Alfred Adler Biography - Contributions To Psychology

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An empirical study in 2002 listed Adler as the 67th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

Alfred Adler

Who Is Alfred Adler?

Alfred Adler was an Austrian physician and psychiatrist. He is highly esteemed for his contributions to psychoanalysis and for founding the school of thought known as individual psychology. Adler emphasized how social factors and inborn feelings of inferiority may impact personality development. 

Alfred Adler's Parents

Alfred Adler was born on February 7, 1870, in a small village named Rudolfsheim on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria. He was the second of seven children born to middle-class Jewish parents, Pauline and Leopold Adler. His mother was a homemaker and his father worked as a grain merchant.

Childhood Illnesses

As a child, Adler was very sickly. He developed rickets at a very young age, which prevented him from walking until about age four. One of his earliest memories was sitting on a bench bandaged up because of his rickets, while his healthy, athletic older brother sat across from him. His brother Sigmund could run about and play effortlessly but for Adler, any form of movement was a strain. Adler was intensely jealous of Sigmund and the rivalry between the two lasted well into Adler’s adolescent years.

In addition to rickets, Adler experienced spasms of the glottis which caused breathlessness and placed him at risk of suffocation if he cried. When he was five years old, he almost died from a severe bout of pneumonia and even overheard the doctor telling his father: “Your boy is lost.” Adler later identified this as the point in his life when he resolved to become a physician.

Other Traumatic Events

Adler experienced other traumatic events as a child. These events include the loss of a younger brother who died next to him in the bed they shared when Adler was only three years old. Then, on two separate occasions when he was about four or five years old, he was run over by vehicles near his home. Fortunately, he escaped serious injuries.

Due to his health issues as a child, Adler was initially pampered by his parents, especially his mother. After the birth of his younger brother, however, his relationship with his mother became strained. He felt rejected and deprived of her attention.  As an adult, Adler admitted that he ‘wronged his mother’ feeling this way, noting that she loved all her children equally. Adler maintained a closer, more trusting relationship with his father, who believed strongly in his son’s worth and supported his interest in becoming a doctor.

During his youth, Adler also struggled with feelings of inferiority and viewed himself as frail and unattractive. Despite this, he worked hard to excel at physical activities and developed a lively, friendly personality that attracted others. He loved music as a boy and was known for his singing voice. He also loved spending time outdoors.

Educational Background and Career

Adler began secondary school at age nine but performed quite poorly at first—so poorly, in fact, that his math teacher encouraged him to leave school and learn a trade. In the eyes of this teacher, Adler was not suited for much more than becoming a shoemaker’s apprentice. Adler’s father objected and in time, with determination and perseverance, Adler rose from the bottom to the top of his class.

Adler began studying for his medical degree immediately after leaving secondary school in 1888. He enrolled at the University of Vienna and graduated in 1895. His time at the university was interrupted by a year of military service. As a student, Adler regularly attended political meetings that were centered on the development of socialism.

After completing his medical degree, Adler specialized at first in ophthalmology before switching to general practice. His interest in social reform and socialism continued and his first professional publication was a moving social-medicine paper on the effect of working conditions on the health of tailors.

Freud's Influence 

Adler eventually developed an interest in psychiatry, reasoning that he needed to understand not just the physical processes underlying his patients’ issues, but the social and psychological ones as well. He was particularly interested in the ideas of Sigmund Freud and was bold enough to defend Freud’s controversial theory against its many critics. In 1902, Adler was personally invited by Freud to join his weekly discussion group, which later became known as the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Adler was one of the first four members that formed the core of Freud’s psychoanalytic circle.

Although some sources refer to Adler as a disciple of Freud, he was actually Freud’s colleague and held strong views of his own. He agreed with Freud on some issues, but disagreed with him on others. For example, he criticized Freud for what he viewed as an overemphasis on sexuality. In 1910, Freud appointed Adler as president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in an attempt to smooth over the differences between the two. This move by Freud was unsuccessful and by the following year, the rift between the two strong-minded theorists had become irreconcilable. Adler resigned as president of the Society and later, from his role as editor of the society’s journal.

Individual Psychology 

After severing ties with Freud, Adler went on to establish his own theory and approach to therapy, which he termed individual psychology. In 1914, he along with Carl Furtmuller started the Journal for Individual Psychology.  In 1919, Adler established the first of several child guidance clinics in Vienna after serving for three years as a physician in the Austrian army during World War I. Around that time, he also began lecturing at the Pedagogical Institute.

From 1926 onwards, Adler spent an increasing amount of time in the United States and became a visiting professor at Columbia University in 1927. He was appointed as chair of medical psychology at the Long Island College of Medicine in 1932.

Adler’s Theory of Individual Psychology

Adler strongly disagreed with Freud’s claim that psychosexual conflicts during childhood were the primary forces behind personality development. He believed that a psychologist must consider other internal forces as well as external forces if he or she wants to understand a person completely. Adler referred to his school of thought as individual psychology—a reference to the Latin word individuus which means indivisibility. Rather than studying human nature one piece at a time, Adler believed that the individual should be studied as a whole (an approach now known as holism).

Adler believed that people are born with feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. As infants grow up and gain new experiences, they begin to recognize that there are certain things in life that they cannot do on their own. Adler claimed that children seek to compensate for these weaknesses by developing other strengths. If children receive adequate attention and care from their parents, Adler believed they would learn how to accept their weaknesses, how to overcome some of their weaknesses with hard work, and eventually develop into healthy, balanced adults who function well in society.

In some cases though, children may have very intense feelings of inferiority. These feelings may cause them to work very hard to compensate for their shortcomings, however, compensation is no longer enough for them. Eventually, they reach a state of overcompensation where their fictive goal (or final goal) is extreme, exaggerated, or even pathological. For example, a person who desperately wants to lose weight may begin to eat too little, exercise too much, and develop an unhealthy view of his own body as he strives to be “perfectly thin.”

Inferiority Complex 

Adler claimed that overcompensation may lead to the development of an inferiority complex. This is characterized by feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth. Adler claimed that people with an inferiority complex are always trying to find situations in which they are able to perform well. However, they are unable to resolve their feelings of inferiority despite their efforts.

Adler made the distinction between primary and secondary feelings of inferiority. He described primary inferiority as the “normal” feelings of inferiority that an infant is born with. These feelings are healthy as they encourage the child to grow and develop. Secondary inferiority occurs when the child has extreme feelings of inferiority. These feelings have a negative impact and contribute to the development of an inferiority complex later on in life.

While many people are familiar with the term “inferiority complex,” far fewer are aware of the existence of a superiority complex. A person with a superiority complex has a drive to show others that he is better than he really is. Individuals with a superiority complex tend to be viewed as arrogant, impatient, rude, egocentric, aggressive, or power-hungry. Adler believed people develop a superiority complex as a way to escape from their strong feelings of inferiority.

Adler’s View on Styles of Life, Birth Order, and Parent Education 

Adler did not define strict personality types because he felt that approach reduced human nature to a specific set of rules and ignored the fact that each person is unique. Nevertheless, he did note that there are certain behavioral patterns that may start in childhood and develop throughout a person’s life. Adler referred to these patterns as “styles of life” and he distinguished them based on the different levels of energy he believed they manifested. They include:

  • The ruling type - individuals with intense energy who tend to dominate obstacles or other people. When their energy is directed outward these people are more likely to be bullies or sadists; when their energy is directed inward they are more likely to become drug addicts, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, or commit suicide.
  • The leaning type - individuals with low energy who are sensitive and dependent on other more energetic people. These individuals are more likely to develop phobias, dissociations, anxiety issues, and obsessions and compulsions.
  • The avoiding type - individuals with such low energy that they retreat within themselves to conserve it. They avoid major aspects of life and are more likely to develop psychosis.
  • The socially useful type - Individuals who have sufficient but not overbearing energy. They are healthy, balanced, and productive members of society.

Adler recognized that if an individual fits into a particular pattern, a therapist can use that information to help him or her to address maladaptive issues. He also believed that a person’s style of life could be used to predict his or her future behavior.

Theories on Birth Order

One factor that Adler believed has a significant impact on a person’s style of life and psychological make up is his or her birth order. Birth order refers to the position of siblings in the family. While a typical researcher may argue that a family with three children is able to raise all the siblings in the same environment, Adler disagreed. He believed that each sibling is raised in a different environment as the eldest child has two younger siblings, the middle child has an older and a younger sibling, and the youngest child has two older siblings.

Adler suggested the following theories on birth order:

  • The eldest child - this child enjoys the full attention of both parents until the second child is born. After the second child arrives, the firstborn child may experience a measure of distress as he is no longer the center of attention in the family. Nevertheless, parents tend to view the firstborn child as bigger, stronger, and more experienced. This gives the firstborn child a sense of power and may encourage him to become a guardian for his younger siblings. Adler also believed that the firstborn child is most likely to experience substance addiction or emotional issues later in life as he tries to cope with many responsibilities and the loss of his former privileged position.
  • The middle child - this child does not experience the same sense of dethronement as the eldest child but he is always in the shadow of his older sibling. The fact that his older sibling is bigger, stronger, and more experienced pushes the middle child to excel. If he is nurtured by his parents, the middle child can attain power like the eldest child. However, there are occasions when he may feel ignored or left out. According to Adler, this child is most likely to develop into a healthy, fully-functional adult.
  • The youngest child - this child tends to get whatever he wants from his parents. This overindulgence may hinder him from developing appropriate social empathy. The youngest child also has to deal with consistent feelings of inferiority due to his lack of strength and experience compared to his other family members. This puts the youngest child in a position where he is constantly trying to prove himself. Adler believed this scenario may lead to one of two outcomes for the youngest child: (1) he may become the most capable member of the family, or (2) he may withdraw from other family members.
  • The only child - this child is the sole focus of his parents and develops a strong dependence on them. He is unlikely to be adventurous as he prefers to wait on guidance before choosing a path. If his parents are overprotective, he may view the world as a dangerous place.

Adler viewed childhood as a key period in the development of personality. As a result, he believed one of the best ways to prevent psychopathology is to train a child to think of himself as an equal and valued member of the family. Adler emphasized the need for teachers, social workers, and nurses to be trained in parent education so that they could work along with families in positive child development. He argued that this approach would lower the odds that children are pampered or neglected, making the development of inferiority or superiority complexes less likely.

According to Adler, people have one basic desire: to belong and feel significant. He believed that people will cooperate with each other if they feel capable, encouraged, respected, and appreciated. When people are discouraged, Adler claimed they are more likely to withdraw, compete, or give up.

Applications of Adlerian Theory

Adler applied many of his personality theories to the mental health field. In his opinion, a person with good mental health feels connected to other people, is motivated to reach his full potential, and is eager to help other individuals in need. Adler’s approach has been particularly effective in promoting the growth and development of children. Adlerian psychotherapists view a child with behavior issues as a discouraged child. They believe the best strategy to help such a child is to make him feel competent and valued.

Adlerian psychotherapy seeks to reduce the inferiority complex, reduce the superiority complex, and increase feelings of community and equality. After forming a trusting therapeutic relationship, the therapist tries to assess several factors such as the client’s radius of activity, feelings of inferiority, position in the family constellation, fictive goal, and sense of community. The client is then encouraged to overcome his feelings of inferiority, develop stronger feelings of human connectedness, and redirect his energy to improving society rather than seeking significance for himself. As the client attempts to adjust his beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors about himself and the world, his increasing confidence, pride, and satisfaction motivate him to continue cooperating with the treatment process. The therapist helps the client to reduce exaggerated desires for self-protection, self-indulgence, or self-enhancement and increase his motivation to make social contributions.

In addition to making an impact on the fields of mental health and child development, Alder’s theories also laid a strong foundation for future research in psychology. Some of the prominent psychologists who were influenced by Adler’s work include Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Albert Ellis, Rollo May, Karen Horney, and Erich Fromm.

Criticisms of Adler’s Theories

Perhaps the biggest criticism of Adler’s theories is that they lack empirical support. The fact that many of his concepts are not able to be observed and measured has led some critics to label his approach as unscientific. Adlerian psychotherapy has been criticized for its ineffectiveness in treating issues that are not related to birth order or other Adlerian concepts. The approach is also ineffective if a client is experiencing severe mental health issues such as schizophrenia, dementia, or bipolar disorder.

Adler's Contributions to Psychology: Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

Adler was a prolific writer over the course of his career. Some of his most important works include:

  • The Neurotic Constitution, 1917
  • The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, 1924
  • Understanding Human Nature, 1927
  • The Pattern of Life, 1930
  • The Science of Living, 1930
  • The Problems of Neurosis, 1930
  • What Life Should Mean to You, 1931
  • Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind, 1933

Personal Life

While studying at the University of Vienna, Adler met Raissa Epstein, an independent Russian student and feminist who shared his interest in socialism. The couple married in 1897 and had four children—Valentine (b. 1898), Alexandra (b. 1901), Kurt (b. 1905), and Cornelia (b. 1909). Adler enjoyed music and would often sing and play the piano with his children. He also appreciated good food, had an excellent sense of humor, and loved spending time with others.

Despite his fame, Adler remained humble and was keen to present his work in simple language that could be understood by the general public. He wrote extensively and gave many lectures across Europe and the United States in order to spread his message to the common people. Adler had deep compassion for children and for those facing difficulties due to social ills. He also showed great interest in people who were sick or oppressed, and was very vocal on topics such as school reform and child-rearing.

Adler did not identify much with his Jewish heritage and as an adult, converted to Christianity.

Nevertheless, in the 1930’s, the Nazis closed down Adler’s clinics on account of his Jewish background. To secure the future of individual psychology, Adler and his wife moved to the United States in 1932 and settled in New York City.

How Did Alfred Adler Die? 

Adler died from a heart attack while on a speaking tour in Aberdeen, Scotland on May 28, 1937. He was 67 years of age at the time. His body was cremated at Warriston Crematorium in Edinburgh but his family never claimed his ashes. They were rediscovered 74 years later in 2011 and returned to Vienna for burial. Two of Adler’s children, Kurt and Alexandra, carried on his legacy as practicing psychotherapists.


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Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2016). A history of modern psychology (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Sharf, R. S. (2016). Theories of psychotherapy and counseling: Concepts and cases. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Stein, H. (Ed.) (2005). The collected clinical works of Alfred Adler (Vol. 7): Journal articles: 1931-1937. Bellingham, WA: The Classical Adlerian Translation Project.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2021, March). Alfred Adler Biography - Contributions To Psychology. Retrieved from

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