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. However, the diversity among people with addictions suggests otherwise.
Addictive personality stereotype
The popular notion of what an addict 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 the 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 and 9% of alcoholics have ASPD
- 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. 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.
At the individual level
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 entity.
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?
- Szalavitz, M. (2016). The addictive personality isn’t what you think it is. Scientific American.
- Szalavitz, M. (2015). Genetics: No more addictive personality. Nature, 522(7557), S48-S49.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.