Compulsive Buying | Psychology

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Above all, it should be noted that shopping is big business.  Shopping centers employ approximately 8% of the US workforce.  These portion of the workforce helps drive the machine that creates about ½ of each state’s tax revenues and there are currently more malls and shopping centers that US high schools (Farrell, J. 2003, pp. xi-xii).

Seemingly powering this juggernaut of commerce is ever increasingand apparently insatiable appetite of the modern consumer.  Behind the4x growth in the number of shopping centers and the over 3x growth inretail square footage during the 30-year period of 1970 – 2000, is thefact that Americans (and likely other “civilized” consumers) areconsuming goods at twice (2x) the rate as they did in 1950 and ten-time(10x) as just over seventy years ago (Farrell, J. 2003, pp. xii-xiii). It is also worth noting that this increase in consumption is evidencedacross all income levels though not necessarily equally across allsegments (Gini, A. 2003, p. 85).  In fact, more severe cases aresignificantly correlated to a lower the level of income, a greaterlikelihood of having below-average income and spending a lowerpercentage of income on sale items, suggesting overall an inability tohandle financial issues well (Black, D. 2001, p. 23)

As a ‘counter-statistic’, Americans have a level of production that iscurrently at approximately 2x that of the same period (1950).  Thisimplies that, we could consume the same amount as in 1950 and work halfas much or, as reality has it, work even more to consume over twice asmuch (Gini, A. 2003 p. 82).  Similarly, in a predictably correlationalfashion, the not only has the number of shoppers and shopping centersincreased but there has been a sharp increase in the number of newproducts, particularly in the advertised “must have” category as wellas the emergence of the entirely new “disposable” category (Pooler, J.2003, p. 9). 

As shoppers and products have changed, the relationship that existedbetween them has also morphed into something new.  With theproliferation of retail venues that profer an ever increasing number ofproducts and categories, the arrival of the “disposable” product shouldnot go unnoticed.  Though without question, many if not most productsare very high quality and manufactured to very exacting standards, manyproducts are less durable or are “designed for obsolesce”.  Durabilitywas the characteristic that was promoted while the products of todaypush a message of convenience.  In a society rampant with such explicitand implicit messages, it is no wonder that the emotional connectionsto most any product are decreasing (Pooler, J. 2003, p. 10).  Productssuch as cameras or contact lenses were highly contemplated purchasesthat were expected to last a significant period of time. 

Likely more important than simple the volume of shopping is itsintensity…shopping means more than it did in the past.  Previously,people shopped for items that they needed.  Now, such shopping stilloccurs but it occupies a small fraction of the process.  Studiesestimate that as much as 2/3 of consumer purchases are “unnecessary”(Pooler, J. 2003 p.2).  This excess is bought from a want rather thanneed.  As an additional sign of the times, consumer research has evenindicated that over half of all gift purchases are actually gifts for“me” (Pooler, J. 2003, p. 11).

Shopping “used to be” a more utilitarian and logical task in whichpurchases were planned and for the most part, the consumer focused on“needs”.  Contrasted with the modern shopper for whom it has beenestimated that only about 1/3 of purchases are “necessary”, it is clearthat unfulfilled desire must play a very much larger role (Pooler, J.2003, pp. 2, 6).   For example, as Pooler states, “…people have a needfor a new pair of pants... but a desire to buy designer-label pants isa want…” (Pooler, J. 2003, p. 22).  Today, brands are power, disposablecontacts are the norm and OTUC, “one-time use camera”, are almostalways within arms reach.  It is important to note these products arenot inferior…in many ways, they are functionally far superior toyesterday’s products, rather, simply illustrative of a pervasivementality that merits acknowledgement and consideration.  Understandingthe mentality that these “wants”, in the minds of individual consumers,are likely felt to be “needs”.  The eye of the would-be beholder isparticularly relevant. 

By utilizing the “Hierarchy of Needs”, it is possible to shedsignificant insight into how some of these psychological shifts areoccurring.  Developed by noted psychologist Abraham Maslow over 75years ago, this pyramid of hierarchically ordered needs is fundamentalto many issues with psychological affect.  At the base of the pyramidare “basic needs” such as food, shelter and clothing.  Above the basic,physiological level are needs that could be classified as “safety” andwould include anything that can provide psychological security andstability.  Above this are “social” needs such as the need for friendsand companionship.  Nearing the top of the pyramid are needs under thelabel of “self-esteem” in which feeling such as pride and respectbecome important.  Finally, the highest level of needs is characterizedas being “self-actualization” needs in which a person has the desire tomake the “most” of themselves and to “be” more. 

A key component of Maslow’s influence is his belief that higher needscannot be addressed until lower needs are satisfied.  This isespecially salient as most people living in “modern” civilizedcountries have all the more “basic” needs met.  Consequently and withfew exceptions, most can spend their days in pursuit of thesatisfaction of “higher” needs such as self-esteem andself-actualization.

As America or any modern society has evolved, psychologist andphilosopher Eric Fromm indicates that society and its members have alsoevolved to a point at which  “being” is confused with “having” (Gini,A. 2003, p. 84).    Such as materialist possessive mindset will leavevacant the needs at the top of the pyramid and individuals will exhibitfeelings associated with not having these innate needs unfulfilled. Fromm further indicates that much of the symptoms of this empty questare typical of a “western” mindset and ultimately result in a mentalityof “to be much is to have much” (Gini, A. 2003, p. 82).

To have a high standard of life means to enjoy a pleasure intensely and tire of it quickly.
- Simon Patten (Hine, T. 2002 p. 17)

The fact that people, in general, are consuming more, that there aremore products and more places to buy them go a long way in describingin somewhat imprecise yet accurate terms that context of modernsociety.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also provides significant insightinto the circumstances of the continuing patterns of increasingconsumption that indicated a struggle to satisfy a need that cannot besatiated through the mechanism of acquiring things.  At this point, afurther differentiation between “needs” and “wants” can be drawn:  aneed is often physical and should be satisfied externally; a want ismost likely a psychological, internally manifested desire.  In the sameway that you could not satisfy a real, physical hunger withpsychological fish and chips, attempts to quench a psychological desirewith a tangible object are likely short-lived and misguided and willend in psychological frustration.

This misguided attempts to assuage one’s highest psychological needs isnot unreasonable given the mixed messages in society of which there isa clear emphasis placed upon highly superficial qualities.  Shopping issimply the process whereby one attempts to execute these omnipresentmessages.  As a cultural phenomenon, shopping is the proceduralexecution of economic decision-making.  This decision-making takesplaces in a sea of in which image and emotion are perhaps more likelyto take precedence of narrowly defined economic and functionalutility.  The price tag on an item reflects a certain value but thereal value is in the eye of the consumer and is the item worth thatmuch to me.  Using economic terms such as opportunity cost andopportunity benefit are especially relevant as a purchase decisionhangs in the balance:  “what will my friends think?”, “does it make memore attractive?”, “does it make me happy?” are examples of what goesthrough the ‘new’ consumer mind.  The fact that a product will do thejob is, at best, necessary but not sufficient and, at worst, totallyirrelevant.

As noted above, the process of shopping along with the acquiredresultant booty are a reflection of a changing culture and valuesystem.  “Shopping” is part of a manner by which a person defines whothey are.  What is bought, where it came from and the motives define aperson for themselves and, probably in large measure, to others aswell. Just as important as what, where and why that someone boughtsomething are the ‘facts of omission’: that they did not buy it at acertain store, etc. is as relevant as the ‘facts of commission’. Consider the following telling examples of self-expression:

  • the shopper purchases prominently labeled Pampered Chef cookware in lieu of functionally equivalent store merchandise,
  • the man who purchases a Polo sweater with its distinctive logo over the perhaps even pricier/better nondescript brand,
  • the person who chooses name-brand drinks when company is expected over the undistinguishable other brand.

While the rationale for purchases are intriguing issues, it isinteresting to note that everyone thinks they are good at it (Pooler,J.2003, p. 4).  This is all the more interesting in light of how onemight possibly define “good” or “success”.  Certainly, in the mind ofthe “above average” or even “good” consumer, it would be a short-livedexperience as the satisfaction of a successful hunt only fuels thethirst for additional quarry.  That this ubiquitous activity is seldomrelegated to being considered just a “functional” activity in which“functional” products are the goal is consistent with the fact that itis now something of a recreational pursuit in which objects of deeppsychological desire are hunted with a relish most often associatedwith sports participation.

As most activities in which there is the reward, shopping can go “tofar”.  For many the allure of shopping can be a bit too much.  Theattraction of shiny products, sexy packaging, tempting displays,glamorous advertisements, ever-so-helpful service staff and the extremeease by which one can proffer payment, it is no wonder that some“over-succumb” to the retail sirens.  Given a society that isbehaviorally and cognitively conditioned respond to the stimulus ofretail, it is no surprise that some spend beyond their means.  Othersmay have the means to financially afford the habit but are continue toseek fulfillment in a venue that cannot provide anything else thantransitory happiness until the cycle begins again.

The idea of more, of ever increasing wealth, has become the center ofour identity and our security, and we are caught by it as an addict byhis drugs.
- Paul Wachtel (Gini, A. 2003 p. 81)

The idea that shopping can get out of hand does not escape theattention of either popular press such as Essence or more scholarlytomes such as the Journal of Consumer Research or CNS Drugs [CentralNervous System].  “Behind the urge to splure” reads Essence, is often aperson who some degree, find that they cannot help themselves.  Forsome, a certain purchase is simply “merchandise”, even if a bit priceyand fashionable.  For others, it may represent a conscious orunconscious “sense of entitlement” or it may be a form ofself-medication that is termed in some circles to be “retail therapy”(Bridgeforth, G. 2004, p. 156).  This so-called therapy is likelycaused by the psychological frustration from the lack of lastingfulfillment of pasting attempts to achieve “self-actualization” viashopping as a compensation mechanism.  While a problem in itself,‘shopping for psychological satisfaction’ may be masking serious issuessuch as a ‘clinically-qualifying’ depression or just ‘regular’ issuesfor which shopping is simply a surrogate means to attain a bit ofself-esteem through “good shopping”.

Though many in the popular press refer to someone as being a “shoppingaddict”, it is important to note that there are different types ofaddiction.  Commonly, when one refers to someone as an “addict”, themind conjures up the person who is addicted to cocaine,methamphetamines or even alcohol.  These types of addictions areundoubtedly very real and, because of their nature, are referred to asphysiological addictions.  The chemicals in the abused substanceshyper-stimulate certain receptors in the central nervous system andtheir prolonged use created a deficit in the body’s production of itsendogenous analog.  Such a deficit is augmented by a strong desire forsuch chemical stimulation as well as certain psychological “needs” orperhaps more accurately, “compunctions”.   If it were the case thatshopping was addictive in the same way that drugs are, we might expectto find that purchases of various persons showed little trends in thatthe same types or categories of items did not construe a consistentpurchase incidence.  In actuality, items that tend to be more“emotional” in nature have a distinct tendency for a greater purchasefrequency that items with than items with less potential for attachment(Pooler, J. 2003, pp. 24-25).  For example, “duct tape” or “milk” areitems that would not be likely to be on a shopping addict’s listwhereas items such as jewelry, fashion items or “elegant” undergarmentsare strong contenders.

Though not quite like a drug addiction, shopping for certainindividuals can be maladaptive or pathological in nature.  Though itcannot be deemed a physiological addiction, as we will discuss in moredetail later, there are physiological consequences and manifestationsof what is otherwise a psychological presentation.   For theseindividuals, the entire shopping experience is different: to someonewho has not experienced it, it would seem almost inconceivable that aperson could be “out of control” to the extent that those sufferingfrom compulsive spending disorder report as being.  As Black reports,“…compulsive shoppers often describe their experiences as beingenhanced by color, lighting or the odor of stores, as well as thetextures of clothing… [with] some even describing the experience asbeing sexually exciting” (Black, D. 2001, p. 23).  According to thesesame reports, 83% of compulsive shoppers report that it makes them feel“happy” while 71% indicate a “powerful” feeling.  This feeling persistin the face of the guilt and consequences following their purchaseswhich, in many cases, are either returned or given away and notretained (Black, D. 2001, p. 23).

In determining if someone should be fitted with the label layperson’sterms being of a “shopping addict” or a “shop-a-holic”, a key qualifieris the expression of consumer demand that could be considered to be“irrational”.  Such classification must be considered in the context ofthe consumer’s lifestyle and income.  With this in mind, it is not theobject of demand so much as an extreme emotional or otherwiseinappropriate level of demand within a ‘reasonable’ framework ofacceptability (Pooler, J. 2003, p. 26).  For example, the strong desireof a comparatively wealthy person or perhaps the elite harrier whowants the ‘very latest’ in performance athletic footwear isinsufficient to earn such a label.  On the other hand, the individualwho is not, by any stretch of the imagination, remotely athletic andwhose income in inconsistent with shoe’s whose price exceeds ten hourswages would likely be labeled irrational.  Such information inconjunction with other facts and the overall context would be in linewith consideration for such a designation.

Another consideration in the determination of the appropriateness of anon-clinical label such as a shopping addict is the overall magnitudeof the behavior.  A common behavior is that people, when they feel theyhave done “a good job” with some task will “self-reward”.  Thisconstruct is could generally be termed to be a more benign presentationof the “self-medicating” label often is implemented in regards to awork-related behavior.  This “psychological pat on the back”, whether aalternative compensation mechanism or a pure positive reinforcement ofa selected behavior.  Regardless, there is an intuitive level ofreasonableness in relation to the magnitude of the reward with thedegree of difficulty or relative “greatness” of task achievement. Depending on a number of factors, one employee may seekself-gratification through treating themselves to lunch while anothercould give them a license to splurge and run up a disproportionatelyhefty bill.

All in all, though it would be exceeding convenient if there were ablood test to determine if one were an addict, it is simply not thecase.  Despite this, there are certain patterns that do fit thecriteria for shopping being an addiction.  While there are diagnosticcriteria for the determination that an individual is a “shoppingaddict”, it is quite likely just as useful to define “addictive”behavior as occurring when there is strong irrational desire based upona perceived need for some stimulus despite, in the long runpathological or maladaptive.  The addict may likely know that thepursuit of such a stimulus is not in their best interests or they may,through ignorance or extreme desire, be blind to the negativeconsequences of continued consumption.  Defined similarly as being“behavior triggered by internal psychological tension and accompaniedby relief and frustration… performed repeatedly despite its negativeconsequences” by DeSarbo and Edwards in research conducted to moreaccurately ascertain related psychological factors, either definitionseems to adequately capture the intuitive connotation for such anassessment (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 231).

If 10% of the population have a problem and 9 of your friends are OK…Is it YOU?

While it may not, in fact, be “1 in 10”, the incidence of compulsivebuying disorder has been estimated to be between 2-8% with theoverwhelming majority being female and with a comparatively young(<30 years old) time of onset (Black, D. 2001, p. 21).  Thoseafflicted with this compulsive shopping disorder are generally affected“around the clock” rather than simply when the urge hits them.  This“pathological preoccupation” with shopping and buying things occurs allthe time thought the actual incidence of overspending or emotionalspending varies from daily to a few times per year, depending on theindividual case (Glatt, M. and C. Cook 1987, p.1257). 

Before plunging headlong into the issue of shopping as an addiction, itis important to differentiate between “compulsive” and “impulsive”spending.  The distinguishing feature between them is the source of theimpetus as being internal or external.  Internal motivations such asanxiety or the seeking of increased self-esteem or gratification arethe motivations for compulsive spending.  Impulsive spending isdifferentiated by the stimulus for purchase is being driven by anexternal mechanism such as a blinking package, prominent placement suchas an endcap or a “special”  (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p.233).  Such as differentiation is important as it is not uncommon forcompulsive buyers to also be impulsive buyers yet there are discernabledifferences in their psychological makeup.

Clearly, shopping can be addictive and merits attention and possiblyintervention.  While there are common sense guidelines to assessing thesuch behavior as indicated previouly, more standard criteria have beendeveloped to aid both a person in determining that they ought to seekprofessional help as well as aiding mental health professionals inmaking a confirmatory diagnosis.  Developed under the assumption thatmaterialism is a pervasive and global human trait, the

Diagnostic Screener for Compulsive Buying Behavior (DSCB) was developed with seven key items:

  1. I made only the minimum payments on my credit cards.
  2. I wrote a check when I knew I didn’t have enough money in the bank.
  3. I felt others would be horrified if they knew of my spending habits.
  4. If I have any money left at the end of a pay period, I just have to spend it.
  5. I bought things even though I couldn’t afford them.
  6. I bought myself something in order to make myself feel better.
  7. I felt anxious on days I didn’t go shopping (Kwak, H., G. Zinkman, & M. Crask 2003, p. 166).

These items had an approximate overall reliability of 0.75 and weresignificant at the p>.05 level.  Despite this, in trials withmultiple samples from both the US, represented individualized ‘western’culture, and South Korea, representing more a community/group-driveneastern culture, the emergence of dimensionality in the data wasobserved.  In US samples, the premise that the seven test items captureadequately the various psychological tensions and anxieties that aperson who suffers from compulsive buying issues is supported withoutmodification.  However, South Korean samples, though supporting thehypothesis this instrument can reliably detect such issues, revealedbi-dimensionality in two constructs of:

  1. “Financial outcomes” - (items 1,2 and 3),
  1. “Unfettered spending” - (items 4,5 and 6) (Kwak, H. 2004, p. 167).

Such a finding indicates that, in some cultures, consumers may seethat an certain issue has different or distinct angles.  For example,either an problem with the financial outcomes of behaviors or the factthat one may not be very restrained in spending is likely seen as thesame issue by American consumers.  In essence, the answers may be thesame and the result the same but the meaning that a certain cultureplaces upon one factor or another is relevant and only reiterates thechanging nature and that interpretation of such instruments cannot beremoved from the culture.

Additional research by DeSarbo and Edwards published in the Journalof Consumer Psychology in which advanced statistical controls wereutilized provide significant additional insights in the both the natureof the problem of compulsive buying and the discernment of the problemitself.  In this research the authors cite numerous previous studies inwhich the behavior of compulsive buying has been linked to a number ofpsychological personality characteristics such as:

  1. Dependence
  2.  Denial
  3. Depression
  4. Lack of impulse control
  5. Low self-esteem
  6. Approval-seeking
  7. Anxiety
  8. Escape coping tendencies
  9. General compulsiveness
  10. Materialism
  11. Isolation
  12. Excitement-seeking
  13. Perfectionism 

In addition, the factors of family environment, childhoodexperiences with money and spending, family communication patterns, aswell as factors such as the number of credit cards regularly used,degree of credit debt and other compulsive behaviors demonstrated havebeen identified as potential predictors of compulsive buying activity(DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 232).

Of all the factors indicated in assessing the issues that predisposean individual to compulsive buying behaviors, the “escape from anxiety”is most often labeled as the most influential factor.  As multiplestudies indicate, “…compulsive buyers react to stress with higherlevels of anxiety than do noncompulsive buyers”.   When ‘stressed out’,compulsive shoppers attempt to utilize purchases as a compensationmechanism or as an escape from the anxiety (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards2004, pp. 235, 236).

Additionally, the following significant contributing factors are listed below:

1.    Self-Esteem– Cited as the most common deficiency in those who are compulsiveshoppers, it is easy to see how the act of purchasing an item canconvey a sense of power and entitlement although it is one that isshort-lived (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 236).  Thisnon-durable pleasure serves to enhance the vicious cycle in which theprogressive qualities of the “disease” are exhibited.  This cycle isvirtually identical to many physiological addictions in which there isdesensitization or habituation to a certain level of stimulus:  whicheach engagement, the person wants/needs a larger “dose” or a greaterfrequency of stimulation. 

2.    Perfectionism – Thistrait is frequently associated with invididuals who suffer fromaddiction and is characterized as being “unrealistic” expectationswhose unfulfillability can result in a variety of issues such asdepression, anxiety, and self-doubt.  By purchasing, individuals withthis trait are seeking to assuage these feelings and, for a shortwhile, they may succeed (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 236).

3.    Impulsiveness– In the scheme of medical or psychological diagnosis, “compulsivebuying behaviors” are close relatives of obsessive-compulsivebehavioral disorders.  The inability to control impulsive thoughtsand/or the related ability to defer gratification are likely importantcontributors to this behavior (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, pp.236, 237).  Also, as indicated earlier, there should be a distinctiondrawn between “compulsive” and “impulsive” buying behaviors in whichthe stimulation for action is internal or external, respectively.

4.    Locus of Control –Much compulsive buying is likely related to a internal struggle to gain“control” of a confounding and stressful external environment.  When aperson chooses to make a purchase, feelings of control are present asthe person chooses the object, means, timing, location and, in somecases, the cost of their desires.  This highly controlled situationcould likely be contrasted to the context of the balance of their livesin which they are at the whim of others and exert no control andpossibly even little influence upon the events and objects in theirday.  As such, those who are characterized as being compulsiveconsumers are likely to view themselves as “being controlledexternally” as they have an inability to see themselves from theperspective that they are able to influence their lives internally(DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 238).

In addition, addition personality traits such as “excitement seeking”,“approval seeking” or “dependence” issues as well as environmentalfactors or familial factors are considered to be characteristics thatcan contribute to or perpetuate cycles of compulsive consumerism.   Anexample of an environmental factors that are potentially relevant are“isolation” in which the occasion of compulsive buying may provide asocial outlet or “materialism” in which ‘keeping up with the Jones’’becomes a compelling rationale for such spending (DeSarbo, W. and E.Edwards 2004, p. 239).  With regards to familial factors, there are agreat many learned behaviors that are internalized as “normal” in thecontext of the home.  Additionally, most people first experience withmoney and managing finances come through the context of chores, anallowance and forms of rationed spending.  These early experiences havea significant influence upon adult behaviors as is the case in whichchildren learn that “money is a reward” or perhaps are not taught thatsaving is a very important part of earning as well as spending(DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, pp. 239,240).

One of the ultimate goals of psychology is to understand, predictand influence behavior.  To more fully understand the role that thesepersonality traits, environmental and family or sociological issuesplays in the expression of compulsive buying behaviors, DeSarbo andEdwards utilized advanced regression techniques to “tease out”additional insights that would otherwise be “buried” in using simplertechniques. 

he basic idea behind regression analysis is to plot a line whichrepresents the extent to which a certain factor or group of factors canexplain the variance of measurable behaviors within a sample group. More basic regression techniques such as linear regression utilize aformula of y=mx+b in which y is the expected behavior  and x is theindependent variable in which there it is posited there will be ainfluence y.   In its most basic forms, variables are “lumped together”and one can determine only is a certain combination significantlyinfluences the outcome.  In more intermediate approaches, differingvariables can be accounted for by there relative contribution to theoutcome.  In the more advanced data manipulations, technology enablesthe rapid assessment of various combinations or “clusters” of variablescan be examined in order to more fully account for the observed samplevariability. 

It was such an approach, “clusterwise constrained and unconstrainedstep-wise regression analysis”, that was employed by DeSarbo andEdwards to predict the maximum likelihood of compulsive buying bygrouping specific combinations of these factors which each iterationtesting for deviations in outcome as various factors or groups offactors are included or omitted.  Results from this manipulationconfirm the difference between “compulsive” buying in which thebehavioral stimulation is more due to internal psychological factorsand “impulsive” buying in which key drivers are more externallybiased. 
In this analysis, the study revealed the key predictors of compulsivebuying to be self-esteem, dependence and anxiety.  For impulsivebuying, factors yielding statistically significant influence weredetermined to be denial, isolation, approval seeking and coping. Additionally, “impulsiveness” as a personality trait factor displayed asignificant degree of influence over internally- and externally-drivencompulsive buying behaviors (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 248).

Though the assessment devices that can shed insight on suchpsychological concepts as are indicated above, when utilized by atrained technician, can provide a more “clinical” means by whichcompulsive buying issues can be gauged, many of the same indices areoften incorporated in to what might be termed “user-friendly fieldassessment quizzes”.    Such a screening tool may be especially helpfulas a guide to help one self-determine if there is a potentiallikelihood of an issue that may need merit professional assistance.  Anexample of this type of quiz is given below:

1.    Do you hide purchases from your partner to avoid a fight?
2.    Are there garments in your closet from seasons past that still have tags on them?
3.   Do you “forget” about purchases made and then find yourself without themoney to pay for them when the bill arrives at the end of the month?
4.    Have you consolidated your credit card debt or rolled it into a refinance?
5.    Do you travel at the drop of a hat and take additional trips before past trips are paid for?
6.    Do you tap into “emergency” savings regularly to make ends meet?
7.    Are you unable to contribute the maximum to your 401(k) because you need extra dollars to pay your bills?
8.    Have you withdrawn from or made loans against your 401(k)? (Bridgeforth, G. 2004, p. 158)

Though these “yes or no” questions are relatively unsophisticated, theycan provide significant insight into the issues identified by Kwak, etal., such as the emphasis on financial outcomes, unrestrained spendingand activities that might be suggestive of behavioral patterns asopposed to single incidents.

Grappling with the Gray Area… A Continuum Approach to Pathology

One of the key features of this “disease” is that, like manypsychological issue, it typically begins almost unnoticed and graduallyprogresses.  The initial cycle is likely to begin even innocuously yetthe behavior of spending is reinforced by the association of thepositive feeling that one has shortly after the purchase.  Though thisseems reasonable, there is a pronounced tendency on behalf of mostpeople if not medical professionals are well to see illness in terms ofa dichotomous perspective.  While this is a convenient method, it isindeed too convenient to model the reality of a continuum-approach tothis issue.  Further, there are traits that seem to predispose one tocompulsive spending such as personality or familial factors. Additionally, there are factors such as stress at work or home whichappear to be more circumstantial in nature in that they temporarilycreate a disproportionate impact on perceptions leading up to thebehaviors in question (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 235).

Additionally, as with many psychological issues, it is often difficultto discern which occurred first, the behavior which was reinforcedthrough a “reward” or the personality trait or predisposing factorwhich “led” one to exhibit the behavior that was later reinforced. Though one cannot in every case discern and separate with certainty thecausative from the correlational factors.  By using more sophisticatedtechniques and carefully thought out testing instruments, it ispossible to speak with greater (though seldom certain) confidence aboutcausation.  For example, the following is an excerpt from DeSarbo andEdward that speaks to familial environmental factors:

Parents of those in the internal compulsive [“impulsive”] buyinggroup tended to not encourage children to save and were more likely tobuy them whatever they wanted.  This suggests that extreme compulsivebuyers were not deprived of possessions; and their behavior reflects acomponent… in which the child does not learn to delay gratification. Such compulsive buyers lack impulse control, buy whenever the buyingurge strikes, and are unable to resist the urge to spend…  [another]variable concerns whether the compulsive buyers were given an allowanceas children – those in the impulsive [external] buying group were morelikely to have received an allowance, suggesting that they come fromfamilies that not only did not deny them anything but also providedmoney to spend as they liked.  Combined with finding that those in theinternal compulsive buying group were less likely to receive money as areward, this may reflect a general proclivity to spend without regardto financial situation…. [and] a tendency to use their creditirrationally… (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 250).

Such a findings are typical and reflect just one factor.  Is this onefactor enough to “tip” a person into taking the first steps what whatwill eventually become a compulsive buyer?  Such research is alwaysmore useful in explain past behavior yet a salient point is that thereare “multiple paths” to a particular destination.  The accumulation ofwhat could be aptly labeled “risk factors” only increases thelikelihood that a certain behavior or pattern of behaviors will beexhibited.  Despite this, there are no guarantees: some individuals whoare “loaded” do not develop the behavior while others who seem “normal”face a lifetime of struggle over the issue.

Also complicated a “diagnosis” is the very nature of the issue:  thereare no set cut-offs to determine if some is or is not a compulsiveshopper.  This complicates matters as the illness is progressive and itis a slippery slope to determine the extent to which compulsivity is aproblem.  The line is typically drawn with specific reference to theindividual’s life circumstances and the overall context and theconsequences of the behavior.  While such a flexible diagnosis makes itpossible to treat a wide range of degrees of affliction, it also delaysthe decision of a person to get help until the problem is “obvious” andthere the likely to be significant personal and financial costs in“cleaning up the mess”.

Another complication of a “diagnosis” is the frequent incidence ofcomorbid conditions for which the less than responsible use of money isa frequent symptom.  For example, many bipolar individuals have “moneyissues”.  These issues may manifest themselves as compulsive spendinghabits and often accompany “grand schemes” in which a positive outcomeis virtually assured.  If one were to be treated utilizing onlypsychological models and not the medical model for which lithium ishighly effective in approximately 70% of bipolar cases, there is agreat likely hood that one would be simply treating the symptoms andnot the underlying cause.  Similarly, depression is a common issue forwhich symptoms often include poor self-esteem and the individual mayseek to self-medicate by spending in order to gain some transientrelief.  Seeking relief by spending from bi- or uni-polar depressionand other issues can in effect create “issues on issues”, thusemphasizing the importance of seeking professional assistance whenissues such as these arise… without help, more often than not, theyonly grow and will eventually be discovered when the problem becomestoo big to be ignored.
Four Theoretical Approaches to Rational Behavior

Like many disciplines, there seems to be an initial predisposition fora singular philosophy for addressing an issue.  As any student in ageneral survey psychology course can attest, the best outcome isachieved either by an integrated approach or by a single approachchosen after seeing the problem through the lens of an open mind inorder to best choose the most efficacious treatment plan.  Such is thecase with compulsive spending in which there four distinct approachesto addressing the likely personality and psychological culprits.

Perhaps the most straight forward approach is to realize that ascompulsive shopping is a “behavior” the behavioristic school is a goodplace to begin.  Behaviorism has its roots in the methods of Pavlov andSkinner and posits that exhibited behaviors are the function of “whatworks” for an given individual.  Learning or conditioning occurs withinthe context of the pairing a stimulus and a response.  The response isclassified as either a reward or a punishment and is either negative(taking something away… not the application of punishment) or positive(introducing some element into a situation… not necessarily theapplication of a “good” thing).  Utilizing this framework, behavioristsanalyze situations in order to discern what the operational parametersare in terms of reward and punishment.  In doing so, thebehaviorally-biased psychologist would seek to re-pair the act ofsplurging with the longer term negative consequences that inevitablefollow rather than the short-term pleasure.  By doing so, theindividual should theoretically be able to implement behavioralavoidance strategies for the punishments that would follow compulsivebuying.

Alternatively, the cognitive approach would also likely be quiteappropriate.  One of the more common devices this discipline utilizesis to assist the patient in exploring where they have made “cognitiveerrors”.   A cognitive error is simply a “mistake in thinking”.  As anexample, one approach would be to ask a patient to utilize a pro/conchart with any purchase over some predetermined cost. By using such amethod, the client is “forced” to consider their motivations and toconfront potential faulty logic before the purchase is made.  Acognitive theorist would likely focus on the idea of “need” versus“want” and would work with the client to reconcile these issue.

Much of the compulsive buying also arises out of psychological conflictbetween wants and needs and early childhood or familial issues.  Suchconflict inevitably causes feeling of guilt, low-self esteem andincreased levels of anxiety which serve to fuel the vicious cycle. Psychoanalysis, as a discipline within the psychology, is well suitedto ferreting out “real” motivations and the rationale for certainbehaviors.  Begun by Freud, psychoanalysts posit that much of whathappens in the brain goes unnoticed by conscious thought.  Much likethe proverbial iceberg in which most of it actually lies under thesurface, the unconscious mind influences our conscious decisions inways which we are unaware.  In the unconscious is are the hypotheticalstructures of the id, ego and the superego in which each wants its ownagenda fulfilled and is often in conflict.

Using the example of compulsive buying, a psychoanalyst mighthypothesize that there are unresolved childhood conflicts in which theclient is expressing through the egotistical acquisition of materialgoods.  Such actions while gratifying to the ego for a little whileonly reappear later as increasingly unsatisfied frustrations.

Another common approach to therapeutic intervention is the use ofcombined disciplines.  Perhaps the most common of these is acognitive-behavioral approach in which individuals are essentiallytaught to “rethink” issues and to consider the reward system that is inplace when compulsive spending occurs.

In addition, in the modern tradition of pharmaceuticalintervention, there does appear to be some physiological basis forcompulsive buying.  Utilizing the approach the “compulsive buying” is aclose relative of obsessive-compulsive disorders as well as the fact offrequent cormorbidity with depression, there has been some success inattenuating the symptoms of “shopping addicts” by the use of the latestclass of anti-depressants, serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s)(Black, E. 2001, pp.17, 25).  Sertonin is a key neurotransmitter thathas a tremendous effect on mood, sexual behavior and general bodyfunctioning. Success treating compulsive buying with SSRI’s could havebe due to the effectiveness of the agent on the cormorbid condition ofdepression which, upon relief, the patient did not need the “boost”that shopping provided. 

Finally, the use of an integrated approach which utilizes both amedical model as well as psychological paradigms may be especiallyuseful as a consequence of the nearly 60% of those exhibiting signs ofcompulsive spending also presented with symptoms of other personalitydisorders.  In addition in one study, nearly 100% of first-degreerelatives of those diagnosed with compulsive spending disorder have hadincidences of major depression, over half had alcohol-related issues intheir family backgrounds and about 15% indicated a family history ofanxiety-related disorders (Black, E. 2001, p.22).  Due to the variedefficacy of particular disorders, some treatment disciplines may bemore effective than others in relieving either the compulsive spendingor the accompanying disorder. 

Many have likened modern shopping and society’s extreme bias toconsumption as a modern day drug.  This so-called panacea is especiallymade for all the unfilfilled that accumulates  over a lifetime ofoverindulgence and entitlement.  The only real problem with this isthat it is only a temporary solution that only results in greaterfrustration as desire fuels desire.  Is shopping the modern day drug? The answer is a resounding “yes”… but, it need not be.

Like drugs, when used for the right reasons and in the rightquantities, shopping can have a therapeutic effect, connecting thepayment for society’s best efforts with a process in which money isexchanged for the best efforts of others.  Also like drugs, they canbecome addictive… as Fromm so aptly stated that is possible to confuse“being” with “having”.  When this occurs, misplaced motivations lead onto psychological and financial ruin, much as would any other drug orsubstitute for a real inner state of fulfilling the highest needs ofman.

Shopping, like most things, when done moderation is a valid means ofboth the physical acquisition of goods as well as a source ofpsychological pleasure.  By focusing solely on the “purchase” one canmissing the pleasure in the “trip”; likewise, by focusing only onprocess, the functionality of the activity is lost.  When an activitycan be conducted in moderation in conjunction with an emotionallyenjoyable process and an objectively satisfactory outcome, shoppingbecomes a benign if not outright edifying part of the human experience,yet, like all other human activity, quite subject to perversion.

Works Consulted

  • Black, D. (2001).  “Compulsive Buying Disorder:  Definition,Assessment, Epidemiology and Clinical Management”.  CNS Drugs (15),1,pp. 17-27.
  • Bridgforth, B. (2004, August).  “When Shopping is a Sickness”.  Essence. pp. 154 -158.
  • DeSarbo, W. & E. Edwards. (1996). “Typologies of Compulsive BuyingBehavior: A Constrained Clusterwise Regression Approach”.  Journal ofConsumer Psychology (5), 3, pp.231 – 262.
  • Farrell, J. (2003).  One Nation Under Goods.  Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C.
  • Gini, A. (2003).  The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play,Leisure and Vacations.  Taylor & Francis Group:  New York &London.
  • Pooler, J. (2003). Why We Shop:  Emotional Rewards and Retail Strategies.  Praeger: West Port, Connecticut, USA.
  • Glatt, M. & C. Cook. (1987).  Pathological Spending as a Form ofPsychological Dependence”.  British Journal of Addiction (82), pp. 1257– 1258.
  • Hine, T. (2002)  I Want THAT!:  How We All Became Shoppers.  HarperCollins: New York, New York.
  • Kwak, H., G. Zinkman & M. Crask. (2003, Summer).  “DiagnosticScreener for Compulsive Buying: Applications to the USA and SouthKorea”.  The Journal of Consumer Affairs (37), 1, pp. 161 – 169.
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Compulsive Buying | Psychology. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved June 15, 2024 , from

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