Alfred Adler - The Third Man.
Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, the great triumvirate and founding fathers of early psychological theory, are probably the best known names in the world of early psychology. Freud and Jung are better known, and the work of Alfred Adler is often forgotten.
It is difficult to understand how different the academic world was in those days. No Internet, no telephone, no radio and no TV. Information travelled slowly, and yet in a few short years after 1900, the work of Freud, Jung and Adler began to have a major impact on the way in which people who had non-physical troubles were treated.
It's also interesting to note how deeply the early life experiences of these three pioneers in psychology moulded and sculpted their particular understandings of the way our minds work, and the theories which they later elaborated.
So back to Alfred Adler. Like Freud, Adler was an Austrian, and his initial training was in general medicine. In 1901, at Freud's invitation, he joined the "Wednesday Group", a relatively informal discussion group concentrating on the emerging science of psychology, whose members included Freud himself, Carl Jung and Wilhelm Stekel. However, as each member of the group developed his own theories, tensions developed and in 1911, Adler and his camp followers split away, followed soon afterwards by Jung and his coterie.
Adler speculated that an individual's social context and situation had as much to do with his psychological health as the influences of his childhood and his particular sexual drives. Adler was essentially socialist in nature (indeed, he corresponded with Leon Trotsky), and was one of the first to remark on the way that gender politics (feminism as a reaction to masculine domination) permeated society.
He theorised that our self-perceptions as being 'superior' or 'inferior' were extremely important in the way we interacted with others. This line of thought, together with his socialist leanings, led him to be one of the first to do away with the "Analyst's Couch". Instead he simply used two chairs in his consultations, so that therapist and client would react as equals.
Adler's theories on birth order, parenting and social involvement were some of the most powerful influences on Western social thought in the mid 20th Century.
Alfred Adler's early collaboration with Freud and Jung inevitably coloured his own thinking, and his primary contribution to psychological thought was his theory that human personality and behaviour was inherently goal directed, driven by some inner force, and that very early in life we develop goals which we strive to achieve. Of course, we cannot always achieve what the self would wish us to, and indeed, it might have some very unpleasant social consequences if we could.
He thought that the goals of the Self - which can be quite extreme - were moderated by the social and ethical demands of the particular society in which we live. As we strive to achieve these goals, there is a constant balancing and counter-balancing between the feelings of inferiority and superiority which we experience in relation to our particular situation and in our relationships with others. The results of these balancing mechanisms lead us to display quite distinct behaviors.
Adler coined the term 'inferiority complex' to describe one of the main dynamics of this situation. If we feel slightly inferior to others in a given area, this is often a spur to action and improvement. Unfortunately, however, if the action taken is a gross overcompensation for the reality, instead of just producing great achievements, it can produce really bizarre behavior. If the feeling of inferiority is extreme, it can simply act as a disincentive to any effort at improvement, leaving the afflicted person with even lower self-esteem.
The Adlerian school of psychological thought (which he called Individual Psychology) is paradoxically much concerned about the ways in which the individual and society interact. He was a great proponent of sound parenting skills, of a holistic approach to problem solving and was a considerable supporter of feminist views, something quite unusual for a man of his time. Contentiously, he suggested that the way in which people acted out their feelings of inferiority and superiority formed much of the basis for gender bias and stereotypical 'masculine' or 'feminine' attitudes and styles.
In strong counterpoint to his generally inclusive view of human nature, he had some very firm opinions on homosexuality, suggesting that homosexual people were "failures in life"; a situation which he thought resulted from an over-compensation to an inferiority complex towards one's own gender!
Probably no-one has had a greater impact on what is widely regarded as good parenting and 'child management' than Alfred Adler. Although he was an extremely good therapist himself, his main interests lay in preventive psychology and in the structure and interaction of families.
He identified two parental styles that were almost certain to cause problems in adulthood. The first was pampering - overprotecting a child, giving him too much attention, and protecting him from the harsh reality of life.
Children brought up this way are poorly equipped to deal with the tough business of living, highly dependent and find it hard to make decisions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Adler thought that the 'neglected' child (one who is given little support) would grow up to fear the world, distrust others and probably find it hard to form sound relationships.
At the time Adler was introducing his ideas on 'democratic parenting' to the world, the old order was changing. The First World War had almost swept away inherited privilege and a rigid sense of class. People were beginning to expect their voices to be heard, and this fitted well with what Adler thought was good for the family.
Adler believed that successful parenting was based on:
Mutual respect - parents who show respect for the child-while winning his respect for them - teach the child to respect himself and others.
Encouragement - implies faith in and respect for the child as he is.
Natural and logical consequences - allowing the child to experience and learn from the actual result of his own behavior. Natural consequences are the direct result of the child's behavior. For example, Tommy refuses to wear a coat while it is raining: he will get wet.
Independence - Never do for a child what he can do for himself. A dependent child is a demanding child. Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on responsibility.
Adler's views survive today as the core of good parenting - there have been advances, of course, but Adler lit the torch.