Book Summaries Psychology

Understanding Human Nature Summary (7/10)

Understanding Human Nature Summary (7/10) 1

Adler was not interested in theories of the unconscious (psychoanalysis) the way Freud and Jung were. Instead, he was concerned with the practical world, particularly the social world. Understanding Human Nature is a book about understanding why people do the things they do, what arbitrary influences they had in childhood, and what attitudes hold them back later in life.

Knowledge of Human Nature

Formal education does not teach us very much about human nature. Children will have to take care of their own personal development outside the classroom, to figure it out for themselves. At this stage, psychology is like the subject of chemistry in the days of alchemy – it has not advanced far enough.  The people most suited to study human nature are those who have managed to escape the “complicated muddle of our educational system.” These include reformed sinners, either who have drowned in their mistakes before steering themselves clear, or those who feel they are being drawn into making errors. Others can learn it, if they are gifted and empathetic but the best way to understand human nature is to live through its passion for yourself.

Reformed sinners are therefore as valuable in our day and age as they were in the days when the great religions were first founded. They stand much higher than a thousand righteous people. How does this happen? Picture an individual who has lifted himself above the difficulties of life, extricated himself from the swamp, and learned to take bad experiences and make use of them. He truly understands the good and the bad sides of life.

The Function of the Psyche

We can only understand the psyche in relation to its environment, we cannot study it in isolation. So, to understand its nature, we must focus on its goals in the external environment, since there would be no psychic life without goals. We are always striving towards something, but our goals may change with time.

We first recognize this goal seeking behavior in children. And we also notice that the way in which this child learns to behave in relation to his goal during childhood, will be the same when he grows up. This suggests an important hereditary role, but it is not only biology, civilization plays a large role.


We need people to survive.

Imagine being alone, without any tools except one’s bare hands, in a primitive forest! One would be more at risk than any other living creature. Human beings are generalists, not specialists. 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. Our diet, our physical characteristics and our lifestyle all demand these tools.

Language has deepened the bond people have with each other, without a society, there would be no use for language. And speech is very important for the development of the human spirit, we can only think logically through using language, and we can only understand our thoughts and emotions in this way. Finally, language is how we preserve our civilization.

The Child

Children, like adults, want to dominate everyone around them. But because they are helpless at first, they will feel frustrated, so they will feel a strong desire to become stronger. For some, this becomes their main purpose in life. The other route they may take is to accept their weakness, and to call or help. The same patterns can be noted in adults.  

But children must be given limits, otherwise, they will abuse them. A child who tries, to gain attention for themselves, by all means – fair or foul, will abuse their power. They will lie and cheat to get their parents to favor them over their siblings. Others will behave like model children, while some may act lazily and mischievously – all towards the end of gaining attention.

Inferiority Complex   

Children who have come into the world with defective vision attempt to translate the entire world into more intense visual images. Children with hearing defects show a keen interest in certain sounds that they find pleasing: in short, they become ‘musical’.

Physical, organ inferiority, and capability inferiority. The visually impaired wants to read, The auditory impaired is drawn to music, those with a frail physique may want to develop muscles. People who were disregarded as stupid as children, and were not taken seriously, will want to become clever.

The mechanism of the striving for compensation with which the psyche attempts to neutralize the tortured feeling of inferiority has its analogy in the organic world. We have seen that those organs of our body that are essential for life seem to become over productive when their normal function is impaired by illness or injury. Thus in circulatory disorders the heart, seeming to draw new strength from the whole body, may enlarge until it is more powerful than a normal heart. In the same way the psyche, under pressure from feelings of inferiority or helplessness, tries with all its might to overcome this ‘inferiority complex’.

We hate failures, because they remind us of our inferiority, and we carry these defeats as residue from our earliest attempts at success. But trying too hard to compensate can lead us in a direction where nothing will ever please us, where we become chronically dissatisfied with life.

When the feeling of inferiority is intensified to the degree that children fear they will never be able to overcome their weakness, the danger arises that in striving for compensation they will not be satisfied with a simple restoration of the balance of power. They will seek to tip the scales in the opposite direction. In such cases the striving for power and dominance may become so exaggerated and intensified that it must be called pathological, and the ordinary relationships of life will never be satisfactory.

Men and Women

Men were not historically repressors of females. In ancient cultures, we find that women ruled over men, but we can hypothesize that at some point, a struggle between the sexes ensued, that resulted in male dominance. But it was far from inevitable that a patriarchal society would have developed. Often, masculine ideals are cherished, whereas feminine ideals are scrutinized. Even women often prefer to be masculine, whereas men would be insulted to be thought of as feminine. This is likely because men defined the ideal according to their own image.

George Sand once described this very tellingly when she said: ‘The virtue of woman is a fine invention of man.’

Women rebel against this situation in three ways, either they become masculine themselves, tomboys who resent femininity, and despise the role of housewife. Or, a second category, where the woman surrenders to her fate as the submissive partner, and she constantly exhibits signs that she is a victim in need of saving. Or a third category, where she only verbally accepts her position of inferiority, but manipulates men into doing all the hard work in a relationship. In this way, she gets her revenge slowly.

The problem between the sexes, and what interferes with them co-existing peacefully, is that both want to dominate the other. In any case where one party seeks to dominate the other, there will be pushback, either through explicit or implicit aggression. The only solution is to negotiate peacefully, to acknowledge the value of one another, and to make concessions, to develop friendship and companionship, rather than rivalry for power.

The Family Constellation

The oldest is the most assured, and often conservative. the second oldest is in competition and may spend their entire lives trying to outdo their oldest sibling, no matter the cost.

They are not only the youngest, but also usually the smallest and in consequence the most helpless. Their brothers and sisters have already acquired some degree of growth and independence and for this reason youngest children usually grow up in a warmer atmosphere than their siblings experienced. Hence there arise a number of characteristics that influence their personality and attitude to life in a remarkable way…No child likes to be the smallest, the least capable, all the time. Such a position stimulates children to prove that they can do everything. Their striving for power becomes markedly accentuated, so the youngest often grows up into a person desperate to excel, determined to be the very best at everything. It is not uncommon for the youngest child to outstrip every other member of the family and become its most capable member.

The youngest child often goes in one of two ways. The first is to aggressively pursue the path towards competence. The other is to withdraws and go around obstacles instead of confronting them.

The youngest child often goes on to become the savior of their whole family. The Biblical story of Joseph is an example, and its exposition is clearer and more informative than what modern researchers can hope to present. The other type of youngest child will try to shy away from attacking their tasks head on, they become the biggest cowards imaginable. They become masters at making up excuses.

Type A and Type B

Type A children are more courageous than Type B children. The former takes the direct route to their goal, whereas type B children will go on a series of detours. Type B children have discovered that fire burns, and people aren’t so nice, so they become afraid of speaking the truth, and afraid of pursuing their goals. Both types share the same goals but go about them differently.

Optimists and Pessimists

There is another way to classify people: how they approach difficulties. The optimists undergo linear character development. They courageously approach their difficulties and do not take them too seriously. They believe in themselves and are generally happy. They don’t demand too much of life, because they have high self-worth, they don’t feel insignificant. They make friends easily and approach social situations in a relaxed way.

Pessimists are those who have acquired an inferiority complex as a result of their experiences, and impressions of their childhood. Their attitude is that life is not easy, they always see the dark side of everything because of their personal philosophy, which is a result of being mistreated as children. They are more conscious of the difficulties of life than optimists, and it is easy for them to lose heart. They are always tortured by a feeling of insecurity and are always looking for support – a cry for help is ceaselessly echoed in their behavior, because they cannot stand alone. As children, they are always crying for their mothers, and these cries can be heard even in their old age.

These types are abnormally cautious. They are timid and fearful, and always dwell on the dangers that are around the corner. They sleep badly, and sleep is an excellent measure for the development of the human being. Disturbances in sleep are a sign of insecurity and great cautiousness. It is as if these people are always on guard. They frequently curl up into the smallest possible space, or sleep with the covers drawn up over their heads.

Aggressive and Defensive Types

Another categorization is the aggressive-defensive types. The aggressive attacker moves violently, and when they are brave, their courage becomes foolhardy to show the world how brave they are, but in this way, they betray their deep feeling of insecurity. If they are anxious, they try to harden themselves against fear. They play the tough role to a ludicrous extent. Others do whatever they can to suppress all feelings of tenderness and gentleness, because they are afraid of being perceived as weak. Society does not favor these people. Since they are so obtrusive, it is easy for them to be disliked. Life becomes a series of never-ending battles, and when they suffer defeats their procession of triumphs ends abruptly. They are frightened easily, and do not have the stamina for lengthy conflict.

Another type is the defender. These are the ones who feel threatened, and constantly on guard. They compensate for their insecurity not by aggression, but by anxiety, caution, and cowardice. These people don’t become defenders without being aggressive at an earlier point. Sometimes, they succeed by disguising their defection by acting like a useful piece of work will imminently follow their retreat. But these fantasies are a way of avoiding reality. Some, who have not completely lost initiative, may accomplish something of value to society.

Artists often belong to this category. After withdrawing from reality, they build a boundless fantasy world where only their ideals exist. But they are the exceptions to the rule, for these types of individuals usually suffer defeat after defeat and capitulate to hardship. They are afraid of everything and everyone and expect nothing but hostility from the world. Eventually, they lose all belief in the goodness of humanity, and the brighter side of life. One constant of these types is their critical attitude. They are great at recognizing the slightest defect in others and set themselves up as judges of humanity without accomplishing anything themselves. They cannot enjoy the victories of others, but only seek to sabotage them.

There are many ways of categorizing people, to help us understand human psychology. We can even divide them into ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers.’ Thinkers meditate and reflect; they live in a fantasy world and shun the real world. They are difficult to jolt into action. Doers are the opposite, they don’t meditate or reflect, they are busy with an active, down-to-earth approach to life’s problems.

Beyond the Old School of Psychology

But if we subscribed to this old school of psychology, we would reach the limit of our investigations, and conclude that in one type, the power of fantasy prevailed, while in the other, the power of work was better developed. But this material would hardly be scientific or useful. We need to find out how these things happen and whether they had to happen, and whether they can be avoided or mitigated. Even though these types do exist, such superficial labeling does not constitute a rational study of human nature.

Anxiety, Money, Laziness

People who are anxious will feel fear at the onset of any new or unfamiliar situation. It is not that they avoid doing it, it is that their instinct is always ‘flight’, at least momentarily. These people as children violently called for their mother when they were left alone. It isn’t so much fear of being alone, but fear of losing control that these types are afflicted with. They want to make sure that the world still obeys their command. When mother isn’t there, and when new situations arise, they lose that sense of control, and indeed, this may push them to become more masterful, so that they can maintain more control over their lives, but on the other hand, they miss out on new experiences that are necessary for growth out of fear of uncertainty and losing control.

We take it for granted that since greed for money is acceptable. Since money and power are synonymous, people feel that it is okay to be completely oriented towards making money. But avarice can also destroy your life, it can rob you of other things that matter, and it can isolate you from people, in your quest to become all-powerful. In fact, extreme greed for wealth resembles the human illusion of wanting to have god-like powers that we see in mystics and fortune tellers.

People find ways to make excuses for their behavior. Laziness is a way to get yourself out of personal responsibility, no one is born lazy, we teach ourselves to be that way if it helps us solve problems. Some people feign sickness and weakness, for example, to gain control over others, and maintain dominance.

There are many ways in which people seek to control their destinies, and these are not always for the better. Sometimes, the will to control one’s fate results in dependent behavior, and this may be dangerous to their own well-being. Those who relentlessly pursue wealth want to have god-like powers over their fates, but doing so often comes at a great expense emotionally and socially.

Human beings, Adler tells us, can only be understood through their goals, and if we perceive people in this way, we can see how often self-victimization, excessive greed, laziness, and fearfulness are ways of avoiding happiness, of clinging to what is familiar and known. We assume that people want what is best for them, but it is often the case that they want what is most familiar and controllable, even if it was not good for them at all.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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