Like the theories of Freud and Jung, many of the ideas in Adler's theory are also not defined precisely enough to validate his findings. Moreover, his contention that “everything can also be different” makes it practically impossible to make a falsifiable prediction using his theory. It is therefore difficult to determine the impact of such Adlerian concepts as inferiority, superiority, social interest, and creative power in human personality. But unlike Freud and Jung, Adler relied most exclusively on social factors in explaining personality, minimizing biological hereditary factors. His research methods mostly included the study of birth order, first memories and dream analysis. Adler ardently believed that it was subjective reality that determines behavior, not objective reality, and suggested that heredity and experience provide only the raw materials of personality. Each person is free to interpret life in any number of ways owing to our inherent creativity. The creative self acts on hereditary materials to mold a unique personality. Therefore, if a person develops a personality unlike the one that is supposed to characterize his or her birth order, it can also be attributed to the person’s unique perceptions of the situation.
Adler also claimed that it is often a few early experiences that determine adult personality, and if a person’s interpretations of the world based on those experiences could be changed, an unhealthy lifestyle can be changed into a healthy one. A person’s family constellation (birth order) is one variable that can significantly influence his or her world view. In the earliest version of his theory, Adler believed that people were motivated to compensate for actual physical weaknesses by emphasizing those qualities that compensate for those weaknesses or feelings of inferiority. In some cases, he thought a person could overcompensate and convert a weakness into a major strength. But later, Adler extended his theory to include not only actual physical weaknesses but imagined ones as well.
Having an inferiority complex, however, is not necessarily a bad thing in Adler’s view. In fact such feelings are the motivating force behind most personal accomplishments. Adler also held that humans must insert meaning into their lives by inventing ideals or fictional goals that give them something for which to live and around which to organize their lives. Such fictions are called fictional finalisms or guiding fiction. Healthy persons use such fictions as tools for living a more effective and meaningful life.
Adler’s views have been quite influential but not without opposition. Many modern personality theorists consider Adlerian assumptions about personality overly optimistic. Besides, with his belief that all humans are born with the innate potential for social interest, Adler will have trouble explaining the widespread occurrence of war, murder, rape, crime and other human acts of violence. Many believe that the theories of Freud and Jung are far more useful in explaining the more unseemly aspects of human behavior.
Despite such criticism, Adler is rightly considered by many as the first humanistic psychologist. He stressed holism, goal-seeking, and enormous importance of values in human thinking, emotions and behavior. According to Albert Ellis, it is difficult to find any leading therapist today who does not owe a great debt to the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. Similarly, in the words of Victor Frankl, man can no longer be considered as the pawn, product or victim of drives and instinct; on the contrary, drives and instincts form the material that serves man in expression and action. Beyond this, Alfred Adler may well be regarded as a forerunner of the existential-psychiatric movement.
Discussion Questions: Given your birth order, would your personality have been different than a child with a different birth order?
Adler identified four basic types of people: the ruling type, the getting type, the avoiding type, and the socially useful type. Do you think your own personality type fits into any of these categories?