What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… an Addictive Personality

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is addictive personality.

The concept of an addictive personality, although often referred to in pop psychology, is actually less of a thing than you might think. For there to be an addictive personality, that would suggest that there is one specific personality type that makes people addicts, but the diversity among people with addictions suggests otherwise.

For one thing, the popular notion of what an addiction, or someone with an addiction, looks like is influenced by what we see in the media. The media images we see aren’t necessarily all that representative. For example, the media tends to portray ethnic minorities as having addictions more than white people. Stereotyping isn’t accurate for other forms of mental illness, and it’s no more accurate for addictions. If the supposed active personality is based on stereotypes, that’s also likely to be inaccurate.

The stereotypical addictive personality tends to be seen as selfish, weak, and unable to control their urges. A common view is that use of substances tends to be primarily hedonistic, i.e. done for enjoyment. Yet that’s also not accurate.

Assuming that there is a single addictive personality would suggest that addiction arises from a character defect, but research hasn’t identified any single personality type that accounts for all addictions. While there isn’t a single type, though, there are a number of factors representing opposite extremes that can increase risk, including:

  • people who, as children, are either antisocial or overly moralistic and sensitive
  • either highly impulsive and novelty-seeking, or the opposite
  • high IQ is linked with more illicit drug use than average IQ
  • comorbid mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
  • antisocial personality disorder is a risk factor, but only about 18% of people with illicit drug addictions have ASPD, and 9% of alcoholics
  • one study showed that teens who rigidly abstained from use were at high risk than those who engaged in moderate experimentation
  • childhood trauma and other adverse experiences

A consistent theme is difficulty with self-regulation, but that can occur in many different contexts and isn’t a direct driver of addiction.

While there appears to be a strong genetic role, there’s no single gene that’s responsible for addiction. Certain genetic variants can influence how using a substance feels (like nicotine) or how it’s metabolized (like alcohol). Epigenetics also appears to play a role as well; this refers to the way that environmental conditions can turn gene expression (i.e. making the protein the gene encodes for) on or off.

I think the key here is that, regardless of how much is genetics/epigenetics and how much is temperament and other factors, there’s no single stereotypical model of who an addicted person is and what kind of character they have.

That being said, though, for a given individual with an addiction, personality traits can be one of many factors influencing the development and continuation of their addiction. For another individual, there may also be personality factors that play a role, but not the same ones. Both of these people are likely to be better off if they can gain insight into the factors that play a role for them, but the exact mix will be unique. People with addictions are unique individuals, not a homogeneous entitle.

The biggest take-home, though, is that people don’t choose to become addicted, and addiction isn’t about being weak or having a character defect. It’s far more complicated than that, and stereotyping really doesn’t help anyone.

Personally, I think I’m pretty non-addictive from both a biological and psychological perspective. I love my copious quantities of tea but I’m fine without it, I take stimulants and have taken benzos without any problem, and I tend to be a rational more than an emotional decision-maker. Are there any factors you’ve identified that make you more or less prone to addictions?

Sources

Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

The what is… series directory contains all of the terms that have been covered in the series thus far.

You can also find a collection of scientifically psychological tests here.

29 thoughts on “What Is… an Addictive Personality”

  1. I sometimes think I am. The reason being was I became addicted to Oxycontin after they were prescribed as a pain killer for my back. I had to voluntarily admit myself with the help of my family physician and my psychiatrist so that I could break the addiction. It wasn’t easy but I did break the addiction.

  2. Funny how we can be highly addictive to some things and not to others. I have taken opioids for years for pain relief and never had a problem, never even used up a whole prescription before getting a refill. But I can be very addictive to other things. Like coke, sugary foods, routine/ocd stuff, and although it isn’t an addiction per se since I don’t abuse it, I have become dependent on Prozac I think because I’ve taken it so many years. If I quit taking it, it never goes well.

  3. I’ve probably said before throwaway comments like “yeah I’ve likely just got an addictive personality” but I don’t believe there’s an addictive personality type. I do believe there are different facets of ourselves – personality traits, biochemistry – that can predispose us to picking up or continuing habitual and addictive behaviours. xx

  4. I have wondered a lot about my gambling over the years. But, I think I am more prone to making bad decisions when I’m tired, which is often the case. And, not only does the house have the advantage in every game… I often thought I played good blackjack, which made me super competitive when playing!

  5. I can become addicted because it’s so tiring to live in pain. It’s not just meds though… I get addicted to distractions that take my mind off pain and will sit for hours playing games, neglecting work/chores. I have a high IQ and I have noticed my fellow braniacs are full of issues…

  6. I’ve struggled with both addiction and mental health for a good chunk of my life. Sometimes I’m not sure which came first, like the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Other times, I’m convinced that childhood trauma led to severe depression and fear of people early in life. By my mid-20s, my alcohol consumption was out of control. I’m sober today and being sober is the only way I address my depression/anxiety. It’s a constant struggle..

  7. Oh yeah, I have addictions, but they’re all lowkey from an addiction perspective: mostly food. Food is a problem. I’ve still not been eating until 4:00 PM, but then I eat unhealthy foods! Yikes. I’m considering the possibility of seeking some form of professional help for it!! I’m sure there are people out there who could help, but I’m not sure what their job would be called? I’ll figure it out!! I’m not even sure if I’m emotionally eating, or if I’m addicted to certain food parts like fat, or if I’m struggling due to my small amount of healthy foods I actually like, or all of the above. I’ve got to figure it out!!

      1. Also true!
        Plus – with that knowledge: if you never start: you don’t get addicted 🍾🥳
        So I’ve stayed away from things like cigs and drugs and gambling all my life – succesfully!

  8. This is (as always) such good and factual information. It really is a complex issue. I have been glad to see , in some of the literature, the improved awareness that addiction is an illness. And as you point out, “people don’t choose to become addicted, and addiction isn’t about being weak or having a character defect”.

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