An Evaluation of Adler's Thought


Although Adler's theory may be less interesting than Freud's, with its sexuality, or
Jung's, with its mythology, it has probably struck you as the most common-sensical of
the three. Students generally like Adler and his theory. In fact, quite a few
personality theorists like him, too. Maslow, for example, once said that, the older he
gets, the more right Adler seems. If you have some knowledge of Carl Rogers' brand of
therapy, you may have noticed how similar it is to Adler's. And a number of students of
personality theories have noted that the theorists called Neo-Freudians -- Horney,
Fromm, and Sullivan -- should really have been called Neo-Adlerians.

And so the "positives" of Adler's theory don't really need to be listed: His clear
descriptions of people's complaints, his straight-forward and common-sense
interpretations of their problems, his simple theoretical structure, his trust and even
affection for the common person, all make his theory both comfortable and highly


Criticisms of Adler tend to involve the issue of whether or not, or to what degree, his
theory is scientific. The mainstream of psychology today is experimentally oriented,
which means, among other things, that the concepts a theory uses must be measurable
and manipulable. This in turn means that an experimental orientation prefers physical or
behavioral variables. Adler, as you saw, uses basic concepts that are far from physical
and behavioral: Striving for perfection? How do you measure that? Or compensation? Or
feelings of inferiority? Or social interest? The experimental method also makes a basic
assumption: That all things operate in terms of cause and effect. Adler would certainly
agree that physical things do so, but he would adamantly deny that people do! Instead,
he takes the teleological route, that people are "determined" by their ideals, goals,
values, "final fictions." Teleology takes the necessity out of things: A person doesn't
have to respond a certain way to a certain circumstance; A person has choices to make;
A person creates his or her own personality or lifestyle. From the experimental
perspective, these things are illusions that a scientist, even a personality theorist,
dare not give in to.

Even if you are open to the teleological approach, though, there are criticisms you can
make regarding how scientific Adler's theory is: Many of the details of his theory are
too anecdotal, that is, are true in particular cases, but don't necessarily have the
generality Adler seems to claim for them. A first child (even broadly defined) doesn't
necessarily feel dethroned, nor a second child necessarily feel competitive, for

Adler could, however, respond to these criticisms very easily: First, if you accept
teleology, nothing about human personality is necessary. And secondly, he has already
gone to great lengths to explain his ideas about fictional finalism: All of his concepts are
useful constructs, not absolute truths, and science is just a matter of creating
increasingly useful constructs. Anyone willing to put forth better ideas is free do do so.