Television programmes have made the whole issue of compulsive buying better understood. There are a number of popular terms for pathological compulsive buying: shopaholism, consuming passions, retail therapy, acquisitive desire, overspending, affluenza. The very early literacy referred to oniomania or buying mania, considered an impulse pathology characterised by excessive, impulsive, uncontrollable consumption. It has been linked (genetically) to other impulse disorders like gambling, alcoholism and binge eating.

There is recent evidence of biological disorders of neurotransmitters that may in part account for the behaviour (the ‘highs’ and ‘rushes’ felt). The psychological factors identified concern the gaining of approval and recognition, the bolstering of self-esteem and escaping into a fantasy where people feel important and respected. There are also sociological and cultural forces that actually encourage the behaviour.

There are economic, psychological and obvious utilitarian benefits of most consumer purchases. We need food and clothes and means of transport. But nowadays more and more products are sold not on their technical features, but rather their psychological benefits. It’s all about identity, image and values. This means people can rely on, even be addicted to, specific forms of consumerism because it offers a sort of psychological crutch. Retail therapy indeed.

There are, quite clearly, the consumption-obsessed: call them addictive or compulsive buyers, must-have fashion victims or vulgar acquisitive materialists, they are easily recognisable by their (in this order) excessive, uncontrolled and often impulsive buying of many kinds of products they may never wear or use. They are as preoccupied with shopping as alcoholics are with the next drink. They seem compelled to go to all sales, spend hours on the web or in shops.

So who are these people? Why do they do it? How many of them are there? They come from all social backgrounds, but the vast majority of them are women. We are a highly materialist, consumer-driven society. It’s easy to spend, there is much to buy. Advertisements are ubiquitous.

Advertisements for product after product show us that “to have is to be”. You are what you eat, wear and drive. Material goods are fashion statements and value statements. Possessions are a way of reinventing yourself, of compensating for faults, of regulating emotions, even. They can replace a sense of emptiness, they can even substitute for a relationship.

All goods can be a political statement. Just as shunning certain products and proudly/defiantly showing off others can be literally a political badge so there is code for the materially minded. Labels count, and some shout.

Researchers in this area believe two factors lead to compulsive shopping. Helga Dittmar of Sussex University suggests two factors are important. The first she describes as self-discrepancy: this is, in effect, the difference between your perceived actual self and your desired ideal or possible self. The discrepancy idea has been implicated in alcohol abuse, eating disorders and sexual promiscuity. The theory is that possessions fill the gap: they reduce the discrepancy; they offer compensation or repair. That is why certain goods seem to appear high on the must-have list for problematic shoppers (clothes, body care, shoes, electrical, leisure goods).

The second is good old-fashioned material values. Materialists believe that possessions are the key to self-definition and happiness. They are an indicator of success and hence a major life goal. Non- or post-materialist values would offer quite different suggest as to how to deal with these problems.

Studies have shown that problem shoppers are motivated in part by an attempt to change mood and to improve self-image as much as to obtain useful goods at good value. Buying does improve their self-image and self-evaluation, but the effect soon wears off. Hence the need to carry on: hence its addictive nature. And these shoppers do suffer regret. The buying process is deeply psychologically motivated and meaningful.

A comparison of the compulsive and the ordinary non-addicted consumer shows striking differences. The non-addicted placed value and use as primary motives, while the addicted mood-changing as the top priority. The addicted placed product uniqueness and status well above that of non-addicted consumers.

All studies point to strong sex differences. Females do identity repair through shopping much more than men. The male form may be in the hoarding of very expensive items or frequent indulgence in competitive auctions.

April Benson in her book To Buy OR Not To Buy: Why we overshop and how to Stop noted that compulsive buying has now been recognised as a common, and serious, social problem. Many over-shoppers feel they have to keep their compulsion secret, lest they are condemned as narcissistic, superficial and weak-willed.

People, she argues mainly overshop to feel better about themselves or more secure. It may be a distraction helping them avoid other important issues. It can be a weapon to express anger or seek revenge. It may be a vain attempt to hold on to the love of another. It may be a balm used to soothe yourself or repair your mood. It may be an attempt to project an image of wealth and power. It may be a way of trying to fit into an appearance-obsessed society. Equally it may be a response to loss, trauma or stress. It could be the less evil such as being addicted to alcohol, drugs or food. It could also be a way of trying to feel more in control or finding meaning in life.

Benson asked the obvious question: what are you shopping for? She poses the following hypotheses. Do you overshop to: Feel better about yourself or more secure – blocking pain, feelings of failure; Avoid dealing with something important – delaying, repressing actions;

Express anger or seek revenge – punishing spouse, parents, friends, children; Hold on to love – to prevent abandonment, hold on to people; Soothe yourself or repair moods – to ‘drug’ yourself with uppers and downers; Project an image of wealth and power – to boost self-esteem, self-worth; Fit into an appearance-obsessed society – to project youth, success etc.

Reduce stress, loss and trauma – a relief valve, a compensating balm; Be a lesser evil – preventing something even more ‘destructive’; Feel more in control – where they can best ‘self-manage’ their lives; Finding meaning in life and deny death – solve existential dilemmas.

There and pro- and anti- shopping messages. Pro-shopping messages include: Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”;“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.”;;“A little retail therapy goes a long way.”; “Never settle for less than the best.”;

“New shoes chase the blues.”;“You can’t take it with you.”;“He who has the most toys when he dies, wins.”

On the other hand Anti-shopping messages include“Money doesn’t grow on trees.”;“Money is the root of all evil”;“Waste not, want not.”;“Make do with what you have.”;

“Money talks. Sometimes all it says is ‘goodbye’.”;“Be grateful for what you have.” "

As usual, parental socialisation is implicated. Parents who themselves were abused/neglected give gifts to compensate. Parents who ‘earn’ their love through particular achievements often have children who feel emotionally undernourished. Parents who don’t give time, energy or love indicating the child is secure, valued, loved and important leave them feeling neglected and empty – a void which they seek to fill by shopping. Families that suffer financial reversal experience lowered self-esteem believing the latter to be exclusively associated with the quality and quantity of possessions that can be bought. Families that have a feeling of both or either emotional and financial impoverishment seek to alleviate this feeling with objects. Families that give no financial guidance to their children.

Dr Benson sets out to describe typical “triggers” which she divides into give categories:

Situational: sales signs, magazine ads, bad weather

Cognitive: feeling guilty, deserving a reward, rationalisation

Interpersonal: buying after a fight, attempting to impress peers, nice salesperson

Emotional: feeling excited, sad, lonely, stressed, or even euphoric

Physical: as a substitute for eating, after drinking alcohol.

She then lists typical aftershocks which can be financial (calls from creditors; poor credit rating; massive overdrafts), relationship based (secretiveness; fights; clutter), emotional (depressed; ashamed; angry), work-based (lowered performance; long hours; stealing), physical body (headaches; sleeping problems), personal development (wasted time; fewer holidays), and spiritual (lost community spirit; mismatch of values and lifestyle).

Benson recommends keeping a journal and developing a shopping autobiography to understand how, when and why one shops, as well as ‘conducting a motivational interview’ with yourself. The six shopping questions are: Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for this? Where will I put it? This should include a ‘matrix’ which is a simple short-term/long-term, if I shop/if I don’t shop audit. She suggests people develop a shopping pattern checklist that covers things like when you shop; where you shop; with whom you shop; for whom you shop; how you acquire something you want; what kinds of goods/services/experiences you buy/acquire; what is your shopping signature/style; how do you give permission to yourself to overshop.

It is partly an attempt to get to a person’s ‘scripts’: to make them more self-aware about their behaviour so that they can change it. It is also about finding alternative behaviours of ‘self-fondness, self-care and self-respect’ as well as fulfilling fundamental needs. The underlying message is before you go shopping, understand what you are shopping for and attempting to counteract the pressure to consume.

Next there is the issue of becoming financially fit. This includes learning how to save, buying much less using credit cards, learning how to budget, checking on spending by categories. She recommends shopaholics look carefully at what precisely they are shopping for. Is it self-kindness, self-care or self-respect, if so are there useful, better alternatives which do not involve shopping. This also involves countering, demagnetising or resisting the pull and pressure to consume. This means avoiding danger zones, reducing exposure, resisting social pressure and creating better alternatives. It also involves mindful shopping: shopping with a plan. Also getting used to returning, reselling and recycling. She also recommends a form of cognitive behavioural therapy to challenge distorted thinking.

So how to deal with the disorder: pills, debt, counselling and money management? Or good old fashioned psychotherapy to deal with the image problem, which is part of the real cause. But only part. One can try to reduce materialistic values. All studies of happiness point to the futility of material goods. People need purpose and meaning in life, good friends and an opportunity to explore talents. So a week or two helping others in third world countries with eager enthusiasts may be just the ticket.

Therapists like Benson attempt to ‘demagnetise’ people and help them resist the need to buy, consume and spend. She advises people to avoid their danger zones (places they are likely to overspend), reduce their exposure to advertisements and choose a creative, smarter alternative for meeting material needs. Part of the strategy is to learn to resist social pressure from salespeople, neighbours/comparison groups, significant others (family and friends) and children. The aim is to make people mindful shopping who shop with a plan that includes reviewing purchases as well as plans for returning, reselling and recycling.

Cognitive behaviour therapy can be used to discourage overspending. Thus people are warned about all-or-nothing (black/white) thinking; overgeneralisation (all/never); dwelling on single negative thoughts; jumping to (too hasty) conclusions; catastrophisation; denial; emotional vs. rational reasoning; labelling; having inappropriate ‘should’ statements; and personalisation. The idea is to challenge then change distorted thinking, to adopt the language of spirituality rather than materialism and to count your blessings.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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