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Is Compulsive Shopping Really an Addiction?

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Updated November 11, 2010

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Case For

Scherhorn argued that compulsive shopping is correctly categorized as an addiction rather than a compulsion, because the word "compulsion" implies pressure to do something against your will, whereas an addiction is the "extension of normal behavior into a pathological habit."

Research by Croissant and colleagues shows that compulsive shopping activates a "reward loop" that is similar to that of a substance dependency. This reward cycle is a psychological process that is fundamental to arguments supporting the idea of a common addictive process underlying a range of excessive behaviors.

People with compulsive shopping addiction often have concurrent substance and/or behavioral addiction problems, or "cross over" to other addictions at some point in their lives. For example, studies show that alcohol problems occur in 28% to 46% of compulsive buyers; other substance use disorders occur in 13% to 20% of compulsive shoppers; paraphilias and sex addictions occur in 10% to 13% of compulsive shoppers; and pathological gambling occurs in 5% to 20% of compulsive shoppers.

Food addiction seems to be particularly strongly related to compulsive shopping, with studies showing that obese women diagnosed with binge eating disorder show significantly more compulsive shopping behavior than women who are a similar weight but are not binge eaters.

The high rates of other addictions among people addicted to shopping may indicate that addiction is an underlying condition, expressing itself through a range of different behaviors. If compulsive shopping was recognized primarily as an addiction, concurrent addictions could be treated simultaneously, and risk could be addressed directly as part of a relapse prevention plan.

At present, few readily accessible addiction services provide help for people with compulsive shopping addiction. Recognition of compulsive shopping addiction could allow treatment for compulsive shopping treatment to be included in community addiction services. With specialized training in compulaive shopping addiction being provided to addiction services staff, many more people could easily access help for compulsive shopping addictions.

Case Against

Although, as it has been noted above, people with compulsive shopping addiction have a higher incidence of other addictions, they also have a higher incidence of other psychiatric illnesses. Therefore, compulsive shopping is just as likely to be a manifestation of another mental illness as it is of an underlying predisposition to addiction.

A serious risk associated with this possibility is that compulsive shopping may be an indication of another condition that is treatable with medications, perhaps eradicating the need for lengthy and potentially ineffective therapy and difficulty with controlling symptoms.

Goldsmith and McElroy advise clinicians to take all symptoms into account when selecting an appropriate psychopharmacological treatment. Those compulsive shoppers who have concurrent major depression may be best treated with an antidepressant; those with comorbid bipolar disorder with a mood stabilizer; those with highly compulsive symptomology with SRIs; and those with mixed impulsivity and compulsivity with specific mood stabilizers (e.g. valproate) and/or mood stabilizer combinations.

Without expertise in the complexities of the impulse control OCD spectrum and the role of specific medications in treating specific aspects of compulsive shopping, there is a risk of trivializing shopping addiction further, and failing to offer treatments that may be important to the individual's short and long term quality of life.

A completely different argument against the concept of compulsive shopping addiction is the idea that problems with spending are the result of poor money management skills arising from a lack of good financial awareness, combined with a lack of awareness of the power of advertising to influence buying behavior. Credit counseling is often offered as a means of overcoming problems with over-spending, and seeing compulsive shopping as an addiction may fail to take into account the need for more appropriate financial education to be provided to shopping addicts and to the community as a whole.

Finally, there is the argument leveled at all behavioral addictions -- that addiction is about chemical dependency, and no matter how similar the patterns of behavior, addictions occur in relation to addictive substances and not behaviors.

Where It Stands

Compulsive shopping addiction, often affectionately termed "shopaholism," is widely recognized in the media and in popular culture. The growth of the internet has lead to more potential for secrecy in online shopping addiction. Each year, more and more people fall into debt as a result of overspending. Although the psychiatric community has long recognized compulsive shopping as a problematic symptom, it has been hesitant to acknowledge shopping addiction, in and of itself, as a disorder.

Clearly, much more research is needed to determine whether compulsive shopping is an addiction like alcoholism or compulsive gambling. There are mixed reports regarding its responsiveness to various medications, although there are some well-thought out guidelines about how best to prescribe to people with compulsive shopping addiction. Yet despite the severity of the condition and its consequences, there is a lack of ownership of compulsive shopping by the addictions and medical communities.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." (4th Edition – Text Revision), Washington DC, American Psychiatric Association. 2000.

Benson, A. To Buy Or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How To Stop. Trumpeter, Boston. 2008.

Croissant, B., Klein, O., Löber, S. & Mann, K. "A Case of Compulsive Buying - Impulse Control Disorder or Dependence Disorder?" Psychiat Prax, 36:189-192. 2009.

Goldman, R. "Compulsive Buying as an Addiction." In April Lane Benson (Editor), I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search For Self. Rowman & Littlefield, New York. pp. 245-267. 2000.

Goldsmith, T. & McElroy, S. "Diagnosis, Associated Disorders, and Drug Treatment." In April Lane Benson (Editor), I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search For Self. Rowman & Littlefield, New York. pp. 217-241. 2000.

Marks, Isaac. "Behavioural (non-chemical) addictions." British Journal of Addiction 1990 85:1389-1394. 27 Dec 2009.

Ridgway, N., Kukar-Kinney, M. & Monroe, K. "An Expanded Conceptualization and a New Measure of Compulsive Buying." Journal of Consumer Research, 35:622-639. 2008.

Scherhorn, G. "The addictive trait in buying behavior." Journal of Consumer Policy, 13:33-51. 1990.

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