For many of us, shopping is one of our most popular leisure pursuits, and for some, it can become a problem. For compulsive shoppers, it’s as if something takes over their ability to control their behaviour. I’ve written about compulsive shopping in my book, The Psychology of Fashion, and have blogged about it before, so when I was invited by freelance journalist, Linda Rodriguez to contribute to an article on this intriguing topic for The Boston Globe, I was more than happy to help.
Linda was interested in how and why shopping becomes an “addiction” or a compulsion and why. She wanted to understand what it is about buying objects (including clothes) “that furnishes our identities, makes us feel good, makes us want to keep doing it”.
So what’s going on in the brain of compulsive shoppers? What can we understand from psychology and neuroscience?
Linda’s questions and my responses are below.
Can compulsive buying constitute an addiction and if so, how?
Despite being recognised as an unhealthy behaviour, there is no clinical diagnosis for compulsive shopping behaviour (CSB). There is no consensus on its classification. Some experts have considered CBD a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, and others a form of Bipolar Disorder. Like other behaviours recognised as potentially addictive, for example, gambling, watching porn and video game playing, CSB is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) as a stand-alone addictive disorder.
However, according to a recent Harvard publication, “the DSM-IV does describe multiple addictions, each tied to a specific substance or activity, consensus is emerging that these may represent multiple expressions of a common underlying brain process.” Although it is not specified within DSM-5, CSB shares commonalities with other addictions such as intense craving, desire for secrecy, intense pleasure while engaging in the activity and continued involvement with it despite the negative outcomes. It is easy to see how CSB could be considered an addiction.
Addiction changes brain structure and function. When we experience pleasure, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NA; also known as the brain’s pleasure centre). As the behaviour is repeated, the NA releases dopamine faster and more intensely. Simultaneously, the hippocampus, the brain structure responsible for ‘laying down’ memories, records the rapid sense of satisfaction, and the amygdala, the brain’s ‘emotion centre’, creates a conditioned response.
Dopamine is involved in many different brain processes. In addictive behaviours, dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, which is involved in reward-related learning, motivation and memory as well as pleasure. Repeated exposure to the addictive behaviour causes a reaction in the brain so that liking something is associated with wanting it, which promotes motivation to have it. However, when a person becomes addicted, brain receptors become flooded with the neurotransmitter, so the brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors in order to cope. This results in the desired activity being experienced as less pleasurable and the person needs more of it to experience a ‘high’.
Over time, the pleasure associated with an addictive behaviour subsides, but because the memory of the desired effect and the need to recreate it persists, desire becomes an intense craving, a compulsion. This is a conditioned response that is triggered whenever the person encounters the environmental cues associated with the desired behaviour, stored in the hippocampus and amygdala.
Why could shopping become addictive?
When shopping is a social event, a recreational activity it is closely associated with positive emotions. Shopping for pleasure could be an escape from the chores and responsibilities of daily life. The desire to go shopping for pleasure could become a compulsion as described above. Compulsive shoppers aren’t able to control their shopping behaviour and they engage in it repeatedly (e.g., Boundy, 2000). Researchers have found that compulsive shoppers’ emotions are stronger and more volatile than those of regular shoppers and rather than experiencing pleasure from shopping, compulsive shoppers experience guilt, depression, and dissatisfaction (e.g., DeSarbo & Edwards, 1996) leaving them feeling disappointed and vulnerable.
Do we see shopping as a kind of entertainment? As part of our identities?
Yes, for some of us, shopping is entertainment, constituting an escape from reality, a chance to imagine ourselves in another world. According to O’Cass (2000) some people are more involved with shopping and fashion than others. That means that seeking out fashion is part of who they are. They want to be avant garde and might spend a considerable amount of time seeking out the latest fashion and/or posting images of themselves wearing it.
How much has the ease of online shopping exacerbated compulsive buying tendencies?
Online shopping allows consumers to seek out variety in and information about products. Consumers avoid social interactions and can buy without being seen while shopping online and experiencing pleasure. In addition, consumers can shop 24/7 online. This features are appealing to compulsive shoppers.
How much of a role do social media, influencers and targeted advertising play in how people acquire compulsive buying habits?
Social media, influencers and targeted advertising promotes a lifestyle that many consumers aspire to and which they believe they can achieve if they purchase the items. It is likely that targeted advertising would encourage consumers to buy more. That’s why fashion brands spend millions on it. Whether this leads to CSB or not depends on the consumer and how often they engage with social media and influencers.
Ultimately, whether a person becomes a compulsive shopper or not depends on a multitude of factors, but maybe it’s time to ask ourselves this question the next time we are tempted to buy something: “Do I really want this?”.
Boundy, D. (2000). When money is the drug. I shop, therefore I am: Compulsive buying and the search for self, 3-26.
DeSarbo, W. S., & Edwards, E. A. (1996). Typologies of compulsive buying behavior: A constrained clusterwise regression approach. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 5(3), 231-262.
O’Cass, A. (2000). An assessment of consumers product, purchase decision, advertising and consumption involvement in fashion clothing. Journal of Economic Psychology, 21(5), 545-576.
Read Linda’s personal account of shopping in The Boston Globe here.