Who Uses Drugs and Why?
The personality traits that are related to drug use.
Posted Jun 22, 2020
Psychologists have long been interested in understanding what factors influence whether a person takes recreational drugs. Personality traits are well known to influence many areas of a person’s life, and drug-taking is no exception. Several studies on the subject have looked at the Big 5 personality traits: openness to experience, which relates to the breadth and complexity of a person’s mental life; conscientiousness, which relates to organization and self-discipline; extraversion, related both to sociability and pleasure-seeking; agreeableness, related to cooperation and consideration for others; and neuroticism, related to emotional instability and mental health problems.
A recent study (Allen & Laborde, 2020) in Australia involving over 12,000 people surveyed over four years found that the use of any illicit drug was related to having high openness to experience, high extraversion, low conscientiousness and agreeableness, and high neuroticism, in that order of importance. This would suggest that drug users tend to people interested in having novel experiences, who are outgoing and pleasure-seeking, prone to impulsivity and being undisciplined, willing to disregard social norms, and emotionally troubled to some extent. These effects of personality held even when controlling for differences in age, sex, and socioeconomic status.
The study used data from a large-scale long-term Australian survey of households that aimed to collect data from a sample that represents the national population as accurately as possible. Participants were asked about their personality traits in 2012 and then about their drug use in the previous 12 months in 2016. This allowed the researchers to look at the associations between personality and drug use over a reasonably long period.
As well as looking at the use of any drug, the study identified specific relationships between personality traits and the use of cannabis, methamphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy, and hallucinogens. (For other drugs, the sample sizes were too small to analyze.) All four of these were associated with high extraversion and low conscientiousness; their relationships with the other three traits being less consistent. This would suggest that common themes across the use of these drugs are pleasure-seeking (high extraversion) and lack of self-control (low conscientiousness).
The results tended to be fairly similar to those found for any drug, although there were some exceptions worth noting. For example, cannabis use most closely matched the pattern for any drug, as it was most strongly related to openness to experience, followed by low conscientiousness, high extraversion, low agreeableness, and high neuroticism in that order.
On the other hand, use of hallucinogens, such as LSD, magic mushrooms, and DMT, was somewhat more distinctive, as it was most strongly related to openness to experience—and this was actually the strongest relationship between any personality trait and any of the specific drugs—followed by more moderate relationships with high extraversion and low conscientiousness and agreeableness, but no significant relationship with neuroticism. This makes sense considering that openness to experience is associated with having a rich inner life and a desire to seek out new and interesting experiences that stimulate and broaden the mind.
Additionally, a previous study found that people high in the personality trait of absorption, i.e., the tendency to become deeply immersed in whatever holds one attention, and which is strongly related to openness to experience, also had the strongest alterations in consciousness after taking the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin (Studerus et al., 2012). (I discuss this in more detail here.) Hence, people high in openness to experience may be the most likely to have an affinity for powerful mind-altering substances. Additionally, while they may tend to be hedonistic, undisciplined, and willing to disregard social norms, they would not seem to be especially emotionally troubled.
In contrast, cocaine and ecstasy use were each most strongly related to extraversion, with openness to experience being of somewhat lesser importance, along with low conscientiousness and low agreeableness, as well as high neuroticism (more so for cocaine). This would suggest hedonistic motives are especially important in the use of these drugs, which makes sense considering their association with partying, while users would also seem to be more emotionally distressed than hallucinogen users for example.
Methamphetamine use was most strongly associated with low conscientiousness, followed closely by high extraversion and neuroticism (openness to experience and agreeableness were not significantly associated). This would suggest that people drawn to using this drug are not only impulsive and hedonistic but generally the most emotionally distressed and unstable compared to other users. This might mean that users are more likely to take methamphetamine to cope with their emotional problems than the other drugs listed, which is especially unfortunate considering the high harm potential of this substance (which also applies to cocaine) (Nutt et al., 2010).
The consistent association between low conscientiousness and drug use is in line with much previous research finding that highly conscientious people tend to have generally healthy lifestyle habits, while those low in conscientiousness are also more likely to have impulse control problems, to smoke, and to drink excessively. Additionally, highly conscientious people prefer being in control of themselves, so they probably don’t feel comfortable taking substances that impair their self-control. On the other hand, unconscientious people seem to actually enjoy the experience of letting loose and becoming disinhibited.
The study authors (Allen & Laborde, 2020) expressed some surprise at the relationship between drug use and extraversion, which they did not predict. However, I expected this result, as previous research has found that extraversion is related to higher alcohol consumption, especially binge drinking (Cook et al., 1998), and drinking alcohol specifically to get high rather than for social reasons (Theakston et al., 2004). Allen and Laborde suggested that extraversion might be related to drug use because it is particularly related to sociability, which might lead people to take drugs in social settings like parties.
However, sociability is only one of several aspects of extraversion. For example, it has been suggested that extraversion can be divided into four main aspects: sociability, liveliness, venturesomeness (i.e., excitement seeking), and dominance. A study on these four aspects found that only venturesomeness was positively associated with drug and alcohol use, while the other aspects, including sociability, were not (Watson et al., 2019). Hence, extraversion is probably related to drug use through the tendency to seek exciting, highly stimulating experiences rather than a tendency to be sociable.
Another intriguing possible connection between extraversion and drug use is related to their mutual relationship with promiscuous sexuality. As I noted in a previous post, there is evidence of a connection between attitudes to drug use, i.e. whether people condemn or condone it, and their attitudes to uncommitted sexual activity. Specifically, research has found that people view drugs as being linked to promiscuity, and those who object to promiscuity also condemn drug use, while those with permissive sexual attitudes have permissive attitudes to drugs as well, because drug use may facilitate short-term mating (Kurzban et al., 2010; Quintelier et al., 2013).
There is evidence linking actual promiscuity to drug use, as research has found that people who engage in risky sexual behavior also tend to drink, smoke, and take drugs, as well as being generally impulsive and thrill-seeking (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000). Additionally, people who use drugs or alcohol before or during sex tend to be high in extraversion, and low in agreeableness and conscientiousness (Miller et al., 2004), just like drug users in Allen and Laborde's (2020) study.
In conclusion, people probably use drugs for a variety of reasons related to their personality traits, e.g., to explore their inner world if they are high in openness to experience, or to escape from their problems if they are high in neuroticism. Furthermore, drug use in people with high extraversion and low conscientiousness might not just be about having a good time, it may also be part of an underlying strategy to facilitate short-term sexual opportunities. Understanding these different personality factors that incline people to use particular drugs may be helpful in efforts to prevent and reduce the harmful outcomes of such use.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
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Allen, M. S., & Laborde, S. (2020). A prospective study of personality and illicit drug use in Australian adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 163, 110048. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110048
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Theakston, J. A., Stewart, S. H., Dawson, M. Y., Knowlden-Loewen, S. A. B., & Lehman, D. R. (2004). Big-Five personality domains predict drinking motives. Personality and Individual Differences, 37(5), 971–984. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2003.11.007
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