psychology text books that address topics on which he has made major contributions and where he rightfully belongs? I do not think this represents that Adler played an insignificant role in the field of psychology; rather, it heralds the fact that his theory is so comprehensive that authors attempting to write introductory texts have difficulty knowing where to place him! In this article, I will show that much of the subject matter covered in an Introductory Psychology course has links to Adlerian Psychology.Psychologists who practice Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology attempt, among other things, to help individuals find their place in the world. Isn’t it ironic then, that Alfred Adler is often left out of
When I teach Introduction to Psychology, the infamous Psych 100 on most college campuses, I tell students that the course is like an infomercial for all the other offerings in the department. In a survey course of this nature, we are only able to provide to students a glimpse of each subject area in hopes of teasing them to seek out a more in-depth study of those topics that interest them. Many Introductory Psychology texts today begin with a chapter on the definition of psychology, attributing the original meaning of psychology to its Greek roots where psyche means mind. They explain that while originally psychology was attributed to the study of the mind, today psychologists take a more holistic perspective that is a biopsychosocial (and sometimes spiritual) one. This would be a critical point to introduce that when Adler parted from Freud in 1911, he began to call his approach to psychology Individualpsychologie (in German) since he saw each person holistically as an indivisible human being embedded in a social context; therefore, serving as a forerunner in holism. Unfortunately, the English translation has been misinterpreted as if it were to mean the study of the individual in isolation from its social context. Therefore, in order to avoid this misunderstanding, Adler’s theory is often known as Adlerian theory (Powers & Griffith, 2007). Shortly after Adler named his theory, he became aware of Jan Smutt’s use of the term Holism, and when his book, Evolution and Holism, was published in 1926, Adler got permission to have it translated into German for his students. Adler realized that the term Holism more appropriately embodied his approach (Ansbacher, 1994).
Adler’s early emphasis on social embeddedness, meaning to understand the individual within a social context, positions him as a pioneer in social psychology. Those familiar with Gardner Murphy’s renowned Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology will recall that in 1931 he said, “Adler’s was the first psychological system in the history of psychology that was developed in what we should today call a social-science direction” (p. 341). It appears that Adler’s contemporary knew the state of the field at the time, but current authors have lost sight of Adler’s role in the roots of social psychology. In social psychology such topics as aggression, attraction, cooperation, and parenting are regularly covered. Likewise, these same topics are often explained in terms of evolution, but only following an overview of evolution.
The biological underpinnings of evolution is usually covered in one of its initial chapters of introductory texts similar to the way Zimbardo, Johnson and Weber (2006) do. In their text, they define evolution as “the gradual process of biological change that occurs in a species as it adapts to its environment” (p. 44) and they discuss Darwin’s explanation of natural selection, a process by which those organisms that are best adapted to the environment are more likely to prosper and reproduce. While some authors emphasize natural selection as a competitive process among organisms to survive, others offer explanations from present day writers such as Sussman and Garber (2004) that survival is achieved through cooperation. In so doing, they overlook Adler’s much earlier link with Darwin. Adler approached the problem of social evolution from the biological point of view stressing the importance of communal living (Goldwert, 1984). Adler (1956) stated that:
The whole animal kingdom demonstrates the fundamental law that species whose members are incapable of facing the battle for self-pres ervation, gather new strength through herd life… Darwin long ago drew attention to the fact that one never found weak animals living alone; we are forced to consider man among these weak animals, because he likewise is not strong enough to live alone… Now we can understand why a human being can maintain his existence only when he has placed himself under particu larly favorable conditions. These favorable condi tions have been offered him by the social life… (pp.35-36)
The individual’s awareness of belonging to the human community and the cosmos is described by Adler’s German term Gemeinschaftsgefuhl, of which there is no exact English translation, but is often referred to as community feeling or social interest (Powers & Griffith, 2007). Social interest is not only a feeling, it is an attitude toward or an approach to life. Additionally, Adler spoke of three tasks of life that every person deals with in order to get along in the world and that require cooperative movement. The first is the occupation task. Throughout history individuals have always needed a way to meet their physical needs for survival. Adler used the term occupation task to encompass work, education and daily living skills. Often times, daily survival involves cooperation with others since no one human can be totally self-sufficient. Thus, the second life task is the social task and involves kindness, respect and civility. The more intimate level of relating is the third task, the love task, involving sex, reproduction and family. These three tasks are necessary for propagating and continuing the species.
This third task involving intimate relationships covers a wide range of psychological topics from child and adolescent development, parenting, to family therapy. These are all subjects on which Adler wrote extensively. It is from the work of Adler and his followers that most of the systemic theories find their roots (Sherman & Dinkmeyer, 1987); however “formal acknowledgement of this theoretical position has seldom been noted” (Sperry & Carlson, 1991, p. 94). As mentioned previously, Adler emphasized the importance of examining individuals within their social context and he pointed out that children learned to belong and interact within their families. That is where they strive to overcome inferiority and seek significance and superiority through purposive and interactive behaviors. Adler stressed the importance of family atmosphere and family constellation, the later referring to the composition of the family including the psychological birth order of each child in the family. Psychological birth order is the “vantage from which the child perceives and evaluates self, others, and the world, and from which the child forms convictions about what is required of—as well as what is open—to him or her” (Powers & Griffith, 2007, p. 84). Acknowledging that parents and children alike needed to be counseled when children experienced difficulties, especially problems in school, he established child guidance clinics throughout Vienna in the late 1920s.
Evolution was also addressed in Adler’s discussion of motivation. According to Ferguson (1989), Adler used many terms to refer to the concept of motivation: feeling, urge, striving, goal and need. He developed his theory of motivation over time, and started out with an initial focus on organ inferiority. His second stage emphasized striving for power and superiority (sometimes called significance) as the most basic human motivation. In his third stage “Adler made it explicit that humans as a species strive to belong and that the goal, dictated by evolution, is to contribute to human welfare” (p. 354). Although Adler emphasized the social context, according to Zimbardo et al. (2006), many psychologists tended to overlook the effects of the social context called culture until recently. This was due, in part, because the beginnings of modern psychology took place primarily in Europe and North America, where most psychologists experienced similar cultural conditions. Presently psychologists are regarding culture and its relationship to aspects such as assessment, cognition, families, intelligence, and personality theory. Nicoll (1989) placed Adler as an ancestral figure to multicultural approaches based on his emphasis on holism and the interaction between individuals and their social environment. Capuzzi and Gross proposed in 1995 that Adlerian Psychology held the greatest promise for addressing cultural issues, due to its emphasis on the importance of world views, family, sociocultural systems and cooperation, social interest and equality. Adlerian Psychology was instrumental in promoting social equality in incidents such as the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision of May 17, 1954 since Kenneth B. Clark, who headed a team of social scientists, used Adlerian theory to explain the need for equality in American society. Their argument against separate-but-equal schools swayed the highest court in its decision that ruled in favor of integration (LaFountain & Mustaine, 1998).
Adler also contributed a lot to the issue of equality between the sexes. He described the struggle between the sexes as “masculine protest” and as stemming from culture’s impression that men are superior to women. This notion made life difficult for women who felt inferior as well as for males who doubted their masculinity. Adler (1931/1992) offered the following solution:
If the child has been trained to regard himself as an equal member of society and to understand his task of contributing to the community, and especially if he has been trained to regard members of the opposite sex as companions and equals, adolescence will simply give him the opportunity to begin devising his own creative and independent solution to the problems of adult life. (p. 167)
Creativity and problem solving are areas that fall under another important aspect of psychology, namely cognition. Cognition includes mental processes (thinking, memory, sensation, and perception) and intelligence (the mental capacity to acquire knowledge and solve problems). In the last two decades of the 20th century, the cognitive view of intelligence emerged where intelligence was defined well beyond the emphasis on academics, including those cognitive processes that contribute to success in many areas of life. Two such theories are Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory (that emphasizes practical intelligence, analytical intelligence and creative intelligence) and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (where he identifies eight intelligences). Learning style theory also emerged about this time. While theories of intelligences stress the content and products of learning, learning styles emphasize the variations in the process of learning. According to Terry (2000; cited in Zimbardo et al., 2006), many of the claims made by proponents of learning style theory go beyond what can be supported by research. However, interest in learning styles has made instructors aware that material can be taught in a variety of ways and available research suggests that everyone learns better when material is presented in multiple ways (Zimbardo et al.). Isn’t it interesting that while these theories were introduced at the end of the 20th century, Adler wrote along similar lines at the beginning of the 20th century? When Adler began his medical career he first specialized in ophthalmology, which served as a basis for his study and interest in sense organs. Adler (1931/1992) stated:
From the first, we should find out how the child looks at the world and which sense organ has been used most and trained to the highest degree. Some children are most interested in seeing, some in listening, some in moving. Children of a visual type will be easier to interest in subjects in which they can use their eyes, such as geography or drawing. If the teacher gives lectures, they will not listen; they are less accustomed to auditory attention. If such children have no opportunity to learn through their eyes they will be slow learners. (p. 139-140)
He further stressed that educators cannot expect the same results from different children, especially if the child’s preferred mode of learning is incompatible with the teacher’s method of instruction. After working as an ophthalmologist, Adler enlarged his work to the field of psychiatry and neurology and continued to stress the involvement of the senses (LaFountain, Garner, & Miedema, 2003). He defined psychology as the understanding of an individual’s way of thinking about the sensory impressions he or she receives (Adler, 1931/1992). Through the expansion of his work he was able to study his patients holistically rather than treating one symptom in isolation. It is uncanny how Adler’s emphasis on holism and culture is reflected in Gardner’s definition of intelligence that appeared six decades later. Gardner (1999) defined intelligence as a “biopsychological potential to process information that can be achieved in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture” (p. 34).
Emotions is another area that beginning psychology students get a taste of. According to Powers and Griffith (2007), Adler believed that individuals expressed their feelings in forms consistent with their style of living (personality), and in the direction of their personal goal. Although Karen Horney is often credited with introducing the terms “conjunctive” and “disjunctive” emotions, Adler used those terms much earlier (Powers & Griffith). He made a distinction between expressions that were socially disjunctive (e.g., anger, sadness, fear, anxiety) and those that were conjunctive (e.g., joy, sympathy).
One area of study where Adler is often given an entire chapter is in courses of Personality Psychology. However, if he is mentioned in the personality chapter in Introductory Psychology texts he is often referred to as a Neo-Freudian, which Adler would not appreciate given his relationship with Freud, nor is the reference correct. Adler is often mentioned in a trilogy with Freud and Jung since historically they did live during approximately the same time and did meet together in Freud’s psychological society. Although Adler separated himself from Freud, unfortunately many authors have not, and they often fail to mention Adler believing that the particular era is covered by through a discussion on Freud alone. While Adler does fit there chronologically, he could be placed among so many of the other personality theorists such as those who had the following perspective: humanistic, cognitive, and social-cognitive. According to Zimbardo et al, (2006), Adler directly influenced many prominent theorists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Albert Ellis and Julian Rotter, among others.
In summary, Alfred Adler created a very comprehensive theory that covered many areas discussed in Introductory Psychology courses such as: holism, social psychology, evolution, motivation, family systems and studies, child and adolescent development, culture, equality, cognition, intelligence, creativity, motivation and personality. Perhaps it is because he was so ahead of his time in addressing some of these areas that his initial writings on these topics have been forgotten. I encourage psychologists and others to revisit Adler’s original writings and those of contemporary Adlerian Psychologists to discover the breadth and depth of Adler’s Individual Psychology.
Adler, A. (1956). Understanding human nature. New York: Fawcett.
Adler, A. (1992). What life could mean to you. (C. Brett, Trans.) Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications. (Original work published in 1931)
Ansbacher, H. (1994). On the origin of holism. Journal of Individual Psychology, 50, 488-492.
Capuzzi, D. & Gross, D. G. (1995). Counseling and psychotherapy: Theories and interventions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Ferguson, E. D. (1989). Adler’s motivational theory: An historical perspective on belonging and the fundamental human striving. Journal of Individual Psychology, 45, 354-381.