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Addicted to attention and drama?

Dear Alice,

I was wondering if there is such a thing as attention addiction. I don't mean attention deficit disorder, I mean grown adults who crave attention and are addicted to getting positive or negative attention (like drama). Is there a true disorder where a supposedly mature adult can be addicted to drama and attention from other people to the point of doing weird behavioral things to get attention? And, if there’s a disorder, what are the signs and symptoms? Is a diagnosis required for the individual to attend therapy to help him/her stop?

Sincerely,
Just Wondering...

Dear Just Wondering..., 

Kudos to you for seeking to increase your knowledge on mental health conditions! Indeed, there are psychological disorders characterized by continual attention-seeking or a consistent pattern of dramatic, unpredictable, or erratic behavior. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-V) suggests that people with intensely dramatic, emotional, unpredictable, or disruptive behaviors might have a personality disorder. The personality disorders are categorized into the following main clusters: 

  • Cluster A personality disorders: Cluster A conditions are characterized by unusual or irregular behavioral patterns. An example of a cluster A personality disorder is schizoid personality disorder (ScPD)
  • Cluster B personality disorders: Cluster B conditions are characterized by overly dramatic and emotional behavioral patterns. An example of a cluster B personality disorder is histrionic personality disorder (HPD)—more on this later. 
  • Cluster C personality disorders: Cluster C conditions are characterized by extreme anxiety and behavior fueled by fear. An example of a cluster C personality disorder is avoidant personality disorder (AVPD)

It’s worth noting that people can have symptoms of a personality disorder without having the actual condition. Other factors like stereotypes, societal bias, or social media influences could affect these behaviors too. Given your questions, HPD, in particular, may be of interest to you. HPD may appear in early adulthood and a diagnosis can be made when the individual presents with at least five of the following symptoms: 

  • They are uncomfortable when they’re not the center of attention
  • They engage in inappropriate provocative behavior 
  • They have excessive or shallow emotions 
  • They use their presentation to gain attention 
  • They misinterpret intimacy cues, social boundaries, and are easily influenced 

List adapted from the Personality Disorders 

There are also subtypes of HPD, such as being appeasing, disingenuous, or theatrical (among others). These subtypes all involve behaviors that are intended to gain attention, amusement, or praise. At the same time, other psychological disorders like mania or bipolar disorders share similar symptoms of hypersexuality or risky behaviors. Anxiety is also associated with HPD since attention-seeking might be caused by anxious thoughts. HPD can also present similar symptoms to narcissistic or borderline personality disorders (NPD and BPD, respectively), which are both characterized by insecure attachments to other people. 

Of course, having symptoms of a personality disorder does not mean that a person has the disorder. Consider, for example, some other valid reasons for attention-seeking behaviors. What if a person is part of a population that normally has no voice in society? In fact, personality disorders could be misdiagnosed in people who don’t have these conditions but may present with bias-related behavior. For example, women and gay or transgender men (or other sexual and gender minority populations) may be over-diagnosed with HPD. This is often because of so-called attention-seeking behavior. In reality they may be seeking attention because they are rendered voiceless in society. Cultural context and environment, identity, and behavior aren’t separate, so their interactions are something to consider about when thinking about personality. 

Another potential cause of attention-seeking behaviors is the influence of social media. For some people, social media might be for entertainment or a way to connect with others. However, it’s also possible that social media could lead to more attention-seeking behaviors or warped perceptions about people and relationships. Some social media content may create a false reality or provoke emotions and behaviors. While research on the true associations between social media and personality disorders is limited, one study on adolescents suggests that symptoms of HPD may be linked to the need for social approval, the desire to be liked, social media addiction, or even NPD. 

Overall, a person who's addicted to attention or drama may be experiencing a personality disorder like HPD, but there could be other factors that cause them to seek attention. The sociocultural context, as well as social media, and environmental influences should all be considered when observing attention-seeking behavior. If a personality disorder is diagnosed, treatment options like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or specific medications might be helpful in reducing symptoms. 

Kudos to you for being curious about topics such as this. Here’s to continued mental health literacy! 

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Last updated Dec 08, 2023
Originally published Mar 16, 2007