Is there an alcoholic/addict personality type?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on August 1st, 2010 - Last updated: November 20th, 2023
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Further Reading

I’m currently doing my dissertation on the question of the addictive personality. Do you think there is one?

Dear Student:

The idea of addictive personality has recently fallen into disuse. It is too glib to say that some people with an addictive personality “disorder” fall readily into all types of addictions, while others are protected from addiction. On the other hand, Miles Cox has laid out personality traits that seem to appear commonly in connection with alcoholism (Identifying and Measuring Alcoholic Personality Characteristics, Jossey-Bass, 1983). Damaris Rohsenow has specifically addressed the repeated finding of alcoholics’ externalized orientations towards control (“Alcoholics’ perceptions of control” in the Cox volume).

There is clearly a personality dimension to addiction. Some people fall more readily into dependent relationships (Isidor Chein described this beautifully in The Road to H). Something has to account for why some many people take narcotics, and only a small percentage become addicted. In the words of pioneering narcotics addiction researcher Lawrence Kolb, “The neurotic and the psychopath receive from narcotics a pleasurable sense of relief from the realities of life that normal persons do not receive because life is no special burden for them.”

Giving the lie to a model of addiction dominated by personality (or persistent individual differences of any type, such as proposed genetic ones) is the radical transformations out of addiction for individuals who leave their “burdensome” realities behind, as when they depart Vietnam, for example. For many others, the dependence stage is one of adolescence and early adulthood. Peter Cohen and I have discussed how members of addict groups who are most resistant to change seem clearly to have pre-existing personality dysfunctions that distinguish them from their fellow addicts who do “mature out” (like the minority of soldier addicts in Vietnam, even among those who used heroin stateside, who became re-addicted). (“Addiction: The Analgesic Experience”)

Even when the individual feels a strong pull towards addiction in general or a particular substance, there remains a strong value component in indulgence in that activity. Put simply, many people predisposed in some sense to addiction generally or to some specific addiction (like alcoholism) resist because it violates their sense of themselves. (“A Moral Vision of Addiction”)

Looked at from the opposite direction, there is an addict profile in value terms as well. This is something measured on the MAC Scale, a group of items from the MMPI tapping antisocial acting out and impulsiveness. Group high on this scale (more men than women, but both men and women) much more commonly resort to drugs and alcohol for opportunities of impulsive and destructive self-expression (Craig MacAndrew, “What the MAC Scale Tells Us About Alcoholic Men,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 42:604-625, 1983).

Best regards,

I write about these issues directly in my article, Personality and alcoholism: Establishing the link.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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