What is Individual Psychology?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 28 February 2020
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The term individual psychology refers to the theory developed by Alfred Adler in the early 1900s in Vienna. As a contemporary of Freud, Adler developed his theory when the field was in its infancy; as a result, his work influenced many psychologists in the years that followed. The theory considers the individual as a whole and the influence of social interactions on the development of personality. It states that an individual's behavior is deeply affected by attempts to find a meaningful and satisfying position in society. Some of the behaviors identified and discussed in the theory of individual psychology include compensation, resignation, overcompensation, and inferiority or superiority complexes.

The founder of individual psychology, Alfred Adler, was sickly as a young boy and suffered through several illnesses. He decided to become a doctor at a young age and started his career as an ophthalmologist. He soon switched to psychiatry and became involved with Freud's discussion group in 1907. At one time, he was president of the Viennese Analytic Society; as time went on, however, he began to disagree with Freud's views and eventually formed his own group called the Society for Free Psychoanalysis in 1911. His work was influential for many of the following generations of psychological theorists such as Karen Horney, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers.


The theory of individual psychology is based on the premise that personality development and behavior are highly influenced by a person's interactions with society. The treatment the person receives from others as well as his or her perceptions of those experiences affect behavior. Most people seek out affection and interpersonal relationships. Those interactions affect behavior in a variety of ways, such as causing a person who is denied affection to become very self-absorbed. Another important factor influencing behavior and personality is the ability of the individual to find a place in society that brings a sense of personal satisfaction while serving a meaningful purpose.

According to the theory of individual psychology, there are several types of behavior that commonly result from this search for meaning and purpose. Often individuals encounter obstacles along their chosen paths and may react in several different ways. They may employ compensation which means that they will strive to overcome any disadvantages that stand in the way of reaching their goals. Another possible reaction to obstacles is resignation, i.e., acceptance of limitations. At times individuals overcompensate; this is characterized by an obsessive focus on overcoming disadvantages that can often prevent achieving the original goal.

Another behavior often mentioned in individual psychology theory is the inferiority complex. This is a thought process that can develop in response to an individual being mistreated by others; it often results in excessive reliance on assistance from other people and no longer believing in oneself. The person thinks that he or she is no good, or inferior to others, after being treated poorly and put down repeatedly. This type of mistreatment can also result in a superiority complex when someone covers up feelings of inferiority by acting as if he or she is better than everyone else. Although these complexes are often seen as negative, both can be turned into positive attributes by encouraging self improvement.


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