The Myth of the Addictive Personality
There is no personality trait that predicts addiction and addiction alone.
Posted May 11, 2016
“Life is a series of addictions and without them we die”.
This is my favourite quote in the academic addiction literature and was made back in 1990 in the British Journal of Addiction by Professor Isaac Marks. This deliberately provocative and controversial statement was made to stimulate debate about whether excessive and potentially problematic activities such as gambling, sex and work can really be classed as genuine addictive behaviours. Many of us might say to ourselves that we are ‘addicted’ to tea or coffee, our work, or know others who we might describe as having addictions watching the television or using pornography. But is this really true?
The issue all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place as many of us in the field disagree on what the core components of addiction are. Many would argue that the word ‘addiction’ or ‘addictive’ is used so much in everyday circumstances that word has become meaningless. For instance, saying that a book is an ‘addictive read’ or that a specific television series is ‘addictive viewing’ renders the word useless in a clinical setting. Here the word ‘addictive’ is arguably used in a positive way and as such it devalues the real meaning of the word.
The question I get asked most – particularly by the broadcast media – is what is the difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction and my response is simple – a healthy excessive enthusiasm adds to life whereas an addiction takes away from it. I also believe that to be classed as an addiction, any such behaviour should comprise a number of key components including overriding preoccupation with the behaviour, conflict with other activities and relationships, withdrawal symptoms when unable to engage in the activity, an increase in the behaviour over time (tolerance), and use of the behaviour to alter mood state. Other consequences such as feeling out of control with the behaviour and cravings for the behaviour are often present. If all these signs and symptoms are present I would call the behaviour a true addiction. However, that hasn’t stopped others accusing me of ‘watering down’ the concept of addiction.
A few years ago, Dr. Steve Sussman, Nadra Lisha and I published a large and comprehensive review in the journal Evaluation and the Health Professions examining the co-relationship between eleven different potentially addictive behaviours reported in the academic literature (smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, taking illicit drugs, eating, gambling, internet use, love, sex, exercise, work, and shopping). We examined the data from 83 large-scale studies and reported an overall 12-month prevalence of an addiction among U.S. adults varies from 15% to 61%. We also reported it plausible that 47% of the U.S. adult population suffers from maladaptive signs of an addictive disorder over a 12-month period, and that it may be useful to think of addictions as due to problems of lifestyle as well as to person-level factors. In short – and with many caveats – our paper argued that at any one time almost half the US population are addicted to one or more behaviours.
There is a lot of scientific literature showing that having one addiction increases the propensity to have other co-occurring addictions. For instance, in my own research I have come across alcoholic pathological gamblers and we can all probably think of individuals that we might describe as caffeine-addicted workaholics. It is also very common for individuals that give up one addiction to replace it with another (which we psychologists call ‘reciprocity’). This is easily understandable as when an individual gives up one addiction it leaves a large hole in the waking lives (often referred to as the ‘void’) and often the only activities that can fill the void and give similar experiences are other potentially addictive behaviours. This has led many people to describe such people as having an ‘addictive personality’.
While there are many pre-disposing factors for addictive behaviour including genetic factors and psychological personality traits such as high neuroticism (anxious, unhappy, prone to negative emotions) and low conscientiousness (impulsive, careless, disorganised), I would argue that ‘addictive personality’ is a complete myth. Even though there is good scientific evidence that most people with addictions are highly neurotic, neuroticism in itself is not predictive of addiction (for instance, there are individuals who are highly neurotic but are not addicted to anything so neuroticism is not predictive of addiction). In short, there is no good evidence that there is a specific personality trait (or set of traits) that is predictive of addiction and addiction alone.
Doing something habitually or excessively does not necessarily make it problematic. While there are many behaviours such as drinking too much caffeine or watching too much television that could theoretically be described as addictive behaviours, they are more likely to be habitual behaviours that are important in an individual’s life but actually cause little or no problems. As such, these behaviours should not be described as an addiction unless the behaviour causes significant psychological and/or physiological effects in their day-to-day lives.
(Please note: This article is a slightly expanded version of an article that was first published in The Conversation. You can read the original here).
References and further reading
Goodman, A. (2008). Neurobiology of addiction: An integrative review. Biochemical Pharmacology, 75(1), 266-322.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Griffiths, M.D. & Larkin, M. (2004). Conceptualizing addiction: The case for a ‘complex systems’ account. Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 99-102.
Kotov, R., Gamez, W., Schmidt, F., & Watson, D. (2010). Linking “big” personality traits to anxiety, depressive, and substance use disorders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(5), 768-821.
Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.
Marks, I. (1990). Behaviour (non-chemical) addictions. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 1389-1394.
Nathan, P. E. (1988). The addictive personality is the behavior of the addict. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 183-188.
Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.
Trull, T. J., Sher, K. J., Minks-Brown, C., Durbin, J., & Burr, R. (2000). Borderline personality disorder and substance use disorders: A review and integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 20(2), 235-253.