Compulsive shopping

“I’m addicted to shopping.” We’ve heard many people say this, often with a mix of pride and embarrassment. But can some people genuinely experience shopping as an out of control behaviour that damages their lives?

An immediate reaction of many to this suggest will be that if we’re going to label this behaviour addictive where does it end? Aren’t people starting to call everything addiction? Well not quite, in clinical and research circles there is a restricted range of things that mostly get discussed – psychoactive drugs are the obvious ones, but also gambling, sex, pornography food and shopping. What do these behaviours have in common? They are all primary drives, things we are hard wired to find rewarding. Food, sex and acquiring possessions may be obvious survival drives, while gambling can be understood as a means to an end – the money to buy all of the above. Psychoactive drugs effectively trick the brain by directly stimulating the reward centres in the brain. There are some areas of behaviour that fall outside of this tidy model where the term addiction has been applied, such as gaming and social media, but these are at least the most contested of the potential candidates for “addiction” status.

We live in a world of increasingly sophisticated marketing. The science of selling has advanced greatly from the days of Mad Men. Don Draper may have been brilliant but he didn’t have access to research showing the reaction of the brain and other physiological markers such as eye movement and heart rate to different forms of advertising and marketing. The influence of marketing on our lives has undeniably increased over the past few decades, as has the advent of online shopping, easy access to credit, and increasing expectations and aspirations of material wealth. Impulsive buying is a common experience in Western consumer society and something the majority engage in at some time. Many of us have bought something and later realised it was completely unnecessary and possibly even unwanted.

Compulsive shopping, first recognised in 1915, goes further than simply being a bit impulsive from time to time. In order to be considered a clinical condition it requires more than simply spending too much money. A person must experience loss of control around their shopping with the consequence that their shopping behaviour, and struggle to control it, causes significant distress or impairment, such as debt or family conflict. Compared to the shopping habits of the general population compulsive buyers are more likely to report that spending money makes them feel happy, are more likely to buy for the sake of it, without really caring what was purchased, feel depressed after shopping, and going on buying binges where they struggle to stop spending. Prevalence is estimated as 1-6% of the population, with first signs of problem shopping emerging in their late teens. While in clinical settings the great majority are women, general population surveys indicate more of an even gender distribution, suggesting that men are less likely to seek assistance, or are less likely to have their out of control buying behaviour identified.

Opinions differ on what kind of a disorder compulsive shopping might be. Is it a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, an addiction, or a form of mood disorder? While the parallels with substance addiction are obvious it is equally clear that for the majority of compulsive shoppers the emotional dimension of the behaviour is critical. As the term “retail therapy” implies, shopping can make people feel better. Being depressed has been demonstrated to increase uncontrolled buying, with a common cycle of tension before shopping, then release of tension and a temporary lifting of mood while shopping, followed by feelings of guilt, with regret and self-recrimination using starting very soon after the purchase. Low self-esteem is a common aspect of depression. Shopping offers a way to seek validation, through the positive attention of shop assistance, the reassurance that can come from “treating yourself” and sense of status through ownership of must-have consumer items.

This link with depression has led to trials of antidepressants with this population, with positive results. Cognitive behavioural therapy can also be helpful, by teaching strategies to resist urges, challenge beliefs about the importance of material possessions, find other ways to meet emotional and social needs, and address underlying depression.


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