Study Better Defines Shopping Addiction and Those Most Affected

Hand typing on laptop with credit card.

With the advent of online shopping, it’s become easier than ever to fulfill your craving for a new pair of shoes or the latest gadget to hit the market. But this added convenience has become a major problem for some. Online shopping has lowered the barrier for shopaholics, who now don’t have to leave the comfort of their couch to make a purchase and can fulfill their spending desires at any hour of the day. New research published this week has found out who’s most likely to suffer from shopping addiction and has come up with a scale that can help you determine whether you might be in trouble.

Is shopping addiction a real disorder?

It seems hard to believe that a person could be addicted to shopping, but the disorder is about a century old. Traditionally, addiction was thought to involve dependence on a chemical substance, like the nicotine found in cigarettes or illicit drugs like cocaine. Addiction to these chemicals followed a pattern of craving that led addicted individuals to continually crave the substances and to keep going back to a drug even when they wanted to stop or in spite of terrible consequences. While their reliance on the drug to feel normal was an important part of the addiction, addicts also found themselves emotionally dependent on the effects of the drug.

Over the last decade, psychologists and psychiatrists have increasingly realized that the hallmarks of addiction aren’t limited to chemicals. Gambling and Internet gaming have both been recognized as addictive behaviors in their own right that can cause many of the effects seen with addiction to drugs. Those addicted to gambling for example, often compulsively do so even when the results are devastating. While shopping addiction wasn’t included in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) used by psychiatrists to diagnose disease, many in the field recognize it as an addiction problem because shopping addicts show symptoms similar to those seen in other addictions.

Who becomes addicted to shopping?

Past research has shown that certain people are more at risk for addiction than others when it comes to chemical addiction, and the same is true for shopping. Extroverts have been found to be more likely shopping addicts as well as those who are more neurotic and anxious. For extroverts, the addiction is thought to develop as a way to maintain social status, by having the newest clothes for example, because extroverts are extremely sensitive to interactions with others. Neurotics, on the other hand, tend to use shopping as a way to make themselves feel better and reduce the negative emotions they feel. Low self-esteem is also related to shopping addiction, but it’s unclear whether shopping addiction develops to counter the low self-esteem or whether it’s just linked to depression, which is very common in those with shopping addiction.

How is shopping addiction diagnosed?

In the past, there was no predefined scale or metric that psychologists used to diagnose someone with a shopping addiction and the diagnosis was generally made and treated on a case-by-base basis. Recently, several questionnaires were developed to try and make the diagnosis more standard, but those questionnaires were also developed without addiction in mind. They looked to find problematic shopping behaviors, but didn’t make the link between problem shopping and a true addiction picture. This study wanted to develop a set of questions that could be used to specifically diagnose shopping addiction. They then wanted to see if the diagnoses they made fit with observations made in the past.

What questions did the team use to test shopping addiction?

The team gathered more than 23,000 participants of various ages and backgrounds. To develop their set of questions, the researchers started with 28 questions, four in each of seven areas of addiction they wanted to test. They then surveyed the participants with different groups of questions and also asked about personality factors and shopping habits. They used questionnaires on problem shopping from the past as well so that they could make sure their new questions picked out the same problem behaviors while also identifying addiction hallmarks. They put all of this information together and came up with the seven best statements to identify with shopping addiction.

Those statements were:

  • You think about shopping/buying things all the time.
  • You shop/buy things in order to change your mood.
  • You shop/buy so much that it negatively affects your daily obligations (e.g., school and work).
  • You feel you have to shop/buy more and more to obtain the same satisfaction as before.
  • You have decided to shop/buy less, but have not been able to do so.
  • You feel bad if you for some reason are prevented from shopping/buying things.
  • You shop/buy so much that it has impaired your well-being.

Respondents answered on a scale of (0) Completely disagree, (1) Disagree, (2) Neither disagree nor agree, (3) Agree, and (4) Completely agree. They called this scale the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale.

What did the team find?

The team found that scoring an “agree” or “completely agree” on at least four out of the seven questions suggested shopping addiction. The team found that the new scale matched old questionnaires well and seemed to identify the problematic behaviors of shopping addiction. The questions went along with past findings showing that extroverts and neurotics were more likely to have shopping addiction. They also found that women were more often affected and that the risk was highest among young adults. Finally, those with higher levels of depression and anxiety and lower self-esteem were all at higher risk for shopping addiction.

What does this mean for me?

This study helps to confirm that shopping can develop into an addiction and provides a way to identify those likely to have a problem. If you think you or someone you know may have a problem with shopping or a shopping addiction, seek professional help. Trained therapists can help you to better understand your relationship with shopping and help move you into a healthier relationship with your shopping habits.