Personality traits of drug users

Summary: Your personality type may influence addiction to certain drugs, a new study reveals. Those whose personalities rank higher for impulsivity are more likely to use ecstasy, while those who score higher for neurotic traits are more likely to use opioid like heroin, researchers report.

Source: University of Leicester

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.
This is a chart linking substances to personality types
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: N—Neuroticism, E—Extraversion, O -Openness to experience, A—Agreeableness, C—Conscientiousness. This model was complemented by two more properties: Imp—Impulsivity, and SS—Sensation-seeking.

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.”

About this neuroscience research article

University of Leicester
Media Contacts:
E. Fehrman – University of Leicester
Image Source:
The image is credited to E. Fehrman et al.

Original Research: “Personality Traits and Drug Consumption: A Story Told by Data” by Elaine Fehrman, Vincent Egan, Alexander N. Gorban, Jeremy Levesley, Evgeny M. Mirkes, Awaz K. Muhammad is published by Springer.

Feel free to share this Neuroscience News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.
  1. This chart seems to more closely reflect availability than personal preference; for example traditionally NYC is a cocaine town, little if any meth, so in NY cocaine is the more readily available condiment to add to heroin over meth. This appears to reflect people wanting to do drugs but being limited in available options, the exceptions being that the legal drugs (alcohol, caffeine) obviously were not researched, but were included anyway without citation of why there is no data. According to the chart there is no link at all between those who drink coffee and smoke tobacco, and so the study reeks of incompetence and extreme bias.

  2. Is it just me or did the alcohol lobby contribute some money to this study?
    Alcohol, nicotine aswell as caffeine and high amounts of sugar can also lead to exploring other substances in my opinion.

  3. “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.”’

    The first group doesn’t usually need to stop if it wasn’t for the danger of law enforcement. The second group usually needs help even without such a danger.

    The first group is not likely to become the second if they try their favorite drugs, but the second group is likely to change drugs if they try the favorites of the first.

    Also, the first group is likely to enhance the positive qualities that made them open to the drugs they use if they keep using them, and the same for the second group except the qualities that led to the use don’t need to be enhanced.

    All drug studies are biased by considering use itself as a harm and considering trouble with the law as proof of harm.

    Drug studies that consider only the effects of the drugs and not the effects created by law enforcement are the only ones actually telling us about the drug itself.


  4. very interesting…. I would like to learn more about this. I am in sober and clean now 5 years…. my drug of choice was first benzo’s then heroin…. I am grateful for any of research related to addiction and alcoholism. The more we know the more we can spread awareness and help others.

  5. How does online forums ‘population’ compare to of general population? Seems potentially skewed?

    What is the social demography of your 1,885? All euro, African, American, Asian?

  6. the diagram has little to no readability, as in its not a useful tool. I’d like to get the full version of the research, can you link me to it? this is my field of study and want to properly site it.

Comments are closed.