Understanding Human Nature: Notes & Review

Understanding Human Nature book cover

Understanding Human Nature (1927) is Alfred Adler’s magnus opera on human psychology and nature, as well as one of the main texts of Individual Psychology.

Summary

About the Author: Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was an Austrian physician, psychotherapist, and one of the founding fathers of the “individual psychology” school.
Individual Psychology holds that the driving force of human behavior is the individual’s striving for power, partly to compensate for feelings of inferiority. 
Adler was initially close to Freud and a member of Freud’s “Wednesday Society“, or the “Vienna Psychoanalytic Society”, but the two parted ways years later as they grew to dislike each other.
Albeit Adler was never a “disciple” of Freud, but a colleague, I personally can see much of Freud’s psychoanalytic -and unscientific- approach in Adler-.

Why Learning Human Nature

The benefits of learning human nature:

Don’t Go Around “Psychologizing” Others

Says Adler:

Nothing is more likely to arouse resentment, and nothing will attract greater criticism, than brusquely presenting individuals with the stark facts we have discovered in the exploration of their psyche. 

And he’s right when he adds:

An excellent way to acquire a bad reputation is carelessly to misuse one’s knowledge, for example in the desire to show how much one has guessed about the character of one’s neighbour at dinner.

The True Social Scientist Is Modest About His Own Knowledge

I really liked this part.

On the depth and complexity of human nature:

The understanding of human nature is an enormous problem, whose solution has been the goal of our culture since time immemorial.

My Note: Complex because of exceptions, but not THAT complex
In truth, I believe that human nature is not THAT challenging.
The basics are common to almost everyone. It’s the exceptions that are more challenging and the number of exceptions. 
But even those, often follow a pattern that can be summarized in far fewer larger categories.

On avoiding overgeneralization:

It is also dangerous to misrepresent the basic principles as iron laws (…) Even those who do understand the science would feel insulted by such behaviour.

And on the necessity of modesty:

We must repeat what we have already said: the science of human nature compels us to be modest.

Men Want to Push Women Down

Adler has some good analysis on the sexual conflict between genders.

He says:

As things stand now there is a constant striving on the part of men to dominate women, and a corresponding dissatisfaction with masculine domination on the part of women.

Things stand pretty much the same around the 2020s.
However, since the two genders also seek each other, the strive for domination leads to combative relationships

Says Adler:

Since the two sexes are so interdependent it is easy to understand how this constant tension leads to discord and friction, which must of necessity be extraordinarily painful to both sexes.

Read more:

Sexual Conflict: How Men & Women Fight The Sex War

Submissive People Never Achieve Much

Says Adler:

People who are characteristically servile and submissive are equally ill-adapted to jobs that demand initiative.
They are only comfortable when obeying someone else’s command. Servile individuals live by the rules and laws of others, and this type seeks out a position of servility almost compulsively.

Also read:

Religious Heretics (The “Personal God” Heresy)

There are some people who approach God as their personal wish-grantor.

And this quote made me laugh:

In short, the dear Lord has nothing else to do but to be occupied with their troubles and pay a great deal of attention to them.

Of course, this is not what religion is about.
Says Adler:

There is so much heresy in this type of religious worship that if the old days of the Inquisition were to return, these religious fanatics would probably be the first to be burned at the stake.

The same approach in social relationships is a failure to understand the nature of social exchanges as well, and asking instead of finding a way to also give.
Says Adler:

They approach their God just as they approach their fellow human beings, complaining, whining, yet never lifting a finger to help themselves or to better their circumstances. Co-operation, they feel, is an obligation only for others.

For more on cooperation and how it can help you to acquire power and success, also read:

Life Strategy: The Enlightened Collaborator

More Wisdom

  • Make sure you’re not being driven into unhappiness

Alfred Adler says that some of us try hard to succeed to make up for our past failures and for our inferiority complexes.
But trying too hard to compensate can lead us into chronic dissatisfaction with life.

  • Parents: don’t ridicule children!

Ridicule of children is well-nigh criminal. It leaves a permanent mark on the psyche of children which resurfaces in the habits and actions of their adult lives.

  • Parents: don’t lie to children!

Says Adler:

Another manifestation of not taking children seriously is the custom of telling children palpable lies, with the result that they begin not only to doubt their immediate environment but also to question the seriousness and reality of life. 

  • Your life’s purpose

In everyday life, however, it makes little difference who is right and who is wrong, since the only thing that counts is getting things done and making a contribution to the lives of others.

Alfred Adler Criticism

Since Alfred Adler is so influential, I dedicate a larger portion to the criticism section.

#1. Unscientific… 

Much like Freud’s psychoanalytic approach is, some of Adler’s insights is sometimes genius and, sometimes, probably correct.

But, being unscientific, it’s also untested and sometimes, also very dubious-sounding.

#2. … But seeks to frame it as scientific

Adler seeks to frame his work as scientific. 
He says:

Superficiality has no place here (in psychiatry, En).
Diagnostic errors are soon apparent, whereas a correct understanding of the disorder leads to successful treatment.
In other words, our knowledge of human nature is rigorously tested.

It’s not “rigorously tested”.
Science means that it must be tested in a controlled environment and measured on a group which is then compared to a random sample.
That’s not what Adler was doing.

He did not measure anything, and he did not have control groups.

To me, this is tantamount to (self) manipulation.

#3. Freudian: a psychoanalyst looking for confirmation

Adler is more careful than Freud is about linking past events to present neurosis and behavior.

He says: 

we ask for his first childhood memory, even though we know it is not always possible to test its objective truth.

Yet, he also falls for the allure of the (fake) science of psychoanalysis:

Now let us plot the graph of this man’s life style as described above, by taking one event in his life and seeking to link it with his present attitude. As is our usual practice, we ask for his first childhood memory… 

Says later on Adler:

(…) youngest child behave as though they felt neglected and inferior. In our investigations we have always been able to detect this feeling of inferiority

I’m sure he has.
And the fact that he was looking for it might have a lot to do with it.

Confirmation Bias: Psychoanalysts Feeding Patients Their Own Biases

Psychoanalysis searches for links between past and present.
And then comes up with (largely made up) theories about why people do what they do.

But, as someone said, you find what you’re looking for.
And psychoanalysts don’t discover the truth, they discover what they were looking for.
Sometimes even prodding the patient to provide what the psychoanalyst is looking for.
Says Adler:

We must proceed by cautious hints and with proper delicacy.
We further guess that all this must have begun at some time in the past when demands must have been made on her.
We succeed in eliciting from her the admission that many years ago she had to live through a time when she lacked affection more than anything else.

And there you are, the therapist elicits what he wanted to hear.

#4. “Man Is Weak” Inferiority Complexes: Nonsense

Some of Adler’s theoretical model is built around the idea of “feeling of inferiority”.

Those feelings of inferiority permeate the whole human species, in Adler’s point of view.

He says:

From the above we may conclude that the human being, compared with other life forms, is an inferior organism.
This feeling of inferiority and insecurity is always present in the human consciousness.

But based on what does Adler says that the human being is an inferior organism?
I can tell you, for one, that I feel superior to all other animals. Including a Tyrannosaurus rex, if he were alive.

Here is how Adler concludes that humans are “inferior”:

We are forced to consider human beings among these weaker animals, because they too are not strong enough to live alone.
Without tools they can only offer the feeblest resistance to the depredations of nature. They need all manner of artificial aids merely to stay alive on this planet.

But what he says is true for any form of life.
Any form of life is victim to the “depredations of nature”, in a way. And, in comparison, humans are the ones that more than any other animal managed to control that nature.

And:

Imagine being alone (..) in a primitive forest!
One would be more at risk than any other living creature (…) They have neither speed nor power, not the teeth of the carnivore, nor the sharp eyes or acute hearing that warn other creatures of danger. Humanity needs a whole battery of tools to guarantee its existence.

Frankly, this is nonsense.
Just for one, humans have great eyesight compared to most other living organisms. 

But most of all, it remains to be explained how the hell such a weak species came to dominate and control (almost) all other species?

PROS

  • The feeling of inferiority as a driver

I criticized this idea of the feeling of inferiority because Adler takes it too far.

Yet, if one puts it into a larger perspective, feelings of inferiority can be a powerful driving force for many of us.
And it is important to understand both when and how they drive us, both for our own self-development, and for understanding others.

  • Acute analysis of the male/female power struggles

There is some very good analysis of the power dynamics between the sexes.

Review

I had high expectations for both Adler and this book.

But, possibly due to unrealistic expectations, I was more disappointed than impressed.

There are some deep insights in “Understanding Human Nature”, and Adler seems like a dedicated student of human nature.
Yet, there are also some basic flaws in it. 
The main one is the lack of scientific rigor, without the author ever even acknowledging that his theories are based on his own thoughts and interpretations, not on data or research, and not even much on his own personal experience. 

The second flaw, in my opinion, is that Adler’s understanding of human nature is severely incomplete due to his lack of knowledge of evolutionary psychology.
That leads to quite some distortions and many convoluted psychoanalytic explanations that have instead much simpler explanations.

Adler’s own main thesis that the will to power stems from feelings of inferiority is incomplete without evolutionary psychology. 
People’s strive to power has been selected because it was good both for men’s survival, and for men’s reproduction. 
But Adler never had the chance to learn evolutionary psychology, so he never thought about that.

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