Personality Types Attract Different Drugs

By Jacqueline Detwiler 04/17/12

We tend to associate certain personality types with specific addictions, but the truth is more complicated than you might think. Let’s start with the myth of a certain rum-soaked literary giant in Cuba...

How do drug of choice and personality relate to each other? Photo via

Here’s Ernest Hemingway, dead drunk on a stool in Cuba with his face on his hand and his hand on an ever-present mojito. He's the tormented writer, hard at work at the daily scrubbing of his sins. Like the Hard-Drinking Writer, we've come to expect certain personality types to have certain habits: The Morose Musician with Keith Richards' appetite for heroin; the Insecure Starlet with Marilyn's taste for pills; the Monomaniacal Money Manager with a nose for cocaine. They are generalizations that have been imprinted by generations of popular culture. But the types don't necessarily line up.

The logic of associating personalities with specific drugs seems natural. A German-British psychologist named Hans Eysenck spent the mid-20th century turning the eye of the scientific community from Freud’s behavior-based theories to individualized psychology—pioneering the science of personality. He considered this pursuit of matching personalities with drugs a pet project.

Higher scores for each risky trait were linked to higher likelihood of using "hard" drugs like heroin, amphetamines or crack.

Eynsenck believed the ways people are inclined to think aren’t always the ways that make us feel best. And because drugs are the easiest way to modify temperament, it’s only natural for us to seek out those substances that keep us on an even keel. For instance, he thought that introverts, whose brains are always chewing at problems, should crave depressants to quiet the incessant mental chatter. Extroverts, easily bored, should chase the rush of stimulants.

His theory condensed individualized drug cravings into an easy, logical framework—but he was wrong. Or at least, he vastly oversimplified the concepts of both “personality” and “drugs.” Worse, his theory wasn’t borne out by research. Study after study showed both introverts and extroverts drinking alcohol (a depressant) to excess. And extroverts didn’t limit themselves to uppers; it seemed they would reach for all kinds of substances.

So where does that leave us? Well, scientists kept trying to tie the two nebulous concepts together. Over the years, as new methods of personality screening emerged, researchers continued to distribute questionnaires to groups of drug addicts. One major breakthrough came when four sets of psychologists independently realized in the 1980s and 1990s that a person’s personality traits—tendencies that are partially genetic and tend to last throughout life—can be pretty reliably described using five factors.

Introversion and extroversion weren’t enough, they thought. We should also consider openness to new experiences (think Bear Grylls), conscientiousness (Haruki Marukami), agreeableness (Mother Theresa) and neuroticism (Woody Allen) when trying to understand why people act the way they do. Thus armed, personality psychologists began fitting the various personality traits they had come up with over the years into what came to be called the “Big Five.” And lo, with a more accurate representation of traits, a connection between personality and drug use began to emerge.

People who tested high on neuroticism (indicating that they tend to be impulsive, emotionally unstable and anxious), low on conscientiousness (tending to be disorganized, unambitious and lazy), and low on agreeableness (tending to be uncooperative, unhelpful or misanthropic), were more likely to have problems with alcohol or drugs than people whose scores were closer to the middle, or reversed. Perhaps more interestingly to the question of whether personality traits led their owners to cocaine over alcohol, or marijuana over mushrooms, higher scores for each risky trait were linked to higher likelihood of using "hard" drugs like heroin, amphetamines or crack.

“There is some evidence that the more ‘bad’ traits you have, the harder the drugs you’re going to use,” says Michigan State Department of Psychology professor Chris Hopwood. “So super, super-impulsive, sensation-seeking, neurotic people might be inclined to use something like heroin, for example, whereas if you’re a little bit less impulsive or have more anxiety about things maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe you would use other drugs but you would be too afraid to use heroin.”

Not all the personality factors that appear in people with drug problems are negative, however:

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
jacqueline detwiler.jpg

Jacqueline Detwiler is a former neuroscientist who edits a travel magazine by day and moonlights as a science writer. Her work has appeared in Wired, Men's Health, Fitness and Forbes. Find Jacqueline on Twitter and LinkedIn