September 25, 2022


Whether it may be regarding a person’s favourite food, song, or drug, we’ve all heard someone referring to themselves as having an “addictive personality.” In reality, you may be shocked to hear there is no such thing. Many studies over decades have searched for personality traits or a personality type to predict if someone is more likely to have a substance abuse problem. These all came up short of any reliable results, leaving the commonly used phrase pretty meaningless. 

People first started to say “addictive personality” around 90 years ago, when addiction became recognised as a medical disorder and not merely a moral failing or personality flaw. It was around this period that Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Step movement were birthed, and ever since, many research-based programs have been built around successfully treating the condition.

Despite its roots in good intentions, there are a number of flaws regarding this phrase. Most people with a substance addictions normally experience issues with only one drug and use others in non-problematic ways. Both of these contradict a “addictive personality” theory and suggest a certain level of control. Another reason this phrasing is incorrect is the fact the brain is an extremely plastic organ that is constantly changing through our lived experiences. The motivation to use a substance is driven by different factors depending on an individual’s exact situation and these urges can increase or decrease in intensity over time.

Some professionals disagree with how the phrase is loosely thrown around in society due to the stereotypes it reinforces. Describing someone with an “addictive personality” brings to mind an individual who lacks control, is unreliable, selfish, and weak. This increases the intense stigma many feel around seeking professional help to overcome the condition and decreasing the number of people who will reach out. The phrase also reinforces the idea that individuals are destined for a substance abuse disorder and there is nothing that can be done about it, invoking feelings of helplessness.

What Factors Contribute to Addiction?

Despite the phrase itself being unhelpful, that in no way means there are not any factors which contribute to addiction disorders. Substance abuse problems are extremely challenging and caused by a complex range of factors, leaving them difficult to predict. While there may be no way to classify an “addictive personality”, there are some traits that are commonly found in people who have substance abuse disorders. These characteristics largely involve emotional regulatory problems, such as:

  • impulsiveness
  • anxious and sad temperaments
  • risk-takers
  • high achievers

This link to dysfunctional emotional regulation explains why people who have experienced trauma or have ADHD also have a higher risk of developing a substance abuse problem. Both of these conditions decrease activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain which controls emotional responses, and also an increase in activity in the limbic system which regulates emotional reactions. 

Some clear associations with drug addiction and environmental factors can also be made. Looking at the case study of US troops stationed in Vietnam, it is clear that physical location plays a huge role. Many soldiers developed a dependence on heroin during their time in Asia, only to quickly stop using the substance when they returned home. This phenomenon is called “drug, set and setting” by researchers, referring to the qualities of the drug itself, the user’s traits, and where it is being used.

The Role of Families in Addiction

Due to a combination of both genetic and environmental factors, addiction runs in families at a high occurrence rate. While it’s difficult to try and separate exactly what is due to genetics and what to the environment, one study looking at families with twins concluded that social influences played a larger role than predetermined DNA. 

Another study showed that individuals who have first-degree relatives (parent, sibling, child) with an addiction disorder are four to eight times more likely to develop one themselves. Adults with addiction can be commonly characterised with the following traits:

  • lack of trust
  • depression or anxiety
  • constriction of emotions
  • excessive worrying
  • trouble self-regulating emotions
  • dysfunctional reasoning abilities
  • increased chance of addiction

This is likely because growing up in a family where one or more parents suffering from addiction are often very challenging to live in and result in the child experiencing abnormal amounts of stress. Having a parent with addiction can also make day-to-day life extremely unpredictable, likely having to deal with their elders’ intense mood-swings, erratic behaviour and little to no routine. Child abuse is also more common in these situatons. This exposure to trauma at a young age can have a huge impact on the brain’s chemistry and structure. This dramatically increases the risk of many mental health disorders such as anxiety, OCD, depression, which in turn, increase your risk of addiction. 

Genetic studies also show an individual’s DNA plays a role in personality. One found between thirty to sixty percent is purely down to genes and another, specifically focusing on alcohol abuse, found forty-five to sixty-five percent of one’s DNA is to blame. For example, the gene aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) impacts the way alcohol is broken down in the body and if present, actually decreases a person’s chance of dependence on the substance. 

It’s important to keep in mind, it’s not as simple as an “alcohol gene.” Behavioural traits come about by the complex interplay between at least 700 possible gene interactions, with the large majority of these not yet even being thoroughly understood. 

Looking at the various factors that contribute to addiction, the main takeaway is that addiction is not an inevitable disorder someone has to live with. Although there are inevitable genetic traits that contribute to your risk, in the large majority of cases this behaviour can be unlearned with professional help.

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