Psychological compensation is the term for an hypothesised form of defence mechanism found in human beings that can be manifested as a variety of strategies aimed at covering up deficiencies in one area of life by attempting to excel in another area. These perceived deficiencies may be real, but may be imagined, and the use of such strategies could be conscious or unconscious. This article looks at the origins of the theory and the basics of how compensation manifests itself in individuals, and even more generally in specific groups.
The term compensation was first introduced into psychology in the early twentieth century by Alfred Adler. He was the Austrian founder of a school of psychology called individual psychology, which broke away from Freud's psychoanalytic school. The individual psychology school sought to provide a more holistic stance towards the patient together with a methodology and strategy in the same vein.
He particularly used the idea of psychological compensation to explore and treat feelings of inferiority. His assumption was that when people feel that they are weak or inferior in some way that matters to them they will try to cover this up. This can involve a number of strategies. On distinction here is between two categories of negative compensations and positive compensations.
The negative compensations can be further split into two categories labelled overcompensation and undercompensation. Overcompensation is where the individual attempts to achieve power and dominance in some way to make up for a lack elsewhere in their life. Undercompensation is where the individual starts to demand help and their courage fails them. These negative compensations do not help the person to remove the feelings of inferiority and, if anything, reinforce those feelings. However, positive compensations are also possible that do address the relevant issues.
An added subtlety to this theory concerns a personality trait known as narcissism, which is where an individual has an excessive amount of self-love. Such individuals are particularly prone to compensation strategies. In particular, in their efforts to over-compensate they may become obsessed with their own power or beauty or wealth or start to talk grandly and try to move in the circles of those whom they admire. Some theorists even argue that entire groups of people can be narcissistic. For example, 1980s Western consumerist society has been labelled in this way, with its focus on displays of wealth, youth, and celebrity. Some would argue that this is still continuing.