Paul Bradbury/Getty Images
Source: Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

Nowadays, online businesses always seem to know what we want and how to nudge us toward their shopping carts, even when we are just browsing on Facebook or searching for something else. That pair of shoes you looked at last week pops up in the corner of your screen like a stealth shopping mousetrap.

Targeted and sponsored online ads are trying to capitalize on a concept that scientists call “cue-reactivity,” or excitement from shopping cues. In order to get us to press the buy button, businesses first must grab our attention and then make us interested enough to click on it. This momentum depends both on how excited we get when we see the item and also whether it can cause a craving, an irresistible desire to purchase.

Both of these concepts—cue-reactivity and cravings—come from the field of behavioral addiction, which includes problems like gambling and cybersex addiction. Shopping addiction has many names—pathological buying, compulsive buying, buying addiction, and oniomania. An estimated 5 to 8% of Americans are thought to suffer from shopping addiction.

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE examines the parallels between online shopping and addiction. Scientists are still trying to figure out where to categorize online pathological shopping and whether it's more similar to impulse control disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, or addiction.

The study found three key factors that made people especially vulnerable to an online shopping addiction:

  • People who like to buy anonymously and avoid social interaction

There is an overlap between pathological buying and anxiety—social anxiety in particular. For people who don’t like dealing with a crowded mall or the social interaction of checking out, buying online seems like the perfect solution, but it actually worsens the avoidance of social interaction.

People with pathological shopping often feel shame and regret about their shopping and want to hide their habit, and the anonymity and privacy of online shopping can make this worse.

  • People who enjoy a wide variety and constant availability of items.

It’s no surprise that online shopping cultivates satisfaction in people who like a ton of variety. Plus, online stores never “close.” This can lead to more regular cravings for shopping.

  • People who like to get instant gratification.

People who feed off immediate gratification are drawn to online shopping, where purchases are one click away. The quick satisfaction feeds into the cycle of cravings and rewards.

But if you're thinking, "Wait, I like all those features of online shopping!" (and the popularity of Amazon suggests that many of us do), it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an online shopping problem.

How is pathological online buying different from the average shopper? People with pathological buying feel preoccupied with shopping and feel like they have no control over it, even if it leads to severe work or relationship problems, or financial bankruptcy.

Here are 10 signs of compulsive online shopping:

  1. I feel like I can’t stop online shopping even if I wanted to and/or have tried to stop without being able to.
  2. Online shopping has hurt my relationships, work, or financial situation.
  3. My partner, family members, or friends are concerned about my online shopping. I end up in arguments with them over it.
  4. I think about online shopping all the time.
  5. I get grumpy or upset if I can't shop online.
  6. Online shopping is the only thing that helps me relax or feel better.
  7. I hide things that I buy because I’m afraid other people will think it’s unreasonable or a waste of money.
  8. I often feel guilty after I go online shopping.
  9. I spend less time doing other things that I enjoy because of online shopping.
  10. I often buy things that I don’t need or much more than I planned, even when I can’t afford it.

If you think you may have a problem, here are some tests for shopping addiction: the Compulsive Buying Scale and the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale.

Pathological buying can also be tied to or worsened by other psychological issues, like anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, hoarding, or mania. Treating the underlying issue can help improve the buying behavior if it stems from another disorder. For pathological buying itself, the standard treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy with a mental health professional.

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