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Running up debt: A brief overview of our recent papers on exercise and shopping addictions

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, youth gambling and other addictive behaviours, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on exercise addiction and shopping addictions (i.e., compulsive buying).

Griffiths, M.D., Urbán, R., Demetrovics, Z., Lichtenstein, M.B., de la Vega, R., Kun, B., Ruiz-Barquín, R., Youngman, J. & Szabo, A. (2015). A cross-cultural re-evaluation of the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI) in five countries. Sports Medicine Open, 1:5.

  • Research into the detrimental effects of excessive exercise has been conceptualized in a number of similar ways, including ‘exercise addiction’, ‘exercise dependence’, ‘obligatory exercising’, ‘exercise abuse’, and ‘compulsive exercise’. Among the most currently used (and psychometrically valid and reliable) instruments is the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI). The present study aimed to further explore the psychometric properties of the EAI by combining the datasets of a number of surveys carried out in five different countries (Denmark, Hungary, Spain, UK, and US) that have used the EAI with a total sample size of 6,031 participants. A series of multigroup confirmatory factor analyses (CFAs) were carried out examining configural invariance, metric invariance, and scalar invariance. The CFAs using the combined dataset supported the configural invariance and metric invariance but not scalar invariance. Therefore, EAI factor scores from five countries are not comparable because the use or interpretation of the scale was different in the five nations. However, the covariates of exercise addiction can be studied from a cross-cultural perspective because of the metric invariance of the scale. Gender differences among exercisers in the interpretation of the scale also emerged. The implications of the results are discussed, and it is concluded that the study’s findings will facilitate a more robust and reliable use of the EAI in future research.

Mónok, K., Berczik, K., Urbán, R., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Farkas, J., Magi, A., Eisinger, A., Kurimay, T., Kökönyei, G., Kun, B., Paksi, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Psychometric properties and concurrent validity of two exercise addiction measures: A population wide study in Hungary. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 739-746.

  • Objectives: The existence of exercise addiction has been examined in numerous studies. However, none of the measures developed for exercise addiction assessment have been validated on representative samples. Furthermore, estimates of exercise addiction prevalence in the general population are not available. The objective of the present study was to validate the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI; Terry, Szabo, & Griffiths, 2004), and the Exercise Dependence Scale (EDS; Hausenblas & Downs, 2002b), and to estimate the prevalence of exercise addiction in general population. Design: Exercise addiction was assessed within the framework of the National Survey on Addiction Problems in Hungary (NSAPH), a national representative study for the population aged 18–64 years (N = 2710). Method: 474 people in the sample (57% males; mean age 33.2 years) who reported to exercise at least once a week were asked to complete the two questionnaires (EAI, EDS). Results: Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA) indicated good fit both in the case of EAI (CFI = 0.971; TLI = 0.952; RMSEA = 0.052) and EDS (CFI = 0.938; TLI = 0.922; RMSEA = 0.049); and confirmed the factor structure of the two scales. The correlation between the two measures was high (r = 0.79). Results showed that 6.2% (EDS) and 10.1% (EAI) of the population were characterized as nondependent-symptomatic exercisers, while the proportion of the at-risk exercisers were 0.3% and 0.5%, respectively. Conclusions: Both EAI and EDS proved to be a reliable assessment tool for exercise addiction, a phenomenon that is present in the 0.3–0.5% of the adult general population.

Szabo, A., Griffiths, M.D., de La Vega Marcos, R., Mervo, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Methodological and conceptual limitations in exercise addiction research. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 86, 303-308.

  • The aim of this brief analytical review is to highlight and disentangle research dilemmas in the field of exercise addiction. Research examining exercise addiction is primarily based on self-reports, obtained by questionnaires (incorporating psychometrically validated instruments), and interviews, which provide a range of risk scores rather than diagnosis. Survey methodology indicates that the prevalence of risk for exercise addiction is approximately 3 percent among the exercising population. Several studies have reported a substantially greater prevalence of risk for exercise addiction in elite athletes compared to those who exercise for leisure. However, elite athletes may assign a different interpretation to the assessment tools than leisure exercisers. The present paper examines the: 1) discrepancies in the classification of exercise addiction; 2) inconsistent reporting of exercise addiction prevalence; and 3) varied interpretation of exercise addiction diagnostic tools. It is concluded that there is the need for consistent terminology, to follow-up results derived from exercise addiction instruments with interviews, and to follow a theory-driven rationale in this area of research.

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.

  • Although excessive and compulsive shopping has been increasingly placed within the behavioral addiction paradigm in recent years, items in existing screens arguably do not assess the core criteria and components of addiction. To date, assessment screens for shopping disorders have primarily been rooted within the impulse-control or obsessive-compulsive disorder paradigms. Furthermore, existing screens use the terms ‘shopping,’ ‘buying,’ and ‘spending’ interchangeably, and do not necessarily reflect contemporary shopping habits. Consequently, a new screening tool for assessing shopping addiction was developed. Initially, 28 items, four for each of seven addiction criteria (salience, mood modification, conflict, tolerance, withdrawal, relapse, and problems), were constructed. These items and validated scales (i.e., Compulsive Buying Measurement Scale, Mini-International Personality Item Pool, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale) were then administered to 23,537 participants (Mage = 35.8 years, SDage = 13.3). The highest loading item from each set of four pooled items reflecting the seven addiction criteria were retained in the final scale, The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale (BSAS). The factor structure of the BSAS was good (RMSEA=0.064, CFI=0.983, TLI=0.973) and coefficient alpha was 0.87. The scores on the BSAS converged with scores on the Compulsive Buying Measurement Scale (CBMS; 0.80), and were positively correlated with extroversion and neuroticism, and negatively with conscientiousness, agreeableness, and intellect/imagination. The scores of the BSAS were positively associated with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem and inversely related to age. Females scored higher than males on the BSAS. The BSAS is the first scale to fully embed shopping addiction within an addiction paradigm. A recommended cutoff score for the new scale and future research directions are discussed.

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.

  • ‘Mall disorders’ such as excessive eating and compulsive buying appear to be increasing, particularly among women. A battery of questionnaires was used in an attempt to determine this association between specific personality traits (i.e., reward sensitivity, impulsivity, cognitive and somatic anxiety, self-esteem, and social desirability) and excessive eating and compulsive buying in 134 women. Reward sensitivity and cognitive anxiety were positively related to excessive eating and compulsive buying, as was impulsivity to compulsive buying. Somatic anxiety and social desirability were negatively related to compulsive buying. These preliminary findings indicate that excessive behaviours are not necessarily interrelated. The behaviours examined in this study appear to act as an outlet for anxiety via the behaviours’ reinforcing properties (e.g., pleasure, attention, praise, etc.). As a consequence, this may boost self-esteem. The findings also appear to indicate a number of risk factors that could be used as ‘warning signs’ that the behaviour may develop into an addiction.

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.

  • Due to the problems of measurement and the lack of nationally representative data, the extent of compulsive buying behaviour (CBB) is relatively unknown. The validity of three different instruments was tested: Edwards Compulsive Buying Scale, Questionnaire About Buying Behavior and Richmond Compulsive Buying Scale using two independent samples. One was nationally representative of the Hungarian population (N=2710) while the other comprised shopping mall customers (N=1447). As a result, a new, four-factor solution for the ECBS was developed (Edwards Compulsive Buying Scale Revised (ECBS-R)), and confirmed the other two measures. Additionally, cut-off scores were defined for all measures. Results showed that the prevalence of CBB is 1.85% (with QABB) in the general population but significantly higher in shopping mall customers (8.7% with ECBS-R, 13.3% with QABB and 2.5% with RCBS-R). Conclusively, due to the diversity of content, each measure identifies a somewhat different CBB group.

Maraz, A., Griffiths, M.D., & Demetrovics, Z. (2016). The prevalence of compulsive buying in non-clinical populations: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Addiction, 111, 408-419.

  • Aims: To estimate the pooled prevalence of compulsive buying behaviour (CBB) in different populations and to determine the effect of age, gender, location and screening instrument on the reported heterogeneity in estimates of CBB and whether publication bias could be identified. Methods: Three databases were searched (Medline, PsychInfo, Web of Science) using the terms ‘compulsive buying’, ‘pathological buying’ and ‘compulsive shopping’ to estimate the pooled prevalence of CBB in different populations. Forty studies reporting 49 prevalence estimates from 16 countries were located (n = 32 000). To conduct the meta-analysis, data from non-clinical studies regarding mean age and gender proportion, geographical study location and screening instrument used to assess CBB were extracted by multiple independent observers and evaluated using a random-effects model. Four a priori subgroups were analysed using pooled estimation (Cohen’s Q) and covariate testing (moderator and meta-regression analysis). Results: The CBB pooled prevalence of adult representative studies was 4.9% (3.4–6.9%, eight estimates, 10 102 participants), although estimates were higher among university students: 8.3% (5.9–11.5%, 19 estimates, 14 947 participants) in adult non-representative samples: 12.3% (7.6–19.1%, 11 estimates, 3929 participants) and in shopping-specific samples: 16.2% (8.8–27.8%, 11 estimates, 4686 participants). Being young and female were associated with increased tendency, but not location (United States versus non-United States). Meta-regression revealed large heterogeneity within subgroups, due mainly to diverse measures and time-frames (current versus life-time) used to assess CBB. Conclusions: A pooled estimate of compulsive buying behaviour in the populations studied is approximately 5%, but there is large variation between samples accounted for largely by use of different time-frames and measures.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Allegre, B., Souville, M., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Definitions and measures of exercise dependence, Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 631-646.

Allegre, B., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Individual factors and the context of physical activity in exercise dependence: A prospective study of ‘ultra-marathoners’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 233-243.

Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use and Misuse, 47, 403-417.

Berczik, K., Griffiths, M.D., Szabó, A., Kurimay, T., Kökönyei, G., Urbán, R. and Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Exercise addiction – the emergence of a new disorder. Australasian Epidemiologist, 21(2), 36-40.

Berczik, K., Griffiths, M.D., Szabó, A., Kurimay, T., Urban, R. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Exercise addiction. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.317-342). New York: Elsevier.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Exercise addiction: A case study. Addiction Research, 5, 161-168.

Griffiths, M.D., Szabo, A. & Terry, A. (2005). The Exercise Addiction Inventory: A quick and easy screening tool for health practitioners. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39, 30-31.

Kurimay, T., Griffiths, M.D., Berczik, K., & Demetrovics, Z. (2013). Exercise addiction: The dark side of sports and exercise. In Baron, D., Reardon, C. & Baron, S.H., Contemporary Issues in Sports Psychiatry: A Global Perspective (pp.33-43). Chichester: Wiley.

Szabo, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Exercise addiction in British sport science students. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 25-28.

Terry, A., Szabo, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). The Exercise Addiction Inventory: A new brief screening tool, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 489-499.

Warner, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). A qualitative thematic analysis of exercise addiction: An exploratory study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 13-26.

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.

Hello, good buy: Another look at shopping addiction

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 

Further reading

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

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.

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.