Compensation (psychology)

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In psychology, compensation is a way people hide something that they cannot do well, by doing something else really well. They may not even be aware that they are doing it. Compensation can hide real or imagined problems and personal or physical inferiority. However it does not really solve the cause of the problem. Positive compensations may help a person overcome difficulties. But negative compensations do not, and can even make the problems worse.

There are two kinds of negative compensation:

  • Overcompensation, where a person has a goal to gain superiority. This leads to wanting power, dominance, self-esteem and self-devaluation.
  • Under compensation which includes a demand for help, leads to a lack of courage and a fear for life.

A well-known example of failing overcompensation, can be seen in people going through a midlife-crisis. Approaching midlife many people (especially men) lack the energy to maintain their psychological defenses, including their compensatory acts.

Origin[change | change source]

Alfred Adler, founder of individual psychology, used the word compensation in relation inferiority feelings. In his book Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Physical Compensation (1907) he wrote if a person feels inferior (weak) then they will (usually) try to compensate for it somewhere else.

Adler's reason to explore this was from his own experience. He was shy and yet he pushed himself to give lectures.

Adler also "transferred" this idea of compensation to psychic training.

Cultural implications[change | change source]

Narcissistic people, by compensation theory, hide their feelings of low self-esteem by:

  • talking "highly"
  • contacting "highly admired" persons

Narcissistic children try to compensate for their jealousy and anger by fantasizing about:

  • power
  • beauty
  • wealth


Christopher Lasch, an American historian and social critic wrote in his book The Culture of Narcissism (1979) that North American society in the 1970’s was narcissistic. The narcissistic society:

  • worships consumption
  • fears dependency, aging, and death.

Therefore it is "fascinated" with fame.

Consumption can be an example of compensation (see study by Allison J. Pugh: From compensation to ‘childhood wonder’). Examples:

  • use of goods to convey human relationships.
  • parents make up for "bad" conditions (poverty, abuse ...) they lived in
  • parents make up for "bad" conditions (divorce, ...) they caused to children

References[change | change source]