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Addictive personality


An addictive personality refers to a particular set of personality traits that make an individual predisposed to developing addictions. This hypothesis states that there may be common personality traits observable in people suffering from addiction. Alan R. Lang of Florida State University, author of an addiction study prepared for the United States National Academy of Sciences, said, "If we can better identify the personality factors, they can help us devise better treatment and can open up new strategies to intervene and break the patterns of addiction."


Experts describe the spectrum of behaviors designated as addictive in terms of five interrelated concepts: patterns, habits, compulsions, impulse control disorders, and physical addiction.

Description | Biological factors

Sensation-seeking has been studied as having a strong relationship with addictive personalities.

Description | Psychological factors

Alan R Lang has done much research on personality traits that play into addiction. While his research found that there is no single set of traits that is definitive of an “addictive personality", he did find several “significant personality factors”. These main factors are:

- impulsivity

- value on nonconformity combined with weak commitment to socially valued goals for achievement

- sense of social alienation and tolerance for deviance

- heightened stress and lack of coping skills

Some advocate for the existence of an “addictive belief system” that leads people towards being more likely to develop addictions. This system is rooted in cognitive distortions like “I cannot make an impact on my world” and other maladaptive attitudes like “I am not good enough.” These core beliefs, often very black and white thinking, set up the person to develop the many traits common in the addictive personality, such as depression and emotional insecurity. Cognitive and perceptual styles also have been shown to play a role in addictions. People with addictions and addictive personalities tend to have an external locus of control, and they also have an increased tendency towards field dependence. However, it is unclear whether these are causative traits or simply personality traits that tend to be found in people with addictions.

Description | Environmental factors

Specific genes predispose people to drug addiction—it's one of the behavioral disorders most strongly corrolated with genetic makeup—but environmental factors, especially trauma and mistreatment in childhood, also correlate strongly with addiction. . Examples such as physical or sexual abuse, and unpredictable expectations and behavior of parents, increase a person's risk for developing addiction.

Description | Interaction of biopsychosocial factors

In looking at these traits separately, it is also necessary to look at them all together. For example, psychological traits related to addictive personality include depression, poor self-control, and compulsive behavior, which are all also linked to neurotransmitter deficiencies, showing both a psychological and biological basis for these traits and behaviors. Likewise, there is a gene/environment connection in that individuals self-select into different environments. This self-selection is based partially on personality traits, and the selected environments may or may not include increased risk for addictive behaviors. An individual might seek out environments where addictive substances are more readily available, which can also explain how addictions in these people can cross from one to another.

Signs and symptoms

People who suffer from an addictive personality spend excessive time on a behavior or with an item, not as a hobby but because they feel they have to. Addiction can be defined when the engagement in the activity or experience affects the person’s quality of life in some way. In this way, many people who maintain an addictive personality isolate themselves from social situations in order to mask their addiction.

People that face this issue are currently defined to have a "brain disease" as promoted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and other authorities. People who experience addictive personality disorders typically act on impulses and cannot deal with delayed gratification. At the same time, people with this type of personality tend to believe that they do not fit into societal norms and therefore, acting on impulses, deviate from conformity to rebel. People with addictive personalities are very sensitive to emotional stress. They have trouble handling situations that they deem frustrating, even if the event is for a very short duration. The combination of low self-esteem, impulsivity and low tolerance for stress causes these individuals to have frequent mood swings and often suffer from some sort of depression. A coping mechanism to deal with their conflicting personality becomes their addiction and the addiction acts as something that the person can control when they find it difficult to control their personality traits.

People with addictive personalities typically switch from one addiction to the next. These individuals may show impulsive behavior such as excessive caffeine consumption, Internet use, eating chocolate or other sugar-laden foods, television watching, or even running.

Extraversion, self-monitoring, and loneliness are also common characteristics found in those who suffer from addiction. Individuals who score high on self-monitoring are more prone to developing an addiction. High self-monitors are sensitive to social situations; they act how they think others expect them to act. They wish to fit in, hence they are very easily influenced by others. Likewise, those who have low self-esteem also seek peer approval; therefore, they participate in "attractive" activities such as smoking or drinking to try to fit in.

People with addictive personalities find it difficult to manage their stress levels. In fact, lack of stress tolerance is a telltale sign of the disorder. They find it difficult to face stressful situations and fight hard to get out of such conditions. Long-term goals prove difficult to achieve because people with addictive personalities usually focus on the stress that comes with getting through the short-term goals. Such personalities will often switch to other enjoyable activities the moment that they are deprived of enjoyment in their previous addiction.

Addictive individuals feel highly insecure when it comes to relationships. They may often find it difficult to make commitments in relationships or trust their beloved because of the difficulty they find in achieving long-term goals. They constantly seek approval of others and as a result, these misunderstandings may contribute to the destruction of relationships. People suffering from addictive personality disorder usually undergo depression and anxiety, managing their emotions by developing addiction to alcohol, other types of drugs, or other pleasurable activities.

An addict is more prone to depression, anxiety, and anger. Both the addict's environment, genetics and biological tendency contribute to their addiction. People with very severe personality disorders are more likely to become addicts. Addictive substances usually stop primary and secondary neuroses, meaning people with personality disorders like the relief from their pain.

Personality traits and addiction

Addiction is defined by scholars as “a reliance on a substance or behavior that the individual has little power to resist.” Substance-based addictions are those based upon the release of dopamine in the brain, upon which the range of sensations produced by the euphoric event in the brain changes the brain’s immediate behavior, causing more susceptibility for future addictions. Behavior-based addictions, on the other hand, are those that are not linked to neurological behavior as much and are thus thought to be linked to personality traits; it is this type of addiction that combines a behavior with a mental state and the repeated routine is therefore associated with the mental state.

Alan R. Lang, a psychology professor at Florida State University, wrote in a study that the continuing search for the personality traits that play a part in the development of addictions are important for the broader fight against addiction. Identifying the different personality traits will help in the long term when it comes to the treatment of addiction, the strategies to intervene, and how to break the pattern of addiction. With addictive tragedies becoming prevalent in communities around the United States, scientists are asking questions about the aspects of psychological makeup and how they contribute to addiction. They also want to know if there are common threads that are in all addictions, from hard drugs to cigarettes and from gambling to overeating. Through the information that already exists on the personality's role in addictions, with a lot of emphasis on drugs and alcohol, a study from the National Academy of Sciences says that there is no single set of psychological characteristics that pertain to all addictions. The study did show, however, that there are common elements between all addictions.

Common forms of addictive behavior | Substance addiction

One form of addiction is substance addiction. This is different from substance abuse in that abuse of a substance is not really definable while substance addiction is a behavioral addiction where there is an overwhelming involvement with the use and buying of drugs or alcohol. It is a mental dependence or addiction to a substance but not a physical addiction, although it can lead to a physical addiction in the end.

Common forms of addictive behavior | Gambling

Another common addiction that may attract those with addictive personalities is gambling. When an addict behaves mindlessly and irresponsibly while gambling, it can grow to be a bigger problem. A gambler with an addictive personality goes through three stages. The first is the "winning phase" in which the person can still control his or her own behavior. Second comes the "losing phase" where the individual starts to gamble alone, borrowing cash and gambling large sums of money, compiling debt which he or she may not be able to pay off. Finally, the "desperation phase" of the addictive behavior gambler is when the person takes further risks, may engage in illegal loans and activities and even experience depression or attempt suicide.

Common forms of addictive behavior | Eating disorders

Addictive personality behaviors even include eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating. There are many external factors that also contribute to disordered eating behavior, but for some it can develop into a pathology quite similar to addiction. Those with anorexia nervosa channel their success into this one goal: losing weight. Once a person starts dieting, it is very difficult for him or her to quit. This is similarly true for those suffering from bulimia. A person is said to have bulimia when he or she binges on large amounts of food and then prevents digestion by purging (laxatives, vomiting, water pills, etc.). With compulsive eating, the person has a compulsive urge or craving to eat and will eat even when not hungry. This addictive behavior often results in obesity.

Common forms of addictive behavior | Compulsive buying

Another form of addictive personality is compulsive buying disorder. Compulsive buying is different from regular consumers and different from hoarding because it is about the process of buying. It is not about the items bought. In fact, these items are usually never used and are just put away. They are bought purely for the sake of buying. People who are addicted to buying describe it as a high or say that it gives them a buzz. Often, when someone suffering from this is depressed, they will go out and buy items to make themselves feel better. However, compulsive buying has negative effects which include financial debt, psychological issues, and interpersonal and marital conflict. To those who suffer from compulsive buying, to them, the act is the same as using a drug.

People who suffer from compulsive buying usually suffer from another disorder. One study found that 20% of compulsive buyers also suffer from an eating disorder. Other disorders that go hand in hand include mood disorders, depression, and anxiety. Like people with other addictions, people with compulsive buying problems tend to get confused by their feelings and tend to tolerate aversive psychological states (e.g., bad moods) poorly. Compulsive buying may lead to these psychological problems because sufferers become dependent on the high they experience while buying. Compulsive buying puts the person in a positive mood at the time. But afterwards, the person feels intense guilt and anxiety for their purchases. Treatment for compulsive buying, at this point in time, only includes cognitive behavioral therapy. One way to prevent compulsive buying is education. One study found that adolescents who have taken a class or course about financial education and planning were less likely to impulsively buy products.

Common forms of addictive behavior | Cell phone use

Another form of addictive personality is problematic cell phone use. A recent study indicates that people who are addicted to their cell phones share common traits with those who suffer from an addictive personality. Characteristics such as self-monitoring, low self-esteem, and peer approval-motivation are commonly found in those who are addicted to their cell phones as well as those who suffer from any other addiction such as alcoholism. Despite personality characteristics leading to addictive tendencies, cell phones themselves can partly be blamed for causing addiction. Improvements in cell phones such as GPS, music players, cameras, web browsing, and e-mail can make them an indispensable instrument to an individual. Technological advancements reinforce the over-attachment people have to their cell phones, thus contributing to addictive personality.

Common forms of addictive behavior | Internet and computer use

A more recent addiction that is being looked into is Internet addiction (also known as pathological Internet use). This addiction has become more prevalent in younger generations as computer technologies advance. When people suffer from internet addiction they are unable to control their use of the Internet. This can lead to psychological, social, school and work difficulties. Those addicted to the internet may be drawn to social networking sites, online games or other sites. Symptoms of this addiction include the following: mood changes, excessive time spent online, perceived social control while online, and withdrawal when away from the computer.

Common forms of addictive behavior | Tanning

Another form of behavior that is still being investigated is obsessive sun tanning as a behavioral addiction. In a recent study, researchers have proved that many frequent tanners demonstrate signs and symptoms adapted from substance abuse or dependence criteria. Many people who admit to being frequent tanners say they tan to look good, feel good, and to relax. People who partake in excessive tanning are usually completely aware of the health risks associated with it, just like addicted smokers are completely aware of the health risks of smoking. The health hazards are even more severe for high-risk age groups such as teenagers and young adults. Due to the fact that the health risks do not deter tanners from their habit, they are exhibiting self-destructive behavior that resembles the characteristics of those who suffer from substance abuse.

Frequent tanners have said a primary reason why they participate in artificial tanning is to experience the "feel good" feeling tanning salons have to offer. Researchers have found that ultraviolet (UV) radiation from tanning beds offers mood-enhancing effects that act as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is when a person exhibits minor depression during seasonal changes, such as during the winter months. Ultraviolet radiation has been proven to increase the level of melatonin in the body. Melatonin plays a key role in sleep patterns and is suggested to reduce anxiety levels. Thus, those who go tanning experience a sense of relaxation afterwards. This sensation is what possibly drives tanners to continue tanning regardless of the health risks. More research needs to be done, but many researchers are beginning to add tanning to the list of addictive processes.

Common forms of addictive behavior | Exercise

Exercise provides benefits for our bodies, but to some people, the benefits turn into health hazards. To some exercisers, rigorous physical activity becomes the central aspect of their lives. When a preoccupation with exercise has become routine, a person is considered addicted to exercise or exercise dependent. A study done shows why people may become addicted to exercise, especially running. One of the reasons people become addicted to exercise is because of the release of mood-enhancing chemicals known as endorphins. Endorphins increase the sensation of pleasure, which is why people feel good about themselves after they exercise. Endorphins are also responsible for the "runner's high." Recent studies have lent weight to the alternative theory that the addictive appeal of exercise is due to the production of endocannabinoids, naturally produced chemicals that bind to the brain's CB1 receptor, rather than to endorphin production. Those who suffer from exercise addiction will go through physical and emotional withdrawals in the absence of exercise, just like a person who is addicted to other substances, such as drugs or alcohol. Although in many cases, running is a better alternative than substance abuse. The findings in this study conclude that there is a link between negative addiction to running and interpersonal difficulties, which is common in other addictive behaviors as well.

Relation to leadership

When people are seeking a leader they look for qualities like honesty, intelligence, creativity, and charisma, but a leader also needs to be driven and be willing to challenge certain ideas and practices. The fact is that the psychological profile of a great leader is a compulsive risk-taker. It has been realized that what is sought in leaders is often the same kind of personality found in addicts, whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or sex.

The reason that this connection exists is because pleasure is a motivator that is central to learning. Dopamine can be artificially created by substances that carry a risk for addiction, like cocaine, heroin, nicotine and alcohol. People with risk-taking and obsessive personality traits, which are often found in addicts, can be useful in becoming a leader. For many leaders, it is not the case that they are able to do well in spite of their addiction; rather, the same brain wiring and chemistry that make them addicts serve them well in becoming a good leader.


When treating addictive personalities, the primary or presenting addiction needs to be treated first. Only once the behavior is under control can the person truly begin to do any of the therapeutic work necessary for recovery.

Common forms of treatment for addictive personalities include cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as other behavioral approaches. These treatments help patients by providing healthy coping skills training, relapse prevention, behavior interventions, family and group therapy, facilitated self-change approaches, and aversion therapy. Behavioral approaches include using positive reinforcement and behavioral modeling. Along with these, other options that help with treating those who suffer with addictive personality include social support, help with goal direction, rewards, enhancing self-efficacy and help teaching coping skills.

Another important skill to learn in treatment, which can be overlooked, is self-soothing. People with addictive personalities use their addictions as coping mechanisms when in stressful situations. However, since their addictions do not actually soothe them, so much as they provide momentary relief from anxiety or uncomfortable emotions, these individuals feel the need to use their addiction more often. Thus, self-soothing and other mindfulness-based interventions can be used for treatment because they provide healthier coping mechanisms once the addictive behavior has been removed. These strategies relate to the use of dialectical behavior therapy, another useful technique. DBT provides ways to tolerate distress and regulate emotions, both of which are challenging to someone with an addictive personality. DBT may not be the most effective treatment for all substance abusers, but there is evidence that it is helpful for most alcoholics and addicts, as well as in eating disorders, and those with co-occurring conditions.

Another form of treatment that has been considered for people with addictive personalities who tend towards substance abuse is medication. A medication called Disulfiram was created in 1947. This pill was used for alcoholics and would cause adverse effects if combined with alcohol. This medication is still used today but two others have been made to help treat alcohol dependence (Acamprosate and Naltrexone). Along with alcohol addictions, Naltrexone is also used for opioid addiction.

Although these medications have proven results in decreasing heavy drinking, doctors still have to consider the patients' health and the risky side effects when prescribing these medications.


There is an ongoing debate about the question of whether an addictive personality really exists. There are two sides of this argument, each with many levels and variations. One side believes that there are certain traits and dimensions of personality that, if existent in a person, cause the person to be more prone to developing addictions throughout their life. The other side argues that addiction is in chemistry, as in how the brain’s synapses respond to neurotransmitters and is therefore not affected by personality.

A major argument in favor of defining and labeling an addictive personality has to do with the human ability to make decisions and the notion of free will. This argument suggests human beings are aware of their actions and what the consequences of their own actions are and many choose against certain things because of this. This can be seen in that people are not forced to drink excessively or smoke every day, but it is within the reach of their own free will that some may choose to do so. Therefore, those with addictive personalities are high in neuroticism and hence choose to engage in riskier behaviors.

The theory of addictive personalities agrees that there are two types of people: risk-takers and risk-averse. Risk-takers enjoy challenges, new experiences and want instant gratification. These people enjoy the excitement of danger and trying new things. On the other hand, risk-averse are those who are by nature cautious in what they do and the activities they involve themselves in. It is the personality traits of individuals that combine to create either a risk-taker or risk-averse person.

Some people believe that claiming that there is such thing as an addictive personality belittles the types and significance of many tough addictions. Others also argue that by placing a label on the type of people that have addictions, this stereotypes people and denies that addiction can happen to anyone. Some people who agree with this argument believe that claiming an addictive personality may be used as an excuse by some who do not use drugs, and are hence not addicted, to explain why they are not addicted to drugs and other people are.

Other arguments against this theory of addictive personalities is that it is very deterministic. By labeling someone with an addictive personality, one may think that there is no way to change the outcome and that he or she will inevitably develop addictions. Also, this label may cause many to believe that there is no way to change this or treat addictions, which, according to many researchers and doctors, is untrue.