Teleology: Can We Change Easier Than We Think?

The Courage to Be Disliked is by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga is a book on individual psychology, a school of thought made famous by Alfred Adler. Adler was a lesser known contemporary of Sigmund Freud and opposed many of his views. One of the most interesting differences is Freud’s view of etiology compared to Adler’s view of teleology.

Much like most of the general population, Freud believed that events early on in childhood had an effect on how the child would grow into adulthood. We see this all the time in documentaries about people that explained how they grew up and how it made them to be who they were: Michael Jordan grew up with two brothers that used to beat him all the time in basketball, so now Michael Jordan is extremely competitive.

Adler, however, believed that human beings choose specific narratives or goals, and use past events that match up with it: Michael Jordan chose to be competitive at some point in time, and we are just using the fact that he had two brothers to generate a plausible explanation (but in reality it makes no difference).

If you think about it, if Michael Jordan turned out to be uncompetitive, the etiological model would say that he was uncompetitive because his brothers beat him at basketball too much and it made him dislike competition. It’s argued that Freud’s etiological stance is deterministic, and it builds up an identity attachment that can be difficult to overcome in mental illnesses.

Adler’s teleological model explains that human beings can choose to change their narrative or goal whenever they want to, and can start living whatever kind of life that they choose. One of my friends once told me that she had a quiet, timid personality when she grew up in Europe, and when moving to USA she decided that she would be outgoing, charismatic and confident. And then she simply just did it! This is an example that people aren’t just a product of their environment over time, and it is possible to change through an instantaneous, powerful decision.

Of course it seems unbelievable to think that people suffering from negative emotions or illnesses are choosing to do so, and this is probably the reason why Adler’s theory is less accepted than Freud’s theory. It could be that the person chooses to suffer because the idea of suffering is attached to their identity, and they won’t change their narrative through fear of uncertainty. They end up choosing the more familiar option of staying stuck.

In summary, teleology can be a useful way of taking control of our lives, and through choosing a empowering goal we can begin a fulfilling journey instead of carrying on with a self-defeating one.