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Adaptation, Successful and Unsuccessful*
  1. H Crichton-Miller
  1. *Being the substance of a lecture delivered on 16 Nov 1925 at the Tavistock Clinic.

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Man comes into the world with certain congenital qualities, physical and mental. From the cradle to the grave he is exposed to an environment which makes certain demands upon him. The extent to which he adjusts his passions and desires to these demands, and the degrees in which he maintains internal harmony and social efficiency are the measure of his psychological adaptation. The neurotic, the delinquent and the insane constitute the three great groups of unsuccessful adaptations. It is with the first of these groups that we are primarily concerned in this course.


The process of adaptation is essentially a dynamic one and evolutionary in character. We regard man as slowly and painfully fighting his way from his simian origin as “an instinct-driven mechanism” towards a divine destiny. Every step that he takes in this direction is characterised by some extension of conscious purpose in his life, and a compensatory restriction of direct instinctive reaction. But it must not be thought that purpose is in itself a dynamic; the dynamic is always the same-instinct. The introduction of purpose into human life allows of a great range of modification of conduct. This modification implies the process of sublimation, in other words, the application of instinctive energy to some cognate end which has value for society. Human purpose may be ego-centric or altruistic.

Between these two, ethical values lie. Freud refers to them as the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle respectively. To Freud we owe all modern psychology. He transformed psychology from a sterile academic study into a living force. But the old psychological attitude is exemplified even now by Janet, who has just published two stout volumes on “Psychological Healing.” It is a purely academic historical survey and belongs to the pre-Freudian era. The central feature of the unconscious motive …

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  • This is a reprint of a paper that first appeared in Postgraduate Medical Journal 1926, volume 1, pages 60–63. The original version can be downloaded here: