Personality Characteristics as a Function of Frequency and Type of Substance Use

Article excerpt

Drug and alcohol use continues to be of great societal concern, especially when it involves youth. As drug use became part of American culture in the 1960s with a growing segment of the population, primarily youth, research began to focus on the potentially devastating results of such trends.

One area of drug and alcohol use that was of interest to researchers involved identification of personality characteristics that correlated with such use. Research questions focused on identifying problematic personality characteristics that could lead to any substance use (Jones, 1968; Williams et al., 1971; Miller, 1980; Miller & Heather, 1998). The underlying assumption with such studies was that anyone who used substances most likely had some type of personality "flaw" that would lead them to disregard the potential consequences of obviously antisocial and damaging behavior patterns. The wealth of research that followed did indeed identify various personality characteristics that correlated with substance use. These included self-indulgence, impulsivity, aggressiveness, insufficient coping ability, and antisocial, neurotic, and sensation-seeking characteristics (Levison et al., 1983).

Researchers found personality differences between those individuals considered abstainers and all others (users) for alcohol and other substances (Mayer, 1988; Masse & Tremblay, 1997; Jackson, 1997). The search for problematic personality characteristics continues into the present with the decades-old assumption that any use of alcohol and other substances in young people is indicative of flawed and unhealthy personality processes (Prendergast, 1994; Donohew et al., 1999; Wills & Cleary, 1999).

The identification of a personality structure that was related to substance use would obviously allow for the development of potentially effective prevention and treatment programs, which, from an applied standpoint, would be the ultimate reward for years of scientific labor. While various researchers found some overlapping of these problematic characteristics, others recognized early on that the diversity of individuals who used/abused substances and those who did not rendered much of the data on personality structure marginal, at best, for prevention or intervention purposes (Lang, 1983).

Beginning in the late 1980s, researchers began to suggest that some substance use might not, in fact, be indicative of personality deficits. Newcomb and Bentler (1988) proposed that some drug use "may be considered a normative behavior...from a developmental task perspective" (p. 214). The concept of a linear relationship between substance use and problematic personality variables was being questioned. It was previously assumed that the "healthiest" people were nonusers while the "unhealthiest" individuals were regular users. In between these two groups were all others, with progressively more problematic personality qualities as substance use increased.

In 1990, Shedler and Block reported the results of their longitudinal study that evaluated a group of individuals beginning in preschool and ending at age 18. At multiple points in time, they completed an extensive evaluation of these children's personality structure primarily through use of the California Q-Sort (CAQ), both the child and adult forms. Extensive care was taken to avoid experimenter bias via averaging the psychologists' ratings at each evaluation interval. Those administering the CAQ were unaware of other known variables, including substance use history. Results suggested that there is a curvilinear relationship between substance use and personality structure, with the "healthiest" individuals being those who would be classified as "experimenters." Both regular users and abstainers had personality profiles that would not be considered ideal, even though these two groups were dissimilar regarding the problematic characteristics they possessed. …