Alfred Adler was a physician, psychotherapist, and the founder of Adlerian psychology, sometimes called individual psychology. He is considered the first community psychologist, because his work pioneered attention to community life, prevention, and population health. Adlerian psychology emphasizes the human need and ability to create positive social change and impact.
Adler’s work stressed the importance of nurturing feelings of belonging and striving for superiority. He held equality, civil rights, mutual respect, and the advancement of democracy as core values. He was one of the first practitioners to provide family and group counseling and to use public education as a way to address community health. He was among the first to write about the social determinants of health and of mental health. His values and concepts drive our mission, work, and values at the Adler University today.
Adler was born just outside of Vienna on February 7, 1870. After graduating with a medical degree in 1895 from the University of Vienna, he began his career as an ophthalmologist, but soon switched to general practice in a less affluent area of Vienna near an amusement park and circus. Working with people from the circus, Adler was inspired by the performers’ unusual strengths and weaknesses. It has been suggested that Adler began to develop his insights on compensation and inferiority during this time.
In 1907 Adler was invited to meet with Sigmund Freud. Adler and Freud, along with Rudolf Reitler and Wilhelm Stekel, began meeting weekly during “Wednesday Night Meetings” that eventually grew to begin the psychoanalytic movement. Together, they formed the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, of which Adler was the first president.
Although Freud looked upon Adler as one of his first disciples, Adler never viewed himself that way, and broke with Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis in 1911. Many of Adler’s concepts and ideas were separate from Freud’s, particularly regarding the importance of the social realm. Adler used these ideas to form individual psychology, and founded the Society of Individual Psychology in 1912.
After serving as a doctor in the Austrian Army in World War I, Adler established a series of child guidance clinics in Austria and embarked on extensive lecture tours in the United States and Europe. To significant acclaim, he successfully promoted his psychological concepts emphasizing social interest, or gemeinschaftsgefühl.
After his Austrian clinics were closed due to his Jewish heritage, Adler emigrated to the United States where he began a professorship at the Long Island College of Medicine. In 1937, while on a lecture tour in Aberdeen, Scotland, with his student and Adler University founder Rudolf Dreikers, Alfred Adler died of a heart attack. His body was cremated in Edinburgh, but the ashes were never reclaimed. They were rediscovered in a casket at Warriston Crematorium and returned to Vienna for burial in 2011.
Adler’s goal was to create a psychological movement that argued for the holistic view of an individual as well as social equality. In this way, Adler’s theory of personality and humanity significantly differed from Freud’s—as well as significantly differing from much of today’s mainstream psychology. Adler believed that the social and community realm is equally as important to psychology as the internal realm of the individual.
Adler was one of the first psychotherapists to disregard the symbolic couch in favor of two chairs, to create a sense of equality between patient and clinician. Adler also focused greatly on family dynamics, specifically parenting and family constellation, as a preventative means of addressing possible future psychological problems. With a practical and goal-oriented approach, Alfred held a theory of three life tasks—occupation, society, and love—that intermingle with one another. Success and health in each and all life tasks is dependent on cooperation.
Perhaps Adler’s most influential concept – and the one that drives Adler University today – is that of social interest. Not to be confused as another form of extraversion, social interest should be viewed as an individual’s personal interest in furthering the welfare of others. Collaborating and cooperating with one another as individuals and communities can progress to benefit society as a whole.
Although Adler’s psychological theory was developed nearly a century ago, many of his concepts are still brought to fruition through Adler University. His concepts based in social interest, social justice, equality, and the importance of education guide the Adler University’s commitment to social change—from our curriculum, practica, internships, programming and experiential offerings for students, faculty and alumni—to our hundreds of partnerships at work with local communities to improve community mental health.
Through this, Adler University fulfills its mission to continue the pioneering work of Alfred Adler by graduating socially responsible practitioners, engaging communities, and advancing social justice. Learn more about our history by exploring our timeline.