Personality Theories & Substance Abuse

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Why do people become addicted to substances? And what do their personalities have to do with their addictions? In this lesson, we'll attempt to answer both of those questions by looking at the link between personality type, personality disorders, and addiction.


Megan has a problem: she's addicted to prescription drugs. She can't get through a day without popping some pills.

Megan's friend Ross is also addicted to something: food. He eats too much of everything, especially junk food, and he just can't seem to control himself.

Both Megan and Ross have an addiction, or a dependence upon and inability to give up a substance or action, such as alcohol or drugs or food or gambling. In order to be addiction, the person must be dependent upon the subject of their addiction, and it must negatively impact their life.

For example, Ross has high blood pressure and diabetes because he's so overweight due to his food addiction. Megan, meanwhile, has a hard time keeping a job because of her drug addiction.

So, what could cause Megan and Ross' addictions? To figure that out, let's look at how personality and personality disorders affect addiction.

Addictive Personality?

Megan and Ross are both addicts, though they are addicted to different things. But Megan has noticed that they have certain things in common. For example, they're both spontaneous and aren't good at waiting for rewards. When they want something, they want it now!

Some experts believe that the key to why people become addicted lies in their personality type. To understand what a personality type is, we first have to understand that a personality trait is a consistent behavior in a person over time. For example, Megan and Ross both have the personality trait of impetuosity, which means that they tend to be impulsive and do things without thinking too much. Because they both display this behavior regularly, it is a part of their personality.

A personality type is a group of personality traits that many people have in common. A really good example of a personality type is what's called a 'Type A' personality. Type A people tend to have traits like ambition, hard-working, driven, and focus. Together, these and other traits, like anger and aggression, make up the Type A personality.

So what does this have to do with Megan and Ross and their addictions? Some people believe that there is an addictive personality type, which includes traits like impulsivity, valuing nonconformity, high stress, and extroversion, among others.

Megan and Ross definitely have those traits in common. So, could they have addictive personality types? There's still some controversy around the idea of an addictive personality type. Specifically, some experts believe that addiction is biological, not psychological. As such, they think that addictive personality types aren't real, and that any common personality traits are either coincidence or a result of an underlying biological cause, like an altered brain chemistry, that is the real cause of addiction.

Personality Disorders

Megan's personality type isn't the only thing that she has in common with Ross. They also both have personality disorders, which are psychological disorders that involve maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. There are many personality disorders, and some have been shown to be prevalent amongst addicts.

Take Megan, for example. She has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which involves unstable emotions and relationships. Like others with borderline personality disorder, Megan tends to be impulsive, have mood swings, and give way to her emotions, like anger, very easily.

Ross, meanwhile, has antisocial personality disorder, which means that he shows a consistent disregard for other people. Often, people with antisocial personality disorder are selfish to the point of hurting others to get what they want. They can be violent if it means getting what they want.

Both borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder have been linked with addiction. That is, people with these disorders have a higher risk of being addicts, and a disproportionate amount of addicts have these disorders. For example, antisocial personality disorder is only diagnosed in about 3% of the adult population overall. But about 44% of alcoholics have antisocial personality disorder, and as many as 77% of opioid abusers have antisocial personality disorder. That's much higher than 3%!

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