Understanding The Addictive Personality

The term “addictive personality” has been around for many years, yet researchers are still working to determine exactly what the term means.

It refers to people who are more at risk for developing either substance or behavioral addictions, but exactly why that risk exists for some individuals is still uncertain.

People who study addicts and their behavior hope that the more research can isolate the factors that contribute to addiction, the more society can do to prevent and treat addiction. As a result, the idea that psychological profiles can help to determine which individuals are particularly at risk for addiction is encouraging and increasingly popular.

Addictive personality or addictive trait?

One fundamental debate within the addictive personality discussion is whether a specific personality trait predisposes individuals to addiction, or whether a combination of personality traits combine to leave a person more at risk. Is there an “addictive gene” that some people have and some do not, or does the personality each person develops through a combination of biology and experience determine their susceptibility to addiction?

The fact that a tendency toward addiction can be inherited seems to argue in favor of a single trait that can be passed on. The American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that genetics account for approximately half of the probability that someone will develop an addiction, with 8 other potential factors providing the other half. Nevertheless, human beings are likely to both inherit and develop personalities similar to those of their family members, so the exact source of a genetic predisposition is still up for debate.

Significant personality factors

The idea that the sum of an individual’s personality traits predispose them toward addiction poses problems for those who want to use psychological factors as indicators. After all, even physically identical individuals are not psychologically identical. It’s no good to say this or that personality is addictive, if that personality is also unique.

In 1983, psychology professor Alan R. Lang undertook to identify a small selection of personality traits that could be considered key risk factors for addiction. Though the psychological profiles of individual addicts might vary, he hoped to find a small number of consistent traits in addicts across the board.

In a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, Lang identified several personality factors that can contribute to the emergence of an addiction. Lang found that the alcohol and drug abusers who participated in his study regularly possessed one or more of a handful of personality traits that he termed “significant personality factors”. There was not, however, a single trait or single combination of traits that seemed to be infallibly present among the addicts studied.

The factors Dr. Lang identified are:

  • Behaving impulsively and seeking instant gratification
  • Valuing nonconformity over the accepted values of society
  • Experiencing heightened stress and lacking coping skills
  • Tolerating deviance and feeling socially isolated

Dr. Lang ultimately concluded that his study had failed to find a “necessary and sufficient” trait for addiction. In logic-speak, a necessary trait for addiction would be one that someone must have in order to be an addict, while a sufficient trait would be one that guarantees someone is or will be an addict. Nonetheless, Lang felt that the “significant personality factors” found in his study could be extremely useful in preventing and treating addiction.

Using personality in treatment

Using personality to help prevent addiction is fairly straightforward (in theory, if not always in practice), but the idea of an addictive personality also helped to change the way that addiction is treated. Before the idea gained prominence, the mechanism of addiction was thought to reside in substances alone. Substances contained addictive chemicals, therefore using those substances could lead to an addiction.

The rise of the addictive personality theory not only allowed for the possibility of true behavioral addictions, it also meant that addiction treatment programs needed to treat the individual and not just the addiction itself. Unless the underlying factors leading to addictive behavior were addresses, addicts were likely to switch addictions rather than eliminate addictive behavior altogether. This could mean opiate addicts who develop a dependency on their prescription drugs for opiate withdrawal, or nicotine addicts who become compulsive overeaters after giving up cigarettes.

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