Addictive Personality: are you prone to addiction?

Is There Such a Thing as an Addictive Personality?

Are certain people more likely to develop addictions in their lifetime, including to alcohol or drugs? Is there a definitive addictive personality or a set of characteristics that all addicts share?

Anecdotally, most people who have an addiction describe psychological cravings or impulses they find hard to control. In rehab or counselling, people often talk about lack of confidence or low self-esteem that preceded their addiction.

Difficulty dealing with physical or emotional pain, anxiety and depression are also commonly reported.
But does science support the notion of an addictive personality? And if so, how can you minimise your risk of getting addicted or relapsing?

The Difference Between a Habit and an Addiction?

Firstly, it’s essential to differentiate between habits and addictions.

Most people form habits throughout life – from drinking coffee every morning to going to the gym after work to watching Netflix before bed. Perhaps you play poker with friends at the weekend or support a football team. Maybe you follow certain trends on social media, play Candy Crush on the bus or you always buy ice cream at the cinema. Mostly, these kinds of habits are completely harmless.

Addiction is when a habit becomes difficult or impossible to control and it becomes harmful to you and/or other people. When an addictive substance or activity takes over, increasingly people prioritise it over other areas of their life – including their mental and physical health, work, education, relationships and finances. Typically, addicts experience a progression of consequences, as their impulses get harder to manage.

Does Science Prove the Addictive Personality?

Many studies have identified the co-occurrence of certain personality traits and addictive disorders. It’s much more difficult to prove cause and effect, however – because scientific research mostly involves people who have already developed an addiction, as compared to control groups.

Longer-term studies across the course of years or decades are much more expensive and infrequent.
Current research suggests that there isn’t a definitive ‘addictive personality’ – one set of indicators that apply to all people who get addicted. However, there are numerous studies that show correlations between certain characteristics and addictive disorders.

The Big Five Personality Traits and Addiction

The Big Five Personality Traits, also known as the OCEAN model, is a theory that identifies five major factors of the human personality – neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, extroversion and conscientiousness. Each of these categories covers a subset of human behaviours and attributes. Many studies have analysed the links between the big five characteristics and addiction.

Neuroticism and addiction

Neuroticism is characterised by emotional instability – including a propensity for worry, sadness, irrational fear, irritability, anger or self-criticism. People who score highly for neuroticism find it difficult to relax or ‘switch off’ their mind.

Overall, studies find that neuroticism does increase the risk of substance use disorders or behavioural addictions. [1]

Extroversion and addiction

Extroverts are socially outgoing people, who seek out interactions with other people to gain energy or fulfilment. They tend to be comfortable in large groups, including talking to people they have only just met. They seek stimulation from external sources.

In contrast, introverts are more likely to choose the company of people they know well. They need regular solitude to revitalise. They also tend to focus more on their internal world – including their emotions.

Andreassan et al. found extroversion to be associated with Facebook addiction, exercise addiction, mobile phone addiction, and compulsive buying. [2]

However, introversion can also be problematic. For example, shyness is a key factor in social anxiety disorder, which has been connected to alcohol addiction. [3]

Introversion can also present challenges in addiction recovery – for example, attending and asking for help in addiction support groups.

Agreeableness and addiction

the many faces of mental health during addiction
Agreeableness is associated with characteristics including friendliness, altruism, politeness, generosity, cooperation and peacekeeping. People who score highly in agreeableness are less likely to develop drug or alcohol addiction. [4]

Conversely, low agreeableness has been associated with substance use. For example, this study found a link to alcohol involvement. [5]

Openness to experience and addiction

Are you comfortable trying new things? Or do you tend to stick to what you know? Generally, people who are open to new life experiences and willing to take positive risks are less likely to get addicted to substances. [6]

However, thrill-seeking or excessive risk-taking can be associated with addiction – such as high stakes gambling or adrenaline-fuelled extreme sports. This is connected to another trait linked to addiction in studies – impulsivity.

Impulsivity and the Addictive Personality

Impulsivity is acting on a whim without consideration of the consequences. Research shows that impulsive people find their urges harder to resist than control groups. They tend to select immediate rewards over delayed gratification – including when longer-term rewards are objectively more valuable. Lack of perseverance and a heightened sense of urgency are also factors in impulsivity.

A research review in 2017 found that impulsive behaviour is connected to the ‘initiation, maintenance, and relapse of drug-seeking behaviours involved in drug addiction.’ [7]

Reducing the Risk of Addiction or Relapse

If you have personality traits associated with addiction, it does not mean you will develop an addictive disorder. Nor does it mean you can’t recover – far from it. With the right treatment and support, long-term addiction recovery is always achievable.

Here are some suggestions for prevention and recovery.

Know the early warning signs of dependence

If you haven’t been diagnosed with an addiction, then it’s helpful to be aware of the early signs.

If you are using recreational drugs, prescription drugs or alcohol, consider these 10 questions:

  • Do you think about or crave drugs or alcohol when you’re not using them?
  • Is it easy to say no to drugs or alcohol?
  • Do substances take priority over other areas of your life?
  • Has your use of drugs or alcohol changed over time? (Quantity, frequency, using stronger substances or mixing drugs and alcohol)
  • How do you feel if you can’t get hold of drugs or alcohol?
  • How do you react if something or someone interferes with your plans to drink or take drugs?
  • When you’re not using drugs or alcohol, how do you feel mentally and physically?
  • Do you ever minimise or deny how much you drink or take drugs?
  • Are you ever secretive about using – particularly around people who don’t drink or take drugs the way you do?
  • Do you justify to yourself or others why you need to drink or use drugs?

Processes can also be addictive – including eating disorders, gambling addiction or gaming addiction, internet and social media addiction, sex and love addiction, porn addiction and compulsive shopping. You can ask yourself similar questions about these processes – to identify any areas for concern.

The best way to identify signs of dependence or diagnose addiction is to have an addiction assessment at a trustworthy addiction centre.

Get support to spot addiction blind spots.

Every human being has things they cannot see about their own personality or behaviour. Often, it takes a friend, relative or colleague to point them out – and we don’t always like that!

If you score highly on personality traits linked to addiction, then it’s worth building a support network of people you trust. This can include friends and family members whom you respect.

group therapy session
When it comes to spotting the pitfalls of addiction, however, the best input comes from peers in addiction recovery or addiction treatment professionals. They have the best knowledge and experience about how the disease manifests.

Across the country, there are recovery groups for most forms of addiction – including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous and more.

Watch out for cross-addiction

Cross addiction is very common for addicts. Put simply, when you stop or cut down one substance or addictive process, do you start or increase another? People who quit alcohol, for example, can find themselves reaching for sweet foods – craving the sugar they used to get in alcoholic drinks.

Cross addiction can be hard to spot yourself, however – so it’s worth getting an addiction assessment or speaking to your GP.

Seek addiction treatment early

If you’ve been assessed as having one or more addictions, then please consider addiction counselling or residential rehab treatment. The earlier you get professional help, the more likely you will achieve a solid and lasting recovery. This is particularly true for eating disorders, which are much harder to treat in advanced stages. With all addictions, the longer they are active, the more likely you or others will suffer harm.

UKAT offers fast access to rehab nationwide. We treat all substance and process addictions in our CQC-regulated clinics. Please get in touch for a confidential assessment and a range of treatment options.

[2] NCBI (NIH)
[5] NCBI (NIH)
[7] APA