The Call of the Mall

"When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." For seasoned mall hounds, that's more than a clever bumper sticker—it's a statement of purpose, a recipe for fun.

But for an unfortunate few, shopping is less a joy than an addiction. They are consumers out of control, frequently buying items they don't need—and may not even remove from the packaging. Researchers are beginning to understand who compulsive buyers are—and why they shop 'til they drop.

In many respects, shopaholics are a lot like people with eating disorders. About 90 percent are female, says Ronald Faber, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota. They are more likely to have anxiety disorders and low self-esteem than normal shoppers. They are also more impulsive than average and tend to be perfectionists.

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Intriguingly, many compulsive buyers experience heightened sensations—colors and textures are more intense during a buying binge—and some claim to reach extreme levels of focus and concentration while perusing store shelves. A few liken the experience to a drug trip; others find their shopping trips sexually stimulating.

Faber believes that the problem arises from a convergence of psychological, social and biological factors.

Boosting self-esteem might be the key motivation behind compulsive buying. Many say that interaction with attentive sales clerks gives them a feeling of importance. Self-esteem may even influence what they buy. Compulsive shoppers are likely to return home with clothing, shoes, makeup and jewelry—all items that enhance appearance.

The biology of compulsive shopping is less understood, but an imbalance of the neurotransmitter serotonin could play a role. The evidence is slim but suggestive: several compulsive buyers who were given Prozac—which alters serotonin levels—stopped overshopping. But they resumed their sprees once drug treatment ended.

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