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Some online quizzes would have you believe the idea that certain people have a specific “personality type”. But is an “addictive personality” a real thing?

Hosted by: Michael Aranda
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Myers, David G. Psychology, 10th edition, 2013.;jsessionid=213C7070FD3CEC5D49D096544758035E.f02t02
Michael Aranda: Maybe you’ve heard a friend use it to explain why he still hasn’t quit smoking. Or someone said it at a party, as they bit into their seventeenth cheese-puff, or had their third glass of wine. “I just have an addictive personality.”

We hear it all the time. But is an “addictive personality” a real thing? Despite what some online quizzes would have you believe, the idea that certain people have a specific “personality type” that wires them for addictive behavior is probably false. And the websites that claim to tell people if they have addictive personality disorder are almost definitely wrong.

That said, like just about everything in psychology, whether a certain person -- or a certain personality type -- can be prone to addiction is a sticky question. There are some factors -- mainly ones that have to do with genetics and the environment -- that can make someone more likely to develop a problem with addiction. And there are personality traits that have been found to be more common among people with addictions. But those traits don’t combine to form what you’d call an “addictive personality.” And “addictive personality disorder” is not an actual psychiatric diagnosis. So, let’s break down what we really mean when we talk about addiction and personality and disorders, to see how they do -- and don’t -- come together.   [INTRO]   Ask a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, or any other professional whose job it is to study the human mind, and they’ll tell you that addiction is defined as a compulsive craving for, and impulsive use of, something pleasurable, even when there are adverse consequences. Basically, we’re talking about anything that fires up the reward centers in someone’s brain, but, over time, damages their health, work, or relationships. Of course, addictions can be chemical, when the body becomes dependent on a particular substance, like alcohol or cocaine.

Nowadays, experts refer to these kinds of addictions as substance use disorders - when substance use becomes dysfunctional, distressing, and even dangerous. With many substance use disorders, the body needs more of the substance to feel the same effects - that’s called tolerance - and stopping the drug can lead to withdrawal symptoms. But addictive behavior isn’t always related to a chemical dependency. For example, a compulsive need to go on a shopping spree or binge on ice cream might be considered a psychological addiction. What makes it an addiction isn’t necessarily the action -- it’s the compulsive need to do it under duress and the impulsive behaviors that result.

That’s one reason people are more likely to be addicted to more than one thing, or move from one addictive behavior to the next -- it’s how they respond to stress. Lots of studies have shown that addictions can be influenced by both genetics and environmental factors, like experiencing abuse or peer pressure. But at the same time, people who have a family history of dependency, or who have been in an abusive environments, may never struggle with addiction.

The thinking behind the idea of an “addictive personality” is that certain personality traits might somehow make someone more likely to develop an addiction. So, that’s why, when most of us hear the term used, it’s used fatalistically. Like, “I just can’t quit smoking. It’s my addictive personality.” Now, there are studies that have shown an association between some personality traits and substance use disorders.

For example, a review of studies published in 2014 found that people with substance use disorders are more likely to experience emotions like anxiety, anger, guilt, and a depressed mood. And at the same time, they tend to be less likely to express enthusiasm, strong motivation, and desire. The study also found that people who struggle with addiction tend to have less of the trait that psychologists call constraint -- they tend to act on their impulses, and have trouble with self-control.

However, those traits don’t necessarily combine to form an “addictive personality.” Because the relationship between personality and addiction is complicated. For one thing, there are plenty of people with those traits who never develop any form of addiction. Plus, an association is not the same thing as a cause. Addictions involve a lot of different factors, from genetics and epigenetics to behavioral learning and trauma, and they’re all tangled together in ways that researchers may never perfectly sort out. OK, so that’s what we understand about addiction. But let’s talk about what psychologists mean by “personality.”

Personality is one of the most complex and contested concepts in psychology -- which is saying something, considering this is a field where you can’t throw a cigar without hitting three different perspectives. T the very least, most psychologists do agree, at least, that personality exists. And they often define it as a person’s distinctive and enduring characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. So, there’s that. But if you really want to start a brawl in the faculty lounge, just ask a bunch of psychologists how your personality really works. Because there are all kinds of theories about that one.

For example, some psychologists take what’s known as a psychodynamic point of view. This school of thought typically views personality in terms of the interactions between the conscious and unconscious mind. So, psychodynamic theorists might think about addiction in terms of the uncomfortable clash between the pleasure-seeking and constraint - or between the id and the superego, if you want to take it back to Freud. These folks might also think of addiction as a defense against feelings of helplessness, traumatic memories, or difficult emotions.

But another approach to personality is known as the social-cognitive perspective. This view points out that people around us influence our behavior, so our personalities and our social preferences often reinforce each other. So if you want to stop drinking, for example, social-cognitive thinkers would point out that it’d help a lot if you didn’t hang out in bars, or go to keggers, where there’s not only alcohol but lots of people who drink.

And then there’s what’s known as trait theory. This suggests that we all have traits -- say, how secure or insecure we are -- that are fairly fixed, but exist on a spectrum. These personality traits actually do a decent job of predicting our typical behavior, but only to a certain extent. And it’s around here where the confusion around the idea of an “addictive personality” seems to have started.

The concept of an “addictive personality” came into vogue in the early 1980s, after the National Research Council published a book about addiction that included a chapter about what so-called “personality factors” might relate to addiction. The author of that chapter was Dr. Alan Lang, a psychology professor who reviewed lots of previous research, and conducted his own studies into alcoholism and drug addiction. He concluded, and I quote: “There is no single, unique personality entity that is a necessary and sufficient condition for substance use.” In other words, there isn’t a single personality type that would make someone predisposed to addiction.

But despite that, Lang’s research was profiled by the New York Times under a giant headline that said “THE ADDICTIVE PERSONALITY,” the idea got stuck in the popular consciousness. Now, it’s worth pointing out that Lang did report that drug and alcohol addicts seemed to have certain traits in common. Specifically, he said that addicts tend to display impulsivity more than non-addicts, as well as non-conformity, social alienation, and high levels of stress. Even today, most psychologists would probably agree that there could be a connection between certain personality traits like these, and addictive behavior.

However, that connection is not a simple cause-and-effect relationship. And -- maybe this is more important -- they’re not taken to be predictive. Saying that certain traits are more common among people with addictions doesn’t mean that having those traits predict addiction for someone who doesn’t have one yet. And, at least as psychologists understand the concept, a personality isn’t just a bunch of traits put together. So it doesn’t really makes sense to say that a person with those traits has an addictive personality. And it definitely wouldn’t be accurate to say that they have an addictive personality disorder, either.

Psychological disorders -- or mental illnesses -- are defined as distressing and dysfunctional patterns of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors outside the cultural norm, that negatively impact a person’s life. And there is a group of disorders known as personality disorders -- they can be any one of about 12 distinct conditions that affect personality. They involve things you’ve probably heard of, like paranoid personality, schizoid personality, or anti-social personality. Like many other mental illnesses, these disorders often lead to social isolation, which can cause problems with addiction. But addiction itself is not considered a personality disorder -- you can have a personality disorder without an addiction, and you can have an addiction without a personality disorder. And the set of traits that’s common among people with addictions? They don’t make up a personality disorder, either.

So, on a technical level, the idea of an addictive personality -- or an addictive personality disorder -- is basically wrong. But the way personality and addiction come together is still tricky. You could argue that if the addiction becomes so overwhelming it starts dominating a person’s behavior, then maybe their personality has been affected. Then again, if we think of addiction as a disease or disorder that affects behavior, we probably wouldn’t want to define someone based solely on their illness. I mean, if I broke my arm, or was in cancer treatment, and did things a little differently as a result, you wouldn’t say I had a broken arm personality or cancer personality. So, psychologists wouldn’t use the term “addictive personality” this way, either.

In the past, we’ve talked about how a lot of psychological terms get co-opted into daily conversation -- like if you hear someone call their neighbor a psycho, when odds are they’re neither a psychopath nor psychotic. We sometimes misuse words with very specific, even diagnostic meanings, and it often ends up perpetuating misinformation, and well, confusing everyone. So, saying you have an “addictive personality” probably falls into this category.

Big thanks to Dr. Ranjit Bhagwat, who helped us with this episode of SciShow, which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this show, just go to And don’t forget to go to and subscribe!