Science suggests there’s no such thing as an ‘addictive personality’ — here’s why

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Greta Schölderle Møller / Unsplash

    There are no universal character traits that are found in all addicted people. According to some research, addictions stem from being unable to seek pleasure from everyday things like work, friendships, and romantic relationships. Experiments have shown that happy environments make people less inclined to become addicted to drugs. There are also some biological markers that suggest someone may become an addict.

Addiction – whether it’s to alcohol, a substance, or even sex – is a negative term. We refer to addiction as a disorder, and those who are diagnosed as being hooked on something are told by society that they have a problem.

The reasons someone becomes an addict are complicated. Some think it’s down to having an “addictive personality,” where certain people find it incredibly difficult to resist temptation. However, this is more of a colloquialism, as no single addictive personality trait common to everyone with addictions has ever been found.

This is according to Maia Szalavitz, the author of “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.” In her book she writes that addictive personality is a myth, and there are no universal character traits that are found in all addicted people.

“Some are shy; some are bold. Some are fundamentally kind and caring; some are cruel,” she wrote. “Some tend toward honesty; others not so much. The whole range of human character can be found among people with addictions, despite the cruel stereotypes that are typically presented.”

It’s easy to label an addict as being prone to impulsive behaviour, because it provides an explanation for why someone is acting in a less than favourable way. It’s comforting to say someone is wired a certain way, because if you don’t see those traits in yourself, then you can give yourself a free pass.

It’s not a substance disorder, but a social one

According to journalist Johann Hari, there’s an explanation for addictive behaviour, but it’s not biological.

Hari spent three years researching addiction and talking to experts. He came to the conclusion that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety – it’s connection. He highlighted his findings in a TED talk in 2015 called “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong.”

According to Hari, it’s not the pleasurable effects, such as the release of dopamine, that make people become dependent on drugs, alcohol, etc. Rather, the addiction fills a hole where a person lacks healthy bonds and relationships with other people. It’s not a substance disorder, but a social one.

In the late 70s and early 80s, research showed that when rats were placed alone in empty cages with two water bottles to choose from – one containing plain water, and one with water infused with heroin – the rats would get hooked on the heroin-water and eventually overdose and die. This suggested that the drug gave the rats so much pleasure, they got addicted to it and would keep taking the heroin to chase that feeling.

Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander looked at this research and was skeptical. He noticed that the cages were always small, and the rats were always alone with nothing to do. So, being bored and lonely, they decided to get high.

Alexander then made something now referred to as “the rat park,” which was a new cage, about 200 times larger than the cages the lonely rats were put in, equipped yet again with both plain and drug-infused water. It also had hamster wheels, lots of multicoloured balls to play with, plenty of food, and 20 rats per cage who could play and mate with each other.

Not only were the rats significantly less interested in the drug water, none of them got hooked on it, and none of them overdosed. As long as the rats were given friends, and they could socialise and play, they had no need for the heroin.

It’s all part of a ‘crisis of disconnection’

rats playing

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kirahoffmann / Pixabay

Just because something happens in rats, doesn’t mean the same will true for humans. However, in his TED talk, Hari pointed out that a large scale experiment has been done in humans to the same effect.

During the Vietnam war, 20% of American troops were taking a lot of heroin, and people back in the US were worried that they would be overrun with addicts when the war was over.

As soon as the soldiers returned, they didn’t go into withdrawal, and they didn’t go to rehab. In fact, 95% of them simply stopped using heroin and went back to normal. Hari said being removed from a horrible warzone and returned to your family is like the equivalent of being taken out of the first cage and introduced to rat park.

As humans, we naturally want to bond to other people. We can do this when we are happy and content, but if we are feeling isolated, depressed, anxious, or down-trodden by life, bonding can be more difficult. In these cases, we tend to turn to things like cigarettes, alcohol, and substances to bond to. It could even be something like obsessively checking your smartphone, watching porn, or gambling.

Hari says addiction is just part of the “crisis of disconnection” we are currently experiencing in society. When someone has an addiction, say for heroin, the go-to reaction is to cast them out of society until they get better. If they are caught with illegal substances, they are arrested, maybe given a criminal record, and maybe thrown in prison. This means it’s harder for them to get jobs and lead a stable life. It’s a vicious cycle.

Addiction is a coping mechanism

Ultimately, addicts are covering up another pain in their lives. According to Robert Weiss, an expert specialising in infidelity and addictions, dependencies and compulsive behaviours often stem from having trauma in early life, such as neglect, emotional, or physical abuse.

“As with other addictions, the problematic behavior is used not to have a good time, but as an emotional coping mechanism,” Weiss told Business Insider. “[Addicts] are not trying to feel good, they’re trying to feel less. They want to escape stress, anxiety, depression, and other forms of emotional discomfort, and they use their addiction to do that.”

However, it’s not clear how addiction actually occurs. Psychologist Nigel Barber explained in a blog post on Psychology Today how it is well known that addicts have under-active dopamine systems – the pleasure centres of the brain – and find it difficult to experience pleasure in their ordinary lives.

One study from 2013 showed a correlation between genetic abnormalities in dopamine systems and addictive tendencies, prior to subjects developing full-blown addictions. This suggests that those who struggle to gain pleasure from work, friendships, and romantic relationships may be more prone to seek it out via other routes, and then become addicted to filling the void within them in that way.

This ties in to Hari’s theory that we need to look at addiction differently. Instead of hating addicts for not being well and shoving them in cages, we should build a society that looks a lot more like rat park. If we can adjust the way we connect with each other, and help people be fulfilled by their ordinary lives, addiction may be less of a problem in the future.