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January 12, 2018
Personality Plays a Role in Developing Alcohol Use Disorder

Dr. Kenneth J. Sher (l) and NIAAA director Dr. George Koob
Dr. Kenneth J. Sher (l) and NIAAA director Dr. George Koob

PHOTO: ERIN BRYANT

Can personality traits make you more predisposed to problem drinking? Yes, and according to a body of research, personality is an important factor in alcohol use disorder (AUD), which affects an estimated 15 million people in the United States.

Recently, Dr. Kenneth J. Sher, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, spoke about how and why personality influences the development of AUD during NIAAA’s 22nd annual Mark Keller Honorary Lecture. Sher has been at the forefront of research on the onset and progression of AUD, particularly as it relates to personality traits and their evolution throughout the lifespan.

“There are multiple etiological pathways to alcohol use disorder and personality traits play an important role in most of these pathways,” Sher said. Specific traits have been linked to problem drinking. Among them, negative affect (negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety and anger) is strongly tied to alcohol problems, while traits related to disinhibition, the loss of restraint and inhibition, also seem to play a role. Certain traits are predictive of future problems with alcohol, as well.

“Studies consistently show future alcohol problems are associated with disinhibition/impulsivity and to a lesser degree, neuroticism and negative emotionality,” said Sher. He went on to note that these traits are not unique to AUD, as they are also common to people with anxiety and depressive disorders.

But how exactly does personality affect risk for alcohol problems?

Sher discussed several models; one hypothesizes that different personality types have differing sensitivities to alcohol’s rewarding and negative effects. Another suggests that personality influences environmental choices; for example, more extroverted individuals may choose to join a fraternity or sorority, which is associated with excessive drinking.

While personality has been shown to influence drinking behavior, the reverse is also true, with alcohol increasing extroversion while decreasing agreeableness in studies.

Sher explained that drinking problems can also stem from personality change over time. “It was thought that personality is the part of you that doesn’t change—but in fact it changes quite a bit,” he said. Personality is not static and changes over the lifespan affect risk for AUD.

In fact, his work has shown that “maturing out” of problematic drinking is not merely due to the increased responsibilities of adult life–or “role incompatibility” while transitioning to adulthood. His research indicates that lessening of neuroticism and impulsivity over time contribute to aging out of problem drinking.

Ultimately, understanding how personality influences the development of AUD and how these traits evolve over time have clear implications for diagnosis, prevention and treatment.

“The malleability of personality offers a number of potentially novel approaches, both for treatment and prevention,” Sher concluded, noting that this would allow for deeper assessment and personalized interventions.

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