Phenomenological Psychology

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Alfred Adler’s Concept of “Social Interest”

October 3rd, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 18 Comments

One of Adler’s key concepts is that of social interest. “Social interest” in German is “Gemeinschaftsgefuhl,” which translates as “community feeling,” as opposed to one’s private interests or concerns. One’s “style of life” is the set of construals and personal narratives one has devised in order to cope with being-in-the-world. If one has social interest then one evidences or enacts a “useful” style of life. If one does not have social interest then one is self-absorbed and is concerned only with one’s self. Such a style of life is “useless.”

The condition of being useless is not pathological. A person doesn’t “have” (possess) a defined set of psychological symptoms. Rather, she “uses” them in her dealings with others and lives within their parameters, confines and restraints. She believes there must be some benefit to deploying them and that her life would change for the worse if she wasn’t able to do so. In this sense neurosis is a form of reality-evasion. The useless person is not sick, rather just “discouraged” because the dysfunctional relationships she has developed result in loss of social functioning and subjective mental distress.

Adler’s process of analysis begins with the evaluation of one’s “family constellation,” which is the set of circumstances into which one is born such as gender and birth order. It continues through one’s “early recollections,” which are formative events that dynamically influence the growth and development of one’s personality. At the conclusion of this process one will be able to ascertain one’s “basic mistakes,” which are conceptual errors and adverse modalities or ways of being. One habitually enacts them, or uses them as a basis for action, as part of one’s style of life. One also will be able to identify and inventory one’s “assets,” which are accomplishments or successful instances of orientation towards people and projects that are not self-centered.

Adler identifies the source of basic mistakes as an “inferiority complex,” which is behaving “as if” one was of lesser stature (emotional, physical, intellectual) than others, and then creating a style of life based on this belief. The inferiority complex is more than just a cognition or an attitude. It is a form of self-centeredness and is self-defeating. If one solely pursues self-originated objectives then one tends to self-isolate and to avoid risk. People have a self-concept, which is one’s belief about who one is. People also have a self-ideal, which is a belief about how one should be. One experiences dissonance between these two ideations. The greater the tension between them, the greater one’s feelings of inferiority, because one is acting primarily to preserve one’s concept of self.

Feelings of inferiority in turn lead to self-aggrandizement and the pursuit of a useless style of life. They result in the promotion of self-interest over social interest. Social interest is more important than individual interest; put slightly differently, the best expression of individual interest is to veer towards social interest. Only after recognizing one’s basic mistakes and taking prophylactic action to mitigate against them can one then segue to a useful style of life. Undeveloped or underdeveloped social interest is evidenced by poor performance of basic life tasks. Reorienting oneself to pursue one’s social interest in turn reorganizes one’s style of life and enables one to avoid committing further basic mistakes. In this way the goal of Adlerian therapy is to eradicate one’s “inferiority complex” and to awaken ones undeveloped or underdeveloped social interest.

“Social interest” presents the following issues.

1. Adler says social interest is an attitude or outlook towards furthering the welfare of others. It comprises then a set of beliefs about the relationship between actions and outcomes. Actions evidencing social interest cause a certain set of outcomes to occur, which are welfare-enhancing; those that do not are welfare-reducing. This bifurcation however ignores the possibility that concerted group action may not be in the interests of all members of the group, or in the interests of members of other groups. In a democratic society there are many interpretations of what might be welfare-enhancing. A totalitarian society might have only one interpretation, with which many covertly disagree. Different cultures per se will have different points of view. Since Adler is committed to a theory of mass action he would be unable to draw these distinctions. He confuses a set of propositional beliefs about what comprises social interest with the dynamic of how social interest is created and then orients itself within a society towards different results.

2. Evaluating one’s style of life in terms of its “usefulness” is a form of utilitarianism. As classically defined by John Stuart Mill, “utilitarianism” is the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This formulation ignores however the dilemma of what a society should do for those of its members who are the least advantaged (as argued by, among others, John Rawls). Adler is committed to the former definition.

3. Unless an individual is a person of influence it is unlikely her actions will result in an overall augmentation of social welfare or that they will implement or achieve any socially-desirable objective at all. In some cases individuals who are purporting to advance it simply may be gratifying their own desire to implement an outcome in response to their activity, which is not evidencing or enacting social interest. In most cases individuals simply do what they do without thinking about whether it advances or retards social interest. They are enmeshed within the structure of their own lives. They undertake tasks and pursue goals and objectives without giving the slightest thought to abstract notions like social interest.

4. Adler is committed to a theory of motivation. If one pursues social interest then one has a motive for doing so. An example of a motive implementing social interest is altruism. Altruism may be commendable but is not necessarily efficacious. It may even be counter-evolutionary. People are motivated to do things for a variety of reasons, only a small subset of which are altruistic. By evaluating everybody who isn’t altruistic as “useless” Adler dramatically overstates his case. People may advance social interest without necessarily being altruistic, just as many altruistic people may act in a way that does not advance social interest.

5. The way Adler defines it, “social interest” is a utopian ideal. It depends on a Marxist concept of society evolving to a utopian state of fraternity and brotherhood. Etymologically, social interest immediately suggests the possibility Adler is advancing a form of “socialism.”  At the same time, “social interest” is inherently conservative. The way to enact social interest is by complaisantly and compliantly fulfilling one’s designated social role. Stepping outside its confines means one is pursuing an individual objective rather than a social one. This kind of mindless conformity is antithetical to the development of authentic personality.

6. This also is puzzling because Adler called his approach, “individual psychology.”  One’s style of life comprises the set of one’s “choices” and what one chooses in turn depends on one’s style of life. It follows that a person cannot be biologically or environmentally predisposed or determined. Adler for example would say one “chooses” to be gay, which implies one can choose not to be gay. One is ego-dystonically homosexual. This is an outmoded view that was discarded two decades ago (among others it creates a problem of what the “default” conditions are before one can exercise freedom of choice). Properly understood Adler is committing a type of fundamental attribution error, in that one’s ability to choose freely is constrained by the very elements Adler eschews, such as biology and environment. People can make individual choices only within the context of a well-developed social milieu. If it is “individual,” then how come Adler is so concerned with a cultural (inter-individual) outcome such as “social interest”?