Why Shopaholics Spend: Is Psychological Addiction Really Behind Excessive Shopping Sprees?

a woman carries shopping bags
Image REUTERS/Mark Blinch

What is it that makes some people prone to literally shop till they drop, often leaving their financial and emotional lives in shambles?

A new study released by researchers at San Francisco State University and published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, points out several different behaviors that lead to compulsive shopping.

"A lot of research has shown that shopaholics tend to have materialistic values," Ryan Howell, associate professor of psychology at SF State University, said. "Our results explain why materialistic people shop compulsively."

Instead of being linked to gender, personality, age, or income, the study instead connects shopaholism to poor credit management. Shopaholics don't pay their credit card bills on time and don't pay very close attention to credit card statements, according to the authors. Because credit cards allow for people to buy and shop without seeing or handing over physical money, the researchers suggest that the shopper's mindset is different from that of someone who doesn't pay using a credit card.

Oniomania is the term used to describe shopaholism or compulsive shopping. Onios is Greek "for sale" and mania means "insanity." The term was originally used by psychiatrists at the beginning of the 20th century.

Not as much research has been done regarding oniomania in comparison to drug and alcohol addiction, but in recent decades it has gained more discussions in the psychology world. In a 2005 study, Croatian researchers stated that in the U.S., about 2 to 8 percent of the adult population may be affected by compulsive shopping, and that these people are often also affected by mood, anxiety, or eating disorders. The same researchers successfully treated a woman with compulsive shopping with a combined therapy of fluvoxamine, an antidepressant, and psychotherapy.

The SF State University study questioned 1,600 people about money management, shopping habits and whether or not they are materialistic. Compulsive shoppers said they got a "buzz" from shopping, or a "buy high." They believed their purchases could help boost their self-esteem and improve their appearance, reputation or relationships.

In An Unquiet Mind, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison describes the feeling of a shopping buzz: "When I am high, I couldn't worry about money if I tried, so I don't. The money will come from somewhere; I am entitled; God will provide."

Though psychological disorders may be the driving force behind shopping addictions, the researchers suggest that shoppers learn to manage their credit cards: "[Y]ou can keep your shopping under control by paying attention to your credit card and checking in with yourself about whether you are shopping for emotional reasons." The report is called "Sadness, Identity, and Plastic in Over-shopping: The Interplay of Materialism, Poor Credit Management, and Emotional Buying Motives in Predicting Compulsive Buying."


Source: Grant Donnelly, Masha Ksendzova, Ryan T. Howell. "Sadness, Identity, and Plastic in Over-shopping: The Interplay of Materialism, Poor Credit Management, and Emotional Buying Motives in Predicting Compulsive Buying." Journal of Economic Psychology, 2013

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