Blog Archives

Good buy to love: Introducing the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale

(Please note that the following article was co-written using material provided by my research colleague Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen and our fellow researchers).

In two of my previous blogs I took a brief look at the area of shopping addiction (that you can read here and here). Since writing those blogs I’ve co-written a few papers on compulsive buying and shopping addiction (see ‘Further reading’ below), the latest of which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (FiP) and led by my friend and research colleague Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen at the University of Bergen in Norway. In the FiP paper we reported on the development of a newly created instrument to assess this disorder called the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale (BSAS).

Whether compulsive and excessive shopping represents an impulse-control, obsessive-compulsive or addictive disorder has been debated for several years This fact is reflected in the many names that have been given to this disorder including ‘oniomania’, ‘shopaholism’, ‘compulsive shopping’, ‘compulsive consumption’, ‘impulsive buying’, “compulsive buying’ and ‘compulsive spending’. In a review by Dr. Andreasson in the Journal of Norwegian Psychological Association, she argued that shopping disorder is best understood from an addiction perspective, and defined it as “being overly concerned about shopping, driven by an uncontrollable shopping motivation, and to investing so much time and effort into shopping that it impairs other important life areas”. Several authors (including myself) share this view as a growing body of research shows that those with problematic shopping behaviour report specific addiction symptoms such as craving, withdrawal, loss of control, and tolerance.

Research also suggests that the typical shopping addict is young, female, and of lower educational background. Some personality factors have also been shown to be associated with shopping addiction including extroversion and neuroticism. It has been suggested that neurotic individuals (typically being anxious, depressive, and self-conscious) may use shopping as means of reducing their negative emotional feelings. Other personality factors may actually protect individuals from developing shopping addictions (e.g., conscientiousness). Empirical research (including some research I carried out with Kate Davenport and James Houston published in a 2012 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction) has consistently reported significantly lower levels of self-esteem among shopping addicts. Such findings suggest that irrational beliefs such as “buying a product will make life better” and “shopping this item will enhance my self-image” may trigger excessive shopping behaviour in people with low self-esteem. However, this may be related to depression, which has been shown to be highly comorbid with problematic shopping.

Other factors, such as anxiety have also often been associated with shopping, and it has also been suggested that self-critical people shop in order to escape, or cope with, negative feelings. In addition, shopping addiction has also been explained (by such people as Dr. Marc Potenza and Dr. Eric Hollander) as a way of regulating neurochemical (e.g., serotonergic, dopaminergic, opioid) abnormalities and has been successfully treated with pharmacological agents, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and opioid antagonists.

One of the key problems that we outlined in our new FiP paper is that in prior research there is a lack of a common understanding about how problematic shopping should be defined, conceptualized, and measured. Consequently, there are huge disparities and unreliable prevalence estimates of shopping addiction ranging from 1% to 20% and beyond (depending upon the criteria used to assess the disorder). Although several scales for assessing shopping addiction have been developed (mainly in the late 1980s and early 1990s) many of them have poor theoretical anchoring and/or are primarily rooted within the impulse-control paradigm. We also argued that several items of existing scales are outdated with regards to modern consumer patterns (such as people using cheques or no reference to online shopping). Newer scales that have been developed don’t view problematic shopping behaviour as an addiction in terms of core addiction criteria (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, relapse and resulting problems).

This is why we decided to develop a new shopping addiction scale (i.e., the BSAS) containing a small number of items that reflect the core elements of addiction (and if you want to take the test yourself, it’s at the end of this article). We examined the psychometric properties of the new scale among a large sample of Norwegian individuals (n=23,537), and the testing phase began with 28 items (four statements for each of the seven components of addiction outlined above). The BSAS was constructed simply by taking the highest scoring item from each of seven 4-item clusters. We found that scores on the BSAS were significantly higher among females, as well as being inversely related to age (and therefore in line with previous research). We also found that scores on the BSAS were positively associated with extroversion and neuroticism.

The association of shopping addiction with extroversion may reflect that, in general, extroverts need more stimulation than non-extroverted individuals, a notion that is in line with studies showing that extroversion is associated with addictions more generally. It may also reflect the notion that extroverts purchase specific types of products excessively as a means to express their individuality, enhance personal attractiveness, or as a way to belong to a certain privileged group a (e.g., the buying of high end luxury goods). The association of shopping addiction with neuroticism may be because neuroticism is a general vulnerability factor for the development of psychopathology and that people scoring high on neuroticism engage excessively in different behaviours in order to escape from dysphoric feelings.

We also found that shopping addiction was inversely related to self-esteem. This is also in line with the findings of previous studies and implies that some individuals shop excessively in order to obtain higher self-esteem (e.g., associated “rub-off” effects from high status items such as popularity, compliments, in-group ‘likes’, omnipotent feelings while buying items, attention during the shopping process from helping retail personnel), to escape from feelings of low self-esteem, or that shopping addiction lowers self-esteem. Obviously our new scale needs to be further evaluated in future studies (as it has only been investigated in this one study) and it also requires validation in other cultures.

Overall, we concluded that the BSAS has good psychometrics – basically the scale is quick to administer, reliable and valid. With the advent of new technology and modern consumer patterns we may be witnessing an increase in problematic shopping behaviour. It is likely that new Internet-related technologies can greatly facilitate the emergence of problematic shopping behaviour because of factors such as accessibility, affordability, anonymity, convenience, and disinhibition. Therefore, we encourage other researchers to consider using the BSAS in epidemiological studies and treatment settings.

Want to take the test?  

Answer each of the following questions with one of the following five responses: ‘completely disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘neither disagree nor agree’, ‘agree’, and ‘completely agree’.

  • You think about shopping/buying things all the time
  • You shop/buy things in order to change your mood
  • You shop/buy so much that it negatively affects your daily obligations (e.g., school and work)
  • You feel you have to shop/buy more and more to obtain the same satisfaction as before.
  • You have decided to shop/buy less, but have not been able to do so
  • You feel bad if you for some reason are prevented from shopping/buying things
  • You shop/buy so much that it has impaired your well-being

If you answer “agree” or “completely agree” on at least four of the seven items, you may be a shopping addict.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aboujaoude, E. (2014). Compulsive buying disorder: A review and update. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4021-4025.

Andreassen, C. S. (2014). Shopping addiction: An overview. Journal of Norwegian Psychological Association, 51, 194–209.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S., Bilder, R.M., Torsheim, T. Aboujaoude, E.N. (2015). The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale: Reliability and validity of a brief screening test. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:1374. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01374.

Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 474-489.

Maraz, A., Eisinger, A., Hende, Urbán, R., Paksi, B., Kun, B., Kökönyei, G., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Measuring compulsive buying behaviour: Psychometric validity of three different scales and prevalence in the general population and in shopping centres. Psychiatry Research, 225, 326–334.

McQueen, P., Moulding, R., & Kyrios, M. (2014). Experimental evidence for the influence of cognitions on compulsive buying. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45, 496–501.

Workman, L., & Paper, D. (2010). Compulsive buying: A theoretical framework. Journal of Business Inquiry, 9, 89–126.

Shop until you drop! Can shopping really be addictive?

So far in my articles in this blog, I have tried to argue that behaviours such as gambling, sex, and video game playing can all be viewed as potentially addictive. Empirical research also suggests that the form of addictive behaviour someone develops may depend upon their gender. For instance, men are more likely to be addicted to drugs, gambling and sex whereas women are more likely to suffer from the so-called “mall disorders” such as eating and shopping. For instance, the vast majority of compulsive shoppers (up to 80%) are female.

Compulsive buying has been reported as a way to alter a verity of negative feelings, by achieving short-term gratification through shopping. As with other addictive behaviours, this reward gives shopping its addictive potential, reinforcing the behaviour through pleasure, attention and praise, thereby driving the repetitive and compulsive processes. Compulsive buyers do not buy so much to acquire or gain use from their purchases. Instead they do so to achieve this reward, through the buying process itself. Such repetitive behaviour can – in extreme cases – be problematic. However, those affected may not initially see the behaviour as a problem. In fact, at an early stage it may be seen as providing a quick, perhaps impulsive, relief from anxiety or emotional distress. Consequently, individuals may be unaware of the negative consequences to follow

Compulsive buying disorder was first described clinically in 1915 by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin in terms of what he called “buying maniacs”. More recently compulsive buying has been described as an example of ‘reactive impulse’. For most people, buying behaviour is a normal routine part of everyday life. However, for compulsive buyers, it is an inability to control an overpowering impulse to buy. This impulse can take over lives, resulting in negative consequences – similar to pathological gambling – such as debt, despite repeated attempts to stop. This can create further economic and emotional problems, such as stress and anxiety, for themselves and their families, which can drive the behaviour to continue by using shopping as a form of relief.

Compulsive buyers have been found to frequently have reactions of anxiety to both external and internal stimuli. Empirical research has highlighted that shopping binges are used as a reaction to such feelings. These binges have been found to be a quick relief from anxiety and stress. However, a compulsive buyer may eventually come to view their behaviour as a “loss of control,” creating additional anxiety and frustration. This can increase the ‘need’ to shop as to relive such feelings.

Prevalence rates of shopping have been highly variable and few studies have been carried out on nationally representative samples. A number of reports place it between 12% to 22% among younger people (including college and university students) though most estimates place it as ranging from 1% to 6% among adults with higher figures being reported in places such as the United States. Perhaps somewhat predictably, low levels of self-esteem have also been reported in compulsive buying populations. It is suggested that compulsive behaviours, particularly compulsive buying, are an attempt to temporarily relieve these feelings of low self-esteem by using the reward gained from buying as validation. Alternatively, low self-esteem may be a negative outcome of engaging in these behaviours, which creates the need for validation.

The direction of the relationship is still debated, causing increasing interest in research. Many compulsive buyers display a clear desire to please through their spending habits, portraying a sense of social desirability. This is often done through buying gifts for others, often with the belief that such gifts will make their recipients happy. Pleasing others is seen as a way of getting positive attention or being liked, possibly to boost low self-esteem and receive further rewarding properties. Therefore, the product being bought has no direct effect on the individual. It is the process of buying that creates reward, resulting in a boosting of self-esteem and relief from anxiety that may have increased if the impulse to buy had not been met.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Black, D. W. (2007) A review of compulsive buying disorder. World Psychiatry, 6, 14-18.

Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI 10.1007/s11469-011-9332-7.

Dittmar, H. (2005). Compulsive buying-a growing concern? An examination of gender, age, and endorsement of materialistic values as predictors. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 467-491.

Hodgson R.J., Budd R. & Griffiths M. (2001). Compulsive behaviours (Chapter 15). In H. Helmchen, F.A. Henn, H. Lauter & N. Sartorious (Eds) Contemporary Psychiatry. Vol. 3 (Specific Psychiatric Disorders). pp.240-250. London: Springer.

Koran, L.M., Faber, R.J., Aboujaoude, E., Large, M.D., & Serpe, R.T. (2006). Estimated prevalence of compulsive buying behavior in the United States. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 1806-1812.

Kukar-Kinney, M., Ridgway. N.M & Monroe, K.B (2009) The relationship between consumers’ tendencies to buy compulsively and their motivations to shop and buy on the internet, Journal of Retailing, 85, 298–307.

MacLaren, V.V., & Best, L.A. (2010). Multiple addictive behaviors in young adults: Student norms for the Shorter PROMIS Questionnaire. Addictive Behaviors, 35, 252-255.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.