Is there an alcoholic personality? Disputing the myth of the selfish, self centered alcoholic

When I came to Alcoholics Anonymous, I felt desperate, alone, and confused. I was initially extremely afraid at meetings and felt unsure about the program. I wish I had followed my instinct, however, about two months after I stopped drinking (which was 5 months after I started attending meetings) women began to “reach out” to me and pull me into the program and influenced me otherwise. Even though I had conducted experimental research into cocaine addiction the year earlier, I fell for the skewed ideas about alcoholism and addition right away.

I started reading the Big Book, and over time ended up being what is called a “Big Book Thumper”, meaning that I strictly believed in the Big Book and knew it from cover to cover. I came to believe over time in what the book described as a personality that fit all alcoholics.This personality can be described as a person who is selfish, self-centered, full of fear, cannot handle anger, has sexual problems, is full of self pity, and has a strong will towards things other than drinking. Upon seeing some debate about this in one of my online groups, I decided to do some research on it myself.

What is personality? According to the American Psychological Association’s website, personality refers to “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”. It is formed primarily before the age of 5 and is influenced by both environmental as well as genetic factors. According to theories in psychology, then, when it comes to determining whether or not there is such a construct as the “Alcoholic Personality”, scientific researchers attempt to find personality traits that are present before a person starts drinking. Examining traits that are present after a period of drinking and especially at the point of alcohol abuse tend to be skewed simply because of the presence of alcohol use in the persons life. Because of this I will be focusing on studies today that are conducted on younger populations.

Before I started my search on scientific articles regarding the personality of alcoholics, I was pretty convinced that none would be found. What I did find though is that there is some evidence that there may be personality traits that are risk factors for alcohol abuse and/or alcohol use. Although there is conclusive data to support these traits, other researchers argue that the traits just aren’t that significant when it comes to alcohol use. Furthermore, the personality traits that have been found to be associated with alcohol abuse are not the “character defects” mentioned in AA. That’s pretty alarming since a proportion of treatment centers in the US base part of their curriculum around these kinds of AA concepts!

Scientists have explored the link between personality and alcoholism ever since Bill W. introduced the idea in the Big Book. Rather than finding a static or inherent “Alcoholic Personality” that is caused by a disease, researchers today find that certain global personality traits may predict alcohol use and alcohol use disorders. Two personality factors that have been found to correlate with alcohol use and abuse/misuse are antisocial behavior and impulsivity. Shin, Hong, and Jeon (2012) researched personality traits within young people who drink and found that impulsivity may play a role in alcohol use, as does urgency and sensation seeking. These traits also correlated with alcohol use disorders, binge drinking, and problems associated with alcohol use. In accordance with this finding, Moeller, Gerard MD, and Dougherty (2002) also concluded that impulsivity may be both a predictive factor of substance abuse as well as a factor in the development of substance abuse and dependence. The authors base this conclusion from the data on a number of studies conducted on impulsivity and substance abuse

Antisocial behavior may also be associated with alcohol misuse. In a longitudinal study done by Young, Sweeting, and West (2008), it was found that antisocial behavior is a predictor of alcohol misuse in teenagers. In addition, Clark, M.D., Vanyukov, and Cornelius (2002) provide a comprehensive theory supporting this idea from multiple findings on childhood antisocial behavior and later alcohol use. In contrast to these conclusions, Mulder (2001) argues that although hyperactivity and antisocial behavior are found to be associated with alcohol use, the proportion of risk is small and that thus personality factors are not associated with alcoholism or alcohol use. This author specifically argues against the idea that there is an alcoholic personality.

So taking into account that some personality factors may be predictors of alcoholism (even though this is very debated), what does this mean for AA? First of all, as stated by Mulder (2001), even if there are personality factors involved in the development of alcoholism, they do not have a large influence on later alcohol use in comparison with other factors, which disputes the idea that an alcoholic personality is a central factor in the developmental of alcoholism or in concept of the disease itself. Secondly, as mentioned before, the personality traits that have been found to have an influence on alcoholism are not ones that are emphasized in the Big Book. It is very possible, though, that there those out there who are attempting to rationalize that the information I provided into a 12 step framework. Let’s define these words and have a discussion around the meaning of this research.

“In psychology, impulsivity (or impulsiveness) is a tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences” (as defined from Wikipedia). Now, looking at this definition, I can see where a person who is impulsive may have a tendency to drink more than someone who is not. In terms of an alcohol use disorder, the last part of this definition fits pretty well with the fact that a criteria of drinking despite the consequences. This idea does actually fit with some of Bill W.’s description in the Big Book about what alcoholism is, but he does not tie this in with the trait of impulsivity. He claims that this is due to a soul sickness, due to cravings beyond one’s control (an allergy), and due to selfishness and the disease itself. When you compare the term impulsivity or impulsiveness to 12 step terms, you can see that is it much less full of shame. At the time that Bill W. wrote the Big Book, there wasn’t a lot of research about alcoholism and alcohol use, however, I wonder why words like impulsive were not used in the book. Rather, it seems as though Bill W. was working off of the shame and blame that society has always put upon alcoholics with the words that he used to describe the behavior of the alcoholic.

Bill W. states that alcoholics are different in their behaviors in regards to alcohol and the rest of their lives, however, findings that global personality traits like impulsiveness contribute to drinking nullifies the idea that people who misuse alcohol are strikingly different when they drink versus when they are sober– thus negating the idea of the “Jekyl and Hyde” personality implied in the Big Book. I’m sure that many in AA will argue for the Jekyl and Hyde experience despite these definitions, but this is because they are programmed to believe the 12 step ideology even in the light of scientific evidence by the program. In addition, such biases such as the Confirmation Bias are heavily reinforced in AA.

Urgency, as defined by Mirriam Webster, is the quality or state of being urgent: insistence. 2: a force or impulse that impels or constrains : urge. Like impulsivity, urgency in one’s personality makes sense when one thinks of alcoholism. One could argue that urgency is the same as or similar to the craving of alcohol that Bill W. talks about in the Big Book… but it’s not. To associate this term with a different construct, like cravings, is a fallacy and is actually a propaganda technique that is commonly used in AA. The same is true if someone were to try to equate this trait with a strong/weak self will, or selfishness.

Sensation seeking is described by Wikipedia as “a personality trait defined by the search for experiences and feelings, that are “varied, novel, complex and intense”, and by the readiness to “take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences”. One can see that someone with the first aspect of this personality trait may be more prone to drinking, and also how this kind of behavior could result in a person being more willing to take risks while drinking. Like the first two personality traits that I mentioned, this trait is not found in the Big Book as being part of the alcoholic personality. I can hypothesize too that 12 steppers might argue that this is also covered in the Big Book, however again, even if Bill W. talks about this kind of behavior in the Big Book he attributes it to constructs other than this. In AA, many people talk about their “alcoholic behavior” as if it arises out of alcoholism, but the truth is that these behaviors are part of a person’s personality. When a person drinks unwanted behaviors can arise not because alcohol or alcoholism causes them but because alcohol lowers inhibitions. To assume causation of behaviors by alcoholism itself is the age old fallacy of correlation, not causation. There are some behaviors that are caused by alcohol misuse itself, such as drug seeking and the behaviors and situations that arise from it, but as mentioned earlier, personality and the traits of it arise from the individual.

The idea of an alcoholic personality is a common myth in our society that has been around for hundreds of years that Bill W. chose to use that to describe alcoholism. This myth is only more prevalent today due to Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, over 80 years since the Big Book was written, scientific evidence shows that the ideas in the Big Book are unfounded…yet people in AA, in society, and even in the field of healthcare and chemical dependency still cling to Bill’s ideas. This results in a perpetuation of the idea that those who drink heavily, habitually, or have substance use disorders are defective, which in turn causes more problems for our society. In AA people essentially use the shame and blame of society’s misconceptions of alcoholics in order to “help” each other and themselves stay sober, which spreads these damaging ideas and creates a viscous cycle of prejudice towards those with substance use disorder in our world. Sounds healthy, right?

Hyperactivity, as defined by Mirriam-Webster, is the state or condition of being overly active and 2: increased levels of function or activity especially when considered abnormally excessivehigher than usual levels of movement and activity (such as excessive talking or fidgeting) typically associated with attention deficit disorder. Now, like the previous few definitions, I can see where the tendency to participate in an activity to excess could again lead to substance use disorders. I could also see where one could argue that hyperactive people are selfish, but we’re not, and again we are not looking here for causative/correlative jump after jump after jump from term to term to rationalize the faulty logic of the Big Book. We are again looking at scientific data with personality traits that have specific definitions and have been statistically associated with drinking. Hyperactivity is not one of the traits that people in AA talk about as being alcoholic behavior, except when they try to shame someone who is hyperactive or has ADHD (or themselves) into thinking that it is alcoholic behavior (some people in AA will try to throw mental health symptoms into their definition of what alcoholic behavior is in order to shame or abuse others).

The last trait that has been found to be a common predictor of alcoholism is antisocial behavior, which is defined in Wikipedia as “actions that harm or lack consideration for the well-being of others. It has also been defined as any type of conduct that violates the basic rights of another person and any behavior that is considered to be disruptive to others in society.” Hmmm. Now this one is definitely not mentioned in the Big Book, but I wonder if Bill W. was trying to minimize his own antisocial behavior or acts by calling them “selfish”. Bill W. was dishonest multiple times throughout the Big Book and is known to have done some pretty nasty things to Lois. If you’re wondering, though, antisocial behavior is much different than “selfishness”, and includes things like rape, murder, stealing, assault, and other such things that often occur behind the scenes in Alcoholics Anonymous. People who talk about these things openly are shamed into silence, and it is likely that people with this antisocial behavior are the ones who abuse others so badly in AA and/or shame them into staying quiet. There are those, too, participate in the shame and blame due to the influence of these people and group dynamics. In my time in AA, I noticed that those with antisocial behavior actually flourish in AA because of the shame, blame, the emphasis on selfishness, and soul sickness. Coupled with ideas that forgiveness and acceptance are paramount to sobriety this makes for a situation where anti-social behavior flourishes. The book even insinuates that we should try to “relate” to “sick” people. Why would you want to relate to a person with antisocial, or as our society calls it sociopathic/psychopathic behavior? Only because this is encouraged in AA! No wonder AA is such a breeding ground for abuse, rape, and assault, among other things.

The personality traits that have been found to be risk factors for alcohol misuse are not only found in those who drink heavily or misuse alcohol but in others around the world. Many people in our society who are not alcoholics, heavy drinkers, or have substance abuse/misuse, for example, have antisocial behaviors. Many people in society also have impulsive behaviors and also do not have substance abuse/misuse problems. Even though these traits are found in other people all over the world, in AA we are made to believe that certain personality traits are exclusive to alcoholics. This is perpetuated by the structure of the program itself, and most people there become blinded to the fact that they have just as much in common to people outside of AA than within AA. I have my own set of personality traits, for example, and I have found just as many people outside of AA who are similar to me in these than those within the rooms. In fact, most of the people that I find who are common to me in hobbies, personality, and beliefs do not have substance abuse problems. This does not mean that I do not have a substance abuse problem though, as one in AA might argue; what it means is that there is no basis for the us versus them mentality in AA. Alcoholics do not need to be classified in their own group as having one distinct personality or set of problems that differ from everyone else in our society.

Another question to ask yourself in an analysis like this is, “What is the real scientific definition of alcoholism? Does it contain anything about personality traits?” Let’s look.

The Mayo Clinic website describes alcoholism as:


Alcohol use disorder (which includes a level that’s sometimes called alcoholism) is a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.



Mayo Clinic Staff (n.d.). Alcohol use disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243

Knowing the mindset in AA, I’m sure that some will argue that personality traits likes selfishness could contribute to these behaviors, however, personality is not mentioned on the web page. The article is very much focused on patterns within use themselves and the consequences that result. This is similar to other standard definitions of alcoholism or addiction within science and academia and shows further that personality is not a standard part of what is considered to be an alcohol use disorder. Thus, the 12 emphasis on personality is debunked simply by the standard definition of what alcoholism and addiction is.

When I started to realize that myself and many of my friends with alcohol use disorder did not fit into the Big Book’s definition of alcoholic, I started to question the Big Book and the program itself. It was a huge eye opener for me. I then started to pay close attention to the personalities and issues that those around me had too see whether or not this fit into 12 step mentality. My observations showed that the us versus them mentality in AA was pretty incorrect. This helped me to not just come out of denial about the problems inherent within AA thinking, but I also realized that most people with substance use disorders are unique individuals with varied personalities. We are not that much different than the general population except for that we drank habitually. I’ve found, for example, that I have just as much in common with a fellow musician as with someone who drank habitually, if not more. This has really helped me to understand that my life does not have to revolve around alcohol (I really think that when you go to AA your life still revolves around it) and that I do not need to have other alcoholics, or habitual drinkers, as my main social group. This has opened me up to new and profound relationships with others and sources of social support that I did not know were available to me.

So is there an alcoholic personality? Based off of my personal experience, as well as science, I would say no. Even though I outlined a few personality traits that may be risk factors towards alcoholism, these are not known to be part of an alcoholic personality and are not strongly associated with alcoholism in comparison to other factors. This begs the question as to why people are coerced into doing such damaging things as to talking about character defects all the time and personality problems continuously in meetings. The answer is that confessing one’s sins is a common characteristic of cults.

Thanks for reading! Please comment below with your thoughts!

References:

Anti-social behavior (n.d). In Wikipedia, Retrieved February 13, 2019, from htttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-social_behaviour.

Carl, D. B., Vanyukov, M., & Cornelius, J. (2002). Childhood antisocial behavior and adolescent alcohol use disorders. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-2/109-115.htm?lad_zip=&lad_spec=0

Hyperactivity. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hyperactivity.

Impulsivity. (n.d.). In Wikipedia, Retrieved February 13, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impulsivity.

Mayo Clinic Staff (n.d.). Alcohol use disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243

Moller, F. G., & Dougherty, D. M. (2002). Impulsivity and substance abuse: What is the connection? Addictive Disorders & Their Treatment, 1(1), 3-10.

Mulder, R. T (2001). Alcoholism and personality. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36(1), 46-51

Personality (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/personality/

Sensation seeking (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensation_seeking

Shin, S. H., Hong, G. H., & Jeon, S (2012). Personality and alcohol use: the role of impulsivity. Addictive Behavior, 37(1), 102-107.

Urgency. (n.d.) In Mirriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/urgency.

Young, R., Sweeting, H., & West, P. A longitudinal study of alcohol use and antisocial behaviour in young people. Alcohol, Alcohol: 43(2), 202-214.

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