• Robb G. Best

The Myth of "Addictive Personality"

Do you have an addictive personality?

No. No, you don’t.

How can we be so certain? Well, as it turns out that technically speaking, there’s no such thing. “The idea of an addictive personality is more pop-psychology than scientific,” writes Stephen Bright in The Conversation. In other words, the notion of addictive personality is about as about as scientifically rigorous as the Meyers-Briggs.

For one thing, talking about the likelihood of someone succumbing to addiction in terms of personality demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how psychologists measure personality. In order for something to qualify as a personality trait, it must be broad (present across a variety of situations), measurable, stable (observable throughout one’s lifetime), and specific enough to help us predict a certain type of behavior. Currently, psychologists have identified five key dimensions of personality that do qualify: neuroticism, extroversion/introversion, openness to experiences, conscientiousness, and agreeableness.

Now, there are some traits associated with addiction. Neuroticism, for instance. People who score high on neuroticism are more likely to be moody, and to experience emotions like anxiety, jealousy, frustration, and loneliness. They also have higher than average rates of some mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety. It’s still unclear if this is a coincidence, if we should classify substance addiction as another form of mental illness, or if instead this is a cause-and-effect situation, where those suffering from mental illness are simply more likely to engage in excessive behavior as they search for anything that will numb the pain.

Another trait commonly found in people with an addiction problem? “Sensation seeking.” This is defined as the interest in novel sensations, and the willingness to take risks (financial, legal, social) to chase them. Sky diving is sensation seeking.

If you suspect your personality includes an above average degree of neuroticism and sensation-seeking, however, that alone does not doom you to develop an addiction. There are also a variety of environmental factors, including social contexts and access. If you don’t know anyone who does cocaine and have no idea how to acquire it, you are unlikely to develop a cocaine dependency. Traumatic life experiences also play into many people’s addictive patterns.

Famously, the Vietnam War saw a heroin epidemic sweep across the American army. The drug was readily available, and engaging in guerilla warfare certainly can leave anyone with enough trauma to rely on an altered state of mind. However, when the survivors returned home, a surprising number were quickly able to kick the habit. Perhaps some of those soldiers were more likely than others to develop a problem, but arriving back home provided a different enough context that many were able to free themselves of the addiction.

Much like a drug epidemic, the factors that feed into a person’s drug addiction are many and complex. Likelihood of addiction is not a personality trait, and, thankfully, personality alone is not destiny.

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