The Alfred Adler Inferiority Complex and Introverts

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What is the Alfred Adler inferiority complex theory? How did the theory reinforce the societal preferences for extroverts?

The Alfred Adler inferiority complex theory introduced a new term for those who felt insecure and inadequate in comparison to the extrovert ideal. This theory advanced the idea that being an introvert was problematic.

Keep reading for more about the Alfred Adler inferiority complex and how it was received.

Psychology Advice and the Alfred Adler Inferiority Complex

Advertising and magazine advice columns emphasized self-improvement. Men were urged to develop “a masterful personality,” while women were to cultivate an appearance of charm and beauty.

Advertisements focused on the need to perform well in the glare of the spotlight. For instance, a shaving cream ad declared, “Critical eyes are sizing you up right now.”  A Lux soap ad assured women that by using Lux on lingerie, sofa cushions, and so on, they would enjoy “a sure, deep inner conviction of being charming.”

A 1920 advice manual stressed the need for having “a ready command of manners” sufficient to convince others you are “a mighty likable fellow.” Magazines like the Saturday Evening Post carried columns on the art of manners and conversation.

Psychologists began to weigh in on the importance of projecting self-confidence. Carl Jung, who had defined the introvert and extrovert personality types, recognized that introverts were falling out of favor. Their natural reserve might “arouse all the current prejudices” against those seen as lacking a good personality, he wrote.

In the 1920s, psychologist Alfred Adler introduced a new term for those who felt insecure and inadequate in comparison to the extrovert ideal: the Alfred Adler inferiority complex. Adler argued that children felt inferior to adults and older peers, but successful children learned to channel these feelings into the pursuit of their goals as they matured. Children who weren’t successful at this developed the Alfred Adler inferiority complex, which would be a huge social and economic disadvantage. Magazines gave mothers advice on how to help their kids avoid the Alfred Adler inferiority complex.

The inferiority complex soon became a pat explanation for many problems in life. For instance, in 1924, Collier’s magazine published an article about a woman who was reluctant to marry a man whom she thought had an inferiority complex and would thus turn out to be a loser. At the same time, experts advised that an inferiority complex could be overcome. In fact, they claimed, many successful people, including Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Edison, once had inferiority complexes.

Schools Get the Message

Parents were exhorted to raise a self-confident child. Experts warned that having a “maladjusted personality” as a child, namely shyness, would lead to alcoholism and suicide later in life; an extroverted personality was key to social and economic success. They advised parents to focus on socialization, while schools should get involved with personality development in addition to children’s learning.

By the mid-fifties, parents, teachers, and psychologists accepted the extrovert ideal for all children. They discouraged solitary activities and stressed socialization; they sent children to school earlier to learn to be sociable at younger ages. Quiet and introverted children were singled out for intervention. Most parents felt extroversion was necessary for their children to learn to succeed in the “real world.”

In The Organization Man, William Whyte quoted officials at Harvard and Yale, who declared that their schools were interested only in young men of “the healthy, extrovert kind” and had no use for the “intellectually overstimulated” type. That attitude reflected the prevailing business culture of group camaraderie, which clearly wasn’t designed for introverts. For instance, IBM gathered its sales force every morning to sing company songs.

Feeling the Pressure

For adults who needed an extra assist against the Alfred Adler inferiority complex, the pharmaceutical companies stepped up in the fifties and sixties to offer the first anti-anxiety drugs. For instance, in introducing the drug Miltown, Carter-Wallace redefined anxiety as a reaction to a highly social and competitive world. It immediately became a best-seller. Others soon followed. By 1960, a third of all prescriptions were for one of two anti-anxiety drugs. One ad claimed, “Anxiety and tension are the commonplace of the age.”

Since then, the pressure to sell yourself has only grown. The number of Americans identifying as shy grew from 40% in the 1970s to 50% in the 1990s, possibly a response to escalating standards for self-promotion. One in five people has “social anxiety disorder” (pathological shyness); psychologists consider fear of public speaking to be a pathology when it undermines job performance.

Dale Carnegie’s books and training continue to be popular, as are organizations like Toastmasters, established in 1924 to practice public speaking. The culture of personality has redefined how we must be. But we may have lost something important in the transition without realizing it.

The Alfred Adler Inferiority Complex and Introverts

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  • How extroversion caused the fall of Enron

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

One thought on “The Alfred Adler Inferiority Complex and Introverts

  • January 29, 2021 at 9:44 pm

    I seriously believe my brother suffers from this. I didnt not realize what it was until I read this!


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