavior of individuals in the context of their communities led to simultaneous work in psychology. He began as a devoted follower of Sigmund Freud and was appointed by the legendary psychoanalyst as president of the Viennese Analytic Society. However, the content of his academic publications gradually began to drift apart from Freud’s more experimental approach to psychology. The Viennese Analytic Society eventually became the Society for Individual Psychology. Adler, a Jew, was forced to flee Austria in the 1930s as Nazism rose. Shortly thereafter, he died of heart failure in Scotland, where he was a guest lecturer in 1937.
To learn more, Alfred Adler & Adlerian Individual Psychology by Gregory Mitchell provides an extensive biography of the man combined with introductory information about his most important ideas, including private intelligence (personal reasons for behaving a certain way that contrast with societal norms), teleology (self-empowerment; individuals have the ability to lift themselves out of unhealthy life patterns), and field theory (the idea that patients’ behavior and interactions in the social milieu provide the only true variables for psychological study). Otherwise, a brief, straightforward biography of Adler can be found at the Encyclopedia of World Biography. Also, the Notable Names Database provides a compromise between Adler’s life and theoretical work.
Original Works and Other Resources
Adler’s most important books were Understanding Human Nature, The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, and What Life Should Mean to You. Google Books’s archive includes Adler’s The Neurotic Constitution, The Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation, and several German-language books. Additional primary texts by Adler that are available for free online have been compiled by the Adlerian Digitization Project. Finally, The Journal of Individual Psychology publishes ongoing research in this branch of psychology. Other up-to-date research is maintained by the following organizations devoted either to Adler himself or individual psychology:
- The Adler Centre
- The Adlerian Society UK
- The Alfred Adler Institute of New York
- International Association of Individual Psychology
- North American Society of Adlerian Psychology
His Continuing Influence
The work of Adler is carried on by a host of mental health professionals and institutions. The Adler Graduate School, for example, besides offering advanced degrees specifically in “Adlerian Counseling and Psychotherapy,” serves as a research portal and a depository of materials important to individual psychology. Also, much of the work started by Adler is being pursued by other notable psychologists, especially Henry T. Stein. Stein is the director of the Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco and applies many of the key concepts of his mentor’s approach to disciplines outside of psychology, including the hard sciences. An Interview with Henry Stein on Alfred Adler, by Susan Bridle, explores Adler’s thoughts about the Freudian ego, the imaginary life goals of people, holism, consciousness, and so on.
Image is from Sonoma State University’s Psychology Department.