It’s natural to want to lump all our different personality traits—good or bad— into neat buckets, or “personality types.” I’m guilty of it. As someone who is always binging, whether that means eating, drinking, or watching, I’ve often described myself as having a so-called “addictive personality.” (If only that meant other people were addicted to me. Alas.)
The term “addictive personality,” however, belongs in the ranks of thoroughly misused phrases, alongside “gaslighting,” “OCD,” and “trauma.” But unlike other abused terms, the definition of an addictive personality isn’t based in clinical psychology at all. Here’s why the belief in an “addictive personality” is a myth and how using it can be harmful to people with real addictions.
What do people mean by “addictive personality”?
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The term “addictive personality” gets thrown around to describe the way people who exhibit certain traits are supposedly more prone to developing addictions, e.g. substance abuse. Someone with a so-called addictive personality might be impulsive, obsessive, lacking control, pleasure-seeking, or weak. Roll all that together, and you’ve got yourself someone who can’t help but fall into addictions. Allegedly.
In reality, addiction is complex—more complex than a personality quiz, at the very least. Family history, upbringing, socioeconomic status, and lifestyle all influence someone’s risk of addiction.
Anyone can become addicted to various substances and behaviors like drugs or gambling. Naturally, there are common traits amongst people who develop addictions. However, the attempt to categorize a reliable “addictive personality type” is unscientific at best, and actively harmful at worst.
The myth of the addictive personality
As this 2015 essay by substance abuse scholar Maryann Amodeo explains, there is no generalizable research to support the idea of an “addictive personality.” Despite how frequently the term pops up around treatment programs and support groups today, there is not enough evidence or scientific backing to suggest that one personality type has a greater tendency to develop an addiction. What’s more, Amodeo writes, the characteristics used to describe addictive personalities do not predict addiction; they result from addiction. Throwing around the phrase isn’t helpful when it comes to prevention, and worse, it might cause harm to actual addicts.
Why we should stop using the term
Using an inaccurate term like addictive personality only leads to pathologizing of true addiction, increased stigma, and a sense of inevitability. In her essay on why the term should be retired from the treatment field, Amodeo claims that the addictive personality description hurts someone’s ability to fight back against addiction, since it creates a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that they can’t change the way they are.
The term also enables the idea that everyone who develops an addiction is the same, which leads to marginalizing struggling addicts. Dropping the term from our vocabulary helps to promote the idea that no one is doomed when facing substance abuse, and that their addiction is worth fighting.
The bottom line
There’s no single personality type that can accurately predict how someone might fall into and fight back against addiction. Still, with something as painful as addiction, there’s a natural urge to try and make sense of it. Unfortunately, addiction is a complicated beast. Categorizing a certain set of traits as an “addictive personality” does more harm than good. The bright side is that there isn’t a subset of people who are all but destined to be addicts.
If you or a friend or relative is experiencing a type of substance addiction, here’s how to choose the right treatment program.