This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.
The Addictive Personality – Truth or Myth? by Janey Hall
Do an individual’s personality traits predispose them to behavioral and / or substance addictions? You hear the term ‘addictive personality‘ thrown around all the time, but is there really such thing, or is it that individuals are simply partaking in free choice? Or are they just products of the environments of which they are a part? Genetics? And why are some people able to use substances and do things in moderation and others become addicted?
It’s very interesting because there is a significant volume of research on both sides of this issue. One side believes that if there are certain dimensions of personality that a person possesses, causing them to be more prone to developing addictions throughout their life. The other side argues that addiction is chemistry, and how the brain’s synapses respond to neurotransmitters and is therefore not affected by personality. Others believe it is simply genetics, or free choice.
The term ‘addictive personality’ has been used primarily in two ways: First, there is an implication that there is a particular personality type, or specific traits which predispose individual to become addicted to certain substances or behaviors. Secondly, it says that certain personality traits are presented stronger, or differently in comparison to other individuals.
According to many studies, it seems that the particular traits of interest to proponents of the addictive personality are as follows: impulsive behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality, a disposition toward sensation seeking, and compulsivity. A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society of which they are a part. A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance. A sense of heightened stress. This may help to explain why adolescence and other stressful transition periods are often associated with the most severe drug and alcohol problems. These personality traits can be conducive to drugs, alcohol, among other substances, as well as behaviors such as overeating, exercise, shopping, sex, gambling, and the like.
I think it is important to note that many of the personality traits that we see in addicts also go along with individuals who are compelling leaders. Those who are high achieving, novelty-seeking personalities. It has been noted that people such as Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates had these traits. For many leaders, it’s not the case that they succeed in spite of their addiction; rather, the same brain wiring and chemistry that make them addicts also bestow upon them behavioral traits that serve them well.
Supporting the other side of the addictive personality argument, scholars say that addiction is an issue of an individual losing their capacity for free choice. In one study, it is argued that a substantial feature of addiction is compulsion, or the lack of ability to exercise free will and continuation of a behavior despite a true desire to stop due to the way substances retrain the brain. As these researchers so eloquently put it: So addiction is far more than seeking pleasure by choice. Nor is it just the willingness to avoid withdrawal symptoms. It is a hijacking of the brain circuitry that controls behavior so that the addict’s behavior is fully directed to drug seeking and use. With repeated drug use, the reward system of the brain becomes subservient to the need for the drug. So perhaps what began as freedom to choose, individuals reached a point where it was no longer a conscious choice for them. They develop tolerance for their substance and have to use more and more to achieve the same effect.
So what about genetics? Studies have also shown a high heritability rate when it comes to addiction – 40-60% in research with identical and fraternal twins. When one identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin had a high probability of being addicted. But when one non-identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin did not necessarily have an addiction. This is not to say that there is an actual “addiction gene”, rather the differences in dopamine signals in the pleasure centers of our brain which substantially increase pleasure and novelty-seeking behaviors. Those who have these specific traits must seek high levels of stimulation to reach the same level of pleasure that others can achieve with more moderate indulgence.
Last, others say addiction is just a series of poor choices at various times in an individuals life. This is a sad, uninformed opinion as to how addictions happen. Those who hold this belief to be true are not aware of the fact that when a person partakes in these activities, that it eventually alter their brains. It very much compromises their ability to think and they are no longer consciously choosing to continue to use drugs or behave in certain ways. Just as someone who develops cancer is unable to will their cancer away. Poor choice is similar to what researchers have said regarding a person losing their ability to choose freely, however, those researchers and individuals who say that it is just a free choice think that it consistently remains a free choice.
In order to treat addictions, it seems that researchers are continually looking for specific reasons that addiction exists and what causes people to become addicts, but isn’t as simple as just one thing. There is clear evidence that one, or all of these things combined: personality, brain chemistry, genetics, and choice all play a role in addiction. Perhaps what started as a choice led individuals to a place where they were no longer in control. Addiction is a very complex disease and it requires a lot of knowledge in the way our brains work, as well as our genetic make up.
I will end with this video that I discovered during my research on addiction. It was a very powerful portrayal of an addict and the process they go through. Here is Nuggets.