What Is an Addictive Personality?
An “addictive personality” is a colloquial or informal term based on the belief that certain people have a particular set of personality traits that predisposes them to addiction and other problematic behaviors, such as drug abuse or gambling. So is addictive personality a disorder? Although it is a fairly common concept, there is no medical or scientific definition of an “addictive personality” or “addictive personality disorder.”
Addiction can be influenced by various factors in one’s life, including social environment, family, psychology, and biology. Personality, which reflects the confluence of a number of individual traits, is one of these factors.
Genetics, for example, play a role in the development of an addiction. Heritability, or the extent to which genes impact behavior, is estimated to be between 40% and 70% for addiction, depending on the type of substance. 1 There are both drug-specific genes and genes related to the development of mental health and substance abuse disorders. 1
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the role that both genetics and environment play in the development of addictions are unique and change over an individual’s lifespan. 2 This in turn makes it even more difficult to understand the underlying causes of addiction.
What Causes An Addictive Personality?
People often wonder, what causes a person to have an addictive personality? Research suggests that certain personality or behavioral traits can make someone more likely to develop an addiction. Traits can vary between substance and addiction type, or even by age of the individual. Certain traits have been associated with drug abuse and/or addiction in general, including:
- Impulsivity: Impulsivity is commonly associated with a wide range of psychological problems, including addiction. Sometimes described as spontaneous or erratic behavior with little thought of the outcomes or consequences, impulsivity can lead to risky behaviors. 3
- Sensation-seeking behavior: This trait is similar to impulsivity in the sense that sensation-seeking individuals might be more spontaneous or also seek out risky situations to fulfill the need for new or varied experiences. 3
- Negative affect: Negative affect refers to a set of unpleasant emotions, such as anger and sadness, that can lead to maladaptive behaviors, including substance abuse. Those with negative affect are more likely to abuse substances to cope with stress. 4
- Negative urgency: Negative urgency is how rashly a person responds to distress. Those with negative urgency who have difficulty managing stress in a healthy way are more likely to turn to substance abuse to cope. 4
- Neuroticism: People with high neuroticism often respond to challenges or threats with negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, anxiety, and irritability. Research has revealed that people with high neuroticism are more likely to suffer from a substance use disorder. 5
- Disagreeableness: People who are disagreeable are more likely to be selfish, unfriendly, and uncooperative. Studies have shown that a low level of agreeableness is correlated with alcohol or drug addiction. 5
- Narcissism: Research has suggested a link between narcissism, or an inflated sense of self-importance, and online gaming addiction.6
- Aggression: Aggression is characterized by hostility and violent behavior toward others. Research suggests it is positively correlated with online gaming addiction. 6
Will I Become Addicted?
Not everyone who has the traits will develop a substance abuse problem.
Many worry that having these traits will lead to addiction. However, as mentioned above, many other factors influence the development of an addiction. Not everyone who has a set of traits or genes that predisposes them to addiction develops problems with substance abuse. Protective factors, such as a strong support network, an ability to handle life stressors, and resilience can prevent addiction.
For example, someone who is sensation-seeking and impulsive may be more likely to engage in risk-taking activities, but may pick up sky-diving or mountain climbing instead of drugs. Conversely, someone who does not display any of these traits can develop an addiction.
If you are worried you may develop an addiction, or if you know that addiction runs in your family, educate yourself on substance abuse and the risks of using. Learn to use coping skills when experiencing negative life events or emotions, and surround yourself with positive and sober people.
Addictive Personality Symptoms in Adolescents
Common traits found in adolescents who abuse drugs and alcohol and exhibit problematic gambling include: 7,8
- High impulsivity.
Some of these traits show up in early childhood, while others may develop later in adolescence. Although not every adolescent who exhibits these traits will develop an addiction, it’s important to know the predictors so that drug abuse education and early intervention can be provided.
Additional adolescent traits that are associated with computer gaming addiction include: 7
- Low self-esteem.
- Social anxiety.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Addictive Personality Risk & Protective Factors in Children and Adolescents
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), risk factors increase the likelihood of negative consequences later in life, while protective factors decrease the likelihood.9 Some risk and protective factors remain the same throughout a person’s life, and some are variable, depending on life circumstances.
Those who have more risk factors, such as neglect or abuse, are more likely to have adverse outcomes. On the other hand, those with more protective factors, such as a stable home, family, and school, are likely to have better outcomes. 9
- Prenatal exposure to substance use
- Parents who abuse drugs or alcohol
- Child abuse
- Child neglect
- Violence against mother
- Mental illness in the household
- Parental divorce or separation
- Incarcerated family member
- Neighborhood poverty
- Neighborhood violence
- A lack of economic opportunity
- Early aggressive behavior
- Lack of parental supervision
- Drug availability 9, 10, 11
- Positive self-image
- Social competence
- Parental involvement and monitoring
- Availability of after-school activities
- Academic competence
- Anti-drug policies in school
- Access to quality education
- Stable housing
- Stable family relationships
- Positive peer relationships
- Positive community relationships
- Economic opportunities 9, 11
Addictive Personality Treatment Options
Many different types of services are available to help people who have developed an addiction. Treatment programs can help people manage certain traits, such as impulsivity or neuroticism, that may be contributing to an addiction.
- Inpatient: Inpatient treatment options for addiction offer 24/7 support and are provided in a medical or residential setting. The length of time will vary depending on the person’s needs and his or her addiction, but typical stays can range from 30 days to 90 days.
- Outpatient: Outpatient programs are less intensive and allow the person to live at home while receiving recovery services.
- 12-step programs: Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), provide a safe and supportive environment consisting of others in recovery.
- Teen programs: Specialized programs for teens are based on the unique needs of the individual. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most adolescent addiction treatment takes place in an outpatient setting in order to keep them in the community. However, in more severe cases, teen inpatient treatment may be preferable.12 According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, providers should assess certain aspects of the adolescent’s life when determining a course of treatment, including: 12
- Level of intoxication and risk of withdrawal.
- Any other medical conditions.
- Other behavioral, cognitive, or emotional conditions.
- Readiness to change.
- Risk of relapse.
- Environmental factors such as family, peers and school.
. Ducci, F., & Goldman, D. (2012). The Genetic Basis of Addictive Disorders. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 35(2), 495-519.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Drug Facts: Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction.
. Mitchell, M. R., & Potenza, M. N. (2014). Addictions and Personality Traits: Impulsivity and Related Constructs. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, 1(1), 1-12.
. Kaiser, A. J., Milich, R., Lynam, D. R., & Charnigo, R. J. (2012). Negative Urgency, Distress Tolerance, and Substance Abuse Among College Students. Addictive Behaviors, 37(10), 1075-1083.
. Kotov, R., Gamez, W., Schmidt, F., Watson, D. (2010). Linking “big” personality traits to anxiety, depressive, and substance use disorders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136 (5), 768-821.
. Kim, E., Namkoong, K., Ku, T., Kim, S. (2008). The relationship between online game addiction and aggression, self-control and narcissistic personality traits. European Psychiatry, 23 (3), 212-218.
. Walther, B., Morgenstern, M., Hanewinkel, R. (2012). Co-Occurrence of Addictive Behaviours: Personality Factors Related to Substance Use, Gambling and Computer Gaming. European Addiction Research, 18, 167-174.
. Kuntsche, E., Knibbe, R., Gmel, G., Engels, R. (2006). Who drinks and why? A review of socio-demographic personality, and contextual issues behind the drinking motives in young people. Addictive Behaviors, 31 (10), 1844-1857.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Risk and Protective Factors.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Adverse Childhood Experiences.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2003). Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents (In Brief).
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Treatment Settings. In: Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.