Myth world: Addictive personality does not exist

(Please note: This article is a slightly expanded and original version of an article that was first published in The Conversation).

“Life is a series of addictions and without them we die”. This is my favourite quote in the academic addiction literature and was made back in 1990 in the British Journal of Addiction by Professor Isaac Marks. This deliberately provocative and controversial statement was made to stimulate debate about whether excessive and potentially problematic activities such as gambling, sex and work can really be classed as genuine addictive behaviours. Many of us might say to ourselves that we are ‘addicted’ to tea or coffee, our work, or know others who we might describe as having addictions watching the television or using pornography. But is this really true?

The issue all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place as many of us in the field disagree on what the core components of addiction are. Many would argue that the word ‘addiction’ or ‘addictive’ is used so much in everyday circumstances that word has become meaningless. For instance, saying that a book is an ‘addictive read’ or that a specific television series is ‘addictive viewing’ renders the word useless in a clinical setting. Here the word ‘addictive’ is arguably used in a positive way and as such it devalues the real meaning of the word.

The question I get asked most – particularly by the broadcast media – is what is the difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction and my response is simple – a healthy excessive enthusiasm adds to life whereas an addiction takes away from it. I also believe that to be classed as an addiction, any such behaviour should comprise a number of key components including overriding preoccupation with the behaviour, conflict with other activities and relationships, withdrawal symptoms when unable to engage in the activity, an increase in the behaviour over time (tolerance), and use of the behaviour to alter mood state. Other consequences such as feeling out of control with the behaviour and cravings for the behaviour are often present. If all these signs and symptoms are present I would call the behaviour a true addiction. However, that hasn’t stopped others accusing me of ‘watering down’ the concept of addiction.

A few years ago, Dr. Steve Sussman, Nadra Lisha and I published a large and comprehensive review in the journal Evaluation and the Health Professions examining the co-relationship between eleven different potentially addictive behaviours reported in the academic literature (smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, taking illicit drugs, eating, gambling, internet use, love, sex, exercise, work, and shopping). We examined the data from 83 large-scale studies and reported an overall 12-month prevalence of an addiction among U.S. adults varies from 15% to 61%. We also reported it plausible that 47% of the U.S. adult population suffers from maladaptive signs of an addictive disorder over a 12-month period, and that it may be useful to think of addictions as due to problems of lifestyle as well as to person-level factors. In short – and with many caveats – our paper argued that at any one time almost half the US population are addicted to one or more behaviours.

There is a lot of scientific literature showing that having one addiction increases the propensity to have other co-occurring addictions. For instance, in my own research I have come across alcoholic pathological gamblers and we can all probably think of individuals that we might describe as caffeine-addicted workaholics. It is also very common for individuals that give up one addiction to replace it with another (which we psychologists call ‘reciprocity’). This is easily understandable as when an individual gives up one addiction it leaves a large hole in the waking lives (often referred to as the ‘void’) and often the only activities that can fill the void and give similar experiences are other potentially addictive behaviours. This has led many people to describe such people as having an ‘addictive personality’.

While there are many pre-disposing factors for addictive behaviour including genetic factors and psychological personality traits such as high neuroticism (anxious, unhappy, prone to negative emotions) and low conscientiousness (impulsive, careless, disorganised), I would argue that ‘addictive personality’ is a complete myth. Even though there is good scientific evidence that most people with addictions are highly neurotic, neuroticism in itself is not predictive of addiction (for instance, there are individuals who are highly neurotic but are not addicted to anything so neuroticism is not predictive of addiction). In short, there is no good evidence that there is a specific personality trait (or set of traits) that is predictive of addiction and addiction alone.

Doing something habitually or excessively does not necessarily make it problematic. While there are many behaviours such as drinking too much caffeine or watching too much television that could theoretically be described as addictive behaviours, they are more likely to be habitual behaviours that are important in an individual’s life but actually cause little or no problems. As such, these behaviours should not be described as an addiction unless the behaviour causes significant psychological and/or physiological effects in their day-to-day lives.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Gjertsen, S.R., Krossbakken, E., Kvan, S., & Ståle Pallesen, S. (2013). The relationships between behavioral addictions and the five-factor model of personality. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 90-99.

Goodman, A. (2008). Neurobiology of addiction: An integrative review. Biochemical Pharmacology, 75(1), 266-322.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D. & Larkin, M. (2004). Conceptualizing addiction: The case for a ‘complex systems’ account. Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 99-102.

Kerr, J. S. (1996). Two myths of addiction: the addictive personality and the issue of free choice. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 11(S1), S9-S13.

Kotov, R., Gamez, W., Schmidt, F., & Watson, D. (2010). Linking “big” personality traits to anxiety, depressive, and substance use disorders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(5), 768-821.

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.

Marks, I. (1990). Behaviour (non-chemical) addictions. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 1389-1394.

Nakken, C. (2009). The addictive personality: Understanding the addictive process and compulsive behavior. Hazelden, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.

Nathan, P. E. (1988). The addictive personality is the behavior of the addict. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 183-188.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 11, 2016, in Addiction, Compulsion, Drug use, Eating addiction, Exercise addiction, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Internet addiction, Obsession, Problem gamblng, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Sex addiction, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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