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Shopping Addiction: Reality or Urban Myth?

Updated on April 25, 2014

We live in a global community characterized by consumerism and materialism and that places a lot of emphasis on an individual’s perceived assets and his or her ability to spend and acquire such assets. The average individual is faced with numerous advertisements everyday on telly, on billboards, on the bus... in fact almost everywhere you look there is an ad convincing you of why a certain service, a certain good or gadget is what you need to change your life. Bearing this in mind, how do we draw the distinction between shopping and too much shopping? Already as it is figuring out the difference between necessities and luxuries can be a daunting task for many, how do we determine between necessary spending and shopping addiction?

In ‘To Buy or Not to Buy’, psychologist Dr. April Benson identifies six questions whose answers could draw the difference between compulsive shopping and necessary shopping. These questions are: Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it?

But how are these questions relevant?

Research that dates back to the 19th century has been able to establish a form of shopping that mimics any other type of addiction we can imagine. Addictive behaviours are characterised by a number of features, the most common referred to as the 3Cs: Compulsivity, Control (or lack of it anyways) and Continuity. Based on these, we can be able to ascertain whether or not someone is addicted to shopping.

Am I a Shopping Addict?

Shopping addiction is a term used to describe the compulsive and irrational desire to buy things or spend money. It is also called oniomania, shopaholism, compulsive buying disorder i.e. CBD or Sushma Syndrome. A shopping addict is obsessed with buying, and they overindulge this feeling by devoting a lot of time and money to buying and spending regardless of whether or not they need the items or the financial resources they have available. The shopper may be aware of the negative consequences of such reckless spending on their finances, social life and on significant relationships but they feel an urge to continue shopping. They find that they are unable to stop themselves from overspending even if they want to. Hence, the excessive spending pattern continues usually to the extent of deep financial debts and numerous items that go unused or are discarded.

An American study carried out by Dr. Christenson and his colleagues, was able to establish the pattern of shopping addiction. These researchers found that a shopaholic is motivated to shop by negative feelings such as depression, anxiety and boredom. The shopaholic reports positive sensations during and after shopping, comparable to a drug high that a drugs user would experience. However, the gratification gained from shopping is only temporary as the person is faced with an overwhelming sense of buyer’s remorse. They are guilty about the things that they have bought as it begins to occur to them that they do not need and will probably never use these things. And they get angry or disappointed in themselves and in their shopping habits.

Just like any addiction, when confronted, the shopaholic may deny having a problem or over-engaging in shopping. They may try to rationalize their behaviour and their shopping choices, for example I bought this because it was on offer or I bought this because I felt that I needed it. Eventually, they may try to hide the behaviour or the signs of the behaviour from relevant others.

What causes shopping addiction?

The jury is still out on the causes of shopping addiction and addiction in general. However, some theorists point out that shopping addiction could be the result of low self esteem. Due to the constant feelings of emptiness and worthlessness, a person with a low self esteem may turn to shopping with the hope that this would make them feel better about themselves. Contrary to popular perception, it is not what the shopping addict buys that gets them excited, it is the act or process of shopping in itself that provides great release.

Shopping addiction has also been attributed to obsessive compulsive disorder, popularly known as OCD. OCD is an anxiety disorder characterised by an irrational preoccupation with a particular thought and subsequent repetitive and uncontrollable behaviour. For example, a person with OCD might be fixated at the thought that his door might be unlocked and that he would be burglarized and so he habitually and irrepressibly manually checks the door every few minutes to ensure it is locked. Easy to see how this fits in with shopping addiction?

Some researchers posit that shopping addiction is a symptom of a bigger problem called addictive personality. Addictive personality refers to traits that make people predisposed to addictive behaviours. This is the view that there is actually a type of person that is prone to becoming an addict. Personality traits associated with addiction include extraversion, frequent mood swings, poor stress-coping behaviours etc.

Other theories are that shopping addiction could be related to ADHD or mood disorders such as depression. As much as depression is defined by the loss of interest in activities, depression can be a motivation for retail therapy. In fact, there seems to be an association between shopping addiction and depression. ADHD or attention deficit hyperactive disorder is a neurological disorder in which a person shows signs of hyperactive and impulsive behaviour. ADHD would make a person very susceptible to purchasing things on impulse. It should be noted that ADHD has also been associated with depression as a co-morbid condition.

Dealing with shopping addiction

Treatment approaches that have proven successful for addictive behaviours include cognitive behavioural therapy and behaviour modelling. The role of social support and financial counselling in dealing with shopping addiction cannot be understated.


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