Shopping Addiction 101

Psychologists and economists around the world research compulsive buying disorder (CBD), looking for both a better understanding of why people overbuy and also effective ways to treat them.  We do know that shopping addiction is fueled by a powerful cycle of emotions: It typically starts with a feeling of tension or arousal when thinking about going shopping. Next comes a strong urge to shop and buy and temporary feelings of relief during the act of buying. Once a purchase is made, feelings of guilt soon follow. As with other types of repetitive behavioral (or process) addictions, there are cravings — feelings so strong and exciting that they’re  frequently uncontrollable — and the shopping addict will ignore the negative consequences that might come from buying, such as angering a spouse, bouncing a check, having a credit card declined or not having money for necessities.

Simply put, someone who is a compulsive shopper becomes psychologically dependent on thoughts of shopping, the process of shopping and the euphoric (or trance-like) feeling that comes from buying. For some, spending sprees temporarily quell difficult feelings of inadequacy, poor self-esteem, anxiety and/or stress. But the feel-good effects are mostly fleeting and are soon replaced by guilt, shame and frustration that result from being unable to control the desire to shop. In general, the shopper’s mood is slightly improved compared to the period prior to shopping, says psychologist and compulsive shopping expert April Benson, PhD. In fact, the spike in mood is enough for the brain to experience a slight “reward” that will make the compulsive buyer come back to shop again and again. What’s more, when he or she can’t go shopping, withdrawal symptoms are experienced, and there will be a feeling of regret for all the great buys that were missed.

Compulsive buying shouldn’t be confused with impulse buying. Between 27% and 62% of purchases at department stores are impulsive purchases, according to economic research, and about one-third of shoppers (at any kind of store) admit to having bought something on a whim. Impulse buys, as they’re called, are unplanned, but are typically inexpensive, too. They most often happen when something catches your eye. Of course, online shopping, home shopping networks, sales, in-store ATMs, deferred-interest credit cards, tempting merchandise at checkouts and telemarketing are all designed to amp up those “I need it now!” feelings.  The difference, however, is that compulsive buying behavior happens when someone chronically — over and over again — loses the ability to stop buying, to the point that the cycle of shopping and spending has serious negative consequences on a shopper’s relationships, health and/or financial well-being.

A 2015 study in Psychiatry Research found that compulsive buying behavior is more prevalent among customers in shopping malls, affecting 13.3% of buyers. But of course these days the mall is far from the only place you can “shop ’til you drop.” The Internet’s 24/7/365 storefronts mean that the danger is omnipresent for the person who is struggling to overcome a shopping addiction. In fact, it’s hard not to argue that online shopping has had a huge role in making shopping something close to a national pastime – replete with its own holidays, namely Black Friday (which now starts at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving) as well as Cyber Monday. The rise of Amazon, eBay, Etsy and other vast online marketplaces means that you can get anything from an ant farm to a zydeco sent your way as long as your credit card goes through. Needless to say, this two-clicks-and-you’re-checked-out access can also greatly exacerbate an addiction to buying.

Scientists have even coined a special term for this problem: online shopping disorder. Some shoppers greatly prefer the virtual experience for its anonymity (no judgment from salespeople, friends or family members, plus browsing can be done on the sly at work, or late at night when local stores are closed), but shopping online comes with its own risks for the addict. As the brain is bombarded with pop-ups, sale offers, discount codes and flash sales, willpower weakens, making it more likely you’ll give in to temptation. Experts note that people are more vulnerable to an addiction when something is first introduced into society; since e-retailing is still a relatively recent phenomenon (having been around only for the last 15 years or so), a study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions argues that “consumers are vulnerable to its influence.”

There are some characteristics that most shopping addicts tend to have in common. These include:

  • Impaired impulse control
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship problems
  • A family history of mood and substance disorders
  • Financial difficulties
  • Frequent spending sprees (including ones that extend beyond the holiday season)
  • Other psychiatric problems, such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating and personality disorders
  • Substance use disorders (primarily tobacco and alcohol issues)

Causes

As with any kind of addiction, whether process (behavioral) or substance, there’s no single root cause of compulsive shopping. That said, there are several factors that seem to lead to an unhealthy cycle of spending binges:

Your emotions. High anxiety, depression, psychotic episodes, difficulty regulating emotions and poor self-esteem can predict a shopping addiction, according to the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

Your brain. A 2014 study in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry linked compulsive buying to addiction. Much like an addiction to a drug, when compulsive shoppers buy something the brain’s reward center is stimulated, giving rise to a euphoric feeling that they can become dependent on. Other substance and behavioral addictions (such as gambling and video gaming) activate the reward center of the brain in much the same way. And even though compulsive shoppers feels a “shopping high” during the act of shopping, they experience lowered mood after a purchase compared to ordinary shoppers, says Dr. April Benson.

Your gender. Though shopping addiction rates don’t vary a lot between men and women, women do have a slightly higher risk and are more likely to be taught from an early age to shop to relieve stress, have fun and improve self-esteem. For women — more so than for men, researchers say — there are two important dimensions to browsing and buying: It is an emotional experience and a way to find their identity.

While the terms “excessive shopping” and “compulsive buying” are often used interchangeably, it’s worth mentioning that this problem is not related to obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Neither are compulsive shoppers necessarily hoarders. Compulsive shoppers are “impulsive acquirers,” according to researchers at the University of São Paulo Medical School, in Brazil, but unlike hoarders, they generally don’t have difficulty discarding clutter. There is, though, a small subset of compulsive shoppers who do become hoarders, says Dr. Benson.

Symptoms of Shopping Addiction

While someone with a shopping addiction gets a thrill from every aspect of the hunt, researchers who published a review of compulsive shopping research in the journal World Psychiatry noted that truly compulsive buyers don’t just browse or window shop; they shop and spend. Compulsive shopping is a process that typically follows these steps:

  • Anticipation: A shopper becomes preoccupied with thoughts of shopping and a craving to go shopping.
  • Preparation: The shopper starts strategizing the hunt: where to shop, what to wear, how to pay for items and what stores have sales.
  • Shopping: The act of shopping is extremely pleasurable — hence, the term “shopper’s high.” Some people even experience a sexual feeling during the act, noted researchers writing in World Psychiatry.
  • Spending: The shopper makes the purchase.
  • Let-down: The shopper feels disappointment, stress and even guilt.

The compulsive shopper often buys items that are beyond their budget and that aren’t needed or are hidden, returned or given or thrown away. Problem shoppers are also four times less likely to pay off credit cards in full and in general shop alone (only sometimes shopping with a friend); over-shoppers generally indulge in shopping as a solitary pleasure. On average, according to 2007 research, a compulsive shopper lay out about $110 on a spending spree, and splurges go on year-round, with spending often intensifying during the holiday season and around the birthdays of friends and family.

There are several tests used to identify compulsive buying, but mental health providers don’t agree on which is most accurate at identifying a problem. If you’re wondering whether you or a loved one’s shopping is out-of-hand, ask yourself these questions, which are adapted from the Compulsive Buying Scale (created by Drs. Valence, D’Astous and Fortier):

Do you:

  • Feel you are unable to help spending all or part of any money you have?
  • Frequently buy impulsively?
  • Experience a strong urge to buy?
  • Like spending money?
  • Use “retail therapy” to feel more relaxed and deal with stress?
  • Buy unnecessary items?
  • Believe you’re a spendthrift?
  • Feel a stir inside you that urges you to shop?
  • Often feel regret or guilt after buying something that may have been unreasonable?
  • Hide purchases for fear others will think what you’ve bought is irrational?
  • Respond to direct mail offers?
  • Buy things you don’t need even though you cannot afford them?

Risk Factors

Co-occurring disorders. It’s not uncommon for someone who has a shopping addiction to also be struggling with another mental health problem (particularly mood, eating and personality disorders) and/or a substance use disorder (illicit drugs, tobacco/nicotine and/or alcohol). Personality disorders include obsessive-compulsive, avoidant and borderline personality disorders.

Upbringing. The compulsion to shop tends to run in families, especially those with a history of mood disorders (like anxiety and depression mentioned above) and substance use disorders.

Materialism. Valuing material items (what psychologists call “materialistic value orientation”), Benson says, puts you at increased risk for a shopping addiction. People with extrinsic (external) goals like financial success and social status are at high risk for shopping addiction.

Relationships. Research has found that people who don’t have close, satisfying relationships may turn to material goods to fulfill emotional needs. But materialism and seeking extrinsic goals (like a new handbag, instead of having dinner with friends) may prevent people from forming and maintaining meaningful relationships. In an article entitled “Can’t Buy Me Love” in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, people without close relationships tend to value buying things over developing relationships, causing them to feel even more loneliness and separation from others. Those who feel strong social bonds and are securely attached to loved ones, on the other hand, are less likely to overvalue material objects, the researchers found.   

Personality. Studies show that those with a high risk for compulsive buying disorder have higher levels of neuroticism but low levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness (being pleasant, likeable and cooperative in social situations). They’re also less self-disciplined and may be more interpersonally sensitive (meaning a person may misperceive rejection, feel socially shy and avoid social situations).

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