“The whole range of human character can be found among people with addictions, despite the cruel stereotypes that are typically presented,” writes Maia Szalavtiz, author of the book Unbroken Brain: a Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. Her work reports that only around 18% of addicts have a personality disorder involving dishonesty, lack of conscience and stealing, for instance – which means that 82% simply do not fit in this category. Although people battling addiction can share a series of traits, many are very different. What evidence exists on so-called ‘addictive personalities,’ and if a specific type doesn’t exist, what factors may be relevant in the study of addiction?
‘Addictive Personalities’ In Science
Open up any recent article on addiction and personality, and you are likely to find the term ‘addictive personality.’ In a January 2020 study by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University, for instance, scientists state that “It is known that those with eating disorders are more likely to display addictive personality and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.” However, there is no firmly established definition of what an addictive personality is. Rather, as stated by Szalavtiz, “extremes of talent, not deficits” are aspects which can elevate the risk of addiction.
To understand the extremes that are sometimes linked to addiction, The Myer-Briggs personality test, used more in business than in science, can help. This classification divides personalities according to aspects such as introversion vs extroversion and thinking vs feeling. Some personalities are introverted and intuitive, while others are extroverted and sense-based. It is impossible, however, to say that one of the 16 personality types defined by the Myer-Briggs test is more prone to addiction. Rather, it is being extremely introverted and reflective (or, on the other hand, extremely extroverted and active) that can simply indicate a higher risk of developing an addiction.
The Complexity Of Addiction
An additional reason why an ‘addictive personality’ cannot be pinpointed, is that addictions vary greatly. Some people are ‘addicted’ to sport, while others may abuse substances or alcohol. The extent to which a behavior is defined as ‘addictive’ depends to a great degree on how others perceive it and on the potential harm it can cause one’s health or social/personal life. There are also many factors that can affect whether or not a trait such as impulsiveness or extreme introversion, for instance, can result in addiction. These include childhood experiences, mental illnesses, and whether or not this trait is combined with others that can increase the risk of addiction.
Speaking In Terms Of Risk Factors
Large-scale studies show that it is more fruitful to talk about risk factors for addiction instead of personality types. These include impulsivity, inhibition, and feeling sad or anxious. Studies have shown that different behaviors have different risk factors. For instance, in the realm of video game addiction, those with the biggest risk seems to be using games as a means of escaping from daily life – as found in a study by University of Missouri researchers. Another study by researchers at the Boston University Medical Center, meanwhile, found that being impulsive is a risk for food addiction. Clearly, each type of addiction varies greatly in terms of specific risk factors.
Risk factors are more relevant when studying the probability of addiction than personality types. Moreover, the factors that can lead to addiction vary widely. Impulsivity and the desire to constantly try new experiences can be considered risk factors, but many people who have these traits never develop an addiction. Nurture is very much at play when it comes to outcomes for different individuals.