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Addictive Personality: Myth Or Reality?

The term “addictive personality,” while not officially recognized in professional research and practice, has been widely used in general discussion to define the parameters of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of alcohol use disorders (AUD). Some define an addictive personality as a behavioral trait that predisposes someone to develop a disordered relationship with substances, but many critics find such a definition to cause more harm than good in the context of identification and treatment of alcoholism and substance use disorders (SUD).  

This “catch-all” definition is often misconstrued as meaning that one defining personality trait will determine who is more likely to develop a SUD, or the description is reduced to someone being “unable to resist” using substances like alcohol. The latter has roots in the fundamental stereotype that addiction is a problem of morality or a “character deficiency.” A more comprehensive understanding of addiction and its associated traits will better explain why some have a higher risk of developing an alcohol addiction over others. 

Behavioral Traits Associated With Alcoholism

Critics of the blanket term “addictive personality” contend that the reasoning behind addictive personality is deterministic and goes against the notion of addiction as a disease. They warn that using this term could narrow treatment approaches for individuals, potentially increasing the stigma associated with addiction.

While valid concerns, personality factors do have the potential to positively or negatively influence behavior and understanding these factors can help professionals incorporate relevant strategies into a treatment plan. 

While no singular personality trait will determine who will struggle with alcohol abuse, research suggests several characteristics can underlie addictive behavior. Impulsivity, sensation-seeking (or thrill-seeking), and social alienation are the most common characteristic factors.


Impulsivity is broadly defined as the tendency to engage in rapid, poorly-considered decisions and disinhibited actions, despite harmful consequences. Impulsivity is often linked to addiction, as this behavior makes it difficult for individuals to control their actions. In fact, the University of Cambridge’s research found a positive association between impulsivity (or urgency) and indicators of all addiction-related behavior, specifically problematic alcohol use.


Sensation-seeking is the tendency to seek out new, intense experiences, and while this is not inherently problematic, it is commonly associated with substance use. For example, Cocaine-dependent individuals score higher on trait impulsivity and sensation-seeking self-reports. However, like impulsivity, it is not clear if sensation-seeking is a cause or an effect of substance abuse.  

Social Alienation 

Feelings of loneliness, or social alienation, can cause severe psychological and physical problems that place an individual at higher risk of developing an addiction. Research suggests that feelings of loneliness are more substantial in those who abuse substances than non-drug abusers. These feelings could instill a sense of otherness or being different from one’s community and increase the probability of taking high-risk behaviors and abusing substances as an individual may try to self-soothe or relate to others. Feelings of loneliness are also associated with worse physical and mental health and are directly related to alcohol abuse. 

The Science Behind Alcohol Addiction 

While the personality traits previously mentioned may indicate who develops an alcohol addiction later in life, it’s important to note that multiple factors play a substantial role in who is at an increased risk of developing an alcohol addiction.

Alcohol abuse is a multifaceted, complex occurrence impacted by genetics, gender, race, socioeconomic status, and environmental factors. Looking for personality traits that develop during adolescence and early adulthood can only partially explain the development and recovery of addiction, so it is essential to understand what addiction is and how it affects the brain, which impacts one’s behavior. 

Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that impacts the brain’s reward system, motivation, and memory. While the initial decision to start using a substance, like consuming alcohol, is voluntary, with continued use and abuse, an individual’s ability to regulate self-control is severely impaired. Additionally, addiction is characterized by several factors, including:

  • The inability to consistently abstain or refrain from using a substance.
  • Impairment in behavioral control. 
  • Compulsive substance seeking. 
  • Failure to recognize significant problems with one’s behaviors. 
  • Diminished interpersonal relationships.
  • Inability to fulfill role obligations at work, school, or home due to substance abuse.

As substances directly impact the brain, which affects how individuals behave, it is often difficult to decipher when “addictive personality types” exist as a cause or a result of substance abuse. 

What Are My Options If I Have An Addictive Personality? 

If one recognizes the previously mentioned personality or behavioral traits and struggles with alcohol or substance abuse, there are treatment options available. Various behavioral therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help individuals struggling with these issues learn to manage their behaviors and acquire self-regulation skills to help moderate conditioned responses.

In addition, for those who have developed substance abuse issues, treatment programs can incorporate these therapies for a comprehensive and multifaceted treatment plan. This approach can help individuals safely stop using drugs or alcohol while also teaching them how to navigate their behavioral and personality traits. 

Seeking out research-based, professional treatment can provide individuals with the tools to understand and manage these various traits, making long-term recovery possible. Contact a treatment provider today for options. 

  • Author: Carmen McCrackin | Last Updated: June 24, 2022

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    Carmen McCrackin

    Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and has over 3 years of professional writing experience. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

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