The term “addictive personality” is often casually tossed around, and it’s not uncommon to hear someone claim they have one. Perhaps you suspect that you might have one yourself. But is there even such a thing as an addictive personality? If so, what characteristics are typical to an addictive personality? Do environmental and/or genetic factors play a part? What is it about having—or not having—an addictive personality that makes it possible for some people to use alcohol or drugs and not become addicted?
An addictive personality is essentially a set of characteristics that makes an addiction more likely to manifest itself. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population has an addictive personality, according to Stephen Mason, PhD, in a blog post on Psychology Today 1. That said, research about addictive personality is ongoing, and experts are divided on whether or not addictive personality actually exists. Some argue that personality is fluid and ever-changing 2, and others maintain that there are a variety of traits present in those who end up with an addiction that may indicate an addictive personality 1,3. The topic is so divisive, even the Wikipedia page on addictive personality has a disclaimer at the top stating that there is an ongoing dispute about the neutrality of the article 4.
An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population has an addictive personality
Personalities are complex, and when you add stimulation factors into the mix, they can get even more complicated. Often the pleasure center of our brains craves something to calm us if it is over-stimulated or something to ramp us up if under-stimulated.5
These attempts to balance stimulation often result in addiction. William Drinkwater, a therapist, speaker and adjunct professor of addiction counselor education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, has noticed that certain patients, especially those who already have an affective disorder such as bipolar disorder, tend to have more issues with addiction and will often trade one addiction for another. These particular patients also have a propensity for impulsiveness, he says, particularly in early recovery.
There are certain personality traits that those with addiction issues appear to share that may apply to a potential addictive personality as well 6. The most universal of these traits are impulsiveness; a tendency to be sneaky or deceptive; insecurity, particularly in relationships; anxiousness and/or depression; a general feeling of being ungrounded; a tendency to react emotionally rather than rationally; a love of and need for excitement; and a dislike of delaying gratification 7.
Genes or Environment?
Evidence points to both genes and environment as contributing factors for fostering addictive personality and addiction, though whether it leans more heavily toward one or the other depends on the school of research you subscribe to, says Drinkwater. “Am I anxious because I drink, or do I drink because I’m anxious? It becomes ‘yes’ (to both) because you need to deal with both at the same time,” he says.
An article published in Alcohol Research & Health by Dick and Agrawal shows considerable evidence that genetics influence the risk of addiction by 50 to 60 percent 8. The article also reveals that researchers have discovered several groups of genes that may have an effect on a person’s predisposition to addiction, similar to any other disease. This could help lead to early detection in the future.
Genetics influence the risk of addiction by 50 to 60 percent
Why Some and Not Others?
How can some people drink, gamble or try drugs and not become addicted while others struggle with addiction? No one knows the exact answer to this question, but it seems to be a combination of genes, environment, social influences and personality. There also appears to be a psychological element involved in addiction as it often occurs either in conjunction with a psychological disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression or bipolar disorder, or in response to trauma or stress 3. Other factors, such as the age at which a person first uses a substance, the amount of emotional support a person has from his or her family, and whether or not there are other addicts in the family, can also play a big role 9.
Even if addiction runs in your family or you seem to exhibit many of the personality traits associated with having an addictive personality, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean you are fated to become an addict.
“I know families where you have four or five alcoholics and then you have one with no addiction issues whatsoever,” Drinkwater says. “They maybe have the gene, but it doesn’t come out for whatever reason.”
Understanding the risk factors can help people who suspect that they or a loved one possesses an addictive personality to be aware and perhaps begin to address these issues early in the process before addiction takes hold.
1. Mason, Stephen. “The Addictive Personality.” PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/look-it-way/200903/the-addictive-personality. Posted March 14, 2009.
2. Genetics: No More Addictive Personality. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v522/n7557_supp/full/522S48a.html
3. Formica, Michael J. “The Continuum of Addiction and the Addictive Personality.” PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/enlightened-living/200806/the-continuum-addiction-and-the-addictive-personality. Posted June 28, 2008.
4. Addictive personality. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addictive_personality. Updated September 9, 2015.
5. How Addiction Highjacks the Brain. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain.htm
6. Cohen, Marisa. “Do You Have an Addictive Personality?” WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/features/do-you-have-addictive-personality. Reviewed on July 13, 2015.
7. A compilation of characteristics described by Drinkwater, Hokemeyer, Formica, Cohen, and AlcoholRehab.com.
8. Dick, Danielle M. and Arpana Agrawal. “The Genetics of Alcohol and Other Drug Dependence.” Alcohol Research & Health. Vol. 31, no. 2, (2008) 111-118. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh312/111-118.pdf
9. Powers, Tim. “Why Don’t Most People Who Drink or Use Drugs Become Addicts?” Sober Nation. May 7, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.sobernation.com/why-dont-most-people-who-use-drugs-become-addicts/
Written by Sarah E. Ludwig.