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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Compulsive Shopping Carries a Heavy Price

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 28 (HealthDay News) -- For a rising number of Americans, shopping has become more than a means to an end, or a pleasurable pastime.

Instead, experts say, members of this growing group of "compulsive shoppers" feel low when they're not out shopping, and yearn for that special "high" that comes from browsing and buying.

Unfortunately, that high is usually short-lived: For most, the day's spending usually ends in renewed anxiety and sadness as they return home and realize their latest acquisition isn't making them any happier -- and may have put them further into debt.

It's a cycle that's very reminiscent of other harmful pathological addictions, such as gambling, said researcher Helga Dittmar, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K.

"Compulsive buying is often smiled about and belittled, either as 'something we all do at times' or the entertainment of the bored ultra-rich," she said. "The reality is that it has serious consequences, like other addictions. It can lead to severe financial debt, breakdown of relationships and families, and impairment at work and at home."

According to the last U.S. statistics available -- collected in a 1992 study -- compulsive shopping affected anywhere between 2 percent and 8 percent of Americans at that time. But experts believe prevalence of the disorder has risen since then.

Dittmar is the author of a new study investigating the psychological roots of compulsive buying, published in the September issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

In the study, Dittmar used data from the personal "shopping diaries" of 29 women (18 ordinary shoppers, 11 compulsive shoppers), plus the results of detailed questionnaires from 365 adults of varying age, which also included a fair number of compulsive shoppers.

She was able to pinpoint two "vulnerability factors" that appear to raise risks for compulsive buying.

"The first is a materialistic value system, the importance that a person attaches to material goods as a way of achieving major life goals, such as satisfaction and happiness," according to Dittmar. In essence, she said, "materialists are more prone to go for material goods as a solution to any problem they might encounter."

The second factor "concerns the self-concept, where a person who feels that they are far away from their 'ideal' self is more vulnerable to psychological problems," Dittmar said.

In this type of situation, materialistic individuals may turn to excessive spending as a form of what she called "self-repair."

"They'll buy those consumer goods that symbolize a part of their ideal self -- 'If I buy a glamorous dress, I might feel like a glamorous person,' " Dittmar explained.

In fact, the vast majority of compulsive shoppers -- about 90 percent -- are women, and Dittmar's study found clothing to be a major focus of their spending, probably because fashion is so tightly tied to self-image.

Women may also be more prone to the syndrome because shopping is traditionally viewed as a part of female, but not male, identity. And because some women are homemakers, Dittmar said that "they may have less opportunity for other "feel-good" strategies," like working out at the gym or meeting friends for drinks.

The compulsive buyers' personal shopping diaries revealed that most of the "good feelings" generated by their excessive spending is fleeting.

The journals showed that "their initial 'high,' straight after the purchase, was stronger than for ordinary buyers -- but also that the high was short-lived," the researcher said. In fact, compulsive shoppers were much more prone than ordinary spenders to experience "buyer's remorse" once they got their goods home.

"For some people, shopping is all about the thrill of the hunt; for some, it's the high of the purchase; and for some, it's the socialization with the salesperson -- the acknowledgement and reinforcement they get," said April Lane Benson, a New York City psychologist specializing in "overshopping," and the author of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self.

She agreed with Dittmar that materialism and poor self-image help drive the condition. While the latest statistics on the prevalence of compulsive shopping are still being tabulated by researchers, Benson believes the disorder is on the rise, especially among the young, and has spread to become a "global problem."

And she believes men's spending habits often allow them to go under the radar as compulsive buyers.

"They're 'image-spenders' more often than women, meaning that they pick up the tab when they have no business doing so, for example," Benson said. Men are also more prone to becoming pathological "collectors," addictively amassing one class of object, often going in debt to do so.

"Collecting is a way of buying compulsively, of course, but it becomes a more highbrow or refined caste," she said.

Avoiding or curbing these types of compulsive behaviors may involve stepping back and re-evaluating what's really important, Dittmar said.

For most people, the "ideal me" will always elude their grasp, she said. So the true pathway to better self-esteem may lie in "picking those aspects that one can realistically do something about, and that are worth doing something about," Dittmar said.

That can be tough, given today's society. Both experts agreed that unrelenting pressure from advertising and the media are pushing people to spend more recklessly than ever before, and that spending is even easier now via 24-hour shopping channels and the Internet.

The media "bombard us with ideals and role models that are likely to make us feel inadequate and in need of 'fixing,'" Dittmar said. While most people won't be unduly swayed by any one ad or TV show, "it is difficult to evade the general message that 'We are what we have,'" she said.

Benson agreed: "'Happiness is the next purchase away,' is what we are being told."

More information
For more on compulsive buying, head to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.
 

Lana

Member
I don't know if I agree with the notion that most compulsive shoppers have a materialistic value system. To me, it sounds more like a judgment rather then cause. I know I am a compulsive shopper. I'll buy the "thrill of the hunt" idea and add "while finding generally overpriced item at a much lower cost"

I think the whole shopping deal has more to do with image, rather then materialistic value. People treat you differently depending how you look. You can be depressed and borderline suicidal and if you look good, just about everyone will ask what is up and try to intervene. You can be brilliant, kind, compassionate, honest (all those fabulous qualities you can think of) and if you're not dressed a certain way, or if your body shape is not that of someone on the cover of a magazine, no one even notices the darkness that envelops you. Worse yet, some are actually idiotic enough to suggest either eating something or going to the diet or to the gym. I actually experiemented with that and found the results to be amusing. So, to end my babbling, it is not the materialistic value of the person that drives them to shop, it is the value that society puts on the image that does, and thus, gives the shopper the much needed contact or connection that they lack. (coincidentally, lack of connection with others can easily lead to self-defamation and depression)
 

Halo

Member
Lana I completely agree with your entire post and especially these statements.

People treat you differently depending how you look. You can be depressed and borderline suicidal and if you look good, just about everyone will ask what is up and try to intervene

You can be brilliant, kind, compassionate, honest (all those fabulous qualities you can think of) and if you're not dressed a certain way, or if your body shape is not that of someone on the cover of a magazine, no one even notices the darkness that envelops you

it is the value that society puts on the image that does, and thus, gives the shopper the much needed contact or connection that they lack. (coincidentally, lack of connection with others can easily lead to self-defamation and depression)

I couldn't have said it any better myself.
 

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