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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.