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Trait expectations: Another look at why addictive personality is a complete myth

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.

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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

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.

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.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). An exploratory study of gambling cross addictions. Journal of Gambling Studies, 10, 371-384.

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. (2009). The psychology of addictive behaviour. In: M. Cardwell, M., L. Clark, C. Meldrum & A. Waddely (Eds.), Psychology for A2 Level (pp. 236-471). London: Harper Collins.

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). The myth of ‘addictive personality’. Global Journal of Addiction and Rehabilitation Medicine, 3(2), 555610.

Hittner, J. B., & Swickert, R. (2006). Sensation seeking and alcohol use: A meta-analytic review. Addictive Behaviors, 31(8), 1383-1401.

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.

MacLaren, V. V., Fugelsang, J. A., Harrigan, K. A., & Dixon, M. J. (2011). The personality of pathological gamblers: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1057-1067.

Malouff, J. M., Thorsteinsson, E. B., Rooke, S. E., & Schutte, N. S. (2007). Alcohol involvement and the Five-Factor Model of personality: A meta-analysis. Journal of Drug Education, 37(3), 277-294.

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.

Surprise, surprise: A brief overview of our recent papers on strange addictions and behaviours

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, youth gambling, workaholism, exercise addiction, and sex addiction, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on strange and/or surprising addictions and behaviours.

Foster, A.C., Shorter, G.W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Muscle Dysmorphia: Could it be classified as an Addiction to Body Image? Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 1-5.

  • Background: Muscle dysmorphia (MD) describes a condition characterised by a misconstrued body image in which individuals who interpret their body size as both small or weak even though they may look normal or highly muscular. MD has been conceptualized as a type of body dysmorphic disorder, an eating disorder, and obsessive–compulsive disorder symptomatology. Method and aim: Through a review of the most salient literature on MD, this paper proposes an alternative classification of MD – the ‘Addiction to Body Image’ (ABI) model – using Griffiths (2005) addiction components model as the framework in which to define MD as an addiction. Results: It is argued the addictive activity in MD is the maintaining of body image via a number of different activities such as bodybuilding, exercise, eating certain foods, taking specific drugs (e.g., anabolic steroids), shopping for certain foods, food supplements, and the use or purchase of physical exercise accessories). In the ABI model, the perception of the positive effects on the self-body image is accounted for as a critical aspect of the MD condition (rather than addiction to exercise or certain types of eating disorder). Conclusions: Based on empirical evidence to date, it is proposed that MD could be re-classified as an addiction due to the individual continuing to engage in maintenance behaviours that may cause long-term harm.

Griffiths, M.D., Foster, A.C. & Shorter, G.W. (2015). Muscle dysmorphia as an addiction: A response to Nieuwoudt (2015) and Grant (2015). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 11-13.

  • Background: Following the publication of our paper ‘Muscle Dysmorphia: Could it be classified as an addiction to body image?’ in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, two commentaries by Jon Grant and Johanna Nieuwoudt were published in response to our paper. Method: Using the ‘addiction components model’, our main contention is that muscle dysmorphia (MD) actually comprises a number of different actions and behaviors and that the actual addictive activity is the maintaining of body image via a number of different activities such as bodybuilding, exercise, eating certain foods, taking specific drugs (e.g., anabolic steroids), shopping for certain foods, food supplements, and purchase or use of physical exercise accessories. This paper briefly responds to these two commentaries. Results: While our hypothesized specifics relating to each addiction component sometimes lack empirical support (as noted explicitly by both Nieuwoudt and Grant), we still believe that our main thesis (that almost all the thoughts and behaviors of those with MD revolve around the maintenance of body image) is something that could be empirically tested in future research by those who already work in the area. Conclusions: We hope that the ‘Addiction to Body Image’ model we proposed provides a new framework for carrying out work in both empirical and clinical settings. The idea that MD could potentially be classed as an addiction cannot be negated on theoretical grounds as many people in the addiction field are turning their attention to research in new areas of behavioral addiction.

Maraz, A., Király, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Why do you dance? Development of the Dance Motivation Inventory (DMI). PLoS ONE, 10(3): e0122866. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122866

  • Dancing is a popular form of physical exercise and studies have show that dancing can decrease anxiety, increase self-esteem, and improve psychological wellbeing. The aim of the current study was to explore the motivational basis of recreational social dancing and develop a new psychometric instrument to assess dancing motivation. The sample comprised 447 salsa and/or ballroom dancers (68% female; mean age 32.8 years) who completed an online survey. Eight motivational factors were identified via exploratory factor analysis and comprise a new Dance Motivation Inventory: Fitness, Mood Enhancement, Intimacy, Socialising, Trance, Mastery, Self-confidence and Escapism. Mood Enhancement was the strongest motivational factor for both males and females, although motives differed according to gender. Dancing intensity was predicted by three motivational factors: Mood Enhancement, Socialising, and Escapism. The eight dimensions identified cover possible motives for social recreational dancing, and the DMI proved to be a suitable measurement tool to assess these motives. The explored motives such as Mood Enhancement, Socialising and Escapism appear to be similar to those identified in other forms of behaviour such as drinking alcohol, exercise, gambling, and gaming.

Maraz, A., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). An empirical investigation of dance addiction. PloS ONE, 10(5): e0125988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125988.

  • Although recreational dancing is associated with increased physical and psychological well-being, little is known about the harmful effects of excessive dancing. The aim of the present study was to explore the psychopathological factors associated with dance addiction. The sample comprised 447 salsa and ballroom dancers (68% female, mean age: 32.8 years) who danced recreationally at least once a week. The Exercise Addiction Inventory (Terry, Szabo, & Griffiths, 2004) was adapted for dance (Dance Addiction Inventory, DAI). Motivation, general mental health (BSI-GSI, and Mental Health Continuum), borderline personality disorder, eating disorder symptoms, and dance motives were also assessed. Five latent classes were explored based on addiction symptoms with 11% of participants belonging to the most problematic class. DAI was positively associated with psychiatric distress, borderline personality and eating disorder symptoms. Hierarchical linear regression model indicated that Intensity (ß=0.22), borderline (ß=0.08), eating disorder (ß=0.11) symptoms, as well as Escapism (ß=0.47) and Mood Enhancement (ß=0.15) (as motivational factors) together explained 42% of DAI scores. Dance addiction as assessed with the Dance Addiction Inventory is associated with indicators of mild psychopathology and therefore warrants further research.

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Greenhill, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Compassion, dominance/submission, and curled lips: A thematic analysis of dacryphilic experience. International Journal of Sexual Health, 27, 337-350.

  • Objectives: Dacryphilia is a non-normative sexual interest that involves enjoyment or arousal from tears and crying, and to date has never been researched empirically. The present study set out to discover the different interests within dacryphilia and explore the range of dacryphilic experience. Methods: A set of online interviews were carried out with individuals with dacryphilic preferences and interests (six females and two males) from four countries. The data were analyzed for semantic and latent themes using thematic analysis. Results: The respondents’ statements focused attention on three distinct areas that may be relevant to the experience of dacryphilia: (i) compassion; (ii) dominance/submission; and (iii) curled-lips. The data provided detailed descriptions of features within all three interests, which are discussed in relation to previous quantitative and qualitative research within emotional crying and tears, and the general area of non-normative sexual interests. Conclusions: The study suggests new directions for potential research both within dacryphilia and with regard to other non-normative sexual interests.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2015). Study addiction – A new area of psychological study: Conceptualization, assessment, and preliminary empirical findings. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 75–84.

  • Aims: Recent research has suggested that for some individuals, educational studying may become compulsive and excessive and lead to ‘study addiction’. The present study conceptualized and assessed study addiction within the framework of workaholism, defining it as compulsive over-involvement in studying that interferes with functioning in other domains and that is detrimental for individuals and/or their environment. Methods: The Bergen Study Addiction Scale (BStAS) was tested — reflecting seven core addiction symptoms (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, relapse, and problems) — related to studying. The scale was administered via a cross-sectional survey distributed to Norwegian (n = 218) and Polish (n = 993) students with additional questions concerning demographic variables, study-related variables, health, and personality. Results: A one-factor solution had acceptable fit with the data in both samples and the scale demonstrated good reliability. Scores on BStAS converged with scores on learning engagement. Study addiction (BStAS) was significantly related to specific aspects of studying (longer learning time, lower academic performance), personality traits (higher neuroticism and conscientiousness, lower extroversion), and negative health-related factors (impaired general health, decreased quality of life and sleep quality, higher perceived stress). Conclusions: It is concluded that BStAS has good psychometric properties, making it a promising tool in the assessment of study addiction. Study addiction is related in predictable ways to personality and health variables, as predicted from contemporary workaholism theory and research.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2016). Study addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study examining temporal stability and predictors of its changes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 357–362.

  • Background and aims: ‘Study addiction’ has recently been conceptualized as a behavioral addiction and defined within the framework of work addiction.  Using a newly developed measure to assess this construct, the Bergen Study Addiction Scale (BStAS), the present study examined the one-year stability of study addiction and factors related to changes in this construct over time, and is the first longitudinal investigation of study addiction thus far. Methods: The BStAS and the Ten Item Personality Inventory (TIPI) were administered online together with questions concerning demographics and study-related variables in two waves. In Wave 1, a total of 2,559 students in Norway and 2,177 students in Poland participated. A year later, in Wave 2, 1,133 Norwegians and 794 Polish who were still students completed the survey. Results: The test-retest reliability coefficients for the BStAS revealed that the scores were relatively stable over time. In Norway scores on the BStAS were higher in Wave 2 than in Wave 1, while in Poland the reverse pattern was observed. Learning time outside classes at Wave 1 was positively related to escalation of study addiction symptoms over time in both samples. Being female and scoring higher on neuroticism were related to an increase in study addiction in the Norwegian sample only. Conclusion: Study addiction appears to be temporally stable, and the amount of learning time spent outside classes predicts changes in study addiction one year later.

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

Further reading

Greenhill, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The use of online asynchronous interviews in the study of paraphilias. SAGE Research Methods Cases. Located at: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/978144627305013508526

Greenhill, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Sexual interest as performance, intellect and pathological dilemma: A critical discursive case study of dacryphilia. Psychology and Sexuality, 7, 265-278.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Dying for it: Autoerotic deaths. Bizarre, 24, 62-65.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Stumped! Amputee fetishes. Bizarre, 44, 70-74.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Heaven can wait: The psychology of near death experiences. Bizarre, December, 63-66.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The use of online methodologies in studying paraphilia: A review. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 143-150.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Bizarre sex. New Turn Magazine, 3, 49-51.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Eproctophilia in a young adult male: A case study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1383-1386.

We can work it out: A brief look at ‘study addiction’

In today’s modern society, students face multiple academic pressures. The best colleges and universities require the best grades for entry and parents push and expect their children to succeed educationally. At school, pupils learn early on that success comes through dedication, discipline, and hard work. For some individuals, the act of educational study may become excessive and/or compulsive and lead to what has been termed ‘study addiction’.

Although there is little research and no generally accepted definition of study addiction to date, such behaviour (as a way of dealing with academic stress and pressure) has been conceptualized within contemporary research into workaholism. Consequently, from a ‘work addiction’ (i.e., workaholism) perspective, study addiction was defined by Dr. Cecilie Andreassen and her colleagues in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Managerial Psychology as: “Being overly concerned with studying, to be driven by an uncontrollable studying motivation, and to put so much energy and effort into studying that it impairs private relationships, spare-time activities, and/or health”.

The many similarities between studying and working lead to the notion that study addiction may be a precursor for or an early form of workaholism that might manifest itself in childhood or adolescence. Work appears to share many similarities to that of learning and studying, as both involve sustained effort in order to achieve success, often related to skills and knowledge, and both fulfill important social roles. In previous studies (including some of my own – see ‘Further reading’ below), workaholism has been shown to be a relatively stable entity over time. This suggests that the behavioural tendency to work excessively may be manifesting itself early in the development of an individual in relation to learning and associated academic behaviours. Given the similarities between excessive work and excessive study, there is no theoretical reason to believe that ‘study addiction’ (like work addiction) does not exist.

Given that most scales to assess workaholism have been developed without adequate consideration of all facets of addiction, my colleagues and I developed the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS). This was published in a 2012 issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology and was developed to overcome the theoretical and conceptual weaknesses of previous instrumentation. This BWAS assesses core elements of addiction (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, relapse, and problems). As no current measure of study addiction exists, we adapted the BWAS by replacing the words ‘work’ and ‘working’ with ‘study’ and ‘studying’ (creating the Bergen Study Addiction Scale) and carried out the first ever study on ‘study addiction’ and some of the results of this study that have just been published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions are highlighted later in this article.

Unlike most other behavioural addictions (e.g., pathological gambling, video gaming addiction, shopping addiction, etc.), workaholism – like exercise addiction – has often been regarded as a positive and productive kind of addiction. Notably, workaholics typically score higher on personality traits such as conscientiousness and perfectionism compared to other addicts. As with the workaholic, the “perfect student” is hard working and involved, and it is likely that study addiction is also associated with conscientiousness. Along with the academic pressure derived from many differing sources (such as the fear of failure), it is also conceivable that such individuals – like workaholics – will score higher on neuroticism.

Although the societal notion of workaholism as a positive behaviour has received some support, most current scholars conceive it as a negative condition due to its association with impaired health, low perceived quality of life, diminished sleep quality, work-family conflicts, and lowered job performance. Given these well-established associations, we hypothesized in our study that extreme studying behaviour (i.e., study addiction) would be negatively related to psychological wellbeing, health, and academic performance, and positively related to stress.

On the basis of previous theoretical frameworks and empirical research into work addiction, we hypothesized that study addiction would be (i) positively and significantly associated with conscientiousness and neuroticism, (ii) positively and significantly associated with stress, and lower quality of life, health, and sleep, and (iii) negatively and significantly related to academic performance. Our study comprised two samples of students (n=1,211). The first sample comprised 218 first-year psychology undergraduate students at the University of Bergen in Norway. The second sample comprised 993 participants studying at three Polish universities.

We found there were positive associations between study addiction, neuroticism and conscientiousness, and lack of relationship with agreeableness (in both the Polish and Norwegian samples). In the Polish sample, extraversion was negatively related to study addiction. Our results also showed that study addiction was positively related to perceived stress and negatively associated with general quality of life, general health, and sleep quality above and beyond personality factors. These results parallel current knowledge about negative correlates of work addiction. When controlling for personality traits, study addiction was negatively associated with immediate academic performance (although not statistically significant in the Norwegian sample, probably due to the relatively small sample size in terms of exam results compared to the much bigger Polish sample).

As expected, study addiction was related to several negative consequences and problems. Although our results were interesting and (on the whole supported our hypotheses) the two groups of students comprised convenience samples, were predominantly female, and mainly comprised psychology and education students. Therefore, the results of our study cannot be generalized to other populations. However, our study is first ever study to conceptualize ‘study addiction’ and to test psychometric properties of a corresponding measurement tool (which for all you psychometricians out there had good reliability and validity). We also used several variables comprising possible antecedents and consequences of study addiction, including valid and reliable measures of personality, psychological wellbeing, health, stress, and academic performance. We believe that our study significantly adds to the existing literature on workaholism and behavioural addictions, and our initial findings appear to support the concept of study addiction and provide an empirical base for its further investigation.

If we had an unlimited research budget, we’d like to carry out longitudinal studies in younger samples (e.g., high school) as such data would likely provide useful information in terms of possible developmental risk factors, determinants, and correlates of study addiction. The relationship between study addiction and later work addiction should also be investigated longitudinally in order to investigate if these are aspects are part of the same phenomenon and/or pathological process.

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

Please note; This article was written in conjunction with Paweł Atroszko University of Gdańsk, Poland), Cecilie Schou Andreassen (University of Bergen, Norway), and Ståle Pallesen (University of Bergen, Norway).

Further reading

Andreassen, C. S. (2014). Workaholism: An overview and current status of the research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3, 1-11.

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

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., Kravina, L., Jensen, F., & Pallesen, S. (2014). The prevalence of workaholism: a survey study in a nationally representative sample of norwegian employees. PLoS One, 9, e102446. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102446

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a work addiction scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265-272.

Andreassen, C. S., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2014). Psychometric assessment of workaholism measures. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 29, 7-24.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2015). Study addiction – A new area of psychological study: Conceptualization, assessment, and preliminary empirical findings. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 75–84.

Burke, R. J., Matthiesen, S. B., & Pallesen, S. (2006). Personality correlates of workaholism. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 1223-1233.

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