Alfred Adler: Man who understood superheroes
Published : Sep 11, 2019 - 14:33
Updated : Sep 11, 2019 - 14:33
Are you a fan of superhero movies or TV shows? If not a regular viewer, have you ever watched one alone or with friends? As you probably know, this entertainment genre is now the most popular in the world. So it’s no surprise that Marvel film “Avengers: Endgame” globally grossed more than $2.7 billion in just a few weeks -- including ticket sales in South Korea exceeding $100 million this past April.

Clearly, infatuation with superheroes is a phenomenon transcending national boundaries -- and all economic indicators show that it’s growing mightily. But why?

A frequent answer is that these movies are fun to watch and often hugely entertaining due to the vivid special effects now possible. But this answer is definitely insufficient, for visual dazzle alone provides limited appeal.

Rather, there’s something about superheroes as people that makes this genre so enticing -- and a psychological explanation necessary.

In this light, the work of Alfred Adler (1870-1937) is extremely relevant, and as his biographer, I can explain why.

Raised in obscurity in late 19th century Austria, Adler as a young medical doctor was initially an ardent member of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic society. Adler was attracted to Freud’s idea of unconscious motivation: that people typically make judgements and decisions based on emotions that lie hidden beneath the surface of awareness. For Freud, these emotions invariably involve sexuality or aggression. However, Adler found this viewpoint highly simplistic -- and launched his own system called Individual Psychology.

Its central notion is that what drives most human behavior is the need to feel competent in daily life: to overcome infantile feelings of helplessness. “To be human means to feel inferior,” Adler declared, and indeed, he became known in Western media as the “father of the inferiority complex.”

In Adler’s cogent view, we all develop an unconscious plan in childhood for achieving a sense of competency -- based on our inborn strengths and weaknesses as well as parental encouragement. Thus, an intellectually gifted child will focus on academic achievement, whereas one with musical talent will aim to be a masterful soloist.

A medical doctor by training, Adler was well aware of the many ways that children’s emotional and physical development can go awry. But he was a fervent optimist, and taught parents, educators and other professionals that all children can overcome their problems to lead successful adult lives. In particular, Adler insisted, the powerful sense of inferiority that lies at the root of many emotional difficulties can best be overcome by striving to help others through acts of kindness, empathy, and compassion.

It is precisely in this context that Adler’s ideas enable us to understand the popularity of the superhero genre. For he was insightful that everyone goes through life struggling at times with feelings of inadequacy and even failure -- and so, a part of us yearns for wonderful powers that could permanently eliminate such worry. After all, who wouldn’t relish the ability to fly, become invisible at will, dash at supersonic speed, or resist weapons and extremes of temperature? Whether viewed literally or as metaphors for strength and prowess, these satisfy our early fantasies of spectacular achievement.

Adler was also among the first psychological thinkers to recognize the human need to support others: to make a difference in the world by constructive actions. “With great power comes great responsibility” advises Uncle Ben to young Peter Parker, a lesson that not only resonates with his heroic identity of Spider-Man, but with all of us in our desire to make the world a better place. Whether fighting against cruelty alone or within a group, superheroes provide a morally satisfying narrative that validates our inborn trait of what Adler called “social feeling” -- and our longing to see kindness triumph over brutality.

It may be historically ironic that Adler died less than a year before the first and most famous modern superhero was created: Superman, in early 1938. Yet Adler would not have been surprised by Superman’s astonishing rise -- and the continuing appeal of superheroes, male and female, who have followed through the present day around the world. In so many areas of the human psyche, Adler was a bold and inspiring explorer. 

By Edward Hoffman

Edward Hoffman is an adjunct psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York. His biography of Adler, “The Drive for Self: Alfred Adler and the Founding of Individual Psychology,” has recently been translated into Korean. -- Ed.