Chapter 4:  Adler – Individual Psychology

Part 1: Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler was an early member and president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, but he never considered himself a follower of Sigmund Freud.  He strongly disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexual desire in the development of personality, focusing instead on children striving for superiority and the importance of social relationships.  He began to address the psychology of women as a cultural phenomenon, as opposed to Freud’s view that women are fundamentally incapable of developing a complete and healthy personality. Adler also addressed issues of education, an individual’s unique perspective on the world, and family therapy.  Adler provided a perspective in which the striving of individuals to improve themselves is an essential characteristic of personality development. Most importantly, he believed that personal improvement and success are best achieved in cooperation with others, and that culture is an important factor in determining how that can be accomplished.

It has been suggested that Adler may have had an even greater influence on the overall development of psychiatry and psychology than Freud himself, and that theorists such as Sullivan, as well as Karen Horney and Erich Fromm, should be recognized as neo-Adlerians, not neo-Freudians (Ellis, 1973; Kaufmann, 1992; Mosak, 1995; Watts, 1999).  Indeed, a reviewer of one of Karen Horney’s books once wrote that Horney had just written a new book by Adler (see Mosak, 1995). Albert Ellis suggested that Adler set the stage for the cognitive/behavioral psychotherapies that are so popular today (Ellis, 1973). Late in life, Adler encouraged the wife of a good friend to write his biography, and he gave Phyllis Bottome, who was herself a friend of Adler, a great deal of assistance (Bottome, 1957).  He wanted to be understood.

Adler also had the ability to make an impression on people who did not know him.  When Raymond Corsini, a well-known psychologist in his own right, was 21 years old, he was invited by a friend to hear Adler speak at the City College of New York.  During the question period that followed the lecture, an angry woman called Adler stupid and berated one of the observations he had discussed. The young Corsini shared Adler’s perspective, and Corsini looked forward to hearing Adler’s “crushing reply.”  However, something quite different occurred:

He seemed interested in the question, waited a moment, then in the most natural and careful manner, completely unruffled by her evident antagonism, spoke to her very simply…He seemed so calm, so reasonable, so precise, and so kind, I knew we were in the presence of a great man, a humble and kind person, one who repaid hostility with friendship. (pg. 86; Corsini cited in Manaster, et al., 1977)

Harry Stack Sullivan extended Adler’s focus on the individual and social interest, believing that each of us can be understood only within the context of our interpersonal relationships.  Like Freud, Sullivan focused intently on developmental stages, though he recognized seven of them, and believed that the primary purpose of development was to form better interpersonal relationships.  In regard to his interest in relationships, he can be closely associated with Adler who believed that social interest, and its resulting social interaction, was the best way for an individual to overcome either real inferiority (such as in the case of a helpless newborn) or feelings of inferiority that might develop as part of one’s personality.  Unlike Freud and Adler, however, Sullivan was born in America. Thus, he should be considered one of the most important figures in American psychology, particularly within the field of psychodynamic theory.

Brief Biography of Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler was born on February 7, 1870, on the outskirts of Vienna.  The second of six children, the family was fairly typical of the middle-class.  His father was a corn-merchant who did well in his business. While Adler was still quite young, the family moved out into the country where they kept cows, horses, chickens, goats, rabbits, and they had a very large garden.  Adler was particularly fond of flowers when he was a toddler, and the move out of Vienna had the consequence of protecting him from his bad habit of stealing flowers from the garden of the Palace of Schonbrunn, which belonged to the Kaiser!  Despite the seemingly idyllic setting and the family’s financial comfort, Adler did not have a happy childhood. The two main reasons for this were his sibling rivalry with his older brother and the unfortunate fact that he seemed to be surrounded by illness and death (Bottome, 1957; Manaster, et al., 1977; Sperber, 1974).

His older brother seemed to be an ideal child, and Adler felt he could never match his brother’s accomplishments.  Even later in life, Adler told Phyllis Bottome with a sigh “My eldest brother…he was always ahead of me…he is still ahead of me!” (pg. 27; Bottome, 1957).  As for his younger brothers, however, one felt the same sort of jealousy of Adler himself, whereas the youngest brother adored Adler.  As for illness and death, he suffered from rickets (a vitamin D deficiency) and spasms of his vocal cords, both of which made physical activity very difficult during his early childhood years.  He was often forced to sit on a bench while watching his older brother run and jump. As he recovered, he joined his brother and the other local children playing out in the fields. Despite the fact that there were very few vehicles at the time, and those that were there moved very slowly, Adler was run over twice!  Fortunately, he was not injured seriously. One of his younger brothers, however, had died suddenly when Adler was 4, an event that deeply affected him. And when Adler was 5, he came down with a serious case of pneumonia. After he had been examined by the doctor, Adler heard the doctor tell his father that there was no point in caring for Adler any more, as there was no hope for his survival.  Adler was stricken with terror, and when he recovered, he resolved to become a doctor so that he might have a better defense against death (Bottome, 1957; Manaster, et al., 1977; Sperber, 1974).

This is a black and white photograph of Alfred Adler. The photo is taken of his profile from the shoulders up. He is wearing a suit coat, bow tie, and glasses.
Isidoricaaa7. Alfred Adler. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

On the lighter side, most of the family was musically gifted.  One of his brothers played and taught the violin, and one of his sisters was an excellent pianist.  Despite the throat problems Adler had in early childhood, he developed a beautiful tenor voice. He was often encouraged to set aside his interest in science and pursue a career as an opera singer.  Adler’s parents encouraged the musical interests of their children, and took advantage of the marvelous musical culture available in Vienna at the time. Adler attended every opera and play that was running, and even by the age of 4 years old could sing entire operettas (Bottome, 1957; Manaster, et al., 1977; Sperber, 1974).

Although Adler spent a great deal of time reading, he was not a particularly good student.  His worst subject was math, until he finally had a breakthrough one day. When the instructor and the best student in class failed to solve a problem, Adler raised his hand.  Everyone in the room, including the instructor, laughed out loud at him. However, he was able to solve the problem. After that, he did quite well in math, and overall, he did well enough to enter the University of Vienna.  He studied medicine, as he had planned since being a young child, and graduated in 1895. Almost nothing is known of his time spent at the University of Vienna. Afterward, he briefly practiced ophthalmology, but then switched to general practice, a field in which he was very popular amongst his patients.  He also became active in socialist politics, where he met his future wife, Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein (Bottome, 1957; Manaster, et al., 1977; Sperber, 1974).

Raissa and Alfred Adler had three daughters and one son between the years 1898 and 1909.  The family lived rather simply, but they always had enough to meet their needs. Their daughter Alexandra and son Kurt both became psychiatrists.  Alexandra Adler described her relationship with her father as close and positive, and she considered it a privilege to follow in his footsteps (see Manaster, et al., 1977).

In his general practice, Adler began to see psychiatric patients.  The first was a distant cousin who complained of headaches. Adler suggested that no one ever has only a headache, and asked if her marriage was happy.  She was deeply offended and left in a huff, but 2 months later she filed for divorce.  As he saw more psychiatric patients, Adler treated each case as unique, and followed whatever therapy seemed most appropriate for the particular patient.  This was the beginning, of course, of Individual Psychology.

In 1900, Sigmund Freud gave a lecture to the Vienna Medical Association on his recently published book, The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900/1995).  The audience was openly hostile and Freud was ridiculed.  Adler was appalled, and he said so publicly, later writing to a medical journal that Freud’s theories should be given the consideration they deserved.  Freud was deeply flattered so he sent his thanks to Adler, leading to the two of them deciding to meet. In 1902, Adler was one of four doctors asked to meet weekly at Freud’s home to discuss work, philosophies, and the problem of neurosis.  These meeting evolved into the Psychoanalytic Society. Adler and Freud maintained their cooperative relationship for eight years, and in 1910, Adler became the president of the International Psychoanalytic Association and co-editor of the newly established Zentrallblatt fur Psychoanalyse (with Freud as Editor-in-chief).  During the preceding 8 years, however, the differences between Freud and Adler had become increasingly apparent.  By 1911, he had resigned from both the association and the journal’s editorial board. Although Freud had threatened to resign from the journal if Adler’s name was not removed, leading to Adler’s own decision to resign from the journal, Freud urged Adler to reconsider leaving the discussion group.  He invited Adler to dinner to discuss a resolution, but none was to be found. Adler is said to have asked Freud: “Why should I always do my work under your shadow?” (pg. 76; Bottome, 1957). The Psychoanalytic Society debated whether or not Adler’s views were acceptable amongst the members of the society.  The “no” votes counted fourteen, and the “yes” votes counted nine. Freud’s supporters had won a small majority, and the nine other members left to join Adler in forming a new society, which in 1912, became the Society for Individual Psychology (Bottome, 1957; Manaster, et al., 1977; Sperber, 1974).

During the years in which Adler was still active in the Psychoanalytic Society, he had begun his studies on organ inferiority and the inferiority complex, and after the split with Freud, he focused his career on psychiatry (giving up his general medical practice).  During World War I he served in the Army as a physician, and he continued his observations on psychiatric conditions as he helped injured servicemen. Following the war, the Austrian Republic began to emphasize education and school reform. Adler established his first child guidance center in 1922, and by the late 1920s, there were thirty-two clinics in Vienna alone (as well as some in Germany).  The clinics were intended to help train teachers to work with special needs children, but Adler felt it was important to help the children themselves as well. In 1930, Adler brought together a number of his colleagues, including his daughter Alexandra, and published Guiding the Child: On the Principles of Individual Psychology.  This volume contains twenty-one chapters on the work being conducted in the Vienna child guidance clinics (including one chapter by Adler, and two by his daughter; Adler, 1930a).  In addition, Adler taught at an adult education center and at a teacher training college. Adler continued to be so popular that after a long day of work he would settle in at the Cafe Siller and carry on friendly conversations until late at night.

In 1926, Adler made his first visit to America.  Becoming a regular visitor, he lectured at Harvard and Brown Universities, in Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and several schools in California.  In 1929, he was appointed a visiting professor at Columbia University, and in 1932, he was appointed as the first chair of Medical Psychology in the United States at Long Island Medical College.  All of his child guidance clinics were closed when the fascists overthrew the Austrian Republic in 1934, and Alfred and Raissa Adler made New York their official home. In the spring of 1937, Adler began a tour of Europe giving lectures and holding meetings.  As he traveled to Aberdeen, Scotland on May 28th, he collapsed from a heart attack and died before he reached the hospital.

One of the enduring questions about Adler’s career was the nature of his relationship with Freud.  As mentioned above, it was the very popular Adler who defended Freud’s early theories and helped Freud to gain recognition in psychiatry (remember that Freud was well known as an anatomist and neurophysiologist).  And yet, it is often suggested that Adler was a student or disciple of Freud. According to Abraham Maslow, Adler was deeply offended by these suggestions.

To suggest that anyone may have been more influential than Freud, let alone a contemporary of Freud, is difficult to say.  And yet, if we look honestly at the accomplishments of Alfred Adler, and the breadth of his areas of interest, we will see that the case can be made.  When Freud first proposed his psychodynamic theory, with its emphasis on infantile sexuality, Freud was often mocked or simply ignored. It was the popular Dr. Adler’s defense of Freud and Adler’s favorable review of the interesting nature of Freud’s theories, that helped Freud find an interested audience.  As supportive as Adler was, he had his own theories from the very beginning of their association, and Adler’s Individual Psychology has a certain logical appeal, without the corresponding controversy generated by Freud.

Infants are inferior and we all try to gain control over our environments.  Thus, the basic inferiority/striving for superiority concept seems self-evident.  Likewise, the inferiority complex is one of the most widely recognized and intuitively understood concepts in the history of psychology.  Suggesting that each person adopts a style of life that helps them to pursue their goals makes perfect sense, and the suggestion that we have within us a creative power to form our style of life is a decidedly hopeful perspective on the human condition.

Adler’s influence within the psychodynamic field has been widely recognized, if not adequately advertised.  When he split with Freud, nearly half of the psychoanalytic society left with him. His emphasis on social interactions and culture provided a framework within which theorists such as Karen Horney and Erich Fromm flourished.  Adler’s emphasis on child guidance, and including school teachers as being just as important as parents, must have had an important influence on Anna Freud (though she would never have admitted it). Within the child guidance centers, Adler was one of the first (if not the first) to utilize family therapy, group psychotherapy, as well as school psychology.  It was within such an environment, influenced also by Maria Montessori, that Erik Erikson evolved into the analyst and theorist he became.

Adler’s influence also extended well beyond the psychodynamic realm.  His scheme of apperception set the stage for the cognitive psychology and therapies that are so popular and effective today.  He is recognized by many as the founder of humanistic psychology, though it was Rogers, Maslow, and the existentialists Viktor Frankl (Frankl worked closely with Adler for a time) and Rollo May who clearly split from psychodynamic theory into new schools of psychology.

Given this extraordinary influence, it is surprising that Adler is not widely recognized as belonging amongst the greatest theorists and clinical innovators in the history of psychology and psychiatry.  The honor is certainly well deserved.

Supplemental Materials

If You Know Nothing About Personality-Adler

This video [5:03] provides a brief overview of Alfred Adler’s theory of personality.



Alfred Adler: 1 Life and Times 

This video [7:38] provides a brief overview of Alfred Adler’s family life, early work with Sigmund Freud, and the development of individual psychology.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Ken Tangen.  (2010, February 9).  If you know nothing about personality 04: Adler.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Peter Smith.  (2013, June 9).  Alfred Adler: 1. Life and times.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.