U of G Prof Wins Grant to Study Excessive Shoppers

September 06, 2011 - News Release

So-called “shopaholics” may appear to share the same urge to “shop ‘til you drop” but the underlying causes may be very different, according to University of Guelph marketing and consumer studies professor Sunghwan Yi.

Differentiating between compulsive and impulsive shoppers, and what motivates excessive buying, is the focus of a new study supported by a $105,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Yi aims to determine if some shoppers are motivated by a need to escape from negative self-perception.

“I believe that, among pathological compulsive shoppers, excessive buying is primarily motivated by the need to escape from negative feelings about oneself, such as shame and sense of worthlessness,” he said.

“In contrast, for impulse buyers, other motives, like the need for sensory stimulation and materialism, are likely to be more important. Our empirical study will help test this idea.”

Yi will assess the strength of different motives for buying by using a technique called “Response Time.” It involves detecting the strength of a person’s positive versus negative associations with a focal concept by measuring automatic response time.

Study participants will press different computer keys as soon as word strings, related either to shopping or to a control concept, appear on the computer screen. This procedure is analogous to how quickly the thought of going shopping pops up in compulsive buyers’ minds when they feel shame or a sense of worthlessness compared with impulsive buyers.

“How quickly or slowly negative emotional words activate the concept of shopping in consumers' minds is a surreptitious way of assessing the strength of the negative emotion motive behind excessive buying,” he said.
“Measuring this strength is vital to distinguishing pathological compulsive buyers from impulse buyers.”

In the past, research on excessive buying relied on one-on-one interviews among small samples of self-identified pathological shoppers, Yi said.

“It is difficult to get to the heart of the matter by asking directly why a person shops so often, or how bad a person is feeling when they get the urge to go shopping. For one thing, their recollection may not be accurate, or they may not be consciously aware of their feelings, or maybe they’re simply too embarrassed to be fully revealing.”

“This study is different in that we will examine motives of excessive buying in a less disruptive manner with a larger sample of consumers that encompass impulse buyers as well as compulsive buyers.”

Excessive buying is a hot topic in psychology and marketing fields alike and a social problem that Yi hopes to address by scrutinizing the hidden motives behind people’s shopping habits. He will work with colleagues at the University of Western Ontario and Concordia University on the three-year research project.

“Understanding why people shop as much or as often as they do is important in order to distinguish compulsive buyers from impulse buyers, and to develop appropriate solutions for the two groups of buyers,” Yi said.

Sunghwan Yi
Associate Professor
Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies
University of Guelph
519-824-4120, Ext. 52416

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, lhunt@uoguelph.ca; or Shiona Mackenzie, Ext. 56982, shiona@uoguelph.ca.

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Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1