What does Myers-Briggs personality type have to do with alcohol abuse in college kids? Does personality type influence drinking behavior? If so, how? According to recent research, there are definite connections. When teenagers go to college, they take their old personalities with them but expose them to new, challenging situations.
Triggers for Drinking/Substance Abuse
Going to college is an adventure for most 17- and 18-year-olds. It’s the first time they’ve lived away from home. The freedom to make their own choices is exciting. For some personality types, it can also be a trigger for anxiety. Suddenly, freshmen find themselves taking difficult college courses—nothing like classes in high school. For the first time, they are in charge of their schedules. Most haven’t learned time management strategies to help them deal with their workload. Their mom or dad is no longer standing behind them saying, “Time to do your homework.”
For 18-year-olds who found their parents restrictive back home, the freedom may be especially intoxicating. However, it comes at a price. It’s easier to make a wrong decision without the support of family, previously taken for granted. The teenager is no longer grounded by the affection and reassurance of close friends from high school. He or she must establish new social networks. It’s a time to experiment, and often the experiments involve risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use.
Research conducted by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Health Services Administration (SAHSA) indicates that nearly half of all college students engage in binge drinking over any 30-day period. This includes freshmen with little or no previous contact with alcohol. About one fourth of college students in the SAHSA study reported binge drinking and one third had gotten drunk at least once. Of these, one fourth had been drunk six or more times.
Personality Type and Alcohol Abuse
Research shows a definite correlation between Myers-Briggs personality type and alcohol use in college students.
Introversion/Extraversion. The first aspect of personality that appears to influence drinking behavior is whether a person is introverted or extraverted—that is, private or outgoing. The traits of Introversion and Extraversion relate to where a person draws his or her energy. Introverts get theirs by retiring from social contact and focusing inward. They tend to be reserved and cautious. In contrast, extraverts get irritable when left alone too long. They draw their energy from social contact with others.
Myers-Briggs studies differ in their conclusions about the influence of Introversion/Extraversion on drinking behavior. This is because introverts and extraverts appear to drink for different reasons. People who are naturally extraverted may drink in social situations, but they tend to drink less. In fact, the most responsible drinking behavior is seen in extraverted students. Introverts spend more time alone and tend to keep their emotions under wraps, including their feelings of vulnerability and anxiety. The resulting stress may attract them to the relief offered by alcohol and other mood-altering substances.
Perceiving/Judging. The second pair of traits that influence alcohol use in college students is perceiving and judging. These traits relate to attitudes toward life and spontaneity of behavior. Perceiving types are flexible and immediate in their approaches to tasks and social relationships. They prefer to “wing it.” Judging types are more comfortable with closure. They are decisive, consider the facts before drawing conclusions, but then act promptly. Perceiving people are often sensation-seekers, a trait that sometimes encourages drinking. They think, “What the heck? I might as well try it.” Judging types are more likely to draw conclusions about their behaviors from past experience and are less likely to take chances—a trait that may protect them where alcohol is concerned.
Other Preference Pairs. Researchers have been surprised by the lack of correlation between the sensing/intuition and thinking/feeling preferences and alcohol consumption. Researchers suggest that the explanation lies in the fact that the sensing/intuition and thinking/feeling are “mental functions,” which appear to have little impact on risk-taking behaviors. The sensing preference involves direct experience with the external world. Sensing people are fact-finders. Intuitive people are more oriented to creative thinking. Neither preference seems to be connected with drinking behavior.
The same is true of thinking and feeling. Thinking types are rational and logical, priding themselves on this aspect of their personality. Feeling types are more affected by mood and the needs of others. It seems logical that feeling types would be more likely to use mood-altering substances, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Predicting Alcoholism and Drug Use in College Students
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finds that substance abuse behaviors starting in the teen years are likely to continue through life. The good news, says the CDC, is that alcohol abuse is preventable if addressed during the transition of teenagers from high school to college.
Myers-Briggs preferences are usually constant over a lifetime. The type a person is at age 18 is the type he or she will probably be at age 68. The difference is that the scores will be less extreme. People who were once pronounced introverts become more outgoing. Those who were once off the charts on the perceiving function learn to practice their judging function more over the years. They get better at meeting deadlines, being on time for appointments, and so on. In this way, scores on the four pairs of personality functions are likely to migrate toward the middle, but they seldom cross over. Once an INFP, for example, always an INFP.
The bottom line is that college students who are introverted and perceiving on the Myers-Briggs scale need to be cautious about alcohol use. To do this, most will need more effective health education and counseling services than are now available on the nation’s campuses.