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The psychology of shopping addiction
Is obsessive shopping a compulsion, an addiction, or both?
- Shopping might be one of the most socially acceptable addictions, but it's still a very powerful one that up to 6% of our population struggles with.
- Shopping addiction is a predominantly female problem, with around 90% of shopaholics being women.
- The neurotransmitter dopamine (which is also activated when we indulge in addictive substances such as alcohol or addictive behaviors like gambling) floods our system when we buy new things.
What is shopping addiction?
Photo by gpointstudio on Shutterstock
According to this American Addiction Centers resource, there are different types of "shopaholics":
- Compulsive shoppers who buy things when they are feeling emotional distress.
- Trophy shoppers who are always looking for the next perfect item.
- Flashy shoppers who crave the attention and adoration that comes with having nice, new things.
- Bargain shoppers who purchase things through couponing and sales, even if the items are not needed or desired.
- "Bulimic" shoppers who purchase and return items as part of a vicious cycle.
- Collective shoppers who find emotional value and wholeness in having "complete sets" of things (for example, one specific shirt in each color).
Why is shopping addiction more socially acceptable than other addictions?
On your way to work, you likely pass dozens of posters, adverts, and signs that are urging you to spend your money on the latest tech trends, clothes or fast food. However, the fact that consumerism is pushed on us by society isn't the only thing that can affect a shopaholic's behaviors; shopping is a way of life.
You need food from the grocery store, you need clothing, you need gas for your vehicle. Even if you try to curb your compulsive buying addiction by not going to stores in person, the world of online shopping is much more dangerous. With a credit card and a few strokes of your keyboard, you can purchase just about anything you can think of.
There is some debate between therapists, psychologists, and researchers over whether or not shopping addiction is a "real" addiction. "Very rarely," says psychologist Elizabeth Hartney, "is shopping addiction taken as seriously as addiction to substances like alcohol and drugs or other behavioral addictions such as compulsive gambling…"
Hartney suggests that most research on the topic of compulsive shopping is done by marketing companies, which means it's not seen as often by clinical professionals. The motives behind these kinds of research journals are purely from a marketing and consumerism standpoint and leave out the psychological behaviors that make up a shopping addiction.
Is being a shopaholic an addiction or a compulsive disorder?
What is the difference between shopping addiction and a compulsion to buy things?
Photo by Ivan Kruk on Shutterstock
Part of the confusion around shopaholics (and why society has deemed this specific behavior as more acceptable than a gambling addiction, for example) may be the thin line that separates "addiction" from "compulsion".
Shopping addiction can be referred to as compulsive shopping, but it's important to note that a compulsion is quite different than an addiction.
- A broad term that describes an entire process: trying something (a substance such as alcohol or a behavior such as gambling), becoming emotionally and physically dependent on it, and then becoming psychologically and physically addicted to it.
- Addictions have been described as all-encompassing: they are psychological, physical, emotional, biological things.
- People who struggle with addiction have explained feeling euphoric, elevated, happy, complete and whole when they partake in their addiction.
- A more narrow term that often refers to a specific, intense urge to do something.
- Compulsions have been described as "an itch you can't scratch" or a persistent thought process that won't leave you.
- People who struggle with a compulsion explain feeling immense relief and relaxation from completing behaviors that they feel compelled to do.
The characteristics of shopping addiction tend to blend in with what would be considered a buying compulsion. This may explain the hesitation to declare this phenomenon as either addiction or compulsion - because it can be either, or both, depending on each individual situation.
Some commonly known characteristics of compulsive shopping disorder can include:
- Shopping for unneeded items, so much so that it becomes a preoccupation, taking you away from daily responsibilities such as work duties and home life.
- Spending much of your time shopping (online shopping counts) or doing intense research on items you wish to buy.
- Extreme difficulty resisting the urge to purchase something, even if it's not needed or even desired.
- An elevated sense of self-worth or euphoria when making purchases.
- Continuing a shopping spree or unnecessary purchasing despite negative consequences such as debt or financial trouble.
- Problems at work or with loved ones due to your uncontrollable shopping urges.
- Deep satisfaction and calm state after making a purchase.
Compulsive shopping and buying addiction have been well-recognized in the past century (with Hollywood even making movies that dress-down the issue, such as "Confessions of a Shopaholic"). As of the 2018 edition, it is still not listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a compulsive disorder, despite its similarities to other disorders such as OCD or bipolar disorder.
For example, compulsive shopping can be linked directly to mood disorders such as anxiety, depression or bipolar - where compulsive buying and shopping serve as a "coping mechanism" for emotions they can't deal with.
Is there a neurological reason we enjoy spending money?
As with any behavioral addiction, there are biological imperatives that increase our chances of becoming addicted to things that people do every day, like shopping. Studies have shown that up to 6% of the population suffers with shopping compulsion or addiction. Around 90% of those shoppers are female. While specific causes of developing a compulsive shopping addiction are not yet known, a deeper look into the psychological effect shopping has on our brains can provide some insight into this illness.
The hormonal reaction the brain has when you shop...
When you're considering a new purchase, you're anticipating a reward. Maybe you're shopping for a gift that you know your spouse will love, or a new phone to celebrate that promotion you just got at work.
Once the purchase is made, the reward pathway of your brain lights up. The neurotransmitter dopamine (which is also activated when we indulge in addictive substances such as alcohol or addictive behaviors like gambling) floods our system. Once that feeling wears off, we crave it again. This is how all addictions work. It happens to some of us without us even realizing it. Why else do we get so excited at the thought of 30% off at our favorite store in the mall?
But with shopping addictions, the thought of that reward becomes an all-encompassing, dependency trigger that causes those affected to lean into the craving for the dopamine rush despite not having enough money or time to continue the habit.
With that in mind, it makes sense why we shop to celebrate and to feel good.
A 2011 study published in Psychology and Marketing found that retail therapy may have a lasting positive impact on our mood. Of course, there are downsides to this, such as spending money and associating purchases with happy moods which can quickly lead to a dependence. But the idea that buying things makes us happy is backed by science.
Shopping can also be a cause of celebration - look to your nearest holiday marked on the calendar for proof of that.
Research has suggested that more materialistic people tend to be less happy and are actually more likely to become depressed. However, these negative side effects of shopping can often be overlooked in the short term because of how happy we feel after the initial purchase.
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Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTgyMzg1NX0.ZY8qmhtoZfbRMAqrNnmbgyk7GLabglx_9lBq3PKcy7g/img.png?width=980" id="99882" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="68e8758894b0359c6ef61b2c158832b2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="970e9c15f3c3d846dde05e2b2c6ebf12" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b38a957408940673ccc744f0f6828d18" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f735418322b34382dcd882299c9ccc48" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDMzMDc3N30.p9BEtkf3-PV3EtDSQMUGUeopsimiCHUagx97P4f8IBw/img.jpg?width=980" id="e8ab8" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0063ce99bdd22fbebe1279244b87935c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Coccyx. Image source: decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="45469ca5ee5f43433a782f7d4ac0a440" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Researchers are using technology to make visual the complex concepts of racism, as well as its political and social consequences.
- Often thought of first as gaming tech, virtual reality has been increasingly used in research as a tool for mimicking real-life scenarios and experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
- Focusing on issues of oppression and the ripple affect it has throughout America's political, educational, and social systems, Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University School of Social Work and her team developed a VR experience that gives users the opportunity to "walk a mile" in the shoes of a black man as he faces racism at three stages in his life: as a child, during adolescence, and as an adult.
- Cogburn says that the goal is to show how these "interwoven oppressions" continue to shape the world beyond our individual experiences. "I think the most important and powerful human superpower is critical consciousness," she says. "And that is the ability to think, be aware and think critically about the world and people around you...it's not so much about the interpersonal 'Do I feel bad, do I like you?'—it's more 'Do I see the world as it is? Am I thinking critically about it and engaging it?'"
President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.
A new coronavirus vaccine on display at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Russian Direct Investment Fund via AP
Medical workers draw blood from volunteers participating in a trial of a coronavirus vaccine at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
A report from the New York Times raises questions over how the teletherapy startup Talkspace handles user data.