Alfred Adler: The Father of Individual Psychology

Alexander Tokarev, PhD
Updated on: March 28, 2024
Reviewed by:
Yelnur Shildibekov, PhD
Alfred Adler – PSYCULATOR
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Alfred Adler (1870 – 1937) was an Austrian psychiatrist who played a pivotal role in the development of psychotherapy and psychopathology. He is best known for founding the school of individual psychology, a comprehensive theory that emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of societal factors in shaping personality.

Fast Facts: Alfred Adler

  • Born: February 7, 1870, in Vienna, Austria
  • Died: May 28, 1937, in Aberdeen, Scotland
  • Education: A medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1895
  • Fields: Founding of Individual Psychology, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy
  • Key Concepts: Inferiority complex, Superiority Complex, Compensation and Overcompensation
  • Notable Works: “The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology,” “Understanding Human Nature”
  • Key Collaborations: Sigmund Freud, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Leonhard Seif, Fritz Künkel, Rudolf Dreikurs

Key Concepts

Alfred Adler introduced several key concepts within his school of individual psychology, many of which have had a lasting impact on the field of psychology and beyond. Here are some of the most critical concepts introduced by Adler:

Individual Psychology: Adler's signature theory posits that each person is a unique individual and that understanding a person requires looking at them holistically, considering both their internal psyche and external social conditions.

Inferiority Complex: Perhaps Adler's most famous concept, the inferiority complex involves feelings of lack and inadequacy that a person tries to overcome throughout their life. Adler believed that striving to overcome these feelings of inferiority is a major driving force in human behavior.

Superiority Complex: Related to the inferiority complex, a superiority complex arises when a person overcompensates for feelings of inferiority by pretending to be superior to others. This often masks actual feelings of inadequacy.

Compensation and Overcompensation: These mechanisms are ways individuals attempt to overcome their real or perceived weaknesses. Compensation is a healthy process of counterbalancing weaknesses, while overcompensation may lead to unrealistic goals or a superiority complex.

Social Interest: Adler emphasized the importance of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, or social interest, which he defined as an individual's feeling of connection to and concern for the broader community. He saw this as a hallmark of mental health.

Striving for Superiority: Adler believed that humans are inherently motivated by an urge to overcome their inherent inferiorities and achieve a sense of superiority or success. Unlike the Freudian drive for pleasure, Adler's concept is more aligned with a desire for significance and mastery.

Lifestyle: According to Adler, lifestyle refers to an individual's unique way of striving for superiority. It encompasses the person's attitude, behaviors, and ways of dealing with life's tasks.

Birth Order: Adler was one of the first theorists to suggest that birth order influences personality. He posited that the order in which a child is born into a family affects their feelings of inferiority and superiority, leading to different personality traits.

Sense of Community: Adler believed in the importance of fostering a sense of community and belonging, arguing that a healthy society is one in which individuals work together for the common good.

Holistic View of the Person: Adler took a holistic approach to understanding individuals, arguing that you cannot separate the mind from the body, the individual from society, or break down the personality into isolated parts.

These concepts together form the foundation of Adlerian psychology, emphasizing the importance of social factors, personal agency, and the interconnectedness of all aspects of an individual's life in understanding and treating psychological issues.


Early Life

Alfred Adler was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. Battling with health issues such as rickets and pneumonia during his childhood, Adler was motivated to overcome his physical vulnerabilities, which sparked his interest in medicine.

These formative experiences cultivated a resilience and determination that would later influence his psychological theories and career as a prominent psychoanalyst. After receiving his medical degree in 1895 from the University of Vienna, Adler initially specialized in ophthalmology but soon transitioned to general practice, where his observations laid the groundwork for his future contributions to psychology.

Later Life

Adler's early affiliation with Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic movement marked the beginning of his significant contributions to psychology. However, his diverging views on the role of societal factors in individual development led him to establish the school of Individual Psychology.

This marked a significant shift from Freud’s emphasis on sexual and aggressive drives to Adler’s focus on social interest and community life as central to human psychology. Adler's later years were characterized by his emigration to the United States in response to the Nazi threat in Europe, where he continued his academic and clinical work until his untimely death in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1937.

Theory of Personality

Adler’s Theory of Personality introduced a holistic approach to understanding human behavior, positing that individuals are motivated not by past experiences but by their aspirations and goals.

Central to his theory is the concept of the inferiority complex, where feelings of inadequacy can either motivate individuals to achieve greatness or lead to compensatory behaviors. Adler proposed that a healthy personality is characterized by a strong sense of social interest—a desire to contribute positively to the welfare of others.

Individual Psychology

At the heart of Adler’s legacy is his development of Individual Psychology, which focuses on the uniqueness of each person and the social contexts that influence personality development. This theory diverges from Freudian psychoanalysis by emphasizing future goals over past traumas, societal factors over individual instincts, and conscious awareness over unconscious processes.

Alfred Adler Theories: Teleology

Alfred Adler's concept of teleology plays a central role in his individual psychology, emphasizing the importance of future goals and aspirations in motivating human behavior. Unlike traditional psychoanalytic theories that focus on past events and unconscious drives, Adler's teleological approach suggests that individuals are primarily driven by their future-oriented goals and the purposes these goals serve in their lives.

Future-Oriented Goals: Adler believed that individuals are motivated by their goals and aspirations for the future. These goals provide direction and purpose, influencing current behavior and decision-making processes.

Concrete vs. Fictional Goals: Adler distinguished between concrete goals, which are specific and attainable objectives that guide individuals towards their fictional goals, and fictional goals, which are more abstract and serve as a guiding ideal or life's direction.

  • Concrete Goals: Specific, achievable aims that move individuals closer to their overarching aspirations. For example, excelling in one's career or achieving personal milestones.
  • Fictional Goals: Represent the individual's ideal self or ultimate purpose. These are more abstract and can include desires for success, happiness, or self-actualization.

Adler's teleology asserts that understanding an individual's goals—both concrete and fictional—is crucial for understanding their behavior and lifestyle. This forward-looking perspective empowers individuals to shape their destinies, highlighting the role of personal agency in overcoming challenges and striving for a meaningful life.

Compensation, Overcompensation, and Complexes

At the core of Adler's theory was the principle of compensation, the idea that individuals attempt to overcome their inherent weaknesses or inferiorities by developing other areas of themselves. When this process becomes exaggerated, it can lead to overcompensation, potentially resulting in a superiority complex.

Adler's nuanced understanding of these dynamics highlighted the delicate balance between feeling inferior and striving for superiority, suggesting that healthy development involves a cooperative rather than competitive approach to life.

Personality Typology, or Styles of Life

Alfred Adler’s concept of personality typology, often referred to as "styles of life," represents his belief that the way individuals approach the tasks of life—work, social interactions, and love—is shaped early in life.

These styles are not static but can evolve with consciousness and social interest. Adler identified these styles based on individuals' dominant approaches to life's challenges and their strategies for coping with feelings of inferiority. He emphasized that understanding a person's style of life is crucial for understanding their behavior and personality.

Adler delineated four primary personality types or styles of life, each reflecting different levels of social interest and methods of striving for personal superiority:

The Ruling Type

  • Characterized by a high level of activity but low social interest.
  • Tends to dominate others and may become aggressive or confrontational.
  • Strives for personal power and superiority, often at the expense of social connections.

The Getting or Leaning Type

  • Displays higher levels of passivity and lower levels of social interest.
  • Relies on others for support, preferring to lean on them rather than face life’s challenges independently.
  • May develop a dependent personality, avoiding responsibility and difficulties.

The Avoiding Type

  • Shows both low activity levels and low social interest.
  • Tends to avoid life's problems and challenges, fearing failure or confrontation.
  • May become isolated, withdrawing from social interactions and activities to protect themselves from perceived threats.

The Socially Useful Type

  • Exhibits both high activity levels and high social interest.
  • Engages positively with life's challenges, showing courage and a willingness to cooperate with others.
  • Focuses on contributing to the welfare of others, often embodying Adler’s ideal of mental health and social contribution.

Adler stressed that these styles of life are not fixed categories but rather tendencies that can be altered through personal growth and increased social interest.

He believed that by fostering social interest and understanding the underlying motivations for one’s lifestyle, individuals could overcome feelings of inferiority and move towards a more socially useful type of living.

The recognition and understanding of these styles of life allow psychologists and therapists to tailor their approaches to treatment, emphasizing the development of social interest and community feeling as pathways to overcoming personal challenges and achieving a fulfilling life.

Birth Order

Adler’s insights into the effects of birth order on personality development were among the first to suggest that one’s position within the family can have a lasting impact on their character and social relationships. He highlighted how firstborns, middle children, secondborns, and youngest children each face unique challenges and opportunities that shape their personalities.

Disagreement with Freud

Alfred Adler's departure from Freudian psychoanalysis marked a significant divergence in the early 20th-century psychological community. While both theorists agreed on the importance of unconscious processes in influencing behavior, their theories diverged on the nature of these processes and their impact on personality development.

Motivation of Behavior: Freud posited that behavior is primarily motivated by internal biological drives, particularly sexual and aggressive impulses. In contrast, Adler believed that social influences and a striving for superiority or self-improvement are the primary motivators of behavior.

Role of Society and Community: Adler placed a greater emphasis on the role of societal factors and community life in shaping individual psychology. He introduced the concept of social interest, suggesting that a healthy individual is motivated by a desire to contribute to the welfare of others.

Individual Agency: Unlike Freud, who emphasized the deterministic nature of unconscious drives, Adler championed the idea of personal agency. He argued that individuals have the power to choose and are responsible for shaping their own personalities and destinies.


Alfred Adler's contributions to psychology have left an indelible mark on our understanding of human behavior and personality development. His theories, emphasizing the importance of social interest, feelings of inferiority, and the striving for superiority, offer a unique lens through which to view the motivations behind human actions.

Adler's departure from Freudian psychoanalysis laid the groundwork for a more holistic approach to understanding the individual within the context of society. Through his work, Adler reminds us that our aspirations, how we relate to others, and our pursuit of personal growth are deeply interconnected facets of the human experience. As Adler himself eloquently stated,

"The only normal people are the ones you don't know very well.

Alfred Adler

This quote encapsulates the essence of Adler's perspective on humanity, emphasizing the complexity and uniqueness of each individual's journey towards self-improvement and societal contribution. His insights continue to inspire and influence the fields of psychology, education, and beyond, encouraging a compassionate and comprehensive approach to understanding the depths of the human spirit.