The social environment is an influential factor with regards to drug addiction.
However, some people living in the same environment become drug users, whilst others resist.
Is this difference just random or are there key personality traits that help people to avoid drug addiction?
Is it possible to evaluate the risk of drug consumption for different personality profiles? Is this risk different for different drugs?
These questions are important for society including law enforcement, public welfare, education, healthcare professionals, and families. How can we evaluate the psychological component of risk?
How can we construct social and psychological training to decrease that risk and prevent drug addiction?
An interdisciplinary group of researchers analysed data concerning the use of 18 different psychoactive substances and found answers to the above questions.
A new and original database with information on 1,885 respondents was collected and analysed by a number of data mining methods.
The results are reported in a book, published very recently by Springer. In brief, the main findings are:
- There is a significant difference in the psychological profiles of drug users and non-users. Hence, a psychological predisposition to drug addiction exists.
- The psychological predisposition to using different drugs may be different. For example, there is significant difference between ecstasy users and heroin users.
- Use of different drugs is correlated. The structure of correlations is presented in the figure below.
Use of different drugs is correlated. The image is credited to E. Fehrman et al.
The details are more important and interesting than the general results: the devil is in the detail.
Personality was represented by the modern Five Factor model:
O -Openness to experience,
This model was complemented by two more properties:
Generally, drug users are characterised by higher N, higher O, lower A, and lower C; but there are differences between different drugs. For example, heroin users have significantly higher N, lower E, lower O, lower A, and higher Imp than ecstasy users.
High O is typical for creative people and, at the same time, for drug users. Success in education (after primary school) and beyond is correlated with high C. People, who can create plans and follow them in real life (high C) are more ‘immune’ to drug addiction. This observation hints at the possibility of mitigating bespoke interventions.
Machine learning methods have allowed the authors to evaluate the risk of drug consumption and create maps of this risk.
The project team includes two professionals in forensic psychology and psychiatry: Ms E. Fehrman, an Advanced Practitioner at Rampton Hospital (Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust), which is one of three high secure hospitals in England and Wales, and Dr. V. Egan, an Associate Professor of Forensic Psychology practice in the Department of Psychiatry and Applied Psychology at the University of Nottingham. Four other authors, Professor A.N. Gorban, Professor J. Levesley, Dr. E.M. Mirkes, and Dr. A.K. Muhammad are affiliated with the Department of Mathematics, University of Leicester.
Professor Gorban said: “The project started in 2011, when all authors were at the University of Leicester.
First, the psychologists created the plan of experimental work, collected data, and made the preliminary preprocessing of them.
Then, the interdisciplinary workshop was organised and the mathematicians proposed the data mining technology for further analysis.
Our guiding principle was, ‘Let your data think for you.’ After five years of collaborative work, the results are presented in the form of a book. This is a story told by data.”
Dr. Egan said: “The initial project was Elaine Fehrman’s MSc dissertation research, which I supervised when I directed the MSc Forensic Psychology at the University of Leicester.
After achieving her MSc, Elaine wished to continue with the study, and we ended up with over 2,000 cases recruited from various online forums.
The work is based on solid psychological theory regarding the influence of impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and the Five Factor Model of personality, as seen in different types of drug users.
The work identifies two main populations of drug user: experimentalists (open, agreeable, sensation-seeking) who are interested in unusual mental sensations, and troubled drug users (withdrawn, emotionally vulnerable, unconscientious) who use substances that are depressant or otherwise obliterating.
The two populations may need differing health intervention strategies to optimally encourage desistance.”
Researchers who study the causes of addiction have found a number of traits that are closely linked to an increased risk of drug or alcohol abuse.
Impulsive people are often viewed as fun to be around due to their spontaneous nature, but this personality trait has a serious dark side.
People who are impulsive often don’t stop to think about the potential risk associated with a decision.
They will go with whatever course of action seems like a good idea at the moment, which can often place them in risky situations involving drugs and alcohol.
The link between impulsivity and substance abuse can be seen in the high number of people with an ADHD diagnosis who also struggle with drug or alcohol addiction.
Impulsivity is one of the defining personality traits associated with ADHD.
Researchers have found that about 25% of adults in treatment for alcohol and substance abuse have been diagnosed with ADHD. This makes addiction five to 10 times more common in people with ADHD.
People who are seeking addiction treatment often describe themselves as nonconformists. They consider themselves as fundamentally different from their peers due to their interests, values, and goals.
While the desire to embrace your individuality should be celebrated, feeling like you’re an outsider can lead to social isolation.
This lack of perceived support from friends and/or family can increase the desire to turn to drugs and alcohol when faced with challenging situations.
People who suffer from anxiety can find themselves plagued with worries about personal relationships, fitting in, and managing everyday situations.
They can suffer from physical complaints such as insomnia, panic attacks, stomach problems, dizziness, shortness of breath, and muscle tension that make it hard to focus on their daily activities.
To calm the constant chatter in their minds, they may turn to drugs and alcohol.
People with high levels of anxiety often begin their journey to substance abuse by using cigarettes to calm their nerves.
After they develop tolerance to nicotine, they start to add alcohol or benzodiazepines into the mix.
The problem with this approach is that they eventually end up needing extremely high levels of all of these substances to approach the state of mental calm they crave.
4. Low Tolerance for Stress
Stress is a natural part of life.
However, some people find it significantly more difficult to handle stressful situations, such as an argument with a romantic partner, a high stakes project at work, or an unexpected health crisis.
People who don’t learn to develop positive coping mechanisms to handle their stress may turn to drugs and alcohol for temporary relief.
A low tolerance for stress is often associated with high anxiety levels. However, people can learn to increase their tolerance to stress with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
5. Sensation Seeking
Sensation seeking refers to the desire to constantly seek out new experiences when placed in situations without a lot of sensory input.
Everyone engages in sensation seeking behavior to some extent, but people who report high rates of this activity are most prone to addiction.
Sensation seekers are risk takers who enjoy pursuits such as engaging in adventure sports, attending loud concerts or parties, and traveling to meet new people.
They are also more likely to drive recklessly and prefer having multiple sexual partners over stable relationships.
In general, men and young adults have the highest rates of sensation seeking behavior—which can help explain why these groups also suffer from substance abuse issues at the highest rates.
6. Blame Shifting
Blame shifting refers to finding it difficult to take responsibility for your own mistakes.
Substance abusers tend to exhibit this personality trait in higher than average numbers, often arguing that their drug or alcohol use isn’t a big deal or that they could quit using if they really wanted to.
Extreme blame shifting accompanied by a lack of empathy for others is associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). One recent study suggests that about 12% of people with substance abuse problems also meet the criteria for NPD.
What It Means
Most personality type research suggests that basic personality traits are inborn and can’t be changed. However, this doesn’t mean that someone with traits that are linked to addiction is destined to develop a drug or alcohol problem.
It simply means that he or she is at a higher risk for addiction and needs to learn ways to channel the negative aspects of certain personality traits into a more positive direction.
University of Leicester
E. Fehrman – University of Leicester
The image is credited to E. Fehrman et al.
Original Research: “Personality Traits and Drug ConsumptionA Story Told by Data” by Elaine FehrmanVincent EganAlexander N. GorbanJeremy LevesleyEvgeny M. MirkesAwaz K. Muhammad is published by Springer.