Clinical Consumption

There are tightwads and there are spendthrifts. But even most spendthrifts know when to quit: when the money runs out. But some people don’t quit. They live to buy. They move from purchase to purchase. They experience mania when consuming and depression when not being able to consume. They are fully addicted to the purchasing experience. This is known as compulsive buying disorder (oniomania).

Compulsive buying in itself is not wanting to have possession of specific items to increase one’s own perceived value or for the sake of having stuff (hoarding). It is rather the compulsion (pathological urge) of wanting to buy things. It is the process of buying from which the psychological benefits are derived (O'Guinn and Faber, 1989). The benefits are experienced at the moment of purchase, regardless of the dire consequences. These consequences are obvious: extreme debt.

I have said it before and I will say it again: credit cards are bad for you. They enable impulsive behaviours. A credit card is literally the worst thing to give to a compulsive buyer (Robert and Jones, 2001). With nothing to constrain them they plummet into debt like you have never seen before. Does this stop them from doing it again? Absolutely not.

Categorisation Compulsive buying is currently viewed as a compulsion. Two characteristics of compulsion are anxiety-relief and awareness of reality. In a compulsive disorder the individual experiences extreme stress as they feel the urge to engage in a behaviour, in our case shopping. Having engaged in the behaviour the individual experiences relief. The individual does not experience pleasure from engaging in this behaviour. Moreover, the individual is fully aware that their compulsions defy logic and could have aversive consequences (Blanco et al, 2001).

Quite some studies have found that these two characteristics do not fit with compulsive buying (Grant et al, 2006; Raab et al, 2011). Firstly, individuals do experience stress, but when having gone shopping this stress is not just relieved; the behaviour is in fact experienced as pleasurable. Second, compulsive buyers are often detached from reality; they are just having a good time and the negative consequences (soaring debt) are not important, or aren’t evening happening at all. This is denial: the individual denies that the behaviour is a problem. As a result of this denial, compulsive buyers continue to shop as soon as they feel the urge, which is often caused by stress.

The characteristics of compulsive buying as outlined above, fit more with addiction. An argument has been made that compulsive buying should be recognised as a behavioural addiction, just like pathological gambling has been (Grant et al, 2006; Raab et al, 2011). In several researches it has been treated as such.

Normalisation What do you think of when I say “shopping addict” ? You tend to think of bored rich wives with too much money and too much time on their hands. But you’re wrong there. Koran et al, (2006) found that the estimated prevalence of compulsive buying in the US was 5.8%, and it barely differed between genders. Moreover, compulsive buyers were found to be young (<30), and the majority had incomes under $50,000. When it came to debt management they were more than four times less likely to pay off credit card balances in full. No bored rich wives, but youngsters just starting out their lives. What kind of a start to your (financial) life is that?

The most worrying part is that getting into debt to finance a questionable lifestyle, and it is literally pathological, is not that frowned upon anymore. The (capitalist) society that we are in thinks it is normal to consume beyond your budget. Statements like “You CAN have it all!” and “MORE is better” are being screamed at you from all sides. Most households have multiple credit cards and are in debt because of them. Is it really that surprising that it took so long to recognise this behaviour as pathological, knowing that it has been normalised for decades?

Well I have had it. It is not normal to consume outside of your budget. Getting into debt when it comes to short-term and exhaustive consumption is ridiculous. I don’t care how “priceless” Mastercard thinks something is, it isn’t worth the debt (plus interest). Check yourself: if you, or anyone you know, experiences intrusive thoughts, is depressed when unable to go shopping and lives to consume when financially they are unable to; it is time to call for help. This is not normal. I don’t care who says it is. It is not psychologically (and financially) healthy.

Personally, I want compulsive buying to be reclassified as a behavioural addiction. It would mean that it would receive the depth and attention it needs. It would finally be taken seriously, without the "rich wife" stereotype. And as a result, proper treatments would be developed and improved to combat what is in essence a life-ruining behavioural addiction, that has been normalised for decades.

References Blanco, C., Moreyra, P., Nunes, E. V., Saiz-Ruiz, J., & Ibanez, A. (2001, July). Pathological gambling: addiction or compulsion?. In Seminars in clinical neuropsychiatry (Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 167-176).

Grant, J. E., Brewer, J. A., & Potenza, M. N. (2006). The neurobiology of substance and behavioral addictions. CNS spectrums, 11(12), 924-930.

Koran, L. M., Faber, R. J., Aboujaoude, E., Large, M. D., & Serpe, R. T. (2006). Estimated prevalence of compulsive buying behavior in the United States. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(10), 1806-1812.

O'Guinn, T. C., & Faber, R. J. (1989). Compulsive buying: A phenomenological exploration. Journal of consumer research, 16(2), 147-157.

Raab, G., Elger, C. E., Neuner, M., & Weber, B. (2011). A neurological study of compulsive buying behaviour. Journal of Consumer Policy, 34(4), 401.

Roberts, J. A., & Jones, E. (2001). Money attitudes, credit card use, and compulsive buying among American college students. Journal of consumer affairs, 35(2), 213-240.