The phrase “addictive personality” gets tossed around a lot these days. The basic idea: While most people can have a cocktail, buy a lottery ticket, or even experiment with drugs without getting hooked, those with a specific personality type are wired to fall down the rabbit hole of addiction the moment they take their first sip, smoke, or bite.
You may wonder: Do I have an addictive personality? But that may be the wrong question.
“Addictive personality is not an actual psychiatric diagnosis,” says Michael Weaver, MD, medical director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Research on Addiction at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “Personalities are very complex, and while there’s not one specific type that’s more prone to addiction than others, there are several factors that can combine to make you more likely to become addicted.”
Research studies are ongoing, but here’s what we know:
You may have something in your genes: “It has absolutely been proven over and over again that there is a genetic component to addiction,” Weaver says. For example, by studying twins as well as children who were born to addicted parents but then adopted by families with no addictions, scientists have found that genes are responsible for about half of a person's likelihood for becoming addicted.
Genes alone aren’t enough: Even if you come from a family with a long history of addiction, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to follow in their footsteps. Many other factors -- such as the friends you hang out with, your education, your social support, and the environment you grow up in -- will all play a part in whether you become addicted.
Learn more: Can you be addicted to food?
“You can’t exhibit addictive behaviors to a substance unless you’re exposed to that substance,” says J. Wesley Boyd, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
Yes, if you have one addiction, you're more likely to have another: Studies of college students confirm that if you’re addicted to one thing, such as alcohol, you are more likely to have an additional addiction, like cigarettes. That may be partly because of genetics and partly because of what’s around you: “If you’ve been in a situation where there is alcohol or drugs available, there are probably also going to be cigarettes there, too,” Weaver says.
There’s no medical test to determine who may develop an addiction. But there are certain personality traits that are more common among people who have addictions:
A love of excitement: Driving fast, taking risks, having sexual flings, and doing drugs all provide a rush of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that makes you feel pleasure. Addictive people crave that surge in dopamine more than others, Boyd says.
The need for more to get the same thrill: “People who are prone to addiction say the best they ever felt in their life was the first time they tried heroin or had a drink,” Boyd says. As their addiction grows, they develop tolerance and need to consume larger quantities at a greater frequency to try to re-create that initial buzz.
Impulsivity: Studies that looked at the brains of people with addictions found they’re more likely to make snap decisions without considering the long-term consequences.
Inability to quit: A person continues to seek out the substance or behavior even when it gets in the way of family, job, education, and friends, Boyd says.
The important thing to remember is that your personality doesn’t determine your fate. “You can get help and lead a successful, productive life," Weaver says. The first step, he adds, is to acknowledge the potential problem. By asking yourself whether you have an addictive personality, you’re already on the right track.