It’s difficult to define an “addictive personality,” as there’s no consensus or evidence confirming its existence.12 Addiction is a complicated condition in which multiple factors—extending beyond personality traits—contribute. Accordingly, there’s no single personality characteristic that predetermines addiction or dependency.
What Is an Addictive Personality?
The terms “addictive personality” or “addictive personality disorder” refers to a hypothetical set of personality traits that may increase the likelihood of becoming dependent onto many things, stemming well beyond drugs, alcohol, and other substances of misuse; however, there’s no scientific evidence confirming this personality trait.12 It’s an example of addiction myth versus fact.
Especially for those recovering from a specific addiction or dependency, they may find themselves ebbing and flowing from one addiction to another (referred to as cross addiction), believing this is due to their addictive personality.
There is no singular pathway to addiction, and although certain personality traits may place one at higher risk, these are not causal. They are in combination with other factors, including particular people, places, and/or things in one’s environment (referred to as triggers).
Addictive Personality Traits
While it’s true that certain signs/traits increase the likelihood of some people being more prone to addiction than others, addictive personality traits are purported, as there’s minimal credible evidence to support their existence. Interestingly, the signs or traits leading laypeople to believe they have an addictive personality align with some of those used to clinically diagnose. Therefore, the entire concept—though unsupported—does make sense.
Here are a number of supposed signs of an addictive personality:1
- Comfort eating/binge eating
- Using alcohol to socialize or relax
- Checking one’s phone or social media too much
- Replacing sexual partners for a false sense of intimacy
- Impulse buying/excessive shopping
- Excessive risk-taking
- Drug use for coping
- Never feeling satisfied or needing more of a particular feeling
- An inability to stop using harmful chemicals
- An inability to curtail other harmful activities
Here are traits that may combine to increase the likelihood of addiction:2
- Impulsivity, boldness, and a desire for new experience (more common in men). This can lead to addiction because it makes it hard for people to control their own behavior.
- Being sad, inhibited, and/or anxious (seen more in women).
- Alternatively fearing and desiring novelty; behavior swings from being impulsive and rash to being compulsive, fear driven, and stuck in rigid patterns.
How the Concept of an Addictive Personality Can Be Unhelpful
The concept of an addictive personality can be unhelpful in many ways. Think of the saying, “Once an addict, always an addict.” For those struggling with an active addiction, this mentality may make it harder to recover as they believe the situation is unchangeable or that they’re personality is inherently flawed.
Though addiction is considered a disease that’s treatable but uncurable, this does not mean in any way, shape, or form that one cannot change. In fact, numerous people recover and maintain every year. Such self-defeating logic makes the situation helpless and hopeless.
For those who believe in addictive personalities but have never struggled with an addiction before, there’s also cause for concern. These individuals may believe that others are “hardwired” for addiction while they are in the clear. They may take chances or push the limits—increasing tolerance and intensifying withdrawal, which gradually leads toward addiction.
The truth is that addiction knows no boundaries. It can happen to anyone at any place and time throughout their lives. Accordingly, even those who live healthier, balanced lives are not immune. For example, some people with nor prior addictions can find themselves addicted to opioids after taking them as prescribed. This is what makes the opioid epidemic so alarming.
Risk Factors for Addiction
Again, there is no singular pathway toward addiction, just as there is no singular personality trait. Rather, there are a combination of factors at play at any given time. These include expectations, internal and external triggers, immediate reinforcers, positive aspects of use, and negative aspects of use.
Here are risk factors that place a person at risk of addiction:
- Expectations of use (e.g., relaxation, better social interactions, sleeping better)
- Internal triggers for use (e.g., emotions, thoughts, withdrawal, craving)
- External triggers for use (e.g., people, places, seeing needles, music)
- Immediate reinforcers (e.g., escaping or feeling relaxed or high)
- Positive aspects of use (e.g., make friends, be “cool,” feel good)
- Negative aspects of use (e.g., expense, hangover, interpersonal problems)3
Rather than focus on specific personality traits, problematic behavioral patterns may prove more indicative as to whether someone has a propensity toward addiction. Common problematic behavioral patterns around social drinking, eating, sex, staying plugged in, gaming, impulse shopping, or otherwise are much more telling.
Addictive behaviors that may be potentially harmful include:
For many, responsible consumption of alcohol is minimally—if at all—problematic. A couple drinks on a social occasion or weekend may help one relax, unwind, and feel more comfortable with the crowd. But drinking in excessive quantities over extended periods of time (i.e., binge drinking) increases one’s tolerance and withdrawal response, which reinforces one’s desire to drink more.
This occurs regardless of genetics. As alcohol intake increases, inhibitions decrease—leading toward a plethora of undesirable behaviors that many tend to regret the next morning and onward. It may also lead toward harmful or fatal consequences such as accidents, alcoholism, and alcohol poisoning.
Food can activate the reward/pleasure pathway—like what happens when one ingests any other substance of misuse. When individuals find themselves consistently eating merely for pleasure or as a means of coping with something emotionally distressful (beyond the point of being full or when they would rather not), they may find themselves at risk for binge eating disorder and food addiction.
Rather than eating as a part of nutrition, people with food addiction/binge eating disorder eat to satisfy some type of cognitive, emotional, and or behavioral need in a vicious cycle.
Sexual intercourse and other sexual activities are among the strongest natural activators of the reward/pleasure pathway. The better something feels, the more people crave it. Though sexual intercourse and subsequent activities are an important part of life (such as with reproduction and romantic intimacy), they can arrive to the point of compulsive and excessive.
When sexual activity remains at the forefront of one’s mind to the detriment of everything else, this could indicate sex addiction, porn addiction, and/or masturbation addiction.
Staying Plugged In
Many people experience pleasure from immediate gratification. Devices connected to the internet offer just that. Given that there is more content currently available than one could explore in a lifetime, the opportunities are limitless. Further, many devices available at home, work, and on-the-go make it highly accessible.
When one makes a habit of incessantly checking one’s devices, everything else follows insofar as obsessive thoughts, emotional ties, and habitual behaviors. Accordingly, society is witnessing increases in those struggling with internet addiction and social media addiction.
Many games offer immediate gratification, and some come with highly desirable rewards—whether these be recognition, money, or other prizes. Contemporary gaming is more advanced than ever. Today’s video game characters go into further detail (and may even be an avatar of oneself), graphics are accelerated, missions are more challenging, they are oftentimes portable, and users may play against others at vast distances.
Outside of traditional gambling venues such as casinos, racetracks, or off-track betting sites, many jurisdictions allow for online gambling. Like videogaming, online gambling is also portable. Greater accessibility means more opportunities to play, win, and lose. If not done in moderation, one may develop video game addiction or gambling addiction.
Impulse shopping is a behavior in which one buys something spontaneously without giving it a second thought. Oftentimes, the purchase is something unnecessary that’s desirable in the moment. Seeing a desirable item, especially if it is in vogue and on sale, activates the impulse to buy.
While checking out and initially receiving the item, one experiences euphoria. Shortly thereafter, they may feel regret as the realization of the item being unnecessary or leading toward financial complications sets in. When one’s ability to control shopping is no longer present, it is an indication of shopping addiction.
Smoking, in general, is highly addictive. Though some people may function as casual smokers, many fall prey to issues such as nicotine addiction and marjiuana addiction. Beyond the addiction potential of the substance, the act of smoking is enjoyable for many. The smell, taste, tickling in the lungs, and so forth are desirable and reinforce use.
Therefore, traditional cigarette smokers may still find pleasure in vaping liquid with minimal or even no nicotine. The process itself is addictive. Once coupled with a substance that has a high addiction potential (e.g., nicotine, methamphetamine), it becomes increasingly difficult to seemingly impossible to stop.
And Many Others…
Engaging in anything that activates the reward pathway where one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors become incessantly preoccupied to the detriment of everything else (despite consequences and any desire/attempt to stop), may lead toward addiction. Though the inclusion of alcohol use, substance use, and processing disorders is relatively limited in the DSM-5, people can and do become addicted to more peculiar things.
How to Get Help For Addiction
If you’re wondering, “What is an addictive personality?” and believe that you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, honestly acknowledge the issue and seek professional help as soon as possible. The longer one waits, the more difficult it becomes to break the cycle. Begin from an informed place. For example, consider the type of addiction, severity of the problem, accessibility to providers, and cost of treatment.
For more information, many providers, agencies, and organizations have websites. Depending on the type and severity of the problem, one may participate in tele-mental health sessions online or in person. In some cases, they may require something more invasive such as a residential or intensive outpatient setting.
Given that any form of addiction can be difficult to beat, the more intrinsically motivated one is to change, the better. Gauging one’s willingness to change may begin through motivational interviewing for substance abuse or other addictive conditions.
For those seeking assistance related to how to get help for a loved one with an addiction, there are various resources available online. Seeking personal or group therapy is a good option. Groups such as Alanon or Naranon engage not only patients but also friends and family and are thus more holistic.. For a list of providers, access a free, online therapist directory.
Although addictive personality disorder isn’t a diagnosable condition, and addictive personalities don’t truly exist (according to current research), you know yourself best. If you believe that you’re struggling with an addiction of any kind, speak up and seek support. Help is out there. The longer you wait, the more challenging it becomes.