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The Myth of the Addictive Personality

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We’ve all heard the phrase “addictive personality.” Maybe you’ve thrown it around yourself: “I have to be careful of eating too many chips/buying too many shoes/working out too much/swiping right on too many people. You know I have an addictive personality!” But is it even possible to have an addictive personality? And what does that mean?

The theory of the addictive personality.

First, I want to be clear that there is no scientific basis for the hypothesis of the addictive personality. With that said, this theory assumes that there is a set of personality traits that make an individual more likely to develop addictions. What traits are they? The personality traits may be rooted in the Big 5 Personality Traits model:

  • Openness – creativity, willingness to try new things, openness to change and new ideas
  • Conscientiousness – thoughtfulness, impulse control, attention to detail
  • Extraversion – sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness
  • Agreeableness – trust, altruism, kindness
  • Neuroticism – mood swings, anxiety, irritability, depression

Or they may be rooted in three dimensions:

  • Sensation-seeking – seeking thrills or excitement
  • Social anhedonia – not being interested in other people not getting pleasure from social activities
  • Impulsivity – tendency to act without thinking

Whichever model is used, a shared personality made up of certain traits is thought to predispose people to addictions. For example, some studies suggest high neuroticism and low conscientiousness are part of the addictive personality.

The specific traits identified vary depending on which addiction is being studied.  That is, researchers looking at alcohol use disorders cite different shared personality traits than scientists who study stimulant use disorder or gambling addiction. The personality traits also vary with the socioeconomic status and religiosity of participants. All of this undermines the theory of the addictive personality.

What’s so bad about the theory of the addictive personality?

While it might seem harmless, the concept of the addictive personality can be harmful. For example, an article by the BBC points out that has been used by pharmaceutical manufacturers, who claimed that people with addictive personalities were the only ones likely to develop addictions to their (highly addicting) drugs. This was a way to absolve themselves of any blame as the increase in opioid prescriptions led to a rise in opioid use disorders.

The idea of the addictive personality can also be somewhat fatalistic. If a person thinks they have an addictive personality, dooming them to develop substance use disorders and process addictions, they’ll be less likely to pursue recovery or to believe that it’s possible for them.

Debunking the addictive personality

It’s been suggested that when shared traits exist, they are more likely to be caused by addiction rather than to be the source. For example, many substances lower inhibitions and increase impulsiveness. So for some people, high impulsivity or low conscientiousness could be the result of substance use, rather than the reason they used in the first place.

There are some risk factors that increase a person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder, but they’re not the same as an addictive personality. For one, these risk factors are not required; plenty of people develop substance use disorders without having these characteristics. And other people may possess all of them but never use substances. The most common risk factors for developing an addiction include:

  • Early onset of substance use (starting young)
  • Family history of addiction
  • Mental health disorders (because so many us attempt to self-medicate)
  • Difficult family situation
  • Friend-group or community that encourages and normalizes substance use
  • Using a highly addicting substance

(Note that these are not personality traits or types.)

You may have noticed family history is on the list above. This is partly an environmental factor and partly a potential genetic factor.


One thing I want to mention is the existence of cross-addiction. This occurs when a person is addicted to one substance or behavior, and upon stopping it becomes addicted to another. Like someone who has an alcohol use disorder and stops drinking, only to take up addictive cannabis use in its place.

Cross-addiction makes a lot of sense when you think about how addiction can affect the brain. After a period of disrupting the neurotransmitters in the brain with substance use, it can be difficult to accept the slow rebuilding of normal brain function and dopamine production. It can seem easier to shift to receiving the rush of feel-good brain chemicals from another substance or addictive behavior instead than to engage in recovery.

Again, though, this is not based on personality. It’s a response to changes in brain chemistry over time.

Bottom line: If you want to casually identify as having an addictive personality, that’s up to you. But know that this is not an actual diagnosis, nor is it backed by science.

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Alaine Sepulveda is a content strategist in recovery from alcohol. She believes that engaging people and sharing stories with them allows us to spread knowledge, and to help others in the path to recovery. She holds an MA in Communication Studies from New Mexico State University.

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