The Real Alternative

There’s no such thing as an ‘addictive personality’ – here’s why


Mark Griffiths, Nottingham Trent University

“Life is a series of addictions and without them we die”.

This is my favourite quote in academic addiction literature and was made back in 1990 in the British Journal of Addiction by Isaac Marks. This deliberately provocative and controversial statement was made to stimulate debate about whether excessive and potentially problematic activities such as gambling, sex and work really can be classed as genuine addictions.

Many of us might say to ourselves that we are “addicted” to tea, coffee, work or chocolate, or know others who we might describe as being “hooked” on television or using pornography. But do these assumptions have any basis in fact?

The issue all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place – as many of us in the field disagree on what the core components of addiction actually are. Many would argue that the words “addiction” and “addictive” are used so much in everyday circumstances that they have become meaningless. For instance, saying that a book is an “addictive read” or that a specific television series is “addictive viewing” renders the word useless in a clinical setting. Here, the word “addictive” is arguably used in a positive way and as such it devalues its real meaning.

Healthy enthusiasm … or real problem?

The question I get asked most – particularly by the broadcast media – is what is the difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction? My response is simple: a healthy excessive enthusiasm adds to life, whereas an addiction takes away from it. I also believe that to be classed as an addiction, any such behaviour should comprise a number of key components, including overriding preoccupation with the behaviour, conflict with other activities and relationships, withdrawal symptoms when unable to engage in the activity, an increase in the behaviour over time (tolerance), and use of the behaviour to alter mood state.

Other consequences, such as feeling out of control with the behaviour and cravings for the behaviour are often present. If all these signs and symptoms are present then I would call the behaviour a true addiction. But that hasn’t stopped others accusing me of watering down the concept of addiction.

The science of addiction

A few years ago, Steve Sussman, Nadra Lisha and I published a review examining the relationship between eleven potentially addictive behaviours reported in the academic literature: smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, taking illicit drugs, eating, gambling, internet use, love, sex, exercise, work and shopping. We examined the data from 83 large-scale studies and reported a prevalence of an addiction among US adults ranged from as low as 15% to as high as 61% in a 12-month period.

We also reported it plausible that 47% of the US adult population suffers from maladaptive signs of an addictive disorder over a 12-month period and that it may be useful to think of addictions as due to problems of lifestyle as well as to person-level factors. In short – and with many caveats – our paper argued that at any one time almost half the US population is addicted to one or more behaviours.

A problem in many forms.

There is a lot of scientific literature showing that having one addiction increases the propensity to have other addictions. For instance, in my own research, I have come across alcoholic pathological gamblers – and we can all probably think of people we might describe as caffeine-addicted workaholics. It is also common for people who give up one addiction to replace it with another (which we psychologists call ““>reciprocity”). This is easily understandable as when a person gives up one addiction it leaves a void in the person’s life and often the only activities that can fill the void and give similar experiences are other potentially addictive behaviours. This has led many people to describe such people as having an “addictive personality”.

Addictive personalities?

While there are many pre-disposing factors for addictive behaviour, including genes and personality traits, such as high neuroticism (anxious, unhappy, prone to negative emotions) and low conscientiousness (impulsive, careless, disorganised), addictive personality is a myth.

Even though there is good scientific evidence that most people with addictions are highly neurotic, neuroticism in itself is not predictive of addiction. For instance, there are highly neurotic people who are not addicted to anything, so neuroticism is not predictive of addiction. In short, there is no good evidence that there is a specific personality trait – or set of traits – that is predictive of addiction and addiction alone.

Doing something habitually or excessively does not necessarily make it problematic. While there are many behaviours such as drinking too much caffeine or watching too much television that could theoretically be described as addictive behaviours, they are more likely to be habitual behaviours that are important in a person’s life but actually cause little or no problems. As such, these behaviours should not be described as an addiction unless the behaviour causes significant psychological or physiological effects in their day-to-day lives.

The Conversation

Mark Griffiths, Director of the International Gaming Research Unit and Professor of Behavioural Addiction, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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3 thoughts on “There’s no such thing as an ‘addictive personality’ – here’s why

  1. Very interesting article. I’ve also heard Ram Dass describe neurosis as the result of a lack of authentic beingness, that we should not try to banish neurosis, rather sit down with it and try to understand what it has to tell us about our human condition and how to become more self-realized. So addictive behavior can be a helpful indication of the presence unfullfilled creative aspects of genuine self, being repressed, and not being realized because of various normative social pressures. This ties in with Jungian shadow work. In a shamanic or esoteric psychology sense, compulsive or addictive behaviours are seen as the manipulations of various forms of spirits or human created thought-forms, however, in all of these cases, the actions of spirits, psychological complexes of addictive behaviour or (by whatever term you want to refer to them) are useful allies on the path to healing and personal fullfillment and should be sat down with to some degree (though not identified with) before they are resolved (dissolved.)

    I have ironically, heard of shamans who say that under no circumstances are you to sit down and “commune” with negative thought-forms or spirits, that they are to be banished, completely destroyed or dissolved through ritual or magic with out consideration of their messages, but that seems to me to be too much like the modern pharmaceutical culture of supressing symptoms and medicating sources of possible deep self realization into irrelavence, which both in my research and personal experience create more unintegrated shadow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was just browsing through a Catholic book about “the discernment of Spirits.” Although much of the discourse here is laden with Catholic structure and perceived requirements, at least they recognize the presence of good and evil spirits. They also claim that we are always “under attack” as they usually put it. Although the goal is to “repulse the attacks and deceits of the devil” (from Catholic prayer to St. Michael), most Catholics believe that evil is always present and in some way getting to us. What is sad, however, is that contemporary Catholics are moving away from this mystical approach and buying into the latest pop psychology truth claims. Myself, I think an integrative view of all relevant disciplines would be best.

      Liked by 1 person

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