Why do shopping addicts keep spending even in the face of harmful financial, emotional and social consequences? It is a question that has plagued consumers and researchers alike.
And the answer, according to research from San Francisco State University is because we believe (incorrectly) that new purchases will create a happier life (Donnelly, Ksendzova, & Howell, 2016).
While it is estimated that approximately 10 percent of adults in Western countries have a compulsive spending disorder that leads them to lose control over their buying behavior, the study identified specific behaviors that lead to such compulsive buying.
“Compulsive shoppers tend to be people who bury their head in the sand and ignore the credit card bill,” explains Ryan Howell, associate professor of psychology at SF State (Howell, 2016, para 3).
Surveying more than 1,600 participants Howell and his colleagues asked them questions about their money management, shopping habits and how much they value material possessions.
What Howell and his colleagues found should have us all checking our shopping habits. Compulsive shoppers reported that they bought items to get a buzz or put themselves in a better mood, and perhaps more concerning, believed the purchases could change their life, for example by transforming their appearance, self-confidence, reputation and relationships (Donnelly et al., 2016).
Compulsive shoppers also had characteristically poor money management – which further predicted their compulsive spending, regardless of their personality, gender, age and income. In particular, out-of-control-shopping was primarily driven by poor credit management, such as not paying attention to credit card statements, not paying credit card bills on time and exceeding credit limits. One reason for this, suggest Howell and his team, is because credit cards allow consumers to separate the pleasure of buying from the pain of paying (Donnelly et al., 2016).
“We also found that these individuals keep on buying because they are looking for that ‘buy high,’ hoping their purchases will lift their mood and transform them as a person” (Howell, 2016).
While previous research has shown that shopaholics tend to have materialistic values, notes Howell, this study helps uncover the beliefs and mechanism that drive compulsive shopping (Howell, 2016).
Yet beyond the addictive component of shopping, there is the ease of access, as products are quickly searched, reviewed, and bought all with the simple swipe of the fingers.
According to James Roberts, Ph.D., professor of marketing and the Ben H. Williams Professor of Marketing at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business, cell phone and instant messaging addictions are driven by the same materialism and impulsiveness that underlies consumption pathologies (Roberts, 2016).
Roberts’ study, co-authored with Stephen Pirog III, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the department of marketing at Seton Hall University, found that cell phones are used as part of the conspicuous consumption ritual and also act as a pacifier for the impulsive tendencies of the user (Pirog & Roberts, 2016). Impulsiveness, Roberts notes, plays an important role in both behavioral and substance addictions (Roberts, 2016).
Roberts points to previous studies that have shown that young adults send an average of 109.5 text messages a day or approximately 3,200 texts each month. They receive an additional 113 text messages and check their cell 60 times in a typical day and on average; college students spend approximately seven hours daily interacting with information and communication technology. “At first glance, one might have the tendency to dismiss such aberrant cell phone use as merely youthful nonsense – a passing fad. But an emerging body of literature has given increasing credence to cell phone addiction and similar behavioral addictions,” notes Roberts (Roberts, 2016).
“They (cell phones) are not just a consumer tool, but are used as a status symbol. They’re also eroding our personal relationships” (Roberts, 2016).
While this study is the first to investigate the role materialism plays in cell phone addiction, materialism has long been an important consumer value that impacts many of the decisions we make as consumers. Only now, however, can we satiate this materialistic drive digitally as cell phones are accessible at any time and possess an ever-expanding array of functions – which makes their use or over-use increasingly likely. As Roberts notes, a majority of young people claim that losing their cell phone would be disastrous to their social lives (Roberts, 2016).
Whether we believe that a flashy new pair of shoes will transform our lives, or we are simply looking for that “buy high”, the point is the same: what we want is now more accessible that ever. And while this fuels materialism and the tendency to find ourselves in the thick of a compulsive shopping addiction, it also leads to too a false premise: that we can buy happiness.
So my challenge to you is this: Find happiness in what you already have. Look for it in the relationships you cultivate, in the places you visit, and the experiences you have. And leave the shopping behind.