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Why Do Some People Become Addicted to Alcohol While Others Don’t?

Millions of Americans struggle with addiction to alcohol. As such, almost every person not addicted knows someone who is. Often, they went through similar experiences to the person. They could be family who grew up in the same home or friends who attended the same alcohol-fueled parties.

In the past, people would use this fact to criticize the person. If they didn’t become addicted, the other person’s addiction must be either a choice or a moral failing. However, with the growing awareness that alcoholism is a disease, it is clear that there is more at play.

So, why do some people become addicted to alcohol while others don’t? Here’s what you need to know.

Non-alcoholic girl irritated by alcoholic boy

Addiction to Alcohol is Not About Willpower

Let’s start off with what doesn’t cause some people to become alcoholics while others don’t. Addiction is not a matter of willpower. The idea that it is can be dangerous not just to addicts but to people who are not addicted.

There is something comforting in believing that addiction is the fault of the addict. If that was the case – that if they could have just moderated their alcohol use or thought about the consequences – then alcoholism is not a risk to those who ‘know better.’ The thought provides an illusion of control.

However, it is a myth that only leads to shame, aversion to treatment, and complacency. Instead of compassion, the addicted person is subjected to judgment. They feel like they deserve punishment, not help.

For people not addicted, the belief that they will never become addicted can entrench a sense of denial. Instead of taking measures to prevent addiction, they go about as usual.

With this in mind, let’s look at some of the factors that lead some people to become addicted.

Genetic Factors

Genetic predisposition is one factor in determining whether a person is more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol. Certain genes can influence how a person’s body and brain respond to alcohol, thereby increasing their risk of developing a dependency, although this certainly does not mean that every member of a family will become addicted.

Key Genetic Studies

Several studies have identified specific genes associated with a higher risk of alcohol addiction. One of the most well-known genes is the ADH1B gene, which encodes for an enzyme that helps metabolize alcohol. Variants of this gene can affect how quickly alcohol is broken down in the body, influencing a person’s tolerance and susceptibility to addiction.

Another important gene is the ALDH2 gene, which also plays a role in alcohol metabolism. People with certain variants of this gene experience unpleasant reactions to alcohol, such as flushing and nausea, which can act as a natural deterrent to heavy drinking. Conversely, those without these variants may be more prone to developing an addiction.

Family History and Hereditary Factors

Family history is a strong indicator of genetic risk for alcohol addiction. People with a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, who struggles with alcohol dependency are more likely to develop similar issues. This hereditary pattern suggests that multiple genes may be involved in increasing susceptibility to addiction.

Studies involving twins and adoptees have further reinforced the genetic link. Research has shown that identical twins, who share the same genetic makeup, are more likely to both develop alcohol addiction compared to fraternal twins, who share only about 50% of their genes. This is even the case for those who grew up in different homes.

Psychological Factors

Psychological factors significantly contribute to the likelihood of developing an alcohol addiction. This is particularly true for people already suffering with one or more mental health disorders.

Mental Health Disorders

Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are closely linked to alcohol addiction. People suffering from these conditions often turn to alcohol as a means of self-medication to alleviate their symptoms. Unfortunately, this can create a vicious cycle where alcohol use exacerbates the underlying mental health issues, leading to increased consumption and dependence.

Personality Traits

You have probably heard the term ‘addictive personality’ thrown around. Certain personality traits seem to be risk factors for alcohol addiction. These traits can influence how a person interacts with alcohol and their likelihood of developing problematic drinking behaviors.

People who show high levels of impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and neuroticism are more likely to become addicted.

However, the concept of an addictive personality is not universally accepted. The traits mentioned above are often connected to mental or behavioral disorders, a difficult home environment, and the presence of a support system.

Coping Mechanisms

People with ineffective or maladaptive coping strategies may start using alcohol as a means of managing life’s challenges. This is especially true for those who use the following coping mechanism:

  • Avoidance: People who use avoidance coping strategies tend to avoid dealing with their problems directly. Instead, they might turn to alcohol to escape their difficulties, leading to a higher risk of addiction.
  • Ineffective Emotional Regulation: Those who struggle with emotional regulation may find temporary relief in alcohol, reinforcing its use as a coping mechanism.
  • Maladaptive Stress Response: People who lack healthy stress management techniques may rely on alcohol to alleviate their stress, increasing the risk of addiction.

Environmental or Circumstantial Influences

Environmental and cultural factors also impact the likelihood of developing an alcohol addiction.

Key environmental factors include:

  • Home Environment: Households where alcohol is abused can lead to drinking becoming normalized.
  • Peer Pressure: Certain friend groups can provide an unhealthy level of pressure to engage in reckless behavior, including excessive alcohol use.
  • Socioeconomic Status: Economic stressors, such as financial instability and unemployment, can drive people to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Key cultural factors include:

  • Cultural Attitudes: In cultures where drinking is socially accepted or even encouraged, people may be more likely to engage in heavy drinking and develop an addiction.
  • Media Influence: Media portrayals of alcohol use can glamorize drinking and create unrealistic expectations about its effects.
  • Community Norms: In communities where alcohol use is common and socially accepted, people may feel pressured to conform to these norms, increasing their risk of addiction.
  • Social Support Networks: A lack of social support can lead people to use alcohol as a way to cope with loneliness and isolation.


The above information can be incredibly helpful to people predisposed to addiction. Awareness of these factors ensures that those at risk can take stronger preventative measures against alcohol addiction in their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Furthermore, it ensures that people struggling with addiction are subjected to less judgment, instead receiving compassion and the message that they deserve help.

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