Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Online Shopping and "Compulsive Buying-Shopping Disorder"

How ecommerce has changed the playing field of compulsive buying.

Key points

  • For those with risk factors, online shopping can exacerbate "compulsive buying-shopping disorder" (CBSD).
  • Online shopping is marked by ease of access, anonymity, a convenient way to escape, and an opportunity to experience pleasure.
  • Mobile payments, personalization, influencers, and product diversity contribute to the allure of online shopping and potential for CBSD.

The 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11; World Health Organization [WHO], 2018) includes an “other specified” residual category among impulse-control disorders. One example of an other specified impulse-control disorder is "compulsive buying-shopping disorder" (CBSD; WHO; 2018).

Although not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013), a reference to excessive acquisition (most frequently manifested in excessive buying) exists in the criteria for hoarding disorder. In addition, the authors of the DSM-5 noted that kleptomania (impulses to steal) may be associated with compulsive buying (APA, 2013).

Thus, it is clear that esteemed professional disorder classifications and manuals acknowledge the existence of compulsive buying, or compulsive buying/shopping behaviors, over which an individual loses control, continues despite negative consequences, and craves when not engaging in.

Influence of Today's Technology

Although the notion of compulsive buying-shopping has existed since the early 1900s with the introduction of the term oniomania into psychiatric nomenclature, today’s technological advances have changed the landscape of compulsive buying. Indeed, the Internet (and prevalence of smartphones) has made buying/shopping more convenient, accessible, anonymous, and barrier-free than ever before.

For individuals prone to compulsive behaviors or those with risk factors making them more susceptible to CBSD, the advances of the Internet may exacerbate the disorder and its negative consequences. There are several features of online shopping that make it particularly rewarding, which, for a small subset of Internet shoppers, can lead to CBSD.

What Makes Online Shopping Feel Particularly Rewarding

  • Ease of access: With one click of an app on a smartphone, a shopper can instantly access millions of products and services for sale. Shopping can now take place at home, on the bus, or in a waiting room of a doctor’s office. Buying and shopping is now an option any time of day and in any location.
  • Anonymity: Rather than interacting with human beings in a brick-and-mortar retail store, online shopping can be completely hidden and unobserved. No one knows the extent to which online buying/shopping behaviors take place in the comfort of one's own home.
  • A convenient escape: Like many other aspects of the Internet, online shopping offers the opportunity for an individual to escape into hours of scrolling and browsing products and services. Excessive browsing can offer a temporary reprieve from life’s difficulties, stress, depressive symptoms, relational conflict, or anxiety (i.e., negative reinforcement). Some researchers have even linked the experience of a flow state with online compulsive buying (Mason et al., 2022).
  • Pleasure: Along with an escape from distress, online shopping offers instantaneous pleasure and gratification (i.e., positive reinforcement). The visually stimulating Web sites with colorful advertisements and easy-to-use platforms, coupled with endless opportunities to find great deals, make the experience of online shopping extremely pleasurable and rewarding.
  • Product diversity: Online shopping offers a variety of products with which no brick-and-mortar store could ever compete. The diversity of goods and services available online is unmatched and can lead to hours of scrolling and browsing potential purchases.
  • Mobile payments: Rather than experiencing the concreteness of handing a store employee cash or watching them swipe your credit card, the ease of clicking a button to pay for items creates psychological distance from the financial loss of shopping (Ceravolo et al., 2019). The concrete reality of spending money is shrouded by online retailers using mobile payment methods (often with stored credit card numbers) so the financial loss is barely recognized or felt by shoppers.
  • Personalization: Another important aspect of online shopping is personalization. With the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning, online retailers are able to collect personal and behavioral data from shoppers. These data are then used to customize each shopper’s experience and present them with ads, offers, and buying options that are most likely to align with their preferences. Indeed, Chandra et al. (2022) noted, “personalization is a strategy to gain a competitive advantage, encompassing learning, matching, and delivering products and services to customers” (p. 1531). Constant exposure to ads tailored specifically for individual shoppers can encourage increased engagement on the site and more impulsive buying.
  • Influencers: The online shopping experience also involves popular individuals (celebrities, social media influencers, perceived experts) recommending products to the general public to generate shopping behaviors. Even when using the Internet for other purposes, an individual can experience the sudden desire to shop if a social media influencer recommends purchasing a particular product or a pop-up ad of a celebrity marketing an item interrupts their online reading.

Rather than planned, purposeful shopping behaviors, online shopping increases engagement with shoppers’ reward circuitry in intentional ways that can lead to more compulsive buying as a means of regulating one’s emotional state. Indeed, using buying/shopping as a way to regulate internal states is one of the proposed diagnostic criteria for CBSD, along with persistent dysfunctional buying/shopping behaviors, irresistible urges to buy/shop, loss of control, excessive purchases (without using the items), negative reactions to the cessation of buying/shopping, and continued engagement despite negative consequences (Muller et al., 2021).

Ecommerce offers an easily accessible, anonymous, convenient opportunity for “retail therapy” and is not problematic for the majority of shoppers. However, for those with risk factors and vulnerabilities for compulsivity, online shopping may serve to heighten the prevalence and negative consequences of CBSD.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association.

Ceravolo, M. G., Fabri, M., Fattobene, L., Polonara, G., & Raggetti, G. (2019). Cash, card or smartphone: The neural correlates of payment methods. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13, 1188.

Chandra, S., Verma, S., Lim, W. M., Kumar, S., & Donthu, N. (2022). Personalization in personalized marketing: Trends and ways. Psychology & Marketing, 39, 152-1562.

Mason, M. C., Zamparo, G., Marini, A., & Ameen, N. (2022). Glued to your phone? Generation Z’s smartphone addiction and online compulsive buying. Computers in Human Behavior, 136, 107404.

Muller, A., Laskowski, N. M., Trotzke, P., Ali, K., Fassnacht, D. B., de Zwaan, M., Brand, M., Hader, M, & Kyrios, M. (2021). Proposed diagnostic criteria for compulsive buying-shopping disorder: A Delphi expert consensus study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 10, 208-222.

World Health Organization. (2018). International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (11th Revision).

More from Amanda L. Giordano Ph.D., LPC
More from Psychology Today