People with an addictive personality are emotionally insecure, says Craig Nakken, a certified drug counselor and the author of "The Addictive Personality." They don't trust themselves or other people as a source of security, support and positive feedback. Instead they turn to drugs, alcohol, gambling, eating or sex, because these objects or activities are predictable and therefore trustworthy. Causes of addictive personality can have physical, psychological or genetic components.
Elevated Dopamine Levels
The primary chemical cause of an addictive personality is abnormal dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that binds to certain receptors in the brain and helps to regulate emotions, feelings of pleasure and movement.
In 2009, a team of researchers from Montreal and Cambridge published a comprehensive review of addiction in people with Parkinson's that adds support to this theory. As Parkinson's patients have abnormally low levels of dopamine, they commonly receive a dopamine-like chemical to control symptoms. The researchers found that while the dopamine drug managed symptoms, it also made patients significantly more likely to develop a gambling addiction.
Anxiety vs. Depression
Different natural temperaments can predispose a person to different kinds of addiction, reports the August 2005 issue of "Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research." Addictive personality types experience negative emotions more intensely than non-addictive types. But people who naturally have difficulties finding joy in everyday activities tend to develop addictions to mood elevators that promise a quick high such as a amphetamines, gambling or sex. Nervous types of people, on the other hand, more often get addicted to depressants such as alcohol, marijuana or benzodiazepines, the researchers found.
Abnormal Reaction to Stress
How people react to stressful situations can be a deciding factor in whether they will maintain addictive behavior over time, report researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health. Addictive personality types typically show abnormally high hormonal stress responses to stressful events. Because drug withdrawal can be an acutely stressful and traumatic event, an altered hormone response can make it harder to quit an addiction and easier to lapse back into substance abuse, the researchers say.
Although very little is known about the genetic mechanisms underlying addictive behavior, the traditional view is that an addictive personality can be hereditary. The traditional view has its roots in studies of parents/children and twins. The Minnesota Twin Studies indicate that the heritability of alcoholism is 50 to 70 percent. That means that for any 100 individuals with varying degrees of alcohol dependence, generic differences explain 50 to 70 percent of that variation.
Social and Cognitive Factors
Psychologist and author of "The Meaning of Addiction," Stanton Peele, denies the traditional view that biological factors explain addiction. Peele compares an addictive personality to mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and major depression. No one would approach major depression from a purely biological point of view, he says. With these disorders, medical practitioners are open to the possibility of cognitive and environmental influences.
But the conventional approach to addiction is to attribute it to genes and then put the addict in a rehab that scares him into exercising future abstinence. According to Peele, this is the wrong approach. He recommends using psychotherapy in the treatment of addiction.