Have you ever wondered why some people can indulge in substance use occasionally and casually and others can’t?
For some, going out for a few drinks on a Friday night is a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing. For others, one drop of alcohol is simultaneously too much and not enough.
Enter: the theory of the addictive personality.
The concept of an ‘addictive personality’ is a familiar one. We hear people refer to this personality trait as something that makes a person more susceptible to substance abuse. But how exactly does this work? It may not be quite what you think.
Identifying a Potential Addict
How do we define an addictive personality? When we think about addiction, we picture individuals who display certain high-risk behaviors and desires, such as:
- Lack of drive or personal goals
- Lying and manipulating
- Inability to take responsibility for their actions
- Lack of impulse control
- Willingness to engage in dangerous, unhealthy, or thrill-seeking behaviors
- Failure to form or maintain strong, healthy social relationships
- Extreme emotions and/or mood swings
While social and personal traits are, without a doubt, linked to addictive behaviors, this so-called ‘personality type’ alone is no indication that an individual is more prone to addiction.
The Problem with ‘Addictive Personalities’
Addiction fundamentally changes the chemistry of the brain, making the research behind the addictive personality theory a bit murky. If individuals are assessed for addictive personality traits after they are already addicted to a substance, it makes sense that those characteristics may already be present.
What is less clear is whether they showed these traits before becoming addicted or whether they are symptomatic of altered brain chemistry. All the qualities described above can be attributed to someone suffering from addiction. Still, they are not necessarily a clear indicator of the person they were before the addiction set in.
The Truth of the Matter
Addiction can affect anyone. Regardless of age, sex, race, ability, or financial standing, any individual may succumb to substance use. The predisposition to addiction has less to do with their personality type and more to do with disorders of the brain.
Psychological and social factors, not a personality type, can make a person more prone to addiction. There’s a significant genetic component associated with addiction – especially when paired with environmental factors. Stressful living or working conditions, difficult home life, trauma, and abuse are all factors that can lead to addiction, especially during periods of extensive brain development. Additionally, those who suffer from mental illness can also lead to higher rates of addiction.
We want to believe that the personality traits listed above can be telling of the potential for addiction. Hypothetically, if there are clear signs, we should be able to take preventative action to stop addiction in its tracks. The problem is that the addictive personality hypothesis equates a person with these traits with being susceptible to ‘moral failure’ – that is, falling into addictive behaviors – without considering external factors.
Such assumptions lead to negative stigmas, both for people who present these traits but don’t use substances, and those who abuse substances but don’t possess the personality traits. The damage can go both ways, and it helps no one.
Ultimately, addiction strikes indiscriminately, and the umbrella theory of ‘addictive personalities’ can perpetuate harmful assumptions about substance use and addiction.