With only a few shopping days left until Christmas, I thought I would take another (hopefully topical) look at shopping addiction. Earlier this year, the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs published a paper by Dr. Heidi Hartston on the case for shopping as an addiction. She argued that the main factors that contribute to shopping addictions are (i) a hyper-stimulating experience (or an experience that was hyper-stimulating during initial exposures); (ii) easy accessibility or a high likelihood of frequent engagement; and (iii) vulnerability to addiction, which can be genetically present or can be created by neuroadaptation or reward deficiency syndrome.
In the section of her paper on the creation of hyper-stimulating experiences, Hartston claimed that in 1903 when Coca-Cola removed the cocaine out of their product, their marketing research found increasingly sophisticated ways to act on the brain’s reward circuitry by utilizing (i) advertising, (ii) product experience and (iii) packaging. According to Harston:
“Neuromarketing is the use of scientific brain research to potentiate the effectiveness of product marketing. This research uses fMRI brain imaging, EEG, skin moisture levels, heart rate, breathing patterns, eye movement and pupil dilation among other scientific measures. Marketing firms have spent 6.8 billion dollars in research (leading to 117 billion in advertising) learning to maximize the influence that branding, packaging, product placement and ad content can have on shopper decisions to buy. Many neuromarketing studies bypass the conscious adult rational decision-making brain functions to maximize excitement, emotional attachment, brand attachment, reward pathway activation, medial prefrontal identification and oxytocin stimulation, influencing impulsive buying decisions in ways individuals are not aware of or informed about (Robischon 2010)”
She then went on to claim that huge multi-national companies like Disney, Google, Frito-Layand and CBS (as well as large election campaigns) use these neuromarketing techniques to examine reactions by consumers (and voters) to their brands (or candidates) and then alter their advertising strategies accordingly. To support these claims, Hartston notes:
“A few examples of scientifically informed marketing include incorporating the color red (think of the coke can) resulting in attributions of intelligence and power to owning a product or to sales people (Elliot & Aarts 2011). ‘Sneaker radio’, a muzak-like soundtrack designed for use in athletic shoe stores, is designed to slow a shopper’s pace through the store and increase impulsive purchases. Studies using fMRI scans can identify which ad strategies trigger the consumer to strongly desire a product, saying they are ‘itching to buy’ (Thompson 2003). Bypassing interaction with the cortex and maximizing stimulation of emotional and reward areas can create hyperstimulating and difficult to resist marketing and can sabotage a vulnerable shopper’s intentions and efforts to resist buying”.
Hartston also makes further interesting observations in how commercial companies can hyper-stimulate shopping by exaggerating the sense of importance to the buying of products, or to the process of shopping itself. Shopping is a behaviour that has the capacity to become a highly rewarding experience. Such rewards can include excitement, identity affirmation, accomplishment, and praise. For a minority, shopaholism may become a difficult behaviour to break. Such observations not only have implications for shopping purchases but also behaviours that I study in my own research such as gambling. In relation to shopping addiction and increased accessibility, Hartston noted that:
“Behaviors may not reach the intense level of [dopamine] hyperstimulation that drugs do when each separate exposure is compared. However, because addictive behaviors are more easily accessible and more frequently engaged in than drug use (more exposures per day or week), the net effect of many more frequent exposures can make an addictive behavior hyperstimulating enough to have similar behavioral and physiological consequences as drugs”.
Comparing two different drug addictions – nicotine addiction and heroin addiction – she notes that nicotine clearly has a much weaker reward stimulation (per exposure) but can be equally addictive as heroin. The key difference is obviously the frequency as smokers will continually smoke cigarettes throughout the day whereas the number of times a heroin addict will take heroin during the day will be considerably less. In essence, Hartston argued:
“More exposures means more pairings of use and mild hyperstimulation, more encoding of the positive associations with smoking in memory, more consistent hyperstimulation of DA reward areas and more ease in increasing use. Due to its ease of availability, someone who tries smoking is more likely to become addicted than someone who tries heroin (Hilts 2009)”.
Relating this to shopping, Hartston makes the point that shopping is no longer something that is time limited by closed shops. The internet has brought the potential for 24/7 shopping. As with other activities with the potential for addiction (e.g., gambling, video gaming, sex), the internet has brought easy access, high availability, convenience, anonymity, dishinibition, and escape. As Hartston rightly asserts:
“A shopper can browse or purposefully seek target items during many stolen moments each day, from almost any location, or for extended amounts of time whenever a break may occur. Impulses to buy can be acted on immediately, without the protective time delay there used to be. And the steps to completing a purchase have become shortened, with credit card numbers already saved and one-click purchasing options additionally catering to impulsivity”.
Finally, Hartston argues that brain changes associated with Reward Deficiency Syndrome make it harder to stop the behaviors like excessive shopping. There is growing evidence that both chemical and behavioural addictions not only trigger changes in dopamine reward physiology “but also to its cortical connections, thereby impairing self-regulation”. Any person is responsible for their own behaviour but Harston argues that changes to the brain’s physiology makes it harder for vulnerable and susceptible people to control such behaviours. As Harston points out:
“Actions ‘preferred’ (valued at higher importance) by hyperstimulated striatal neurons are more likely to occur despite the addict’s conscious insight (Lau & Glimcher 2008; Hikosaka et al. 2008; Hikosaka, Nakamura & Nakahara 2006). This means that when desires become addictions they can have an overriding command over behavior and decision making, which is difficult to interrupt even in the presence of insight or higher goals. Addicted brains also show less age-related expansion of white matter, reflecting a loss of learning capacity and difficulty making new choices, further inhibiting an addict’s control over impulsive reward seeking behaviors (Goldstein & Volkow 2002). People who find themselves in the trap of addiction, whether to a drug or a behavior like shopping, need to be able to access effective interventions and support in order to stop the problematic behavior and prevent relapses”
Shopping appears to be the latest normal everyday behaviour (along with behaviours like exercise, eating and sex) to have been pathologized. However, (as I noted in my previous blog on shopaholism), there does seem to be some empirical evidence that a small minority of people appear to display addictive-like symptoms as a result of their shopping behaviour. Dr. Harston has done a good job in pointing out of the biological and situational reasons for how and why such addictions may develop.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, U
Elliot, A. & Aarts, H. (2011). Perception of the color red enhances the force and velocity of motor output. Emotion, 11, 445–49.
Goldstein, R. & Volkow, N. (2002). Drug addiction and its underlying neurobiological basis: Neuroimaging evidence for the involvement of the frontal cortex. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 1642–52.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace. Journal of Worplace Learning, 7, 463-472.
Hartston, H. (2012). The case for compulsive shopping as an addiction. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44, 64–67.
Hikosaka, O., Nakamura, K., & Nakahara, H. (2006). Basal ganglia orient eyes to reward. Journal of Neurophysiology, 95, 567–84.
Hikosaka, O., Bromberg-Martin, E., Hong, S. & Matsumoto, M. (2008). New insights on the subcortical representation of reward. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, April 18, 203–08.
Hilts, P. (1994). Is nicotine addictive? It depends on whose criteria you use. New York Times. August 2.
Lau, B. & Glimcher, P. (2008). Value representations in the primate striatum during matching behavior. Neuron, 58, 451–63.
Robischon, N. (2010.) Neuromarketing the 2010 elections: Scoring campaign ads. Fast Company. Nov 5. Available at http://www.fastcompany.com/1700207/campaign-ads-and-neuromarketing
Thompson, C. 2003. There’s a sucker born in every medial prefrontal cortex. New York Times Magazine. October 26, 54–65.
Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.