Chapter 4:  Adler – Individual Psychology

Part 2: Adler’s Individual Psychology

Adler developed the concept of Individual Psychology out of his observation that psychologists were beginning to ignore what he called the unity of the individual.

To summarize Individual Psychology briefly, children begin life with feelings of inferiority toward their parents, as well as toward the whole world.  The child’s life becomes an ongoing effort to overcome this inferiority, and the child is continuously restless.  As the child seeks superiority, it creatively forms goals, even if the ultimate goal is a fictional representation of achieving superiority.  Indeed, Adler believed that it is impossible to think, feel, will, or act without the perception of some goal, and that every psychological phenomenon can only be understood if it is regarded as preparation for some goal.  Thus, the person’s entire life becomes centered on a given plan for attaining the final goal (whatever that may be). Such a perspective must be uniquely individual, since each person’s particular childhood feelings of inferiority, creative style of life, and ultimate goals would be unique to their own experiences (Adler, 1914/1963).

The suggestion that seeking to overcome one’s inferiorities is the driving force underlying personality development is, of course, a significant departure from Freud’s suggestion that development revolves around seeking psychosexual gratification.  Another important difference is that Adler did not distinguish between the conscious and unconscious minds as Freud had:

The use of the terms “consciousness” and “unconsciousness” to designate distinctive factors is incorrect in the practice of Individual Psychology.  Consciousness and unconsciousness move together in the same direction and are not contradictions, as is so often believed. What is more, there is no definite line of demarcation between them.  It is merely a question of discovering the purpose of their joint movement. (pg. 56; Adler, 1929a)

Inferiority and Compensation

In 1907, Adler published his classic Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation, which was translated into English 10 years later (Adler, 1917).  This was primarily a medical article on the consequences of organ inferiority, in which Adler looked at how the nervous system helped the body to adapt to physical infirmities that resulted from, literally, inferior organ development.  For example, it is often suggested that people who are blind develop better hearing. However, social psychologists have demonstrated that the social environment can profoundly affect our sensitivity to external stimuli.  The reason for this is probably just what Adler described as the primary means through which the brain can compensate for any deficiency; by bringing attention to the processes necessary for compensation. Thus, if a person has difficulty seeing, they pay more careful attention to hearing, as well as to the other senses.  However, this is not a perfect system, and it can also lead to over-compensation. As a result, a wide variety of physical symptoms can result from the psyche’s efforts (including unconscious efforts) to compensate for some problem. As noted by Freud, hysterical symptoms are typically manifested as physical problems. According to Adler, underlying these physical symptoms, even when they are caused solely by the psyche, must be some organ inferiority within the body (Adler, 1917).

Adler did not limit his theory of organ inferiority to medical problems or neurotic symptoms, but rather, he expanded the theory to incorporate all aspects of life.  Compensation refers to the typical manner in which a person seeks to overcome challenges.  For example, if one breaks their arm, they learn to function with a cast, or if one loses their eyesight, they learn to use a cane or work with a seeing-eye dog (Dreikurs, 1950; Mosak & Maniacci, 1999).  If we examine compensation in a more psychosocial realm, examples might include a college student who cannot find a suitable boyfriend or girlfriend so they focus on becoming a straight A student, a student who does not do well academically focuses their efforts on becoming a star athlete, or an only child who wished to have brothers and sisters has many children of their own (Lundin, 1989).  In such instances, compensation leads to balance in one’s life. A weakness, or at least a perceived weakness, is compensated for in other ways (Manaster & Corsini, 1982). Overcompensation involves taking compensation to extremes.  For example, a person born with a bad foot strives to become a professional dancer, or a person born in poverty strives to become a millionaire and then continues to work 80 hours a week or more striving to become a billionaire.  Generally speaking, the mechanisms of personality inferiority are more complex than those of organ inferiority. Likewise, compensation and overcompensation are more complex when they pertain to one’s personality than when they involve physical challenges (Manaster & Corsini, 1982).

When a person finds it difficult to overcome their challenges in life, they can develop what Adler called an inferiority complex (Adler, 1928, 1929a, 1931a).  Although feelings of inferiority are universal, as is the striving for superiority, people are not created equal.  We all have different strengths and weaknesses. However, when an individual cannot compensate for their weaknesses, and their feelings of inferiority overwhelm them, the inferiority complex arises.  According to Adler, the term complex is not really accurate, because the so-called inferiority complex is complicated, and it permeates the entire personality. And yet, it may not always be obvious. An individual with an inferiority complex may feel comfortable in situations in which they have enough experience to feel self-assured, although they may create those situations by avoiding competition that might expose their weaknesses (Adler, 1929a).  The inferiority complex will show itself, however, in tense or difficult situations, and often takes the form of excuses as to why the individual can’t pursue a certain course of action. For psychologists, according to Adler, the presence of an inferiority complex can typically be recognized by contradictions, by certain emotions such as doubt, and by generally hesitant behavior. The proper treatment, therefore, is to encourage people, never to discourage them, and to help them understand that they are capable of solving problems and facing the difficulties of life (Adler, 1929a).

When the intense feelings of inferiority associated with the inferiority complex become too much to bear, they can be transformed into a unique delusion that Adler described as the superiority complex (Adler, 1928, 1929a, 1931a).  The superiority complex should not be viewed as an extension of the normal process of striving for superiority.  The superiority complex arises out of the inferiority complex, and is actually an extension of the intense feelings of inferiority.  Interestingly, such people typically do not present themselves as superior individuals; instead they may be arrogant, snooty, domineering, or they may cling to prominent and important people.  In contrast, people who truly are superior often have a sense of modesty (Lundin, 1989; Mosak & Maniacci, 1999). The complexity of the superiority complex, and its origin in feelings of inferiority and the continued striving for superiority that is universal, can be seen not only in neurotic symptoms and other forms of mental illness, but also in criminal behavior.

We see children who start stealing suffering from the feeling of superiority.  They believe they are deceiving others; that others do not know they are stealing.  Thus they are richer with little effort. This same feeling is very pronounced among criminals who have the idea that they are superior heroes…he wants to arrange matters so that he escapes the solution of the problems of life.  Criminality is thus, the result of a superiority complex and not the expression of fundamental and original viciousness. (pp. 80-81; Adler, 1929a)

The Style of Life and Life Plan

According to Adler, everyone faces difficulties in life and they strive to overcome those difficulties.  As each individual faces their unique difficulties and strives to compensate in their own characteristic ways given the environment (or culture) in which they live, the individual develops a sense of meaning for their life and they set a goal for their strivings.  Initially Adler referred to the consistent movement toward this overriding goal as a life plan, but that term proved to be somewhat confusing.  So, Adler chose instead to refer to the pursuit of one’s goal as the style of life.  The style of life unifies the personality, as it is based on one’s early life experiences.  However, Individual Psychology looks not to the past, but rather to the future. If we know a person’s style of life, we can predict their future actions (Adler, 1929a, 1931a).

It is not always easy to recognize the style of life, particularly in a psychologically healthy person or during times of relative calm.  It is when a person faces a new situation or a new difficulty that the style of life becomes clear to others. For the normal person, the style of life is a framework within which the person is adapted to their society in such a way that the society benefits from the work of the person and the person themselves has the energy and courage to face any problems and difficulties that arise (Adler, 1929a).  The style of life encompasses our individual creativity, the ways in which we solve problems and compensate for inferiorities, our attitudes, opinions, and goals. It unifies and expresses our personality, provides consistency for how we live our life, and helps us to find our place in the world (Adler, 1931a; Dreikurs, 1950; Lundin, 1989; Mosak & Maniacci, 1999).

The style of life is established fairly early in childhood, which can be a serious problem when it proves to be a dysfunctional style of life.  The inferiority complex is, of course, one faulty style of life. When an inferiority complex arises out of an actual organ inferiority, it can be particularly troublesome.  Robert Lundin (1989) described the case of a senior student he knew in college who was only 5’ 3” tall (very short for a man, though this would really only be a perceived inferiority).  He was extremely arrogant and hostile toward younger students, claiming to be intellectually superior in every regard. He even offered to be Lundin’s roommate, since Lundin obviously needed his help to improve Lundin’s deficient personality!  Lundin declined the offer. Adler noted that organ inferiority is not always a negative situation, and given the advances in prosthetic devices that exist today, it is even truer now that organ inferiority does not necessarily diminish one’s quality of life.  However, Adler emphasized that what matters most is how the individual experiences the weakness of their organ inferiority.  Some try to avoid or deny the problem, others constantly “wrestle and struggle” with their difficulties.  In the end, it comes down to the creative power of the individual to adapt (see below; Adler, 1932a/1964).

In addition to the style of life that can result from organ inferiority (or perceived organ inferiority), Adler discussed two other factors that commonly lead to dysfunctional styles of life, and which can be attributed primarily to parental influence:  pampering and neglect.  The pampered style of life was of particular concern to Adler.  He was not referring to children who are loved and cared for intimately, but to children whose parents constantly hover over them, solve every problem, and relieve the child of any duties or responsibilities.  As a result, the child never learns to take care of itself or to interact with others in a cooperative manner.

The more deeply I have delved into the problem of neurosis and searched the cases presented, the more clearly have I come to see that in every individual with a neurosis some degree of pampering can be traced…Under such circumstances the child develops like a parasite… (pp. 88-89; Adler, 1932a/1964)

Extending this idea, Adler wrote that whether one is dealing with “difficult children, nervous or insane persons, suicides, delinquents, drug-addicts, or perverts, etc.,” there is a lack of social feeling (Adler, 1964).  In other words, they simply do not function well in relationship to others because they have never had to. As for the neglected child, one who is unwanted, they have had no opportunity for social interaction whatsoever since their own family fails to interact with them.  In cases of suicide, Adler believed that even death can be desired as a means of revenge against those who have hurt or neglected a child by showing others what they have lost in the one they failed to love (Adler, 1967). Since feelings of neglect are relative, pampered children often find themselves in situations, later in life, where they feel neglected, since they may no longer receive the pampering to which they have become accustomed (Adler, 1932a/1964).

Social Interest and Cooperation

Adler believed that the right way to achieve superiority was through social interest and the cooperation that naturally follows.  This is not some high-minded philosophy, however, but simple reality.  According to Adler, “we are in the midst of the stream of evolution.” As such, the human species as a whole has sought superiority, just as each individual seeks their own personal superiority (Adler, 1964).  The individual’s weakness causes them to seek support from others, by living within a society:

All persons feel inadequate in certain situations.  They feel overwhelmed by the difficulties of life and are incapable of meeting them single-handed.  Hence one of the strongest tendencies in man has been to form groups in order that he may live as a member of a society and not as an isolated individual.  This social life has without doubt been a great help to him in overcoming his feeling of inadequacy and inferiority. We know that this is the case with animals, where the weaker species always live in groups…On the other hand, gorillas, lions, and tigers can live isolated because nature has given them the means of self-protection.  A human being has not their great strength, their claws, nor their teeth, and so cannot live apart. Thus we find that the beginning of social life lies in the weakness of the individual. (pp. 60-61; Adler, 1929a)

This evolutionary perspective provides an explanation for the paradox that Individual Psychology is focused largely on social relationships!  Once again, we know (though perhaps unconsciously) that alone we are weak and inferior, but together we can accomplish great things. Adler’s hopeful vision for the future is that someday, humanity’s social feeling will overcome everything that opposes it and people will live in harmony.  In the meantime, however, he acknowledges that many things still oppose it and work to destroy the social feelings and social interest of children, such as sexism, racism, poverty, crime, the death penalty, suicide, greed, mistreatment of the poor, the handicapped, and the elderly, and all forms of prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance (Adler, 1964).  It is not an easy challenge facing humanity, but Adler suggested that the path toward harmony lies, in part, in recognizing the three main ties that every person must take into account. First, we are tied to this one world, the earth. We must learn how to survive here, given whatever advantages and disadvantages that means. Second, we are not the only member of the human race.  Through cooperation and association, we can find strength for all and we can ensure the future of humanity. Finally, we must accept that there are two sexes. For Adler, this last tie is resolved primarily through love and marriage. While this may sound like a product of Adler’s cultural upbringing, it also implies caring for and respecting members of the other sex. Otherwise, love is a word used without meaning.  Adler proposed that if we give meaning to life through the recognition of these three ties to our environment, then others can share in our meaning of life and the benefit will then return to us (Adler, 1931a).

In more practical terms, social interest is evident in cooperation.  In order for an individual to overcome their own feelings of inferiority, they must know that they are valuable, which comes only from contributing to the common welfare.  Adler felt that those who seek personal power are pursuing a false goal, and they will eventually disappear from life altogether. However, by contributing to family and society, either through raising children or contributing to the success of one’s culture or society, one can claim a sense of immortality.  Individual psychology is based on the premise that when a person realizes that the common good is essential to the development of humanity, then they will pursue personal development that is in accord with the greater good. They will recognize both the good and challenges that come their way as belonging to all, and they will cooperate in seeking to solve the challenges.  They will not ask for anything in return, since they recognize that whatever they do to benefit others is ultimately to their own benefit as well (Adler, 1933/1964). This perspective is surprisingly close to Eastern philosophies and the concepts of interbeing and karma, though Adler’s religious references are primarily Christian (though born Jewish, Adler later became a Christian).

In American society, work is often done by teams.  The short definition of a team is two or more individuals, with different roles, who socially interact in order to pursue some common goal.  Teams can lead to successful outcomes in a wide variety of settings, such as in software development, Olympic hockey, disease outbreak responses, or the unexpected damage to a spacecraft, like Apollo 13.  However, teams can also lead to group failures, such as the international intelligence failures leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, or the widely reported, storm-related deaths on Mt. Everest in 1997 (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006; Marks, 2006; for more on Mt. Everest see Boukreev & DeWalt, 1997; Krakauer, 1997).  Given the importance of teamwork, both in personal settings and within organizations, there has been a great deal of research on teams, addressing cognitive, motivational, and behavioral factors, as well as information on effective team design, team training, and team leadership. Despite the wealth of information on both the positive and negative factors involved in teamwork, there is an interesting contradiction in the Western world:

…We school our children as individuals.  We hire, train, and reward employees as individuals.  And, yet, we have great faith that individuals thrown together into a team with little thought devoted to team composition, training and development, and leadership will be effective and successful. (pg. 115; Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006)

The Life Tasks-Work, Communal Life and Love

Based on the three ties described above, our ties to earth, humanity, and the opposite sex, Adler described three life tasks:  work, communal life, and love.  Work relates to the earth in an evolutionary sense, dating back to when our ancient ancestors were hunter/gatherers dependent on the environment for food and shelter.  According to Adler, all of the questions of life can be found within these three tasks, which challenge us continuously throughout our lives. These tasks are not unrelated, since each one depends upon the successful pursuit of the other two.  Given this interrelationship, Adler believed that how a person approaches each of these tasks through their style of life, reveals a great deal about what they view as the meaning of life. It is necessary, of course, for there to be balance. For example, a person in an unhappy marriage might spend a great deal of time at work.  This represents a mistaken style of life (Adler, 1931a, 1964). Worse still, is someone who fails to pursue any of the life tasks.

The importance of the work task is to be found in the fact that we must do something with our time.  As people began to cooperate, they were able to divide their labors.  Some would hunt, some would farm, some became craftsmen, some raised the young, and eventually others served in the armies that protected all the rest.  In this manner, each person served a valuable role within society (even if the role was not prestigious), and everyone benefited from the ability of each person to become more of an expert in their role.

Of course, this sort of social cooperation is the second task of life, the communal life or, as it is sometimes referred to, having friends.  Working with others for the common good can be quite difficult if people are doing so only for their own benefit or if they distrust or fear those they seem to be cooperating with.  As societies became more advanced, and education became an important part of society, most societies encouraged social interest as an aspect of education. In America, for example, we talk about children learning to be good citizens, and schools include many civics lessons.  In addition, societies establish not only formal and informal guidelines and norms for acceptable behavior, but actual laws are written to punish those who act in defiance of the common good. Not that this is easy! The first amendment to the American constitution guarantees free speech, which includes the right to challenge the very existence of our form of government.  However, it is generally recognized that the greater good is served by protecting the people from possible abuses of power by the government. Without getting into a discussion of politics, this balance, which seeks to serve the best interests of the community of citizens, has resulted in one of the longest lasting governments in the world today.

When Adler referred to the third task of life, the love task, he was primarily talking about choosing a partner to bear and raise children.  When a child is first born, the love of its mother is the basis for the child’s development of social feelings.  If a child is neglected, they do not learn how to relate to others, or if they are spoiled, they do not need to relate to others.  An early challenge for the child is found in the nature of the father, and then any siblings who may be a part of the family. They typically do not approach the child with the same tender love as the mother.  If the mother protects the child from this, spoiling and coddling the infant, a disordered style of life develops, but if the mother leaves the child to face this new challenge on its own, they must rely on their creative powers to adapt to these different social relationships.  Children readily have this capacity if they are allowed to utilize it. Later in life, each person must choose a mate in order to have their own children, and their ability to adapt to relationships with love interests will obviously depend on their own development earlier in life.  Active and friendly members of a community will have more opportunities to meet someone they are truly attracted to. Individuals who are successful and productive in their work will be better able to provide for a family. And of course, the ultimate existence of each member of the community depends on continued procreation of the species.  Thus, work, communal life, and love come together within a healthy society for everyone’s benefit (Adler, 1931a, 1964; Lundin, 1989; Mosak & Maniacci, 1999).

The Creative Power of the Individual and Fictional Finalism

The science of Individual Psychology developed out of the effort to understand that mysterious creative power of life; that power which expresses itself in the desire to develop, to strive and to achieve , and even to compensate for defeats in one direction by striving for success in another. (pg. 32; Adler, 1929a)

Adler believed that we are all born with a creative force:  the creative power of the individual.  He did not reject the concepts of heredity, temperament, or disposition, but he emphasized that what we are born with is not so important, but rather, what we do with it (Adler, 1932a/1964).  As noted above, infants are inferior, so everyone begins life with feelings of inferiority.  This leads to the striving for superiority and the development of a style of life, which is aimed toward some goal.  The nature of that style of life is unique because it is created by the child, and it is done very early in life. This is not a deterministic perspective; this creation of the style of life is just that, creative, and therefore, it must be unique (hence, Individual Psychology).  Since Adler believed that all thought and behavior was oriented toward some goal, there must be some goal that underlies the manner in which the style of life is created.  Since a child cannot see into the future and create a specific goal in life, Adler proposed that we are guided by a fictional goal, the so-called fictional finalism (Adler, 1914/1963, 1928, 1929a, 1932a/1964; Lundin, 1989; Manaster & Corsini, 1982).

The fictional final goal involves the sentiment of superiority, or at least the elevation of the personality to an extent that makes life seem worth living (Adler, 1928).  Thus, it does not need to be precisely defined, which is important for our consideration that it is created by a young child. And yet it exists within the child’s mind, it provides the framework within which the style of life is creatively formed, and it serves as the child’s goal in life (though it remains primarily unconscious).  It is also important to recognize that although this goal is fictional, it is entirely positive, and it is a healthy and natural motivational force (Lundin, 1989). The fictional finalism should definitely not be mistaken for fictive superiority.  Fictive superiority is the imagination, or false belief, that one is actually superior.  It is a typical neurotic symptom that stems primarily from having been pampered. A pampered child is superior, at least in the sense that everything is done for them.  However, adult life no longer sustains that delusion, yet the child has never learned how to adapt to life’s challenges. As a result, their style of life is set with the expectation that challenges will be solved for them.  A healthy child, on the other hand, has learned to face challenges and to strive toward overcoming them. Thus, the healthy child develops a style of life that incorporates the process of facing and overcoming life’s obstacles, and this carries over into a healthy adulthood (Adler, 1932b/1964).  Within his discussion of the creative power of the individual and the fictional finalism, Adler began to address what can be viewed as the foundation for cognitive psychology and cognitive therapy.

According to Adler, the prototype of the style of life, as it points toward the fictional finalism, is set in a particular orientation.  Throughout the individual’s life, their perceptions of the world are then constrained to “fall into a groove established by the line of direction” (Adler, 1929a).  He referred to this phenomenon as the scheme of apperception.  As a result of this scheme, the individual interprets experiences before they are accepted, and the interpretation always agrees with the original meaning that the individual has given to their life.  When the individual has developed a mistaken meaning to life, or when experience cannot be reconciled with the meaning they hold, they may be forced to change their scheme of apperception. This is not easy, however, and only occurs when there is sufficient social pressure to do so (Adler, 1931a).

Supplemental Materials

The Psychology of Alfred Adler: Superiority, Inferiority, and Courage 

This video [8:58] describes Alfred Adler’s thoughts on superiority as the fundamental drive of human behavior, and his insights on what creates inferiority complexes.



Alfred Adler:  3 Key Concepts and Insights 

This video [11:01] describes Adler’s ideas around life goals, the self-ideal, the style of life, social interest, and the importance of birth order.



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

Academy of Ideas.  (2017, November 29).  The psychology of Alfred Adler: Superiority, inferiority, and courage.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Peter Smith.  (2013, June 11).  Alfred Adler: 3 key concepts and insights.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © 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.