Do you know someone who has an ‘addictive personality’? Or have you ever said that you have an addictive personality? Maybe they (or you) just can’t seem to show any self-control over substances, or food, or porn, or exercise, or work. But it’s not your fault right, because it’s a gene you have that others don’t, or it’s a part of your personality that you can’t control.
It’s a great excuse – I’ve used it myself. Unfortunately though, it’s just not true.
Personality vs Physiology
There’s lot of differing opinions on this, but scientifically at least, there just isn’t any basis for personality being part of a person’s addiction at all. “From the field’s beginnings in the early 20th century, two factions have been at war: those convinced that addiction is about an uncontrollable physiological response to a substance, a “disease” that needs to be treated under a medical model, and those who think it is simply a sign of weak moral character” (Murphy, 2012).
Amodeo (2015) writes that believing that an addiction personality exists leads to 3 assumptions, none of which makes it easier for people who do live with addiction to get the help they need, or help themselves:
Individuals who develop an addiction have an addictive personality that precedes and propels the development of the addiction, and this addictive personality is characterized by, among other things, difficulty in delaying gratification, a tendency toward sensation seeking, an antisocial personality, and a valuing of nonconformity.
Individuals with an addictive personality have predictable thought processes and behavior patterns such as preoccupation with drugs, compulsive drug use, use despite negative consequences, and choosing drug use over other important activities.
Individuals with an addictive personality can be expected to turn to other drugs or compulsive behavior during and/or after treatment as a result of their personality dynamics.
Turns out, maybe that’s just a story that they tell the world, or maybe just a story that the world has always told them, and now it’s become their truth.
There are loads of studies into this addictive personality idea, from whether people ‘swap’ addictions when they control one, through to whether there is some genetic rationale for addiction.
In 1993, there was a study published (Rozin & Stoess, 1993) where 573 people were asked to rate the extent to which craving, tolerance, withdrawal, and loss of control were part of their behaviour in relation to how they used 10 different things (hot chillies in food, tobacco, alcohol, soft drink, tea, coffee, gambling, video games, chocolate sweets, and sweets that didn’t contain chocolate). The researchers assigned a points system to each of the substances/activities and then came up with an overall rating for each of the trial subjects. The results showed that there was, at best, a weak tendency for people to become addicted, and there is little basis for the assumption of a general tendency to become addicted. In other words, the notion of an addictive personality wasn’t proved.
Why does it matter?
There are a few reasons why maintaining this idea of an addictive personality is unhelpful, and might actually be dangerous.
Insinuating that there is some genetic predisposition for addiction confuses addiction with other conditions and disorders that are actually genetic, and gives a disproportionate weighting to addiction among those other conditions.
Secondly, it says that if someone does actually get in control of their addiction, they are doomed anyway because they will just pick up another addiction, as if our personality seeks out another way to ruin our life if we take one substance or activity away. “This flawed conceptualization casts individuals with addictive problems in the role of being, manipulative, unreliable, and unable to be helped. It reinforces the already powerful societal stigma attached to addiction. It is deficit-oriented and fatalistic in viewing addicts as being irreparably flawed” (Amodeo, 2015).
Thirdly, it can make health care professionals more pessimistic about addicts and their hopes for the future. “Mental health and social service providers will view clients as treatment-resistant, with personality traits that defy clinician intervention. In response, clinicians may become suspicious, wary and controlling, or passive and emotionally distancing in addressing AOD problems in their clients. Clinicians may resort to the ineffective aggressive and confrontational methods of the past, focused on breaking down supposedly rigid defenses and exposing the addictive personality” (Amodeo, 2015).
Fourthly, it can give people who believe that they don’t have an addictive personality the false security of thinking that they can’t become addicted and, instead, they might indulge in risk-taking behaviours unknowingly because of this blissful ignorance.
And then finally, and most sadly, it can make people who do live with the addiction feel like there is literally no hope for them anyway. They have this personality, they can’t change it, even if they do kick their current addiction they will just pick another one, and so on. This fatalism can be just as dangerous as the addiction itself.
Image credit: Mishal Ibrahim
References and Further Reading:
Amodeo, M. (2015). The Addictive Personality. Substance Use & Misuse, 50(8/9), 1031–1036.
Kerr, J. S. (1996). Two Myths of Addiction: The Addictive Personality and the Issue of Free Choice. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical & Experimental, 11(1), S9–S13.
Murphy, S. (2012). Addictive personality. New Scientist, 215(2881), 36–39.
Rozin, P. and Stoess, C. (1993). Is there a general tendency to become addicted? Addictive Behaviors, 18(1), 81-87.