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March 2017
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PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF PURCHASING: SHOPPING SYNDROME



Consumerism and addictions to shopping

One of the characteristics of the modern society is a common consumerism attitude and a tendency to encourage purchasing items which, in turn, often feeds false needs that have gradually turned the idea of possessing products into a real source of happiness or, in other words, an instrument used for constructing an accepted and enjoyable social identity. Shopping has even become a technique used for releasing tension after a difficult day!
A consequence of this social condition is the extreme difficulty to draw the fine line between normal and pathological shopping, therefore, the phenomena of compulsive shopping (also known as shopping syndrome) are often the result of a combination of an individual disorder and the proposed lifestyle, fed and enhanced by society, in which unnecessary shopping is continually given more importance.

Quantity and quality of purchases in cases of shopping syndrome

Compulsive shopping, or shopping syndrome, represents a psychological and behavioural disorder characterised by a tendency to experience actual purchasing crises, a form of shopping mania which, during the first few years that it was recognised, earned the names oniomania or buying mania.

Since this addiction is triggered by a normal, every day activity, this type of disorder often remains in the shadows and is not diagnosed until it comes to a head, creating, as is often the case, psychological and family problems or disastrous financial consequences. Furthermore, the ‘buying culture’ which connotes today’s society often leads to difficulties in drawing a clear distinction between those who buy, satisfying the smallest of desires, and those who fail to manage their purchases and have a problem of compulsive buying which, by virtue of the deep bond we have with the characteristics of modern consumerist society, has also been called excessorexia.

Therefore, it is often difficult to distinguish pathological purchasing from normal buying on the basis of quantitative criteria, thus the diagnosis is only made after the problem begins and has established itself.

The qualitative characteristics which distinguish the problem are a useful way to recognise the presence of this type of disorder, which occur from the first moments it starts to fully establishing itself. There are even some characteristics which distinguish the items purchased during compulsive shopping crises, such as the tendency to buy useless and unnecessary objects which the shopping addict sometimes does not even like and which are often over budget, and the items are usually the same sort of things.

The choice of the articles bought often responds to a (more or less) conscious need the buyer has to construct their identity from the outside by owning things in general, or owning certain items, which are individually or socially considered an expression of a positive or winning quality. Confirmation of the symbolic connotation which often comes with purchasing an item derives from studies about different types of shopping carried out by individuals affected by shopping syndrome. This symbolic value is stimulated when the purchasing of a particular product is repeated and is bought as if it was an important, missing piece to a puzzle that must be completed. 

Women are more inclined to buy clothes, objects and beauty tolls, whilst men buy products related to body care, clothing or complex sports equipment. Men also seem more inclined to buy items which are status symbols, like cars or highly technological instruments, such as computers and audio-video systems, which often relate to their most far-fetching and illusory professional or social dreams.

Psychological episodes and associations with other problems

The qualitative differences related to episodes of compulsive shopping, compared to normal shopping, concern feelings and emotions felt by the compulsive buyers.

During these episodes, intense, and sometimes contradictory emotional states are described which, in some cases, are related to external factors, such as owning a product, and in other cases are related to internal feelings.

In the course of these episodes, feelings appear to change during the actual purchasing and these feelings have been split into three distinct phases related to compulsive spending.

  1. In the first phase, feelings of flirtation with products are felt, which are sometimes perceived as hypnotic and magical, and the shopaholic often feels, irrationally, that they cannot let this occasion get away. The internal feelings of this initial attraction are described as a deep feeling in the gut, shivers, rushes of colour, vibrations, arousal, agitation and circulating energy or even complete loss of control.

  2. The change, or intensification, of these feelings is registered when the victim starts to buy the product and this brings us to the second, emotional phase. At this moment of the purchasing crisis, the emotions are often characterised by a pervasive feeling of well-being and happiness, fed by a cognitive block of the perception of time, which often appears to stop for the victim, like a dissociated state of mind. Shopping addicts are rarely aware of their destructive behaviour and, in these rare cases, precociously deep feelings of guilt and discouragement, or feelings of not being able to control oneself, are felt.

  3. However, these latter feelings are more frequent in the third phase, where the consequences of this negative behaviour are realised and where the illusions about the power of the product are ruined. This usually happens at the end of a shopping rampage, during which negative feelings increase and the victim feels intensely guilty, ashamed and feels empty inside.

Although uncontrolled shopping crises do involve the qualitative characteristics described so far, they are not always due to a disorder related to consumption, rather they often represent a different type of disorder. In this respect, two distinct types of consumption disorders have been established, based on the dependency-independency of the problem in relation to other mental disorders.

  1. The first type described is abusive consumption: pathological purchasing is present as a secondary symptom of a psychological disorder, like depression, anxiety, mood swings, schizophrenia and even dementia. In cases of bipolar disorders, shopping crises usually occur during hypomaniacal or maniacal periods characterised by states of agitation, which is expressed in other areas of the victims life and where certain types of behaviour are nothing other than one of the various forms of behaviour that can occur during maniacal periods. Feeling sad and empty inside is often what feeds the compulsive shopping of depressed individuals who often purchase things as a way to beat solitude and to get in contact with the world. In addition to depressed people, schizophrenics shop in the search for certain objects however, in these more serious cases, the item they are looking for is something used to protect themselves against a delirious idea. In cases of dementia and mental insufficiency, sufferers find it difficult to understand the concept of possession and methods of purchase which can cause problems related  to buying things or other forms of behaviour related to buying various types of items. In all of these situations, since shopping is associated to and provoked by another, main illness, it is important to take care of the main problem because, by healing this, positive results can be obtained.

  2. Unlike the first form of pathological consumption, in cases of morbid consumption or consumption addiction, buying something occurs because of an exaggerated tendency to consume things, which is fed by an uncontrollable impulse.

In order to underline the difference between these two types of consumption illnesses, a distinction has been made between compensatory behaviour, which represents a type of reaction carried out so as to get rid of a bad mood and confront frustrations, thoughts and other types of emotions, and compulsive behaviour, through which the person is not looking for pleasure, rather he/she is looking to fill a hole or protect him/herself from fear or insecurities through ritual-like behaviour.

Besides any important distinction made in order to detect whether the way forward for the treatment of the problem is primary therapy of the disease or specific work on the problem of buying things, the common denominator which can be found in cases of shopping syndrome is the presence of harmful effects on finances and family relationships.

Shopping syndrome: impulse, obsession and addiction

One of the most important elements of shopping syndrome is understanding the various forms of distress involved in this complex disorder, which has always been difficult to classify in the field of mental health disorders.

Compulsive shopping is actually a disorder made up of three categories of psychological-behavioural distress which are often present all at the same time:

  1. a disorder regarding control of impulses;
  2. obsessive behaviour;
  3. addiction to an activity.

The presence of a lack of control of one’s own buying impulses is confirmed by an irresistible impulse to buy something. This uncontrollable movement towards buying something, which is present in compulsive buyers, has been called impulse buying and it is described as an excessive, destructive and pervasive tendency which creates an urgent need that must be satisfied. Aspects of this type of behaviour are similar to other situations where people show signs of a lack of control of their instincts, for example, when addicted to gambling and kleptomania.

The repetition of this buying behaviour, and the cycle of the crises, have led to emphasising the obsessive character of the disorder, which appears to increase, like other obsessive problems, when sufferers are stressed.

However, the characteristic which undoubtedly appears to be the hardest to get rid of concerns the addiction to buying things, which is known as an addiction to purchasing and addictive buying. When the individual stops, real withdrawal crises can be observed in shopping addicts, and this is the most difficult moment to deal with when on the road to recovery. Other signs of withdrawal are similar to those related to other addictions, for example hiding purchases, or in the case of substance addiction, hiding drugs.

Some scholars, who point out the aspect of addiction in compulsive buying, have described the characteristics of this type of bond with purchasing by defining this problem as an addiction without an object, where an activity replaces the addictive object and, just like for a social or legal addiction, there is nothing wrong with it in terms of society, and it may even be the case that there are models which encourage this problem.

From normal purchasing to pathological purchasing

The buying behaviour of those with compulsive shopping disorder undergoes numerous transformation in comparison to the processes which normal shoppers experience when rationally buying something.

Normally, the purchase of an item is guided by needs, attitudes and personal preferences, subjective norms related to the approval of friends and family, the beliefs about being in control of purchasing items and past behaviour, which are all elements that contribute to the purchasing of the item in question.

Fig. 1 – Model of habitual purchasing behaviour

With regards to shopping syndrome, the factors that guide the buying behaviour are different to those described in the image above. In this case, pressing needs are felt which are related to a continual process of constructing one’s identity, to power, to success and to the desire to be accepted by others. These needs are sustained by the idea that certain products are considered as signs of success in society, however, the products in question may even go against personal preferences. Due to this, shopping addicts do not always choose items they truly prefer, but rather what is considered to be a sign of success. Furthermore, harmful, persistent habits, which are triggered after the first few crises, feed a lack of control which tends to encourage further excessive buying behaviour. Shopping addicts may also go as far as hiding purchases.

Fig. 2 – model of compulsive shopping behaviour

Quite often external elements, like marketing messages, the people we spend time with or socially accepted models, trigger beliefs about buying behaviour which convince an addict about the advantage related to purchasing a product, which is considered a bargain or even an item that can symbolically solve all the victims personal problems and insecurities. Past behaviour is the biggest trap because, after the first few episodes of losing control when shopping, it provides a model for behaviour that is uncontrolled, and it feeds a belief that control over one’s behaviour is highly lacking. Once compulsive shopping behaviour is well established, it fosters the characteristics that generated it, reinforcing them during every crisis. It is for this reason that, just like for pathological gambling and other forms of addictions to activities, it is hard to break the habit.
One of the main elements that must be considered when overcoming the problem is related to false ideas which feed the behaviour in question, which symbolically tends to get closer to the behaviour of illusionary models which are often pursued in an attempt to offset one’s insecurities and overcome personal self-esteem problems, which end up getting worse after every failure to control one’s behaviour.
This lack of sense of control also represents a fundamental element which fuels the probability that bad shopping habits happen again because of a disbelief that one can voluntarily be in control when shopping.

An effective type of therapy for this problem is encouraging gradual control of one’s impulses by gradually establishing a new way to buy things, characterised by the ability to limit one’s shopping budget regularly and leave shops without buying things after looking at them. 

The family’s role

Addictions to shopping, which are mainly present amongst women, have actually been around for many years (possibly even ten years), however they were only recognised once serious financial problems were present. The origins of the problem are often traced back to development issues, especially lax or hyper-protective parental upbringing. The common idea that the problem is rooted in the family has led to underlining different aspects in the psychodynamic developmental of the problem and several factors have been found which contribute to the onset of compulsive buying. The first prospects, which are of psychoanalytic origin, connect the compulsive shopping disorder to negative childhood experiences, or to problems faced when growing up.

In this respect, uncontrolled behaviour is interpreted as a way to relive a conflict which makes childhood feelings resurface, like impotence, shame and guilt, so as to attempt to control every new episode of pathological shopping. Compulsive shopping also seems to represent an attempt to compensate for certain repressed childhood desires, causing behaviour which is supported and accepted socially. 
Another psychological aspect, which is particularly obvious in this disorder, regards the continual attempt to fill internal emptiness, shown through repeated purchases which express what one wants to be but, due to the vicious circle, just continue to cause feelings of emptiness which cannot be filled through external means. 
This aspect can be seen by those who try to buy internal objects, like hundreds of books, which are often bought in search of the answers to questions which have never been listened to. In relation to certain family dynamics from the past, it is not uncommon that compulsive buyers attempt to find a parent, either real or symbolic, who takes responsibility for all financial damage and this behaviour causes the common situation of stalemate in the process of self-empowerment. Furthermore, people prone to compulsive shopping are used to living with parents who have always shown their affection through materials means which, consequently, are sought after in both repeated purchases and requests for help to pay off debts that have formed because of excessive shopping. 
Addiction, shown first by excessive consumption and then in the search for help to manage financial problems, shows how this type of disorder is often the result of an upbringing which conveyed the idea of being incompetent, an aspect which has caused discussions about the existence of an illness of independence since the discomfort felt shows a problem with independence which, through a temporary search for freedom, promptly brings the shopping addicts back to dependency on parents/guardians. 
In terms of this disorder, shopping is related to products which indirectly express a person’s thoughts about him/herself, as well as the desire to change concrete and intangible parts of him/herself, by filling the so called ‘empty self’.
Finally, it must be remembered that an important element which often stimulates purchases is anxiety, which can represent an initial condition which leads on to trying to get rid of excess psycho-physical tension. For this reason, relaxation training can often be a good starting point to begin managing the problem and reducing the frequency of it.

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