Sunday, 22 January 2012 09:09

Alfred Adler: Men Of Ideas

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Having decided to study dept psychology Sigmund Freud wrote another Viennese medical doctor, Alfred Adler, to join him in that endeavor. Thus, beginning in 1901 Adler (1870-1937), Freud and a few others met at Freud’s house on Wednesday evenings to talk about psychology. Adler was the secretary of what soon was called the Psychoanalytic Society. They decided to establish a Journal of Psychoanalysis and not only would present papers during their weekly meeting but published them. Adler was made the president of the society in 1910. The following year, 1911, he separated from the group and formed his own group, Individual Psychology (in 1914 Carl Jung separated from the group and formed his own group, Analytic Psychology). These three, Freud, Adler and Jung could be called the founders of modern psychology and it all began in Freud’s living room!

Adler initially went along with Freud’s “repressed sexuality as the causal factor in neurosis” hypothesis but gradually developed his own views as to what, in fact, caused neurosis (anxiety disorder cum personality disorder). Apparently, Freud did not see eye to eye with Adler’s views and the two stopped talking to each other and there was no option left for Adler but for him to leave and go start his own school of psychology. Some members of the Psychoanalytic Society joined Adler.

In 1912 Adler published his Magnus Opus, The Neurotic Character. In this book he argued that neurosis was caused by a child feeling inferior and trying to compensate with fictional superiority.

As Adler sees it, some children inherited what he called “inferior organs” and those interacted with the tough, impersonal exigencies of our physical and social world and the child felt defeated and powerless. But something in the child could not accept defeat. To accept defeat is to give up and die. Thus, the child juxtaposed a desire for absolute power and began pursuing it. In pursuing power he felt superior to the environment that hitherto made him feel inferior. Whereas initially he felt inferior now the child feels superior to his world (including to other people).

In effect, to Adler there is a teleological aspect to neurosis and to human behavior in general. The neurotic child is pursuing a goal, the goal of false superiority.

On the larger societal level, people pursue goals. To be a human being is to posit goals and pursue them. Teleology is the idea that human beings are goal oriented creatures (this is an assumption, metaphysics of sorts).

The child, the human being is pursuing a goal of superiority. Neurosis is the pursuit of superiority and concomitant self centeredness. A human being (and all of us are, according to Adler, neurotic) pursues a goal of personal superiority.

Whereas all children pursue superiority certain social forces make some of them to care for other people. To Adler, a normal person is a person who, in addition to seeking personal superiority, works for our collective interests.

It is in understanding the normalizing forces and trying to apply them to neurotic children that Adler made his seminal contributions to psychology. As he sees it, when a child is loved by his significant others he tends to develop a sense of reciprocity. He decides to care for other people because he was cared for. Whereas his inner goal is to care only for himself now he adds to it the social goal of caring for other people.

The normal child, Adler believes, replaces self interest (or adds to it) with social interest. Since social interest, working for our common good, is obviously preferable to self centeredness Adler sought ways to teach all children the development of social interests. He established Child Guidance Clinics all over Vienna and later in all over Europe and North America. His ideas on how to raise children so that they develop social interest became the mode of raising children in the Western world.

Adler was a socialist and one can understand why he believed that getting people to work for social interest is the best lived life.

Adler became a tireless worker going all over the world teaching parents (he started what we now call parenting classes) how best to raise socially minded children.

Essentially, parents were shown how to observe their children and ascertain whether they have social interest or not. How a child responds to his toys, for example, can tell us a lot about his personality. If he allows other kids to play with his toys, shares his property,  you pretty much know that he is on his way to becoming a normal person. On the other hand, if he hoards his toys you know that he is self centered and thinks only of his self interest.

Does a child put other people’s interests on equal level with his? If there is scarcity of food does he want to eat and others not eat? If he has poor grades at school does he get angry or does he find out why he did poorly and seek help from his teachers etc? All said the child’s personality can be ascertained.

Whereas Adler did not like personality typologies he nevertheless noted that children can be classified into different personality categories: those who move away from other people, shy children who are afraid of social rejection, who, in Adler’s view, actually are motivated by power and grandiosity for it is fear of loosing social face that make them withdraw from other people. In social isolation shy children nurse their false big self-concepts. Other children are narcissistic and believe that people ought to be admiring them and giving them attention but do not feel any need to give other people attention (hello Nigerian politicians). These children, Adler said were pampered and spoilt and not taught to share attention. They tend to feel pseudo high self esteem and tend to make it to the top of whatever they are doing. The problem is that they care to get attention but not to serve other people (do Nigerian politicians serve other people?).  Then there are unloved children who feel angry at society for abandoning them. Such children seek ways to get back at other people and may develop antisocial personality structures, that is, engage in criminal activities and not feel guilty or remorseful for their sociopath behaviors.

Adler talked about birth order. As he saw it, the order of a child’s birth tends to influence his lifestyle. The first child, he thinks, tends to receive a lot of attention from his parents, and as it were, is a prince or princess. When a second child is born the first child feels dethroned and may become a sour grape. Second children were never the sole attention receiver from their parents and therefore tend to struggle for attention and tend to work hard to receive social attention. Adler feels that second children tend to be achieving persons. As it were, they are seeking what they never got, parental attention. Third or last children, Adler says, tend to be showered with attention and not expected to amount to much and tend to be less achieving persons.

Adler’s goal was to teach parents to socialize their children in such a manner that they develop social interest and work for our common good. He used all sorts of methods to accomplish this goal, including counseling. In his counseling sessions he did not have folk lay on a couch (as Freud had them do) but had them sit on chairs facing him. This may seem like no big deal but it is. When folk lay down to talk to Freud, Freud was the authority figure, the father listening to them, children, and supposedly guiding them. On the other hand, when folk sat on chairs facing Adler the idea is that they are equals. Adler believed in human equality and resented any one who pretended to be better than other people.

It should be noted that Adler’s psychology is derived from his own experience. He inherited stomach ailments that made him feel pained from food and as a result every time he ate he felt uneasy. (He claimed to have studied internal medicine in an effort to understand his stomach weakness and to overcome it, and that this is proper employment of the drive to superiority; he generalized to say that people tend to study something that enables them overcome their inadequacies.)  As a child he felt inferior to other children (as I did). At school he noticed that he did not like to be second to any other student (my God, I felt devastated if another student did better than me). From his experience Adler correctly deduced that he felt inferior and wanted to become superior.

Neurosis, Adler believed, drives folk to excel. The problem is that in the process of excelling, neurotic children do not care for other people. They have an “all or nothing” attitude to life; they have to be “first or they felt like they are nothing important”.  Neurotic children are motivated to attain what now we would call their ego ideals. They do not seek success for the sake of helping society but for the sake of making their egos important, and superior.

Adler believed that neurosis made people exploit other people and work against society. Adolf Hitler, another child who inherited a problematic body that could not handle food, alcohol, cigarettes, coffee (he was a teetotaler and a vegetarian).  As a result he felt inferior. Being very smart (his IQ is estimated at over 140…140 are considered the baseline for genius) he decided to overcome his problems by lording it over other people. This boy from nowhere became the master of Europe and wanted to become the master of the world. He was seeking power. As we all know absolute power corrupts absolutely.

From Adler’s perspective we must find out why a fellow is seeking power. Is he doing it for neurotic reasons or for social interest? Since all of us are relatively neurotic, self-centered, the goal is to make us seek power for social reasons. Adler was not opposed to seeking power; he was just interested in why one sought it and what one was going to do with it. Go ahead and seek to become a billionaire and or the richest man in the world but use your wealth to serve society (as Bill Gates is currently doing, not just to eat and grow fat tummy as Nigerian big men do). Seek to become a medical doctor but use that skill to heal the sick (not to masquerade around as a very important person, as Nigerians do).

Adler was a social realist and accepted human nature as it is but wanted to redirect it to socially useful ends. People will always compete and seek success but if we can get them to do so on behalf of society we have made them normal, Adler says.

Adler focused on groups rather than individuals. As he saw it, the individual is always a member of groups: families, marriages, work groups and society; therefore, you have to teach him social skills; you have to teach him how to get along with other people. Getting along with other people entails caring for their interests. (If you want to make friends figure out what people like and do it for them.)

As Adler saw it, neurosis is a problem of social skills, the inability to get along with other people. Teach a person to see himself as one with other people and to work for the good of the collectivity and not feel better than other people or inferior to other people; teach a person to see himself as equal to all people and get along with all people and he is normal. (In Nigeria certain folk want to feel superior to other Nigerians; they do not know that such desire is a sign of mental illness! Like the mentally ill they cherish their false grandiose egos and when you ask them to give them up they feel angry at you! Mad men resent those trying to heal them; they prefer to live in madness, which is to feel superior to other people.)

Adlerian psychology is holistic; it treats the whole individual within the context of the whole society. In fact, in counseling folk Adler did so in the public for he did not see why a person had to hide anything about him. Hiding their issues is what makes people behave in an antisocial manner. If a guy can tell the public that he feels inferior and tries to compensate with false superiority he is not likely to act out against other people. On the other hand, if a guy hides that he feels inferior and seeks superiority he might use other people to attain his superiority goals.

Adler began what we now call group therapy. In group therapy a bunch of persons sit in a circle and talk about their issues and do so honestly. No one is allowed to tell lies, to hide their true selves. Criminals are likely to present masks of been good to society but in the hide, in darkness screw people. If one is who one is in public one is less likely to screw other people.

Let the world know about your vulnerability, do not hide any thing about you, let it all hang out in the public and you feel peaceful, happy and healthy.

Like other psychoanalysts, Adler believed that homosexuality is a neurotic behavior. As he saw it, some men feel inferior and could not approach women for friendship and sex. Fearing rejection by women, such men feel more comfortable having what they call sex with other men. Moreover, in having forbidden sex with men they kind of feel powerful. As it were, they are now godlike and have changed the nature of reality. Nature made the penis to fit into a vagina but these folk redirected it to the anus. Further more it sort of feels powerful to get another man to bend over for one to place ones penis into his anus. Altogether, as Adler sees it, the homosexual is on a power trip. Adler explained lesbianism as masculine protest. As he saw it, certain women resent been told what to do by men. They feel inferior lying on their backs for men to have sex with them. They protest the subordinate role men gave to women.  They want to act like men and be on top of other women in sex.

Psychiatry saw homosexuality as a sickness until 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association was browbeaten by the homosexual lobby to change homosexuality from illness to choice behavior.

Okay. Bestiality is also choice behavior, pedophilia is also choice behavior. Therefore, approve every deviant behavior; what is good for the goose must be good for the gander. (My cynicism apart, I believe that when we are tired of political correctness we shall return to sanity and call deviance what it is deviance.)

Adler wrote many books; the last time I counted, over fifty and numerous articles. His books and articles essentially made the same point: we feel inferior and feel an urge to compensate with drive towards superiority. Adler borrowed heavily from the philosopher Vaihinger who wrote about people’s tendency to “Act As If” (we want to seem like something we are not and act as such). Neurosis is a tendency to posit a self concept and a self image that is not who one is and act as if one is that imaginary self, and expect other people to collude with one and see one as that fictional self! Human beings everywhere want to seem superior creatures (because they suspect that they have no worth and value).

The idea of superiority is not original with Adler. The Philosopher Frederick Nietzsche wrote about the drive to power (Adler was a Nietzchean and Schopenhaurean…he also admired Dostoyevsky). Remember Nietzsche’s blond beast in Thus Space Zarathustra? Nietzsche pointed out that people pursue power and Adler took that concept and built his psychology around it. However, whereas Nietzsche celebrated the pursuit of power, Adler wanted to redirect the pursuit of power.

Hitler, another Nietchzchean, celebrated the pursuit of power. Let us see, Nietzsche became schizophrenic and Hitler the Wagnerian Siegfried seeking power and building his German Volk into a superior Volk died a miserable self inflicted death in an underground bunker.

Gentle Adler’s ideas influenced parenting. To the present most school psychology is predicated on Adlerian psychology; most teachers are trained in how to train children through Adler’s ideas.

I was trained in Adlerian psychology and am therefore biased in his favor. Nevertheless, I am an impartial observer and therefore appreciate the strength and weakness of Adler’s psychology. Adler’s psychological terms have infused our culture, terms like inferiority complex, superiority complex, compensation, restitution etc.  Adler was a great psychologist and deserves to be ranked among the top three best psychologists in the world.

However, one can critique his ideas, as I have done elsewhere. For example, as Adler pointed out, children feel inferior and compensate with superiority. My question is: how come they feel inferior and compensate with superiority? Adler provided nineteenth century logical positivistic rationalism. He said that they feel inferior because of the touch exigencies of the environment. This argument is not persuasive.

Let us see, our bodies are made of particles, atoms and elements, the same materials that rocks are made of. How come rocks do not feel inferior and react with superiority?

There must be something in us that makes us feel inadequate and react with drive to adequacy. What is that something?

To feel inadequate one must apriori know what adequacy is; to feel powerless one must know what power is.

How did the child of five (personality is formed before age five) know what power is?  In my writing, I pointed out that perhaps the child came from another world (spirit world) where he felt magnificent hence is able to differentiate between that world and the deficiencies of our world.

I am not going to review my own psychological system here.  Suffice it to say that I see Adler‘s rationalism as superficial. Yet, I raise my hat for this Jewish man from Vienna, a man who felt totally inferior and tried to understand why he felt so, and pursued power. In seeking self understanding Adler gave the world a sound psychology, a way to understand our screwed up lifestyles.


The Alfred Adler Institute, San Francisco, California (2008).  Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler.

Adler, Alfred (1912) The Neurotic Character.

Ansbacher H. L. and Ansbacher R. R. eds. (1956) The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler.  New York: Harper Torchbooks.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176