Alfred Adler

(1870 - 1937)

Compiled by Molly Fisher (May 2001)

Adler Biography
Time Line

Alfred Adler was born on February 7, 1870 in the suburbs of Vienna. He was the second son and third child of a Jewish grain merchant and his wife. Alfred did not walk until he was four because he suffered from rickets. At the age of five, he almost died of pneumonia. These events are what motivated him to became a physician. Growing up, Alfred was a very outgoing, popular, and involved scholar. Like most teens, he was always trying to outdo his brother.

In 1895, Adler received his medical degree from University of Vienna. This is where he met his wife Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein. She was an intellectual and social activist from Russia. They married in 1897, had four children, and two would become psychiatrists.

He began his medical career as an opthamologists, later switching to general practice. He established his office across from an amusement park and circus in the lower class part of Vienna. Most his clients were circus performers. He studied their unusual strengths and weaknesses, and this gave him insights on his organ inferiority theory.

Later, Alfred turned to psychiatry and joined Freud's discussion groups in 1907. He wrote papers on organic inferiority. He also wrote a paper concerning aggression instinct and Freud did not approve. In addition, Alfred wrote a paper on children's feelings of inferiority. Which agreed with Freud's sexual notions. Freud named Adler president of Viennese Analytic Society co-editor of organization newsletter. In 1912, Adler and nine other members established The Society for Individual Psychology.

During WWI, Alfred was a physician for the Austrian Army at first he was on the Russian front and then moved to the children's hospital. He saw firsthand the damage war can do. After the war, he did various projects such as: clinics at a state school and training of teachers.

In 1926, Alfred came to the United States to lecture, he accepted a visiting position at Long Island College of medicine. He took his family and moved to the U.S. Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler died of a heart attack while doing a series of lectures at Aberdeen University in Scotland.


Adler examined personality around the same time as Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. They worked on some theories together until Adler rejected Freud's emphasis on sex, and maintained that personality difficulties are rooted in a feeling of inferiority deriving from restrictions on the individual's need for self-assertion.

His best-known work is The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (1923). Adler had a tendency to change his theory on personality throughout his life but he ultimately believed that people are focused on maintaining control over their lives. He believed in single "drive" or motivating force behind our behavior, claiming that the desire we have to fulfill our potentials becomes closer and closer to our ideals.

Alder calls this theory Individual Psychology because he felt each person was unique and no previous theory applied to all people. Adler's theory included these four aspects: the development of personality, striving towards superiority, psychological health, and the unity of personality. Many psychologists excepted Alfred's popular idea of self-actualization.

In studying personality, Alfred came up with the term inferiority complex. He described this as feelings of lack of worth. He wrote, "We all wish to overcome difficulties. We all strive to reach a goal by the attainment of which we shall feel strong, superior, and complete" (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956). Alder was known to use the word superiority complex. This complex developed when a person tried to conquer their inferiority complex by suppressing their existing feelings. He felt that people were constantly trying overcome their feelings of inferiority to reach superiority.

Along with the idea of trying to overcome inferiority, Adler claimed that every person had an idea about what their perfect self would be like (Cloninger, 1996). He named this image the fictional finalism. Fictional finalism applies clearer direction to decisions that are to be made concerning oneself. Although individuals may have an idea about their image, but they hardly ever understand it. Although the image may be altered, the common direction throughout one's life stays the same. Adler wrote, ". . .in every mental phenomenon we discover anew the characteristic of pursuit of a goal, and all our powers, faculties, experiences, wishes and fears, defects and capacities fall into line with this characteristic" (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956).

Unlike Freud, Adler believed the conscious and unconscious worked in union with one another towards the fictional finalism (Cloninger, 1996). Adler declared that each individual has a incomparable way of life, some are negative and some are positive. Adler did not like to take big groups of people an put them into general categories but when describing basic lifestyles it was simpler to do so. He studied various types of people and he came to this conclusion. There are the four main types of people, three out of four are negative. The ruling type tries to control others. The getting type tends to be very passive and goes along with others ideas, rarely inventive. The avoiding types try to isolate themselves to avoid defeat, they are usually very cold. The socially useful type, values having control over their lives and strive to do good things for the sake of society.

"It is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them (Alfred Adler)." This statement sums up Alder's theory of personalty in a nutshell.

Time Line
1870 Alfred Adler born on February 7th
1888 Began his studies at the University of Vienna Medical School
1895 Received medical degree from the University of Vienna
1897 Married Raissa Timofeivna Epstein
1898 Established private practice in Vienna
----Birth of first daughter, Valentine
----Published two articles in Austria's "Medical News Bulletin"
1901 Second child, Alexandra, is born
1902 Published two articles in Medical News Bulletin
----Sigmund Freud invited Adler to join the fledgling Wednesday Psychological Society (later renamed to Vienna Psychoanalytic Society)
1904 Adler publishes his most important article to date, The Physician as Educator
----Converted from Judaism to Protestanism
----Birth of Kurt Adler
1905 Publication of A Study of Organ Inferiority
1909 Birth of Cornelia (daughter)
1911 Adler is expelled from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society under Freud's impetus
----Adler forms his own group, initially called the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Inquiry
1912 Published The Neurotic Constitution
1913 Renamed his group The Society for Individual Psychology
1914 Published Healing and Education, edited by Adler
1916 Drafted as a military physician for the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I
1918 Discharged from military service, began emphasizing social feeling in writings
1922 Published The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology
---Adler begins setting up educational consulting teams in child guidance for Vienna's public schools
1924 Became a professor at Vienna's Pedagogical Institute
1928 First lecture-tour of the United States.
----Published The Case of Miss R: The Interpretation of a Life Story
1929 Became an adjunct professor at Columbia University, started to shift base of operations from Vienna to New York City
----Published Individual Psychology in the Schools
1931 Published What Life Should Mean to You
1932 Professor at the Long Island College of Medicine, Adler's first full-time academic position in the United States
1933 Published Religion and Individual Psychology and Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind
1937 Died, May 28th, Aberdeen, Scotland

Hoffman, Edward, The Drive For Self: Alfred Adler And The Founding Of Individual Psychology, Addison-Wesley, 1994.

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