Adler’s Contributions to Psychology

By the CT admin team
V.W. Odajnyk and Edward Hoffman

“Adler had only one idea. It was a good idea, but he did not get beyond [that].” – C.G. Jung

As we have detailed in another article, the contributions of extroverts to the history of ideas tends to get overlooked in favor of similar ideas produced by introverts. In the case of Alfred Adler, it is hard for us today to understand that prior to World War II Adler was actually a bigger name than Jung (and possibly as big a name as Freud) within the field of psychology.

The only idea commonly associated with Adler’s name today is that of the superiority complex, and most people, including professional psychologists, even misunderstand that. They tend to think that the superiority complex has to do with wanting to be some sort of Nietzschean or Ayn Randian Superman, and this misinterpretation in turn has led many people to regard Adler as some kind of NTJ type. Yet in Adler’s psychology, the superiority complex is actually a psychological defense against deep-seated feelings of inferiority. According to Adler, the Randian Supermen are only being uptight and haughty because they secretly fear that they are unlovable and that they do not belong in the world. According to Adler, these people need a kiss and a hug and to be empathically seen for what they really are. Only then will they be able to relax and to be what they truly are in this life. Then they can sit on the rose bush of life and bloom according to their true nature, rather than compulsively needing to be the biggest bloom on the bush. This is the true meaning behind Adler’s idea of the superiority complex and it accurately foreshadows the findings of modern psychology when it comes to the notion of the narcissistic personality.

So with regards to the common understanding of Adler, he is commonly thought to have been a one-trick pony; a cul-de-sac in the history of psychology. As we can see from the Jung quote above, Jung also helped perpetuate the myth that Adler had only one idea, and that the remainder of the ideas of early psychology were to be credited to Freud and to Jung himself. This quote of Jung’s may be especially incriminating given that many of the ideas that are now widely credited to Jung were really Adler’s. Did Jung knowingly downplay the importance of Adler’s contributions in order to hide his source of inspiration and make his own contributions look more seminal by comparison? That is a matter best left to individual interpretation. On the one hand, Jung consciously downplayed the contributions of other psychologists in other matters. Yet on the other hand, Jung repeatedly said in private that he was profoundly indebted to Adler.

We leave it to the reader to decide.

Below is a list of psychological contributions that originated with Adler, but which are rarely acknowledged as Adler’s ideas. Many of these ideas are commonly thought to have originated with Jung:

  • Emphasizing the individual over ‘society,’ yet also seeing the individual as an expression of something greater that ultimately harks back to all life
  • The idea of psychological compensation (though Freud also had such ideas)
  • Extending the concept of psychic energy, or libido, beyond the mechanistic limits first set by Freud (this expanded conception of libido is also used by Jung in Psychological Types)
  • Patient and therapist should face each other (rather than face away from each other, as dictated by Freud)
  • The ideal time frame of therapy is 1-2 times a week, rather than 4-5 times a week as suggested by Freud (Jung also supported Adler’s time frame)
  • The current psychic outlook of the patient is more important than the patient’s childhood history
  • The idea that the personality yearns towards integration and wholeness
  • The idea that the personality strives towards individuation in balance with society (rather than at the cost of society as with the Nietzschean superman)
  • The idea that personality complexes are psychic rather than physiological in nature
  • The idea that popular groups and movements of the times are not random “historical fashions” or “historical extrapolations,” but that they express deep-seated psychological needs of the community (for example, in his book Civilization in Transition Jung says that the fascination with UFOs speaks to a community in need of wholeness. In a similar vein, he would probably have said that the 9/11 Truth movement speaks to a populace that yearns for government officials that they can deem accountable and benign.)

Why Did Adler Disappear From the History of Ideas?

So if Adler was as big a name as Freud and an even bigger name than Jung prior to 1939, how can it be that Adler’s contributions to the history of psychology are almost unknown today? Well, part of the reason is the same as the one that we have given in an earlier article on the contributions of introverts and extroverts:

The contributions of the extroverts often go unsung throughout the history of ideas (the extroverted Adler, versus the introverted Freud and Jung; the extroverted van der Hoop versus the introverted Myers and Keirsey, for example). But it is also in part their own fault for spreading themselves too thinly, and for generally not putting the same amount of tenacity into the promotion of a single project. In an ideal world, a person’s contributions should be judged on the basis of their ideas alone, but in the real world, all kinds of other considerations are unfortunately also at play.

Yet more specifically in the case of Adler, the difference was also one of organization: Both Jung and Freud had their difficulties giving presentations in front of large audiences of people and instead preferred to surround themselves with small, tightly-knit circles of admirers. Adler, on the other hand, positively loved giving presentations in large halls and auditoriums. He enjoyed interacting with all manner of men and was as comfortable under critical scrutiny as he was when receiving standing ovations by hundreds of people.

In other words, where Freud and Jung would pour their organizational energies into forming small tightly-knit groups and ensuring that these groups were loyal to their style of thinking, Adler would devote himself to interacting with thousands of people, if only to speak for 10 minutes with each one.  So on the one hand, Adler did spread himself too thin, as described in our prior article on the subject. But on the other hand, Adler was not an authoritarian: Where both Freud and Jung would evict members of their movements for deviating too much from the orthodoxy of their own thinking, Adler never aspired to control his followers intellectually. In fact, Adler’s idea was the very converse: Each individual should pursue his own creative ideas, drawing freely on whatever ideas seemed valuable to him and disregarding any orthodoxy. In Adler’s view, this would create an intellectual climate that would “allow a hundred flowers to bloom.”

Yet when the carnage of World War 2 was let loose upon the world, Adler’s organizational structure (of thousands of people who each felt a little sympathetic to him) was not at all as capable of withstanding the social upheavals brought on by the war as Jung and Freud’s small groups of people who had poured their whole life into supporting and developing the ideas of either Freud or Jung. In the cases of both Freud and Jung, one can draw a direct lineage from the psychologists who belong to these schools today and directly back to the original circles surrounding Freud and Jung themselves. Adler’s contributions to psychology have no such custodians; no such protectors and preservers to carry on his lineage. His ideas are like an intellectual flotsam, spread to all winds and existing simply as ideas with no movement or school to back them up.

One question remains: Was World War 2 the proximate or ultimate cause of Adler’s decline? Would Adler still be bigger than Jung if there had been peace in Western Europe from 1918 to now? Obviously we don’t know, but we suspect that Adler would not have been as overshadowed by Jung if it had not been for the disruption of cross-country intellectual communications during the war. In fact, Jung might have been a lot less famous today if it weren’t for the fact that he, as the only non-Jew of the three, would purposefully use the anti-Semitism of the Nazis to insert his own ideas into the mainstream of central European psychology. Still, it is hard to say whether Adler’s “flotsam approach” of liberally spreading his ideas to the winds might not also be self-defeating when it comes to making a (permanent) name for oneself.

At any rate, what can be said with certainty is that Adler’s ideas concerning ‘Individual Psychology’ – namely that the individual should be affirmed for his own individuality while at the same time being supplied with a “bridge” back to integration with the community, and viewing the individual as a person of equal dignity and worth as the therapist, and seeing the person who has been wounded by emotional deprivation and to try and supply that emotional support in order to heal that wound – are far more in line with the thinking modern mainstream psychology than either Freud or Jung’s ideas.

As such it is profoundly ironic that Adler is the one of the main three original pioneers that is forgotten today.