The Number-One Predictor of an Addictive Personality

What causes someone to start using drugs?

Posted Apr 06, 2018

//], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Sultry (Flickr: Neko II) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Adolescents who lack patience are more likely to experiment with and use drugs. Impulsive individuals typically choose the smaller, faster reward more often than the larger, delayed reward. This is because of its distance in time relative to the immediacy of the smaller reward. Overcoming this tendency is an important prevention tool, such as learning to tolerate delay or an ability to wait to get what you want. This learning could potentially generalize to other situations in everyday life involving choices with long-term consequences (e.g., education and healthy living).

Impulsivity can be described as rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external provocations with little consideration of the consequences. Impulsivity often refers to problematic behavior (Madden and Bickle, 2010). For example, a person is described as impulsive when he or she repeatedly buys things on impulse without considering his or her ability to pay for them. The choice may be satisfying now, but potentially detrimental in the long run.

A failure to resist impulse is considered as an important obstacle to a more rational, long-term strategy for success. We can all relate to this weakness. Those of us who have resolved to eat healthy food only to succumb to temptation when seeing an unexpected box of Girl Scout cookies in the house. We all behave impulsively at one time or another, but some of us are too impulsive.

The impulsive behavior might foster drug abuse by reducing the weight given to its negative long-term consequences. The main problem with most addictive behaviors is that the costs (adverse consequences) occur in the future, whereas the pleasures from them occur in the present. The choice to consume an abused substance presumably results in an immediate rush or removal of withdrawal symptoms.

Impulsivity and sensation-seeking are generally elevated in adolescence, but decrease as the life span progresses (Green et al., 1999). Specifically, the discounting (valuing less) of delayed rewards is at its highest levels during adolescence (around age 12) and levels off while moving toward adulthood (at around age 20).

Young people think of their future selves in the same way that they think of strangers. So they are less concerned about their future well-being. This explains why adolescence and early adulthood are the times when someone is most likely to become addicted (Sapolsky, 2017).

An important characteristic of adolescent risk-taking is the influence of emotions. Those activities they enjoy tend to be seen as less risky than those that are actually safer, but less emotionally pleasant. The more favorable the feeling attached to an option, the less risk is associated with it. This decision calculus encourages risk-taking behavior. It also makes young adults subject to certain biases of judgment controlled by emotional reactions (Slovic, et al., 2002).

Impulsivity is also influenced by other events (especially when impulsive behavior is not a personality trait). These include economic conditions, life expectancy, or the reliability of the local environment. Under these conditions, individuals may learn that living for the moment and distrusting the future is a better strategy. Thus, a lifetime of learning not to trust others to deliver what they promise in the future may play a role in their choices over time. And the tendency to take whatever is immediately available may play an important role in the decision to use drugs.

Research studies have identified impulsive personality as a significant predictor for the development of addictive behaviors (Argyriou et al., 2018). For example, problem drinking in undergraduates is significantly related to impaired impulse control and sensation-seeking. Highly impulsive individuals are more sensitive to the rewarding effects of drugs. The immediate thrill of drugs only moments away outweighs the distant value of having enough money to pay rent at the end of the month.

Furthermore, repetitive drug use contributes to long-lasting changes in impulsivity. Chronic or acute drug use changes the brain’s chemistry, particularly in the regions that form the brain’s valuation system. The delay intolerance makes their road to recovery a difficult journey, filled with good intentions and frequent relapses. 

In sum, the personality trait of impulsivity makes individuals more vulnerable to substance use, and this trait may exist prior to substance use. Thus, screening for impulsivity during this period may help us identify high-risk individuals for addictions.  

Reorienting an individual away from immediate gratification and toward making more future-oriented decisions is a logical step in promoting self-control. For example, evidence shows that nurturing, responsive parent-youth relations that include limit setting and monitoring deter risky behavior (Madkour et al., 2017). As personal autonomy increases in high school, youths’ unsupervised interactions with peers are influenced by the sense of personal worth and self-respect internalized from past parental interactions.

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Argyriou E, Um M, Carron C, Cyders MA (2018). Age and impulsive behavior in drug addiction: A review of past research and future directions. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. Jan;164:106-117.

Green, L., Myerson, J., & Ostaszewski, P. (1999). Discounting of delayed rewards across the life span: Age differences in individual discounting functions. Behavioural Processes, 46, 89–96.

Madden JG, Bickle KW  (2010) Impulsivity: The Behavioral and Neurological Science of Discounting. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Madkour AS, Clum G, Miles TT, et al. Parental influences on heavy episodic drinking development in the transition to early adulthood. J Adolesc Health 2017;61:147e54

Sapolsky RM (2017) Behave: Biology of humans at our best and worst. New York: Penguin Press.

Slovic, P. Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D.G. (2002). “The affect heuristic” in T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, and D. Kahneman (eds.) Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. New York: Cambridge University University, pp. 397-420.