What personality features are associated with addictive behaviors?

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There are many types of personalities and personality features associated with problems related to addictive behavior. No single personality type or disorder exists alone in this relationship. Furthermore, personality and addictive behavior may influence each other: Personality may cause some addictive behavior, and some addictive behavior may encourage the development of certain personality features or even personality disorders.
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Addiction is a condition in which individuals engage in habitual behaviors or use of substances in a way that is maladaptive and causes them harm or distress. Fascination with the idea of an addictive personality and related behavior dates to 950 BCE, to the works of Homer, the Greek poet, and perhaps before that to the writings of Laozi, a Chinese philosopher and imperial adviser. These men studied human nature and wrote about the uncontrollable allure of certain desires, which led to behaviors that were likely to cause personal and cultural destruction. Thus, these two writers were exploring the realm of personality: the intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal structure of an individual that is exhibited through consistent patterns of thinking, worldview, self-view, and behavior.

Some researchers have asked whether a single psychological predisposition or a multilevel series of complications is involved in the addictive personality or whether virtually any personality is vulnerable to addiction. Researchers administering personality tests to individuals with addictive behavior problems have found a variety of notable personality traits. Sometimes these traits precede the addiction, and sometimes they seem to be caused by or exacerbated by the addiction. These findings are highly controversial and have fueled many heated discussions.

Symptoms, or indications of a problem, with personality are varied. For some individuals with addictive behavior problems, aggressive energy and antiauthority issues seem to be at the core of their personality. Indulgence in the addictive behavior is accompanied by the release of aggressive impulses, resulting in a feeling of euphoria. This feeling of relief is then associated with the outlet used, and it seduces the user to attempt a duplication of the original process, thus reexperiencing the euphoria.

Inadequate self-esteem is a psychological predisposition thought to be a common source of imperceptible pain, and the inability to handle the pain can lead to a desire to find an outlet to reduce the pain. In fact, according to research by Zhanshen Chen, socially based pain can last longer than physical pain and, in effect, do more damage. Thus, as a risk factor to addiction, pain suffered because of self-esteem issues is a substantial consideration. Some individuals with addictive behavior problems want to control the pain but lack the necessary social, psychological, and biological tools to do so. Other symptoms that may be identified early enough to allow preventive measures to be taken include poor impulse control; intolerance and low frustration level, leading to a need for control; and rigidity and extremes in action and thoughts.

Behavior with addictive characteristics may involve alcohol and other drugs, food, work, sex, gambling, exercise, video-game playing, television watching, and even Internet-related behavior. Online gaming, role-playing, and sexual interactions based on the Internet have addictive features. However, these behaviors must receive much greater study before they can be recognized as actual addictions. The notion of an addictive personality developed in the twentieth century partially because some individuals displayed more than one behavior with addictive characteristics or, when one addictive behavior was given up, one quickly replaced it. Some have seen this process of substitution as a form of generalization in which behaviors form an addictive behavior pattern. Problems such as manipulation, denial of responsibility, displacement of emotions, and general dishonesty in lifestyle may provoke this process. In general, however, the addictive process can be periodic, cyclic, sporadic, or continuous, depending on a person’s life patterns, resources, and basic personality. In fact, research indicates that any personality can become addicted.

Personality Theories

Different personality theories present conflicting ideas about addiction, adding to the controversy surrounding this topic. Psychoanalysts believe that addiction is a result of unconscious conflicts and of fixation on the pleasure principle, which states that one’s energy in life is directed toward reducing pain and that one’s innate drives control one’s actions. Although some neo-Freudians disagree with the cause of pain, most agree with the basic concept. Social learning and behavioral psychologists believe that an addictive personality is molded through shaping—the slow and continual development of a behavior—with continuous reinforcement along the way, based on the mores prevalent in an individual’s society. The need to be accepted becomes a person’s driving force.

Cognitive psychologists hold that an addictive personality is formulated by the way a person receives, processes, stores, and retrieves sensory information. Also important is the nature of the attributes the person ascribes to the addictive substances or behaviors; those ascribing more power, whether it is there or not, may be at higher risk. An individual may develop very positive expectancies for what the behavior can do for them, whether or not their attributions and beliefs are true. If the substance or behavior produces a positive effect, then the person is likely to repeat the process so that the effect can be duplicated. In essence, people become addicted to the pleasurable results of the substance before they become addicted to the particular path taken to achieve them.

Humanistic psychologists concentrate on the present, focusing on the fact that people have choices, yet many people do not know how to make proper ones because of trauma experienced during youth. To the humanist, the idea of the family is important, particularly how love was expressed and experienced, because through love, people can believe in themselves enough to be able to make positive choices.

The proponents of trait theory contend that people are born with certain tendencies and preferences of action, which may or may not be genetic; the evidence is inconclusive. Trait theorists seem to agree, however, that society and the family have a strong influence on people and that some people are predisposed toward compulsive behavior from an early age.

Biological studies have been conducted to explore the suspected link between addictive behavior and genes, suggesting that, at least in part, a tendency toward addiction may be inherited. Studies suggest that certain people may inherit impaired neurological homeostasis, which is partly corrected by their addiction. The sons of fathers with alcohol dependence have a higher “body sway” (the degree to which a person sways when standing upright with the eyes closed) than do sons of men without alcohol dependence; “body sway” decreases when the sons are intoxicated. Sons of men with alcohol dependence have a higher rate of addiction than daughters do, no matter which parent reared the children.

People with “familial essential tremor,” an inherited disorder, have less tremor when drinking and have a higher rate of alcohol dependence. Also, while alcohol-dependent people do not have higher levels of arousal at rest, they become more aroused when stressed, as measured by heart rate, and are slower to return to rest.

The majority of controlled scientific studies on genetics have been conducted on the alcoholic population. Consequently, the studies are inconclusive when discussing addiction and any related personality problems overall. However, the studies do add evidence to the possible link between biology and behavior.


Research seems to indicate that addiction is a multilevel problem with complex roots in psychology, sociology, biology, and genetics. Among the symptoms of addictive behavior are tendencies toward excessiveness, compulsion, and obsessions. Compulsions are impulses that are difficult to resist, while obsessions are compelling ideas or feelings that are usually somewhat irrational. These tendencies have prompted many to wonder about the existence of an addictive personality.

For some, this tendency can be traced back to childhood and used as a warning sign. If the tendency is identified in advance, efforts can be made to alter the child’s first impulse and slowly, over time and with much positive reinforcement, show the child alternative, acceptable behavior. When the child can be taught to achieve self-regulation in a positive way, within acceptable social limits, there is a better chance for positive achievement as an outcome. Self-regulation is a process whereby individuals manage their feelings, reactions, and thoughts in response to internal and external events. In a culture where excessiveness is common, however, teaching balance and self-regulation can be difficult. This is because immediate gratification may be promoted and reinforced in such a culture.

Whether addictive behavior is learned for survival, passed on genetically, or is an intricate combination of both, apparently, a set of personal features can predispose a person toward addiction, or, at the least, can place a person in a high-risk group. If these symptoms can be identified early enough, the chance to teach potential addicts the path toward balance increases, and the compulsive lifestyle can be decreased or channeled in a healthy way.

Addiction Treatments

Addictions and the victims of addictions have been studied and described at least since the beginning of written language, and probably since humanity first communicated by storytelling. As such, many treatments and related self-help efforts have developed over the years. In 1935, in Ohio, Robert Smith and William Wilson organized Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA is not a formal program of treatment but instead a self-help resource consisting of a group of people with alcohol problems who are in various stages of recovery, from those desiring to quit to those who have achieved very long-term abstinence from alcohol. It is a program in which most individuals work through a series of steps as they make progress in their recovery.

The value of AA is world renowned. The organization is considered by most professionals and nonprofessionals who have contact with it to be one of the more far-reaching recovery resources in the world, in terms of the many ways in which it may help its attendees. The twelve-step program, an idea that AA started, transcends the boundaries of alcohol problems and has been applied to many addictions. AA is run by people recovering from alcohol problems who desire to remain abstinent. They are primarily nonprofessionals who simply seek to help other individuals who desire to quit. However, not until the early 1970s did addiction gain national and international attention through significant progress based on research funded by the US government.

In 1971, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism conducted research that showed addiction to be threatening American society. Afterward, a concentrated effort was made to study individuals addicted to alcohol and other drugs, with an attempt to find symptoms that could predict individuals at high risk for developing such problems. The federally funded studies would ostensibly find ways to help prevent and reduce the tremendous health, social, and economic consequences of addiction in the United States. Assessing dependence potential and discovering vulnerability or high-risk factors through demographic characteristics, psychological status, and individual drug history became the focus of studies. The funding of these studies became a critical component in the fight to better understand addiction. As a result, many promising treatments became available for individuals and families seeking help for problems with addiction and behaviors with addictive features. Treatment goals also expanded to address not only those with a desire to quit but also those who want to cut down on their use or prevent use altogether. Such approaches include cognitive behavioral treatments focusing on relapse prevention, readiness-to-change treatments such as motivational interviewing, programs for adolescents such as multisystemic family therapy, harm-reduction strategies focused on reducing the risks and problems associated with substance use while also potentially reducing use, and a wide variety of pharmacological approaches involving the use of prescription medications to stave off addictions.

Internationally, studies indicate that technologically advanced societies seem to give rise to more kinds of dependency than do more slowly developing countries, a fact which could help researchers focus on some societal misconceptions of overall health. For example, in the United States and some other similarly advanced societies, there exists a tendency toward instant gratification. People who are tense are advised to take a pill. People who are lonely can call a certain number for conversation. People who are bored might have an alcoholic drink. People who are unhappy might eat. Ideally, societies, governments, and researchers will unite to unveil all possible symptoms of addiction, to identify those at high risk for addiction, and to employ successful recovery methods.


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