What The 'Addictive Personality' Myth Gets Wrong About The Nature Of Addiction

A psychologist explains why we need to bust the addictive personality myth.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 11, 2023

Even today, our society looks at addiction as a personality flaw. People with addiction usually carry a sizable burden of guilt and shame because of the stigma attached to it.

Fortunately, mental health researchers are trying to dismantle this stigma so that the layperson can start viewing addiction as a disease instead of a failure of character or a reflection of a 'bad' personality.

Psychologist Mark Griffiths' article published in the Journal of Addiction and Rehabilitation Medicine is one such attempt. Griffiths, a faculty member at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom, dispels the myth of the addictive personality. In doing so, he opens the door to the uncomfortable reality that all of us are vulnerable to 'catching' an addiction.

According to Griffiths, people who assert that there is such a thing as an addictive personality overvalue personality traits and ignore other important factors such as genetics, environment, and the characteristics of the substance or behavior itself.

The seductive yet false addictive personality argument rests on the following three pillars, according to Griffiths:

  1. Vulnerability is not perfectly correlated with one's environment
  2. Some addicts are addicted to more than one substance or activity and engage in more than one addictive behavior
  3. On giving up an addiction, some addicts become addicted to another substance or behavior

Griffiths suggests that these reasons are not enough to declare addiction vulnerability as a stable personality trait that can predict addictive behavior. To argue his case, he echoes research showing that, for an actual personality trait or predictive factor to exist, it should meet the following criteria:

  1. It should either precede the beginning signs of the (addictive) disorder or should be a direct and lasting result of the disorder
  2. It should be specific to the disorder and not an antecedent, coincident, or consequent feature of another disorder/behavior that might accompany an addictive behavior
  3. It should be discriminative
  4. It should be related to the addictive behavior through independently confirmed empirical evidence, 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," Grifitths explains.

This does not mean that personality has absolutely nothing to do with addictive behavior. Griffiths cites a number of studies that demonstrate an overall correlation of addictive behaviors with high levels of neuroticism and low levels of conscientiousness. Griffiths, however, explains that there is no single trait (or set of traits) that is solely responsible for addictive behavior.

Instead of delineating the make-up of an addictive personality, Griffiths favors viewing addiction from a biopsychosocial perspective. This approach takes individual characteristics (e.g. genetics), situational factors (e.g. easy access to drugs, advertising and marketing) as well as structural factors (e.g. toxicity of drug) into consideration when deconstructing addictive behavior.

According to the article, the benefits of leaving the addictive personality myth behind are two-fold:

  1. It chips away at the stigma around addiction. Scrapping this myth can ensure that a person with an addiction is not looked at as inherently fallible and weaker than others.
  2. It makes the person with the addiction more accountable. If we look at someone as an addictive personality, we absolve them of their responsibility in developing an addictive behavior and put the onus of treatment on the people around them. Ultimately, says Griffiths, the person with the addiction has to admit to their part in developing their addiction and therefore their responsibility in accessing rehabilitation resources.

"Practitioners consider specific personality traits to be warning signs, but that's all they are," concludes Griffiths. "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."