top of page
Alfred Adler and the individual psychology

Alfred Adler

7 February 1870 – 28 May 1937

Born in Vienna, Austria

Emigrated to the U.S. early 1930

Medical Doctor and Psychotherapist

Founder of the individual psychology school

What are the foundational principles of Adlerian psychology?

Text used with permission of the Adler University /

The core Adlerian principles are only briefly reviewed here for context, as a more thorough explanation is readily available (Adler, 1958; Adler, 1969; Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956; Dreikurs, 1953; Dreikurs, 1971; Ferguson, 2010; Mosak, 1973; and Mosak, 1977).

Socially embedded.

An individual does not develop in isolation. A critical goal is to find a place of significance or belonging in the social group. All of our problems are basically social problems, i.e., how we relate to each other. The ability to cooperate and contribute is a measure of social interest and mental health. A well-adjusted person is oriented to and behaves in line with the needs of the situation. A mal-adjusted person has faulty concepts of his or her place in the group, feelings of isolation and inferiority, and mistaken goals, which are compensation for these feelings. Individuals grow up initially feeling a sense of inferiority and compensate by developing a unique sense of superiority or striving for significance (moving from felt minus to perceived plus). Given the inherent social nature of individuals, this striving is seen through the lens of social interest, either adequately fulfilling the tasks of life in socially useful ways or moving on the socially useless side of life and living a world more at odds with others, more in one’s own private logic and personal strivings for superiority.


Heredity and environment are only viewed as influences. It is an individual’s own ability to interpret information and draw certain conclusions that are most influential in the development of the personality or lifestyle (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956). Reality is what we perceive and the meaning we attribute to these perceptions.


Self-determining and creative.

Because the belief system is created by the individual, it can change. This idea and the inherent social nature of individuals lead to an optimistic view of human nature that people are not victims of forces beyond their control but active participants. And, if given the choice along with proper encouragement, they will choose to be socially useful and find meaning and value in this perspective.

Goal-directed or teleological.

All behavior is viewed as movement towards a goal. The perceived place of significance becomes a final cause or the goal to achieve. As an individual moves through the tasks of life, this goal is projected out in front and the person is pulled towards it in all of his or her interactions. Thus, behavior has a purpose although individuals are often unaware of why they do what they do. Once individuals recognize their goals, they can continue behaviors in line with the goals or they can change.


A person is not divided into parts, but is viewed as indivisible. The mind, body, and emotions work together all in the service of the individual’s final fictional goal. A trained individual can see themes and how everything fits into one complete picture.

Social justice and systemic thinking.

Adlerians view things from a system perspective. Adler was very sensitive to conditions of oppression and contextual factors that increase the probability of adverse consequences. Where possible, Adlerians will work at a systems level to change conditions impacting people in communities. Rudolf Dreikurs, founder of the Alfred Adler Institute (now Adler University) argued for social equality extensively in his book, Social Equality: The Challenge of Today. Dreikurs was especially focused on community education and empowering families.

Philosophical orientation.

Watts highlighted the Adlerian philosophical orientation. He noted it is psycho-educational; present/future-oriented; time-limited; integrates cognitive and systemic perspectives; solidly resonates with post-modern approaches; has common ground with cognitive-behavioral approaches; is compatible with Rational Emotive Therapy and cognitive; is family systems-oriented; and is also aligned with constructivist, solution-focused and narrative therapy approaches.



  • Adler, A. (1958). What life should mean to you. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

  • Adler, A. (1969). The Science of Living. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

  • Ansbacher, H. L., & Ansbacher, R. R. (1956). The individual psychology of Alfred Adler; a systematic presentation in selections from his writings (1st ed.). New York: Basic Books.

  • Dreikurs, R. (1953). Fundamentals of Adlerian Psychology. Chicago, IL: Alfred Adler Institute.

  • Dreikurs, R. (1971). Social Equality: The Challenge of Today. Chicago, IL: Adler School of Professional Psychology.

  • Ferguson, E.D. (2010). Adler’s innovative contributions regarding the need to belong. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 66, 1-7.

  • Mosak, H.H. (1973). Alfred Adler: His Influence on Psychology Today. New Jersey: Noyes Press.

  • Mosak, H. H. (1977). Lifestyle. In H. H. Mosak (Ed.), On purpose: Collected papers (pp. 183-187). Chicago: Adler School of Professional Psychology.

  • Watts, Richard E. (2000). Entering the new millennium: Is Individual Psychology still relevant? Journal of Individual Psychology, 56(1), 21-30.

bottom of page