Addiction disorder is a complex condition that can affect anyone regardless of their individual personalities. While there is still much debate about why it is that some people develop addictions while others do not, the general consensus among experts is that addiction is a disorder stemming from the brain and not from character.
Though there are many risk factors associated with the development of addictive disorders, there is no evidence of a specific personality “type” more prone to developing an addiction than any other. Despite this, the myth of the “addictive personality” persists. Addiction is often attributed to a specific temperament — one that is defective in its inability to resist temptation. To confuse matters, the “addictive personality” is sometimes referred to in a joking way to justify the pleasures we choose to indulge in, further blurring the line between addiction, desire, and individual will.
Traits of the So-Called “Addictive Personality”
While there is no standardized set of characteristics that defines the “addictive personality,” there is a body of certain traits and behaviors commonly recognized as those of someone with this type of personality.
These traits include:
- inability to commit
Why Does the Myth of the Addictive Personality Exist?
Addiction was originally framed both by Alcoholics Anonymous and the field of psychiatry as a form of antisocial personality or “character”/personality disorder. Decades of research later, this framing of addiction has yet to be found valid.
It would be inaccurate to say that we can predict whether a person will develop substance abuse issues based only on their personality. However, it would also be inaccurate to say that there are not certain characteristics that those with substance abuse share at a greater rate than among the general population. Addiction, as mentioned before, is a complex condition that cannot be easily explained away.
For instance, traits associated with borderline and antisocial personality disorders have been linked to higher rates of addiction. According to Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction by Maia Szalavitz, 18 percent of addicts have personality disorders that are characterized by certain traits associated with the addictive personality, such as lying, stealing, lack of conscience, and manipulative behavior. While the percentage is relatively small, it is a rate four times that of the general population.
When evaluating this evidence, however, it is important to keep in mind that old maxim: correlation does not imply causation. Addiction, and especially substance addiction, affects our body’s entire system. This includes our brains, which can result in neurological changes that in turn affect our personalities. It is not always clear, therefore, whether the trait developed before the addiction, contributing to its onset, or after the addiction, as a result of it (1).
Actual Risks for Addiction
Personality traits, even those associated with addiction, do not pose much risk for developing addiction disorders. Countless studies, however, have confirmed a host of real, provable risk factors for addiction. Genes alone are believed to be responsible for 40 to 60 percent of our predisposition to addiction (2).
Other risk factors for addiction disorders include:
- having grown up with neglectful parents
- experience of abuse and/or other trauma as a child
- influence of friends and peers
- academic troubles
- early drug and alcohol use
- early witnessing of drug and alcohol use
- ready availability of drugs in the school and/or community
- mental disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder)
- method of drug use — using methods such as injection and smoking increases addictive potential because the substance enters the brain within seconds, producing an immediate and powerful effect that fades quickly, prompting people to re-use in order to recapture the feeling (3)
Identifying the Signs of Addiction
It is unhelpful and ineffective to evaluate the extent of your predisposition — let alone other people’s predisposition — for addiction based on personality. It is an unreliable measure of risk propped up by outdated stereotypes and cultural myth.
Addiction is not always obvious. Many behaviors start out as a way to have fun or cope with stress, and then evolve slowly until you find yourself reliant on and preoccupied by that behavior in ways you never anticipated.
Instead of using personality to gauge whether or not your behavior may be a problem, look out for these common signs of addiction:
- difficulty sticking to goals regarding the behavior
- feelings of guilt and distress surrounding the behavior
- continued use of a substance despite negative effects
- declining health
- problems with relationships and general social functioning
- increased tolerance to substance
- symptoms of withdrawal when not using substance
- little to no interest in your usual hobbies and activities
- feeling a lack of control over your behavior
- problems at work and/or school
- feeling defensive when confronted about behavior
Why the Myth of the “Addictive Personality” Is Harmful
It is easy to attribute addiction to weakness and problems with self-regulation. This is a harmful stereotype that further stigmatizes addiction and points the blame in the wrong direction. Social attitudes start with the way we talk about issues. The biases and preconceptions that make their way into the language we use matter more than we may think.
The myth of the addictive personality is also an unhelp guide for prevention and treatment. There is nothing productive to be gained from this myth.
If you or a loved one are struggling, call Fort Recovery today at 1 (817) 382-9257.