We’ve all heard of someone being referred to as an “addictive personality.” Some even say it themselves. But you might be surprised to know that there is no such thing.
Despite decades of research, no one could identify a consistent set of personality traits or a single personality type that can reliably predict whether someone will have problems with alcohol or other drugs.
The development of alcohol or other drug problems is a set of complex and difficult to predict factors. The “addictive personality” is, in essence, only a stereotype.
Where did the idea of an addictive personality come from?
Almost 90 years ago, when the Twelve Step movement was born and Alcoholics Anonymousthere has been a move away from seeing alcohol problems as a moral failing to a more medical approach.
The first step in this transition, based on how little was known about alcohol and other drug problems in the 1930s, was to see these problems as a personality flaw. It was the best explanation at the time of why some people develop alcohol problems and others don’t.
Later, these ideas developed into a wider “disease pattern”. The disease model and the subsequent “brain disease” model viewed alcohol and other drug problems as a permanent and incurable disease of the mind, making abstinence the only option.
Why is the idea of an addictive personality a problem?
The term “addictive personality” generally conjures up negative images: weak, unreliable, selfish, impulsive, lacking in control. It is a stereotype that increases the stigma of alcohol and other drug problems and reinforces the idea that change is difficult or impossible. And stigma prevents people from asking for help when they need it.
The idea of an addictive personality can also lead people to believe that they are either destined for trouble or completely protected from it, which is not true. For those who are struggling, they may feel helpless in managing their drinking.
It’s a shorthand way of saying “I can’t help it”.
Is there any truth to the idea of addictive personality?
We now know people who have problems with alcohol or other drugs can return to regular use. And most people have problems with one drug, using other drugs unproblematically. Both of these contradict the addictive personality theory because they suggest there is a level of control.
But certain traits are more likely to be found in people who have problems with alcohol or other drugs.
There are two main personality groups that seem to increase the risk of problems: risk taking or impulsivenessand sad or anxious temperaments. Or a combination of both. Both risk takers and high achievers are more likely to develop alcohol or drug problems.
The common thread running through these seemingly unrelated traits is difficulty regulating emotions.
This partly explains why people who have experienced trauma have a higher risk of developing problems with alcohol or other drugsand why there is higher addiction rates in people with ADHD. Both of these conditions increase activity in the Limbic systemthe part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, and decreases activity in certain parts of the prefrontal cortexthe logical part of the brain that helps regulate emotional responses.
There is a genetic component to personality – between 30% and 60%. And there are also some genetic component the development of alcohol or other drug problems – 45%-65% for alcohol. But inherited personality traits are the result of over 700 possible genetic interactions, and there is not a single “personality gene” that leads to substance abuse problems.
A better explanation
We now know that the development of alcohol and other drug problems is influenced by a number of factors.
Many American troops in Vietnam in the 1970s became addicted to heroin and used it regularly while in Vietnam, but quickly quit once they returned home. So it’s not just about the drug itself or the person using it, but also where it’s taken.
Some addiction experts call this “the drug, the setting and the setting”: the qualities of the drug itself, the individual traits, and the context in which the drugs are used.
But how do these factors combined lead to problematic drug use and dependence?
After decades of behavioral and neuroscience research, we now know that the brain is very plastic and continues to learn and shape with new experiences throughout our lives.
Here’s how it works: Every time we do something nice, we get a little burst of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine makes us feel good and tells our brain “you should try this again someday”.
Alcohol and other drugs release a lot of dopamine. Some drugs release more than others.
Our brain quickly connects the dots between action (taking the medicine) and reward (feeling good). This pathway is reinforced each time the drug is used. If we add strong emotions like intense pleasure or relief then the connection becomes even stronger. It’s called operant conditioning. The more you use, the more likely these associations are to form. Some people’s brains naturally release more dopamine than others, so their pathways form faster and stronger.
Our brain also notices clues in the environment that become signals of drug use and can trigger a desire or craving to use it. If you use the same special glass every time you have a drink or if you sit in the same chair every time you smoke a joint, the brain notices this connection. So when you see that drink or sit in that chair, you might feel a little craving for it even though there are no drugs. It’s called Pavlovian conditioning.
So, rather than a fixed personality trait, the motivation to use alcohol or other drugs is largely driven by our brain learning the associations between the effects of a drug (drug), our individual response to the drug (set) and the environment in which the drug is used (setting).
This is great news because what is learned can be unlearned. And that means substance use and problems are not inevitable, even if you have a genetic or personal predisposition.
Nicole Leeprofessor at the National Drug Research Institute (Melbourne), Curtin University; Paula RossLecturer in Psychology, Australian Catholic Universityand Steven BothwellAdvise, Newcastle University
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