Addictive personality

In this article I tend to focus mainly on addiction to mood altering chemicals, and as I write this, Cocaine predominates my thinking.  As you read though, I want you to understand that the manifestation of the “Addictive Personality” takes many forms that include drugs but are certainly not limited to them.  You already know about many of these others, experientially, or anecdotally which include the addiction to sex and/or relationship, anger (among other emotions), spending/shopping and hoarding, working, smoking and eating…The list goes on.

Because of the nature of addiction, it would be easy to consider those with an addictive personality, narcissists.  While it is true that these individuals can become extemely self absorbed and absorbed in the focus of their addiction, in my experience, the typical narcissist is not among the best candidates for addiction.  Here, I would encourage you to read my article on narcissism: A Brief Psychology of Narcissism and How to survive it.

One of the biggest questions in addiction research is why do some people become dependent on drugs or particular behaviors, while others are able to indulge in moderation?  With respect to chemicals, certainly some of the risk lies in the addictive potential of the substances themselves, but still the vast majority of individuals who have engaged in addictive behaviors never become pathologically “dependent” on them.  This then leads to the question: is there really such a thing as an "addictive personality”, and what puts someone at a greater risk for addiction if they do choose to engage?

Dana Smith, PhD out of Cambridge among others, believes that there are three crucial traits that determine much of the risk of developing a dependency on drugs themselves.  They include Sensation-Seeking, Impulsivity and Compulsivity which I will be describing in a moment.  In 30+ years of public and private practice, I’ve come to see these aspects of the personality to be predictive of increased risk of developing any manifestation of the addictive personality mentioned above.  So the answer to the previous paragraph's question is that my work with addiction has led me to believe in and work from the position of the "Addictive Personality" model.  Let me describe these three traits here: 


Having this trait, we tend to seek out new, more thrilling experiences, be they traveling to exotic countries, trying dramatically new foods, or the radically novel.  Especially consider the adrenaline junkie’s interest in extreme sports. Research shows that these people are also more likely to first try psychoactive drugs, experimenting with different sensations and experiences.


Note that sensation-seekers will typically consider the risks pretty carefully prior to acting. Conversely, the impulsive, will generally not consider the consequences prior to acting. This is often equated with having poor self-control; poor boundaries – eating that slice of chocolate cake even though you’re on a diet, staying out late drinking when you have to be at work the next day or having that one-time affair, without considering that there is someone waiting at home, even worried perhaps about why you’re so (uncharacteristically?) late…


While impulsivity and sensation-seeking can be similar, and not infrequently overlap, they are not synonymous, and it is possible to have one without the other. For example, in research with biological siblings of drug dependent individuals, siblings showed similarly high levels of impulsivity and poor self-control, but normal levels of sensation-seeking compared with healthy individuals.  These people did not go on to become substance dependent.  It is thought that their lack of their need for an “adrenaline rush,” (and therefore less sensation-seeking in general) is key in their resilience to addiction. 


The final component in the risk for addiction is compulsivity. This is the tendency to continue performing a behavior even in the face of negative consequences. The most classic example is someone with OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, who feels compelled to check that the door is locked over and over again every time they leave the house, even though it makes them late for work. Compulsions can loosely be thought of as bad habits that may even become “ritualized,” some forming these habits more easily than others.  Whether express in drug use, aberrant sexual behavior, over-work, “over-the-top” emotional expression, whatever, compulsivity is expressed in their continued engagement, even though it may have cost them their job, home or family, friends or health.

People who are high in sensation-seeking may be more likely to try drugs or steal for example, searching for that new exciting experience, but if impulsivity is not an issue for them, they may only attempt a couple of times, or only when they are fairly certain there is a small risk for negative consequences. Similarly, if you have a low tendency for forming habits then you are not too likely to develop compulsive behaviors and continue an action especially if it is no longer pleasurable, or you’ve experienced negative outcomes as a result of it.

Example: One group studied has been recreational users of cocaine.  These are individuals who are able to use drugs occasionally without becoming dependent on them. Recreational users have high levels of sensation-seeking like dependent users, but are typically not as impulsive.  So these people are able to retain their boundaries and set appropriate limits: they have the ability to “just say ‘no’” or, “no more.”  These folks typically don’t have a particularly compulsive nature, so that they’re able to use drugs occasionally without spiraling out of control or becoming a addicted.

Summing up a bit,behavioral sensation-seeing, equates to a heightened interest in reward (in the brain’s pleasure center), while impulsivity can be seen as having problems with self-control (located in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex).  Compulsivity, as you now know, is more related to the development of habits.

It is important to remember that we all have moments of these behaviors in differing amounts, and it is only at extremely high levels that these characteristics put you at a greater risk for dependence. What is also really important here is that it is not just one trait that characterizes the “addictive personality,” but having all three together!  Most hopefully,  those who do carry all three traits and who retain the wherewithal and the insight to recognize this fact, and those who have the foresight to admit that this will not get better without help, have already started their healing. They’ve already placed themselves within the 1st Step of a 12-step path to recovery: They’ve recognized that “(we) have become quite powerless - that (our) life has become unmanageable.”  That’s the good news.  The bad news is contained within another article that you may read here. 

In the Lansing Michigan area,  please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments. 

Peter Roseman, Psy.S.

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