What is shopping addiction and how can it be treated?

Over the last few decades, the attitude with which individuals make consumer choices has changed. Factors such as higher disposable income and easily available credit facilities mean that more than ever shopping is not solely for material necessity. As Benson put it “to regard the shopping process as nothing more than material consumption is like thinking of food as solely nutritional or sex as wholly for procreation” (Benson 2000, p68).

Through an examination of buying behaviour and buying motivations it has been shown how choices about consumer products are influenced by factors other than the functional aspects of the goods. Factors include symbolic meanings, which allow individuals to express and construct a sense of self and ones identity. Dittmar and Beattie define impulse buying (or oniomania) as the purchasing of consumer goods without careful deliberation, perhaps with insufficient information or without prior intent. Puchases which with hidsight and rational reflection might not have been made.

They suggest that buying goods to bolster ones self image is something that contributes to nearly all buying behaviour (Dittmar and Beattie 1996) Everybody, in fact, would be able to recall an occasion when they acted according to these definitions, just as everyone has at some time drunk too much or eaten too much only to regret it on reflection. However, it is when this becomes detrimental to finance, family and self that it can be called compulsive buying behaviour. Compulsive buying behaviour or “shopping addiction” is estimated to affect two to five percent of adults in developed Western countries (Dittmar, Beattie and Friese, 1996) This essay will firstly look at the two theories of oniomania; Social Psychological theory and the Psychiatric or Clinical perspective. Then some of the options for treatment will be discussed.

Many researchers have talked of the role of self esteem in shopping addiction. Cushman (1990) talked of the “empty self”. He looked into the current configuration of the self and some of the technologies that claim to heal it. He looks at consumption behaviour from a historical perspective and focuses on the shift from the Victorian, sexually restricted self to the post World War two empty self. In his view, the empty self is made cohesive by “becoming filled upith food, consumer products and celebrities” (Cushman 1990, p602) This idea has been examined with more focus on shopping addiction in one of the papers examining the social psycological theory of excessive buying behaviour by Dittmar Beattie and Friese (1996).

Here it is sugested that consumers buy goods as a strategy to compensate for percieved discrepancies in the way in which they percieve themselves and the way in which they wish to be seen. Or their “actual self” and thier “ideal self”. In addition to that they looked at how high the compulsive shoppers scored on a materialism scale compared to normal shoppers, finding compulsive shoppers scoring significantly higher.

They also demonstrated that compulsive shoppers differ systematically from non addicted shoppers in the frequency with which they buy different types of consumer goods on impulse and their reasons for doing so. It seems form the results that addicted shoppers buy more appearence related goods such as clothes and jewellary . They are motivated by image conserns rather than functional ones. Compulsive shoppers have greater self discrepancies and stronger consumption orientated values than non-compulsive ones (Dittmar, Beattie and Friese, 1996)

A study by Desarbo and Edwards (1996) also looked at shopping addiction from the social psychological perspective. Here however, the primary goal was examine the heterogeneous nature of compulsive buying behaviour and therefore determine whether individuals exhibiting compulsive buying can be distinguised not only by the intensity of the behaviour but also by the motivations behind their consumption.

They found high levels of compulsive buying are significantly associated with higher levels of impulsivness, excitment seeking, dependence, denial and materialism. They also pointed out that there was some overlap between the compulsive buyers and the general population implying that there is no clear seperation between the two groups. They found two clusters; Internal compulsive buyers whose shopping behaviour appears to be motivated by impulsivness, low self esteem, dependence and anxiety – suggesting a more psychological reason for their behaviour (more in line with the clinical perspective). Also they identified an External group of compulsive buyers who were motivated by materialism, coping, isolation, denial and impulsivness – more driven by immediate environment than by deep seated psychologial problems (more in line with social psychological model).

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