Maria is 21 years old. She is in her third year at the Academy of Economic Studies, and has been working and paying rent for a year. Ever since she reached economic independence, she started going out in the city and being very concerned about the way she looks.
Maria has developed a clothing style that she feels highlights her personality, and uses Pinterest for inspiration. She likes being up-to-date with fashion trends, and spends a good few hours every week looking for clothes to complete her wardrobe online. But her wardrobe is never complete, because the trends change quickly, and her style evolves. There always seem to be pieces that attract her because they are more unique than those she already bought. The fact that this fashion “project” never reaches its end makes her waste time and money. Every season, when she tidies up her closet and “organises” her collection, she ends up donating a lot of things that she never wore or has worn only for a season. Besides, she doesn’t just feel like the money is flying out of her pockets. Her thoughts also seem to fly out of her mind, when she should be doing other things or when she is at work.
Every time she finishes her seasonal cleaning of her wardrobe, she feels much calmer and happier with what she has. Not only is her closet purged, but her mind is, too. She wants to be able to prolong this state, but she gets back to her old habits pretty fast, which makes her feel guilty. When she thinks that her well-being, or at least part of it, depends on some pieces of cloth, she feels angry and disappointed in herself, and inevitably ends up punishing herself and self-sabotaging in other areas of life, without even realising it. Eventually, she ends up developing an unhealthy relationship with food, which ultimately fuels her habits, which have now found a different purpose: the extra pounds require a new wardrobe. And the cycle continues.
Maria’s story illustrates only one of the patterns which can develop into a full shopping addiction. We would describe her personality as an “addictive type”, because there is currently no diagnostic category for what is unofficially called shopping addiction or compulsive shopping disorder. And, even if there were, could a situation like Maria’s be categorised as an addiction? Or is it just a moral issue, which, unfortunately, has become emblematic of our consumerist societies, aggravated by online commerce and the ubiquity of fast fashion? Experts are currently trying to find answers to these questions.
What is shopping addiction?
Pathological shopping, compulsive shopping or oniomania are different terms that describe the same phenomenon, in which individuals are preoccupied with shopping and suffer from recurrent compulsive shopping episodes, during which they lose control over their own consumptive behaviour. According to experts, frequent shopping, although it can seem compulsive, does not necessarily reach a pathological level. The major differentiating factor of shopping addiction is that while regular shoppers motivate their purchases by emphasising the value or usefulness of the products, compulsive shoppers will often buy things that are of no use to them and that are of no value. The primary purpose of their purchasing is to improve their mood or their self-esteem, gain social recognition, or to temporarily get rid of stress. And, although these episodes are followed by feelings of guilt or shame and are accompanied by financial, legal or relational problems, the people in question will not stop buying. Also, compared to ordinary shoppers, who usually make a plan and calculate their budget in advance, compulsive shoppers buy on impulse, without planning for it, and therefore often pay with a credit card, thereby accumulating debt.
Considering these aspects, we cannot conclude that Maria is addicted to shopping. She does not buy impulsively. She has a clear strategy in mind, her goal is strictly utilitarian, her shopping sessions are planned in advance, and so is her budget. However, we could say that she has developed highly consumerist behaviour, which is beginning to negatively affect her general well-being, and has started to show signs that it could become pathological if not kept under control.
Unfortunately, research in this area is still in the early stages. Although the concept of such a pathology arose in the early nineteenth century, only psychoanalysts seemed to be interested in it. It finally entered the radar of medical experts in the early 1990s, when the first clinical studies appeared. Attempts to establish a clear symptomatology in order to make a medical diagnosis have been criticised by some as an attempt to turn a moral problem into a pathology in order to sell more drugs, the same way that today’s children that have a natural excess of activity, or anxious adults, are immediately prescribed a drug-based treatment.
The fact that there are different terminologies for this disorder reflects that no consensus has been reached on the clinical classification of the phenomenon. While some experts argue that it should be classified as an impulse control disorder, others choose to include it in the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorders or behavioural addictions (as opposed to substance addictions).
The difficulty in establishing a clinical classification stems directly from the fact that the etiology of the disorder remains unknown. A literature review on the topic shows that explanations seem to have been restricted to specific aspects related to the patient’s early development, neurobiology or cultural influences, while studies on possible genetic factors that could underlie the pathology are completely missing. Psychoanalysts have suggested that events that took place in early development, such as sexual abuse, are factors that can cause the disorder, but the studies did not reveal any clear pattern of events or any particular hereditary situation that could be causal.
Neurobiological theories have focused on disorders related to neurotransmitters, especially serotonin, dopamine and opioids, which are naturally produced by the human body. Noting the similarities with obsessive-compulsive disorder, some doctors have tried to treat the disease with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Others have opted for naltrexone, an opioid antagonist used to treat addictions, because it prevents the feeling of euphoria that arises after consuming opioids or other addictive substances. Others have theorised that dopamine plays a role in behavioural addictions, including shopping addiction. However, current studies are inconclusive and do not support the idea that any disorder of these neurotransmitters has a direct impact on the development of the pathology.
Other studies have highlighted the recognition that this behaviour is observed especially in countries with developed economies. Among the factors necessary for the emergence of this type of consumerism is the presence of a market economy with a wide variety of goods, a disposable income and significant free time. For these reasons, such pathologies are not observed in poor countries, except among rich elites.
It should also be mentioned that shopping addiction is associated with significant comorbidities, especially other mental disorders that are prevalent in addictive behaviours, such as anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse. This makes it difficult to identify the etiology and establish diagnostic criteria, because these disorders potentiate each other. The causal line is not clear, and may differ from case to case.
For these reasons, the American Psychiatric Association has been reluctant to include compulsive shopping among behavioural addictions in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is a globally-used tool for psychiatric diagnoses. A meta-analysis of studies in the field also concluded that, so far, there is no substantial amount of research that highlights the presence of the same neurobiological pattern in compulsive shopping as in the other behavioural addictions that are in the DSM-5, such as gambling addiction. There is only one study that used magnetic resonance imaging to clearly observe the neurobiology of the phenomenon. For this reason, and because it is not clear what the frequency of shopping episodes should be in order to register as an addiction, the authors of the meta-analysis support the decision of the American Psychiatric Association not to classify this disorder as an addiction, for the time being.
Who does it affect?
Here too, the results of the studies diverge. Due to the fact that there is no clear name, no clear definition of the phenomenon, and no consensus on a psychopathological characterisation, various research methods have led to different results, and they can vary from 1% to 30% in prevalence, depending on the population studied. However, research with the most generous population samples estimates the prevalence in the adult population to be about 10%: 5.8% in the US, 8% in Germany, 7.1% in Spain, 12% in the UK.
Results of representative studies also clash when it comes to gender differences. A study of a representative sample of the US population found that an almost equal percentage of men and women would be classified as shopping addicts, while a study of a representative sample of the UK population showed that 92% of respondents technically considered shopping addicts were women.
However, research conducted in certain regions or on certain age groups seems to tip the scales in favour of the idea that there is a gender gap that goes beyond methodologies and interpretation, with women being more likely than men to become addicted to shopping.
Regarding the age of onset for this pathology, the margin is between 18 and 34 years, some studies indicating a higher prevalence among young people, and other studies revealing a higher prevalence around the age of 30. Common factors seem to be leaving the parental home or the opening of the first lines of credit.
Risk factors and prevention methods
Given that there is no scientific consensus on what compulsive shopping entails and how it works more precisely, there are currently no clear lines of treatment, or prevention strategies. However, there seems to be a consensus that this type of behaviour almost never comes alone. A study of young people between the ages of 12 and 19 shows that compulsive shopping is strongly correlated with other risky behaviours, such as smoking, alcohol and substance abuse, and premarital sex. Other studies show that up to 60% of those who have become addicted to shopping suffer from at least one other behavioural disorder. Students at two Canadian universities have found that boys generally develop “hedonistic” addictions—smoking, drinking, illegal or prescription drug use, risky sex, gambling or video games—while girls develop “emotional” addictions such as compulsive shopping or compulsive eating. This categorisation can help teachers and parents know what signs to pay attention to, and to design prevention strategies based on the risks to each gender (for strategies to prevent some of the behaviours mentioned above, see the other articles in the journal).
And while it’s not clear why some people become addicted to shopping, studies on students have found that the most important risk factors for both genders seem to be stress, anxiety and social maladjustment. Compulsive shopping primarily serves as a relief to these negative emotional states.
Students who suffer from this disorder tend to report a moderate to severe level of stress, compared to students with normal shopping patterns, who report a level of stress which is considered normal. The natural consequence is that stressed students will have lower grades and generally poorer health—other signs that teachers and parents should pay attention to.
At the same time, studies also find a general pattern valid for this pathology, namely the use of passive strategies to adapt to stressful situations: self-criticism, feeding on illusions, and withdrawal from society. Although these reactions occur naturally at some point in the life of any adolescent who is searching for their identity and needs space and freedom, parents and teachers must still investigate these conditions in the most sensitive way possible, without resorting to quarreling and humiliation.
Interest in fashion and clothing design can influence shopping behaviour, but it is unclear whether it is a risk factor. However, concern for one’s own image, physical appearance, level of health and fitness, as well as eating disorders are predictors of shopping addiction. Researchers warn that the problem actually needing to be solved is the anxiety young people feel when there is a discrepancy between their ideal self and their current self, as this anxiety underlies the concerns mentioned above. This is probably why one of the few guaranteed methods of treatment is group cognitive-behavioural therapy, maybe even for the entire family, given that there is evidence that compulsive shopping is perpetuated in the family, and in those cases there are usually other disorders such as anxiety or substance abuse in the family. Even couple therapy has proven useful in cases where shopping behaviour has caused relationship problems.
Last but not least, a real help can be a financial consultant, who will take control of the finances, organise the accounts and eliminate the use of credit cards. However, a strict control of money alone will not be enough to eliminate the mind’s preoccupation with spending money.
There is a great need for financial education from a biblical basis in schools and in the family, in order to help young people and their parents to distinguish between the intrinsic value of man, and the social value that society gives to money. Spending money has shifted from a wise investment management activity to a simple form of entertainment or consolation. It is this attitude toward money that the Bible criticises, not money or wealth itself, and young people need to have the right attitude. “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that,” says the Bible, and “those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Again, “it is more blessed to give than to receive”, for “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” These biblical pearls of wisdom are still relevant today. They only need to be communicated as such, and applied to the needs and peculiarities of today, so that, in the end, we can say like the apostle Paul: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.”