Sunday, March 25, 2012

Comparing Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler


Initially, Freud and Adler collaborated in the development of psychoanalytic theory, but the relationship became strained and they parted ways after 8-10 years (Corey, 2009).  Adler disavowed Freud's focus on the sexual nature and affect on the human psyche.  Adler believed Freud's preoccupation with sexuality reduced human nature to a single motivating factor (Putnam, 1917).  Although Freud was a pivotal force in Adler's development, Adler sought to replace Freud's excessive focus on sexual motivation with his own concept of the inferiority complex (Adler & Fleisher, 1988; Corey, 2009).  Freud had no tolerance for theories that diverged from his own and eventually Adler parted ways with him.
Similarities and Differences

Key concepts and unique attributes

Freud's psychoanalytic view was deterministic with little room for external influences in future decision making, but Adler believed the past continues to influence the choices people make throughout their lives.  Whereas Freud believed sexual tension was one of the basic human drives, Adler believed people are motivated by social relationships.  Both men, however, believed fundamental personality characteristics are born within the first six years of life (Fisher, 2001). Freud believed instinctual forces drove humanity whereas Adler believed people can and do make conscious decisions.
A primary difference in therapies was Freud's focus on the narrow scope of early childhood and it's affects but Adler's therapy focused on the present.  He believed the conscious aspect of the human mind was a powerful component in creating goals, and making choices.  Freud thought human behavior was determined mostly by the past, and people were not free to make choices, but were compelled to react to internal and unconscious directives (Corey, 2009). 

Both men were prolific pioneers of psychoanalysis and early psychology.  Both had similar, although not identical beliefs that environmental forces such as biological and environmental conditions create limitations in the human "capacity to choose and to create" (Corey, 2009, p. 99).  Freud, however, believed these limitations played a much more influential role in human behavior than did Adler.
 Adler's techniques intended a shorter length of therapy with a focus on a strong beneficial relationship with the therapist, definitive goals toward solving the client's contemporary issues, and an optimistic view of the client's ability to change (Corey, 2009)  Freud's psychoanalysis, however, was a longer-term therapeutic investment, with a focus on bringing the unconscious into consciousness.  Contemporary trends in psychoanalytic therapy aim to provide successful interventions in a shorter period of time. 

Historical development

It is interesting to note Adler's initial life experiences were characterized by the stress of illness and his feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, especially to his siblings.  It is apparent to most students of psychological theory that these experiences weighed heavily in the development of his theories, especially that of the inferiority complex that he believed was highly influential in motivating human behavior (Corey, 2009).

Freud followed his own path from a deterministic view with the belief his choices were dictated by his heritage.  Of interest is the fact that one of the most creative times in his life was during an acute phase of psychiatric illness during which he suffered tremendous fear, phobias, and other "severe emotional problems" (Corey, 2009, p. 60).  Many, or perhaps most of his theories were based on self analysis - one reason many of his peers believed his theories were faulty, or at least, not an adequate general analysis of humankind.

The development of both theorists may incline students to believe early development does, in fact, significantly influence lifelong development.  Although Adler believed people can change, the early development of these two men seems to have been a somewhat deterministic predictor of their lifelong work.   

Therapist's Role

In Adlerian theory, the therapist assumes the role of an information gatherer and the client's provider of an overall perspective from which the client can grow and develop.  The therapist summarizes and interprets information from the client and develops a treatment plan that includes freeing the client from overriding negative personal life narratives.  Adlerian therapists use the technique of uncovering the past, as does Freud, although Adlerian therapists uncover early recollections to more articulately understanding the client (Corey, 2009).  The relationship between the client and the Adlerian therapist "is based on cooperation, mutual trust, respect, confidence, collaboration, and goal alignment" (Corey, 2009, p. 107).   
On the contrary, Freud believed the foundational role of the therapist was to encourage a transference relationship.  In this relationship, clients see the therapist as a significant figure from early childhood about which clients are encouraged to experience and react as they would have at the time of the original experience (Freud, Fodor, & Gaynor, 1958).  The therapist/analyst must function as a "blank screen" (Corey, 2009, p. 69) upon which the client transfers his experiences and emotions.  As the analyst interprets the client's responses, the therapist uncovers unconscious directives and works toward bringing them into the client's consciousness.  The therapist must learn to react objectively to any ill effects or hostility toward the therapist because of the transference relationship (Corey, 2009).  Throughout this therapy, the psychoanalyst remains anonymous, in effect, to support the transference relationship.

Research Support for the Theory

According to Sax (2000), Freud's theories became popular because of a lack of alternatives during the time he theorized.  He further postulates Freud's theories at least provided a framework in which to understand and interpret these problems, even if the framework was not of any therapeutic value" (para.33).  Although it has been difficult to discuss the validity of Freud's theories because most of his ideas are neither verifiable nor falsifiable, his theories continue to inspire study.  As brain imaging techniques evolve, outcome research in psychotherapy takes on new understanding (Lehtonen, 2010).  Additionally, neurobiological research recently discovered through the mechanics of neuronal synapses demonstrates how "environmental factors can influence the formation of brain organization during the developmental years".  This research gives credence to Freud's (and Adler's) theory on childhood development and it's lifelong effects.

Adler's theories, like Freud's did not lend themselves to verifiability or falsifiability.  Adler did, however, contribute significant influence psychotherapy as a whole, and Corey (2009) believes his influence extends into the full range of contemporary therapies, but questions its reliability as a sole therapy.  He did develop a practical perspective that has contributed to psychology's effort to make sense of human nature and its behaviors.  As neuroscience continues to give new definition and value to theories that were not measureable in their time, continued research and brain imaging will offer a deeper understanding of psychoanalysis. 


Adler, A., & Fleisher, L., (1988, December) The Child’s Inner Life and a Sense of Community.
Individual Psychology: The Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice Vol. 44(4), p. 417.
Corey, G. (2009). Case approach to counseling and psychotherapy (7th ed). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Fisher, M. (2001). Alfred Adler. Muskingum College Department of Psychology. Retrieved from http://elvers.us/hop/index.asp?m=3&a=65&key=117

Freud, S., Fodor, N., & Gaynor, F. (1958). Freud dictionary of psychoanalysis. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett.

Lehtonen, J. (2010). Dimensions in the dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 19(4), 218-223. doi: 10.1080/0803706X.2010.499136

Putnam, J. (1917). The theories of Freud, Jung and Adler: I. The work of Sigmund Freud.
            Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 12(3), 145-160. doi: 10.1037/h0071967

Sax, L. (2000). The future of Freud's illusion. World & I, 15(8), 263-283.




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