Trait expectations: Another look at why addictive personality is a complete myth
Posted by drmarkgriffiths
In the 30 years that I have been carrying out research into addiction, the one question that I have been asked the most – particularly by those who work in the print and broadcast media – is whether there is such a thing as an ‘addictive personality’? In a previous blog I briefly reviewed the concept of ‘addictive personality’ but since publishing that article, I have published a short paper in the Global Journal of Addiction and Rehabilitation Medicine on addictive personality, and in this blog I review I outline some of the arguments as to why I think addictive personality is a complete myth.
Psychologists such as Dr. Thomas Sadava have gone as far to say that ‘addictive personality’ is theoretically necessary, logically defensible, and empirically supportable. Sadava argued that if ‘addictive personality’ did not exist then every individual would vulnerable to addiction if they lived in comparable environments, and that those who were addicted would differ only from others in the specifics of their addiction (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, heroin). However, Sadava neglected genetic/biological predispositions and the structural characteristics of the substance or behaviour itself.
There are many possible reasons why people believe in the concept of ‘addictive personality’ including the facts that: (i) vulnerability is not perfectly correlated to one’s environment, (ii) some addicts are addicted to more than one substance/activity (cross addiction) and engage themselves in more than one addictive behaviour, and (iii) on giving up addiction some addicts become addicted to another (what I and others have referred to as ‘reciprocity’). In all the papers I have ever read concerning ‘addictive personality’, I have never read a good operational definition of what ‘addictive personality’ actually is (beyond the implicit assumption that it refers to a personality trait that helps explain why individuals become addicted to substances and/or behaviours). Dr. Craig Nakken in his book The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behaviour argued that ‘addictive personality’ is “created from the illness of addiction”, and that ‘addictive personality’ is a consequence of addiction and not a predisposing factor. In essence, Nakken simply argued that ‘addictive personality’ refers to the personality of an individual once they are addicted, and as such, this has little utility in understanding how and why individuals become addicted.
When teaching my own students about the concept of ‘addictive personality’ I always tell them that operational definitions of constructs in the addictive behaviours field are critical. Given that I have never seen an explicit definition of ‘addictive personality’ I provide my own definition and argue that ‘addictive personality’ (if it exists) is a cognitive and behavioural style which is both specific and personal that renders an individual vulnerable to acquiring and maintaining one or more addictive behaviours at any one time. I also agree with addiction experts that the relationship between addictive characteristics and personality variables depend on the theoretical considerations of personality. According to Dr. Peter Nathan there must be ‘standards of proof’ to show valid associations between personality and addictive behaviour. He reported that for the personality trait or factor to genuinely exist it must: (i) either precede the initial signs of the disorder or must be a direct and lasting feature of the disorder, (ii) be specific to the disorder rather than antecedent, coincident or consequent to other disorders/behaviours that often accompany addictive behaviour, (iii) be discriminative, and (iv) be related to the addictive behaviour on the basis of independently confirmed empirical, rather than clinical, evidence. As far as I am aware, there is no study that has ever met these four standards of proof, and consequently I would argue on the basis of these that there is no ‘addictive personality’.
Although I do not believe in the concept of ‘addictive personality’ this does not mean that personality factors are not important in the acquisition, development, and maintenance of addictive behaviours. They clearly are. For instance, a paper in the Psychological Bulletin by Dr. Roman Kotov and his colleagues examined the associations between substance use disorders (SUDs) and higher order personality traits (i.e., the ‘big five’ of openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism) in 66 meta-analyses. Their review included 175 studies (with sample sizes ranged from 1,076 to 75,229) and findings demonstrated that SUD addicts were high on neuroticism (and was the strongest personality trait associated with SUD addiction) and low on conscientiousness. Many of the studies the reviewed also reported that agreeableness and openness were largely unrelated to SUDs.
Dr. John Malouff and colleagues carried published a meta-analysis in the Journal of Drug Education examining the relationship between the five-factor model of personality and alcohol. The meta-analysis included 20 studies (n=7,886) and showed alcohol involvement was associated with low conscientiousness, low agreeableness, and high neuroticism. Mixed-sex samples tended to have lower effect sizes than single-sex samples, suggesting that mixing sexes in data analysis may obscure the effects of personality. Dr. James Hittner and Dr. Rhonda Swickert published a meta-analysis in the journal Addictive Behaviors examining the association between sensation seeking and alcohol use. An analysis of 61 studies revealed a small to moderate size heterogeneous effect between alcohol use and total scores on the sensation seeking scale. Further analysis of the sensation seeking components indicated that disinhibition was most strongly correlated with alcohol use.
Dr. Marcus Munafo and colleagues published a meta-analysis in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research examining strength and direction of the association between smoking status and personality. They included 25 cross-sectional studies that reported personality data for adult smokers and non-smokers and reported a significant difference between smokers and non-smokers on both extraversion and neuroticism traits. In relation to gambling disorder, Dr. Vance MacLaren and colleagues published a meta-analysis of 44 studies that had examined the personality traits of pathological gamblers (N=2,134) and non-pathological gambling control groups (N=5,321) in the journal Clinical Psychology Review. Gambling addiction was shown to be associated with urgency, premeditation, perseverance, and sensation seeking aspects of impulsivity. They concluded that individual personality characteristics may be important in the aetiology of pathological gambling and that the findings were similar to the meta-analysis of substance use disorders by Kotov and colleagues.
More recently, I co-authored a study with Dr. Cecilie Andreassen and her colleagues in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. We carried out the first ever study investigating the inter-relationships between the ‘big five’ personality traits and behavioural addictions. They assessed seven behavioural addictions (i.e., Facebook addiction, video game addiction, Internet addiction, exercise addiction, mobile phone addiction, compulsive buying, and study addiction). Of 21 inter-correlations between the seven behavioural addictions, all were positive (and nine significantly so). More specifically: (i) neuroticism was positively associated with Internet addiction, exercise addiction, compulsive buying, and study addiction, (ii) extroversion was positively associated with Facebook addiction, exercise addiction, mobile phone addiction, and compulsive buying, (iii) openness was negatively associated with Facebook addiction and mobile phone addiction, (iv) agreeableness was negatively associated with Internet addiction, exercise addiction, mobile phone addiction, and compulsive buying, and (v) conscientiousness was negatively associated with Facebook addiction, video game addiction, Internet addiction, and compulsive buying and positively associated with exercise addiction and study addiction. However, replication and extension of these findings is needed before any definitive conclusions can be made.
Overall these studies examining personality and addiction consistently demonstrate that addictive behaviours are correlated with high levels of neuroticism and low levels of conscientiousness. However, there is no evidence of a single trait (or set of traits) that is predictive of addiction, and addiction alone. Others have also reached the same conclusion based on the available evidence. For instance, R.G. Pols (in Australian Drug/Alcohol Review) noted that findings from prospective studies are inconsistent with retrospective and cross-sectional studies leading to the conclusion that the ‘addictive personality’ is a myth. Dr. John Kerr in the journal Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental noted that ‘addictive personality’ had long been argued as a viable construct (particularly in the USA) but that there is simply no evidence for the existence of a personality type that is prone to addiction. In another review of drug addictions, Kevin Conway and colleagues asserted (in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence) there was scant evidence that personality traits were associated with psychoactive substance choice. Most recently, Maia Szalavitz in her book Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction noted that:
“Fundamentally, the idea of a general addictive personality is a myth. Research finds no universal character traits that are common to all addicted people. Only half have more than one addiction (not including cigarettes)—and many can control their engagement with some addictive substances or activities, but not others”.
Clearly there are common findings across a number of differing addictions (such as similarities in personality profiles using the ‘big five’ traits) but it is hard to establish whether these traits are antecedent to the addiction or caused by it. Within most addictions there appear to be more than one sub-type of addict suggesting different pathways of how and way individuals might develop various addictions. If this is the case – and I believe that it is – where does that leave the ‘addictive personality’ construct?
‘Addictive personality’ is arguably a ‘one type fits all’ approach and there is now much evidence that the causes of addiction are biopsychosocial from an individual perspective, and that situational determinants (e.g., accessibility to the drug/behaviour, advertising and marketing, etc.) and structural determinants (e.g., toxicity of a specific drug, game speed in gambling, etc.) can also be influential in the aetiology of problematic and addictive behaviours. Another problem with ‘addictive personality’ being an explanation for why individuals develop addictions is that the concept inherently absolves an individual’s responsibility of developing an addiction and puts the onus on others in treating the addiction. Ultimately, all addicts have to take some responsibility in the development of their problematic behaviour and they have to take some ownership for overcoming their addiction. Personally, I believe it is better to concentrate research into risk and protective factors of addiction rather than further research of ‘addictive personality’.
As I have argued in a number of my papers and book chapters, not every addict has a personality disorder, and not every person with a personality disorder has an addiction. While some personality disorders appear to have an association with addiction including Antisocial Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder, just because a person has some of the personality traits associated with addiction does not mean they are, or will become, an addict. Practitioners consider specific personality traits to be warning signs, but that’s all they are. There is no personality trait that guarantees an individual will develop an addiction and there is little evidence for an ‘addictive personality’ that is predictive of addiction alone. In short, ‘addictive personality’ is a complete myth.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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.
Conway, K. P., Kane, R. J., Ball, S. A., Poling, J. C., & Rounsaville, B. J. (2003). Personality, substance of choice, and polysubstance involvement among substance dependent patients. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 71(1), 65-75.
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Griffiths, M.D. (2017). The myth of ‘addictive personality’. Global Journal of Addiction and Rehabilitation Medicine, 3(2), 555610.
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Munafo, M. R., Zetteler, J. I., & Clark, T. G. (2007). Personality and smoking status: A meta-analysis. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 9(3), 405-413.
Nakken, C. (1996). The addictive personality: Understanding the addictive process and compulsive behaviour. Hazelden, Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Nathan, P. E. (1988). The addictive personality is the behavior of the addict. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 183-188.
Pols, R. G. (1984). The addictive personality: A myth. Australian Alcohol/Drug Review, 3(1), 45-47.
Sadava, S.W. (1978). Etiology, personality and alcoholism. Canadian Psychological Review/Psychologie Canadienne, 19(3), 198-214.
Szalavitz M (2016). Unbroken brain: A revolutionary new way of understanding addiction. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
Szalavitz M (2016). Addictive personality isn’t what you think it is. Scientific American, April 5.
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