Addictive Personality? You Might be a Leader!

There was a fascinating piece in the New York Times that I found very interesting, both for the positive spin it put on the so-called “addictive personality” and for it’s discussion of some current thinking regarding the role of brain chemistry in addiction. See it HERE. In summary, the article asserts that the brain physiology of addicts is not defective somehow, but differs from most people’s in particular ways, leaving them less able to feel motivated by the pleasure that comes from what might be called the “normal spectrum” of pleasurable behaviors. They “must seek high levels of stimulation to reach the same level of pleasure that others can achieve with more moderate indulgence.”  This makes them [us?] more prone to “risk-taking, novelty-seeking and obsessive personality traits often found in addicts.” The author goes on to say that those same traits “can be harnessed to make them very effective in the workplace. For many leaders, it’s not the case that they succeed in spite of their addiction; rather, the brain wiring and chemistry that make them addicts also confer on them behavioral traits that serve them well.”

The article goes on to point out that “some of our most revered historical figures were known to be addicts,” including Charles Baudelaire, Aldous Huxley, Sigmund Freud, Alexander the Great, Winston Churchill and Otto von Bismarck.

Imagine a time perhaps not far off when addiction is seen as a symptom, rather than a disease. And a symptom of a condition that itself is within the normal range of human differences, and one with as many advantages as drawbacks.

— Craig Whalley



  1. Steve S on July 31, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    With creativity, at least, to bust another myth, there probably is not a link between it and addiction

    That said, even that story appears to buy too much into the dopamine = reward idea. Rather, Robert Sapolsky says dopamine (for humans more than animals) = extending anticipation.

  2. anonymous on July 29, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Had to add this my above opinion was informed by these books which I highly recommend:
    Witness to the Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction by Linda Leonard
    The Unholy Ghost; Writers on Depression

  3. anonymous on July 29, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Churchill suffered from debilitating depression, and many famous authors were alcoholics, but most of them could not write while drinking. Their creativity doesn’t stem from addiction, but hard work when not using/drinking.

  4. anonymous on July 28, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    This is one of the worst written articles I have ever read that pretends to be about science. From the phony hero “famous” guy hook in the beginning, seemingly unrelated famous rich guys we all know to the topic leap of addiction, my English teacher in junior high would have ripped this article to shreds. The stereotyping, shameless put down of addicts is almost as bad as assuming rich people are therefore smart or someone worth looking up to. Sorry I could not even finish this article. I hope not many students hear this lecture.

  5. JeffK on July 26, 2011 at 7:53 am

    This came up at Kaiser, as I recall with handouts even. I haven’t researched the topic but there does appear to be something to it in professional circles – I’m sure it’s hideously complicated and overly-simplified for general public consumption by the author, and I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions, but it makes sense to me that drive to succeed and susceptibility to chemical dependency could be related. Bill Gates could have cashed out and retired to philanthropy (or hedonism or whatever he wanted) a very long time ago, but he stayed at the helm accumulating wealth and power, and there must be some kind of psychological explanation – ditto many other rich, powerful and famous people. What most people might think is “enough” isn’t enough for some, they keep going – which sounds a lot like an addict who can’t stop and keeps using, chasing after something that he can’t quite reach. Interesting.

  6. Steve S. on July 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I agree in part with the article. At the same time, it shows confirmation bias (a logical fallacy) and is a bit off-putting as well, with the name-dropping of “famous leader addicts.” The name-dropping part, given the angle of the story, might have been a bit unavoidable, I guess.

    That said, this also illustrates a bit the shortcomings of mainstream media science journalism, especially in biology, doubly so where it impacts social sciences. Nerve cells have multiple dopamine receptors that do different things, and dopamine’s not the only neurotransmitter out there.

    Above all, an article like this almost edges near the “we’re special” that you can hear occasionally at an AA meeting.