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Theories of Compulsive Buying Behaviour

Above all, it should be noted that shopping is big business. Shopping centers employ approximately 8% of the US workforce. These portion of the workforce helps drive the machine that creates about ½ of each state’s tax revenues and there are currently more malls and shopping centers that US high schools (Farrell, J. 2003, pp. xi-xii).

Seemingly powering this juggernaut of commerce is ever increasing and apparently insatiable appetite of the modern consumer. Behind the 4x growth in the number of shopping centers and the over 3x growth in retail square footage during the 30-year period of 1970 – 2000, is the fact that Americans (and likely other “civilized” consumers) are consuming goods at twice (2x) the rate as they did in 1950 and ten-time(10x) as just over seventy years ago (Farrell, J. 2003, pp. xii-xiii). It is also worth noting that this increase in consumption is evidenced across all income levels though not necessarily equally across all segments (Gini, A. 2003, p. 85). In fact, more severe cases are significantly correlated to a lower the level of income, a greater likelihood of having below-average income and spending a lower percentage of income on sale items, suggesting overall an inability to handle financial issues well (Black, D. 2001, p. 23)

As a ‘counter-statistic’, Americans have a level of production that is currently at approximately 2x that of the same period (1950). This implies that, we could consume the same amount as in 1950 and work half as much or, as reality has it, work even more to consume over twice as much (Gini, A. 2003 p. 82). Similarly, in a predictably correlational fashion, the not only has the number of shoppers and shopping centers increased but there has been a sharp increase in the number of newproducts, particularly in the advertised “must have” category as wellas the emergence of the entirely new “disposable” category (Pooler, J.2003, p. 9).

As shoppers and products have changed, the relationship that existed between them has also morphed into something new. With the proliferation of retail venues that profer an ever-increasing number of products and categories, the arrival of the “disposable” product should not go unnoticed. Though without question, many if not most products are very high quality and manufactured to very exacting standards, many products are less durable or are “designed for obsolesce”. Durability was the characteristic that was promoted while the products of today push a message of convenience. In a society rampant with such explicit and implicit messages, it is no wonder that the emotional connections to most any product are decreasing (Pooler, J. 2003, p. 10). Products such as cameras or contact lenses were highly contemplated purchasesthat were expected to last a significant period of time.

Likely more important than simple the volume of shopping is its intensity…shopping means more than it did in the past. Previously,people shopped for items that they needed. Now, such shopping still occurs but it occupies a small fraction of the process. Studies estimate that as much as 2/3 of consumer purchases are “unnecessary”(Pooler, J. 2003 p.2). This excess is bought from a want rather than need. As an additional sign of the times, consumer research has even indicated that over half of all gift purchases are actually gifts for“me” (Pooler, J. 2003, p. 11).

Shopping “used to be” a more utilitarian and logical task in which purchases were planned and for the most part, the consumer-focused on“needs”. Contrasted with the modern shopper for whom it has been estimated that only about 1/3 of purchases are “necessary”, it is clear that unfulfilled desire must play a very much larger role (Pooler, J.2003, pp. 2, 6). For example, as Pooler states, “…people have a need for a new pair of pants… but a desire to buy designer-label pants is a want…” (Pooler, J. 2003, p. 22). Today, brands are power, disposablecontacts are the norm and OTUC, “one-time use camera”, are almost always within arms reach. It is important to note these products arenot inferior…in many ways, they are functionally far superior toyesterday’s products, rather, simply illustrative of a pervasivementality that merits acknowledgement and consideration. Understandingthe mentality that these “wants”, in the minds of individual consumers,are likely felt to be “needs”. The eye of the would-be beholder isparticularly relevant.

By utilizing the “Hierarchy of Needs”, it is possible to shed significant insight into how some of these psychological shifts are occurring. Developed by noted psychologist Abraham Maslow over 75years ago, this pyramid of hierarchically ordered needs is fundamental to many issues with psychological affect. At the base of the pyramid are “basic needs” such as food, shelter and clothing. Above the basic,physiological level are needs that could be classified as “safety” and would include anything that can provide psychological security and stability. Above this are “social” needs such as the need for friends and companionship. Nearing the top of the pyramid are needs under thelabel of “self-esteem” in which feeling such as pride and respectbecome important. Finally, the highest level of needs is characterizedas being “self-actualization” needs in which a person has the desire tomake the “most” of themselves and to “be” more.

A key component of Maslow’s influence is his belief that higher needs can not be addressed until lower needs are satisfied. This is especially salient as most people living in “modern” civilized countries have all the more “basic” needs met. Consequently and with few exceptions, most can spend their days in pursuit of the satisfaction of “higher” needs such as self-esteem and self-actualization.

As America or any modern society has evolved, psychologist and philosopher Eric Fromm indicates that society and its members have also evolved to a point at which “being” is confused with “having” (Gini,A. 2003, p. 84). Such as materialist possessive mindset will leavevacant the needs at the top of the pyramid and individuals will exhibitfeelings associated with not having these innate needs unfulfilled. Fromm further indicates that much of the symptoms of this empty questare typical of a “western” mindset and ultimately result in a mentalityof “to be much is to have much” (Gini, A. 2003, p. 82).

To have a high standard of life means to enjoy a pleasure intensely and tire of it quickly.
– Simon Patten (Hine, T. 2002 p. 17)

The fact that people, in general, are consuming more, that there are more products and more places to buy them go a long way in describing in somewhat imprecise yet accurate terms that context of modern society. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also provides significant insight into the circumstances of the continuing patterns of increasing consumption that indicated a struggle to satisfy a need that cannot be satiated through the mechanism of acquiring things. At this point, a further differentiation between “needs” and “wants” can be drawn: a need is often physical and should be satisfied externally; a want is most likely a psychological, internally manifested desire. In the same way that you could not satisfy a real, physical hunger with psychological fish and chips, attempts to quench a psychological desire with a tangible object are likely short-lived and misguided and willend in psychological frustration.

This misguided attempts to assuage one’s highest psychological needs is not unreasonable given the mixed messages in society of which there is a clear emphasis placed upon highly superficial qualities. Shopping is simply the process whereby one attempts to execute these omnipresent messages. As a cultural phenomenon, shopping is the procedural execution of economic decision-making. This decision-making takes places in a sea of in which image and emotion are perhaps more likely to take precedence of narrowly defined economic and functional utility. The price tag on an item reflects a certain value but the real value is in the eye of the consumer and is the item worth that much to me. Using economic terms such as opportunity cost and opportunity benefit are especially relevant as a purchase decision hangs in the balance: “what will my friends think?”, “does it make me more attractive?”, “does it make me happy?” are examples of what goes through the ‘new’ consumer mind. The fact that a product will do the job is, at best, necessary but not sufficient and, at worst, totally irrelevant.

As noted above, the process of shopping along with the acquired resultant booty are a reflection of a changing culture and value system. “Shopping” is part of a manner by which a person defines who they are. What is bought, where it came from and the motives define a person for themselves and, probably in large measure, to others aswell. Just as important as what, where and why that someone bought something are the ‘facts of omission’: that they did not buy it at a certain store, etc. is as relevant as the ‘facts of commission’. Consider the following telling examples of self-expression:

the shopper purchases prominently labeled Pampered Chef cookware in lieu of functionally equivalent store merchandise,
the man who purchases a Polo sweater with its distinctive logo over the perhaps even pricier/better nondescript brand,
the person who chooses name-brand drinks when company is expected over the undistinguishable other brand.
While the rationale for purchases are intriguing issues, it is interesting to note that everyone thinks they are good at it (Pooler,J. 2003, p. 4). This is all the more interesting in light of how one might possibly define “good” or “success”. Certainly, in the mind of the “above average” or even “good” consumer, it would be a short-lived experience as the satisfaction of a successful hunt only fuels the
thirst for additional quarry. That this ubiquitous activity is seldom relegated to being considered just a “functional” activity in which“functional” products are the goal is consistent with the fact that itis now something of a recreational pursuit in which objects of deep psychological desire are hunted with a relish most often associated with sports participation.

As most activities in which there is the reward, shopping can go “tofar”. For many the allure of shopping can be a bit too much. The attraction of shiny products, sexy packaging, tempting displays, glamorous advertisements, ever-so-helpful service staff and the extreme ease by which one can proffer payment, it is no wonder that some“over-succumb” to the retail sirens. Given a society that is behaviorally and cognitively conditioned respond to the stimulus of retail, it is no surprise that some spend beyond their means. Others may have the means to financially afford the habit but are continue to seek fulfillment in a venue that cannot provide anything else than transitory happiness until the cycle begins again.

The idea of more, of ever increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are caught by it as an addict by his drugs.
– Paul Wachtel (Gini, A. 2003 p. 81)

The idea that shopping can get out of hand does not escape the attention of either popular press such as Essence or more scholarly tomes such as the Journal of Consumer Research or CNS Drugs [CentralNervous System]. “Behind the urge to splure” reads Essence, is often a person who some degree, find that they cannot help themselves. For some, a certain purchase is simply “merchandise”, even if a bit pricey and fashionable. For others, it may represent a conscious or unconscious “sense of entitlement” or it may be a form of self-medication that is termed in some circles to be “retail therapy”(Bridgeforth, G. 2004, p. 156). This so-called therapy is likely caused by the psychological frustration from the lack of lasting fulfillment of pasting attempts to achieve “self-actualization” via shopping as a compensation mechanism. While a problem in itself,‘shopping for psychological satisfaction’ may be masking serious issues such as a ‘clinically-qualifying’ depression or just ‘regular’ issues for which shopping is simply a surrogate means to attain a bit of self-esteem through “good shopping”.

Though many in the popular press refer to someone as being a “shopping addict”, it is important to note that there are different types of addiction. Commonly, when one refers to someone as an “addict”, the mind conjures up the person who is addicted to cocaine, methamphetamines or even alcohol. These types of addictions are undoubtedly very real and, because of their nature, are referred to as physiological addictions. The chemicals in the abused substanceshyper-stimulate certain receptors in the central nervous system and their prolonged use created a deficit in the body’s production of endogenous analog. Such a deficit is augmented by a strong desire for such chemical stimulation as well as certain psychological “needs” or perhaps more accurately, “compunctions”. If it were the case that shopping was addictive in the same way that drugs are, we might expect to find that purchases of various persons showed little trends in that the same types or categories of items did not construe a consistent purchase incidence. In actuality, items that tend to be more“emotional” in nature have a distinct tendency for a greater purchase frequency that items with than items with less potential for attachment(Pooler, J. 2003, pp. 24-25). For example, “duct tape” or “milk” are items that would not be likely to be on a shopping addict’s list whereas items such as jewelry, fashion items or “elegant” undergarments are strong contenders.

Though not quite like a drug addiction, shopping for certain individuals can be maladaptive or pathological in nature. Though it can not be deemed a physiological addiction, as we will discuss in more detail later, there are physiological consequences and manifestations of what is otherwise a psychological presentation. For these individuals, the entire shopping experience is different: to someone who has not experienced it, it would seem almost inconceivable that a person could be “out of control” to the extent that those suffering from compulsive spending disorder report as being. As Black reports,“…compulsive shoppers often describe their experiences as being enhanced by color, lighting or the odor of stores, as well as the textures of clothing… [with] some even describing the experience as being sexually exciting” (Black, D. 2001, p. 23). According to these same reports, 83% of compulsive shoppers report that it makes them feel“happy” while 71% indicate a “powerful” feeling. This feeling persist in the face of the guilt and consequences following their purchases which, in many cases, are either returned or given away and not retained (Black, D. 2001, p. 23).

In determining if someone should be fitted with the label layperson’s terms being of a “shopping addict” or a “shop-a-holic”, a key qualifier is the expression of consumer demand that could be considered to be“irrational”. Such classification must be considered in the context of the consumer’s lifestyle and income. With this in mind, it is not the object of demand so much as an extreme emotional or otherwise inappropriate level of demand within a ‘reasonable’ framework of acceptability (Pooler, J. 2003, p. 26). For example, the strong desire of a comparatively wealthy person or perhaps the elite harrier who wants the ‘very latest’ in performance athletic footwear is insufficient to earn such a label. On the other hand, the individual who is not, by any stretch of the imagination, remotely athletic and whose income in inconsistent with shoe’s whose price exceeds ten hours wages would likely be labeled irrational. Such information in conjunction with other facts and the overall context would be in line with consideration for such a designation.

Another consideration in the determination of the appropriateness of anon-clinical label such as a shopping addict is the overall magnitude of the behavior. A common behavior is that people, when they feel they have done “a good job” with some task will “self-reward”. This construct is could generally be termed to be a more benign presentation of the “self-medicating” label often is implemented in regards to a work-related behavior. This “psychological pat on the back”, whether a alternative compensation mechanism or a pure positive reinforcement of a selected behavior. Regardless, there is an intuitive level of reasonableness in relation to the magnitude of the reward with the degree of difficulty or relative “greatness” of task achievement. Depending on a number of factors, one employee may seek self-gratification through treating themselves to lunch while another could give them a license to splurge and run up a disproportionately hefty bill.

All in all, though it would be exceeding convenient if there were a blood test to determine if one were an addict, it is simply not the case. Despite this, there are certain patterns that do fit the criteria for shopping being an addiction. While there are diagnostic criteria for the determination that an individual is a “shopping addict”, it is quite likely just as useful to define “addictive” behavior as occurring when there is strong irrational desire based upon a perceived need for some stimulus despite, in the long run pathological or maladaptive. The addict may likely know that the pursuit of such a stimulus is not in their best interests or they may, through ignorance or extreme desire, be blind to the negative consequences of continued consumption. Defined similarly as being“behavior triggered by internal psychological tension and accompanied by relief and frustration… performed repeatedly despite its negative consequences” by DeSarbo and Edwards in research conducted to more accurately ascertain related psychological factors, either definition seems to adequately capture the intuitive connotation for such an assessment (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 231).

If 10% of the population have a problem and 9 of your friends are OK…Is it YOU?

While it may not, in fact, be “1 in 10”, the incidence of compulsive buying disorder has been estimated to be between 2-8% with the overwhelming majority being female and with a comparatively young(<30 years old) time of onset (Black, D. 2001, p. 21). Those afflicted with this compulsive shopping disorder are generally affected “around the clock” rather than simply when the urge hits them. This“pathological preoccupation” with shopping and buying things occurs all the time thought the actual incidence of overspending or emotional spending varies from daily to a few times per year, depending on the individual case (Glatt, M. and C. Cook 1987, p.1257).

Before plunging headlong into the issue of shopping as an addiction, itis important to differentiate between “compulsive” and “impulsive” spending. The distinguishing feature between them is the source of the impetus as being internal or external. Internal motivations such as anxiety or the seeking of increased self-esteem or gratification are the motivations for compulsive spending. Impulsive spending is differentiated by the stimulus for purchase is being driven by an external mechanism such as a blinking package, prominent placement such as an endcap or a “special” (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p.233). Such as differentiation is important as it is not uncommon for compulsive buyers to also be impulsive buyers yet there are discernable differences in their psychological makeup.

Clearly, shopping can be addictive and merits attention and possibly intervention. While there are common sense guidelines to assessing the such behavior as indicated previouly, more standard criteria have been developed to aid both a person in determining that they ought to seek professional help as well as aiding mental health professionals in making a confirmatory diagnosis. Developed under the assumption that materialism is a pervasive and global human trait, the

Diagnostic Screener for Compulsive Buying Behavior (DSCB) was developed with seven key items:

I made only the minimum payments on my credit cards.
I wrote a check when I knew I didn’t have enough money in the bank.
I felt others would be horrified if they knew of my spending habits.
If I have any money left at the end of a pay period, I just have to spend it.
I bought things even though I couldn’t afford them.
I bought myself something in order to make myself feel better.
I felt anxious on days I didn’t go shopping (Kwak, H., G. Zinkman, & M. Crask 2003, p. 166).
These items had an approximate overall reliability of 0.75 and were significant at the p>.05 level. Despite this, in trials with multiple samples from both the US, represented individualized ‘western culture, and South Korea, representing more a community/group-driven eastern culture, the emergence of dimensionality in the data was observed. In US samples, the premise that the seven test items capture adequately the various psychological tensions and anxieties that a person who suffers from compulsive buying issues is supported without modification. However, South Korean samples, though supporting the hypothesis this instrument can reliably detect such issues, revealed bi-dimensionality in two constructs of:

“Financial outcomes” – (items 1,2 and 3),
“Unfettered spending” – (items 4,5 and 6) (Kwak, H. 2004, p. 167).
Such a finding indicates that, in some cultures, consumers may see that an certain issue has different or distinct angles. For example, either an problem with the financial outcomes of behaviors or the fact that one may not be very restrained in spending is likely seen as the same issue by American consumers. In essence, the answers may be the same and the result the same but the meaning that a certain culture places upon one factor or another is relevant and only reiterates the changing nature and that interpretation of such instruments cannot be removed from the culture.

Additional research by DeSarbo and Edwards published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in which advanced statistical controls were utilized provide significant additional insights in the both the nature of the problem of compulsive buying and the discernment of the problem itself. In this research the authors cite numerous previous studies in which the behavior of compulsive buying has been linked to a number of psychological personality characteristics such as:

Lack of impulse control
Low self-esteem
Escape coping tendencies
General compulsiveness
In addition, the factors of family environment, childhood experiences with money and spending, family communication patterns, as well as factors such as the number of credit cards regularly used,degree of credit debt and other compulsive behaviors demonstrated have been identified as potential predictors of compulsive buying activity(DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 232).

Of all the factors indicated in assessing the issues that predispose an individual to compulsive buying behaviors, the “escape from anxiety” is most often labeled as the most influential factor. As multiple studies indicate, “…compulsive buyers react to stress with higher levels of anxiety than do noncompulsive buyers”. When ‘stressed out’, compulsive shoppers attempt to utilize purchases as a compensation mechanism or as an escape from the anxiety (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards2004, pp. 235, 236).

Additionally, the following significant contributing factors are listed below:

1. Self-Esteem– Cited as the most common deficiency in those who are compulsive shoppers, it is easy to see how the act of purchasing an item can convey a sense of power and entitlement although it is one that is short-lived (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 236). This non-durable pleasure serves to enhance the vicious cycle in which the progressive qualities of the “disease” are exhibited. This cycle is virtually identical to many physiological addictions in which there is desensitization or habituation to a certain level of stimulus: which each engagement, the person wants/needs a larger “dose” or a greater frequency of stimulation.

2. Perfectionism – This trait is frequently associated with invididuals who suffer from addiction and is characterized as being “unrealistic” expectations whose unfulfillability can result in a variety of issues such as depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. By purchasing, individuals with this trait are seeking to assuage these feelings and, for a short while, they may succeed (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 236).

3. Impulsiveness– In the scheme of medical or psychological diagnosis, “compulsive buying behaviors” are close relatives of obsessive-compulsive behavioral disorders. The inability to control impulsive thoughts and/or the related ability to defer gratification are likely important contributors to this behavior (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, pp.236, 237). Also, as indicated earlier, there should be a distinction drawn between “compulsive” and “impulsive” buying behaviors in which the stimulation for action is internal or external, respectively.

4. Locus of Control –Much compulsive buying is likely related to a internal struggle to gain“control” of a confounding and stressful external environment. When a person chooses to make a purchase, feelings of control are present as the person chooses the object, means, timing, location and, in some cases, the cost of their desires. This highly controlled situation could likely be contrasted to the context of the balance of their lives in which they are at the whim of others and exert no control and possibly even little influence upon the events and objects in their day. As such, those who are characterized as being compulsive consumers are likely to view themselves as “being controlled externally” as they have an inability to see themselves from the perspective that they are able to influence their lives internally(DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 238).

In addition, addition personality traits such as “excitement seeking”, “approval seeking” or “dependence” issues as well as environmental factors or familial factors are considered to be characteristics that can contribute to or perpetuate cycles of compulsive consumerism. An example of an environmental factors that are potentially relevant are “isolation” in which the occasion of compulsive buying may provide a social outlet or “materialism” in which ‘keeping up with the Jones’’ becomes a compelling rationale for such spending (DeSarbo, W. and E.Edwards 2004, p. 239). With regards to familial factors, there are a great many learned behaviors that are internalized as “normal” in the context of the home. Additionally, most people first experience with money and managing finances come through the context of chores, an allowance and forms of rationed spending. These early experiences have a significant influence upon adult behaviors as is the case in which children learn that “money is a reward” or perhaps are not taught that saving is a very important part of earning as well as spending(DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, pp. 239,240).

One of the ultimate goals of psychology is to understand, predict and influence behavior. To more fully understand the role that these personality traits, environmental and family or sociological issues plays in the expression of compulsive buying behaviors, DeSarbo and Edwards utilized advanced regression techniques to “tease out”additional insights that would otherwise be “buried” in using simpler techniques.

The basic idea behind regression analysis is to plot a line which represents the extent to which a certain factor or group of factors can explain the variance of measurable behaviors within a sample group. More basic regression techniques such as linear regression utilize a formula of y=mx+b in which y is the expected behavior and x is the independent variable in which there it is posited there will be a influence y. In its most basic forms, variables are “lumped together” and one can determine only is a certain combination significantly influences the outcome. In more intermediate approaches, differing variables can be accounted for by there relative contribution to the outcome. In the more advanced data manipulations, technology enables the rapid assessment of various combinations or “clusters” of variables can be examined in order to more fully account for the observed sample variability.

It was such an approach, “clusterwise constrained and unconstrained step-wise regression analysis”, that was employed by DeSarbo and Edwards to predict the maximum likelihood of compulsive buying by grouping specific combinations of these factors which each iteration testing for deviations in outcome as various factors or groups of factors are included or omitted. Results from this manipulation confirm the difference between “compulsive” buying in which the behavioral stimulation is more due to internal psychological factors and “impulsive” buying in which key drivers are more externally biased.
In this analysis, the study revealed the key predictors of compulsive buying to be self-esteem, dependence and anxiety. For impulsive buying, factors yielding statistically significant influence were determined to be denial, isolation, approval seeking and coping. Additionally, “impulsiveness” as a personality trait factor displayed a significant degree of influence over internally- and externally-driven compulsive buying behaviors (DeSarbo, W. and E. Edwards 2004, p. 248).

Though the assessment devices that can shed insight on such psychological concepts as are indicated above, when utilized by a trained technician, can provide a more “clinical” means by which compulsive buying issues can be gauged, many of the same indices are often incorporated in to what might be termed “user-friendly field assessment quizzes”. Such a screening tool may be especially helpful as a guide to help one self-determine if there is a potential likelihood of an issue that may need merit professional assistance. An example of this type of quiz is given below:

1. Do you hide purchases from your partner to avoid a fight?
2. Are there garments in your closet from seasons past that still have tags on them?
3. Do you “forget” about purchases made and then find yourself without the money to pay for them when the bill arrives at the end of the month?
4. Have you consolidated your credit card debt or rolled it into a refinance?
5. Do you travel at the drop of a hat and take additional trips before past trips are paid for?
6. Do you tap into “emergency” savings regularly to make ends meet?
7. Are you unable to contribute the maximum to your 401(k) because you need extra dollars to pay your bills?
8. Have you withdrawn from or made loans against your 401(k)? (Bridgeforth, G. 2004, p. 158)

Though these “yes or no” questions are relatively unsophisticated, they can provide significant insight into the issues identified by Kwak, et al., such as the emphasis on financial outcomes, unrestrained spending and activities that might be suggestive of behavioral patterns as opposed to single incidents.

Grappling with the Gray Area… A Continuum Approach to Pathology

One of the key features of this “disease” is that, like many psychological issue, it typically begins almost unnoticed and gradually progresses. The initial cycle is likely to begin even innocuously yet the behavior of spending is reinforced by the association of the positive feeling that one has shortly after the purchase. Though this seems reasonable, there is a pronounced tendency on behalf of most people if not medical professionals are well to see illness in terms of a dichotomous perspective. While this is a convenient method, it is indeed too convenient to model the reality of a continuum-approach to this issue. Further, there are traits that seem to predispose one to compulsive spending such as personality or familial factor

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