Drug and alcohol addiction is often accredited to an addictive personality, without properly defining the phrase. By better understanding addictive personalities, those struggling with addiction can find the help they need.

Substance use disorder affects 1 in 10 Americans, and at least 59,000 people in the United States died in 2015 from a drug overdose. Knowing how large of an issue drug misuse is in the country, finding the root of this disease is important for the future health of the country.

Addiction to drugs or alcohol can be the result of many struggles in a person’s life. Some of the most common reasons people misuse drugs include:

  • Stress at work
  • Family responsibilities
  • Financial burdens
  • Mental illness
  • Genetics
  • Social struggles
  • Chronic pain
  • Doctor’s prescription

However, many believe that their struggle with substance use disorder is part of their addictive personality, which can lead to a discussion on the overarching roots of addiction.

The Recovery Village conducted a survey with 400 participants in the United States on a range of topics, including the causes of addiction and hereditary patterns of substance misuse in their own families. When asked about the biggest contributing factor to their own drug or alcohol addiction, 35 percent of respondents attributed substance use disorder to mental illness. Right behind mental illness, though, was addictive personality at 32 percent.

The high number of survey respondents who chose addictive personality leads to additional questions: What is an addictive personality? Is there a medical definition for this phrase? Is it a real disorder? Are there set characteristics that are often present in people who possess this characteristic? And how much of an effect does having an addictive personality play into misusing drugs or alcohol?

The Case for ‘Addictive Personality’

Are some people more likely to become addicted than others? Is an addictive personality a characteristic that someone can possess, either genetically from birth or develop through their life experiences?

An addictive personality, as explained on Psychology Today by Stephen Mason, Ph.D., is the inability to control participation in activities such as gambling, drinking alcohol, sex, illicit drug use, or even religion or politics.

“Do you enjoy a glass or two of wine with dinner?” he writes. “If so, why not have 10 or 20? Did you ever buy a lottery ticket on your birthday? If so, why not sell your house and buy 100,000? How about going to church on Sunday? Does it make you feel good? If so, why not go every day, twice a day? The point here is simple: Too much of a good thing can be bad.”

Mason adds that between 10 and 15 percent of the U.S. population possesses an addictive personality. Alan R. Lang of Florida State University authored an addiction study in 1983 for The New York Times and listed the common personality factors possessed by people with addictions. They include:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Sensation-seeking
  • Non-conformity
  • Social detachment
  • Increased stress

If most people who are addicted to substances possess these traits, then would that constitute the definition of an addictive personality? Some people believe so, but many of these traits are also characteristics of other co-occurring disorders, including anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. So while addictive personality could be a label people use to describe their tendencies, it could also be a replacement phrase for another mental illness or genetic burden.

The Case Against ‘Addictive Personality’

One of the obstacles in identifying whether or not having an addictive personality leads to substance misuse is that there is no clear definition for this personality type. “Addictive personality” is not a psychiatric diagnosis, as explained by Michael Weaver, M.D., medical director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Research on Addiction at the University of Texas Health Center at Houston. He explains on Scientific American that an addictive personality is a combination of a person’s genetics, environment and their past addiction history, all of which can stand alone as individual causes of addiction.

Mark D. Griffiths, Ph.D., goes as far as to say that the notion of an addictive personality is unfounded. He called this personality type “a complete myth” on Psychology Today and adds that, “… there is no good evidence that there is a specific personality trait (or set of traits) that is predictive of addiction and addiction alone.” In short, addiction can be caused by so many different factors — from nature to nurture — that an overarching personality to cover everything is too broad and vague.

So why do people credit their addictions to their personality? Elizabeth Hartney, Ph.D., wrote on Verywell Mind about the connection between addictive choices and financial struggles. However, one part of her article discusses addiction as a whole and could be related to substance misuse: “Denial is common among people with addictions of all kinds,” she says, adding that denial can manifest itself in many forms, including “making excuses” or “blaming circumstances outside of your control.”

Chalking up a substance use disorder to having an addictive personality can be an instance of someone trying to push responsibility for their actions aside. When people credit their past to something that was completely unavoidable, it can lead to a continuation of the same unhealthy actions with no solution in sight.

Another potentially harmful consequence of this label is society’s tendency to define people and situations, including addiction. As explained by Lindsay Dodgson on Business Insider, “It’s easy to label (someone with an addiction) as being prone to impulsive behavior, because it provides an explanation for why someone is acting in a less-than-favorable way.”

If there is an explanation for substance misuse that seems beyond anyone’s control, then it could lead to a feeling that people struggling with addiction are a lost cause. That belief can undo any progress made in helping people who suffer from substance use disorders.

What to Do If You Think You Have an Addictive Personality?

Many people struggle with addiction. Substance misuse often stems from genetics, mental illness physical injuries or stress brought on by daily responsibilities. While these burdens can lead to traits that are often associated with an addictive personality, there is no single personality type that always leads to and facilitates addiction.

If you are addicted to drugs or alcohol, help is available. Rehabilitation facilities like The Recovery Village are available throughout the country and can provide a supportive setting to help remove substance misuse from their lives while uncovering the true reasons for their illness. Call today if you or a loved one suffers from substance misuse, whether they have an addictive personality or not. No one should have to believe that their lifestyle is beyond their control and that there is no way to escape hardship. With a team of medical and clinical providers — along with peers who are experiencing similar struggles — people can uncover co-occurring disorders along with coping strategies that can be used to pursue a healthier future.

Devin Golden
By – Devin Golden
Devin Golden has worked for various print and digital news organizations. Devin's family has been affected by addiction and mental health disorders, which is a large part of why he wants to help others who have either directly or indirectly been affected by these diseases. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.