'Addicted' to Shopping?

The slope from Labor Day sale euphoria to the tremors of retail withdrawal could be a slippery one.

shopping-615.jpgnateOne/Flickr

This weekend, Americans will flock to shopping malls and computers to partake in the timeless U.S. tradition of the Labor Day sale. Shopping over the holiday weekend can range from unnerving to psychosis-inducing, so keep a level head with some perspective on retail psychology.

  • Should I worry about getting "addicted to" shopping? Surveys find that compulsive buying disorder affects between 5 percent and 15 percent of the population. Among adolescents, the rate has been found to be about 3.5 percent. Compulsive buying isn't a clinically recognized addiction, but psychologists have developed a test known as the Compulsive Buying Scale that screens for problematic behavior if you're concerned. Like other tests designed to identify signs of addiction, this one asks patients to self-report feelings of shame or guilt associated with shopping. If you score at or above 42, you might have a problem.
  • What conditions may make compulsive shopping more likely? Certain factors have been linked to an increased risk for problem shopping -- these include smoking regularly, using marijuana and other drugs, and suffering from mood disorders. There's been some question as to whether compulsive shopping is a hereditary issue; so far, the genetic research has been inconclusive, but scientists have observed anecdotally that compulsive buying can run in families. We don't know a lot about what causes compulsive buying disorder, but studies note similarities between it and other behavioral disorders such as obsessive compulsiveness, which can be treated through the use of SSRIs. Others hypothesize that shopping simulates drug-like effects among the afflicted, with each episode triggering successive releases of dopamine that make the reward centers of our brains light up.
  • Who tends to buy things they don't need, and what do they buy? study of county yard sales and thrift shops by sociologists at Penn State and Brigham Young University found that in times of economic distress, lower- and middle-income individuals shop at these venues more often. But it's not comfort shopping they're doing; their purchases include more furniture and clothing. By contrast, wealthier people look to "antiques and trinkets." More broadly, compulsive shoppers tend to go after relatively cheap items (but then buy lots of them); shoes, jewelry, and cosmetics rank among the top five categories of purchases.
  • How can you avoid making emotional purchases? The term "retail therapy" brings along a bad taste -- it implies irrational behavior you could've avoided if only you'd exercised a bit more self-control. But new research suggests that some people engage in anticipatory shopping as a way to handle stressful situations before the fact. In a study of Northwestern University students, scientists told a group of participants that they'd be subjected to an intelligence test. Moments before the test, that group and and a set of control students were made to undergo a shopping exercise. Researchers presented the students with a choice of intelligence-linked items, such as a dictionary, and completely neutral items, such as chocolate. The students who were slated to take the intelligence test were willing to pay more for the items that made them feel smart compared to the neutral items. The findings support the notion that all purchases are motivated to some degree by emotions, and that the best way to resist is either to establish rigid systems in a bid to make shopping less of a temptation -- shredding your credit cards, for example -- or to acknowledge your vulnerabilities when you're at the mall.
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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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