Shame a Key Risk Factor for Compulsive Buying, Study Shows

September 20, 2012 - News Release

If you find yourself spending far too much time and money shopping, you are not alone. Unlike shoppers with a mere penchant for impulse buying, however, pathological compulsive buyers often experience considerable distress after shopping, not just pangs of guilt. Seven per cent of compulsive buyers in America suffer from underlying chronic shame, says marketing and consumer studies professor Sunghwan Yi.

Although shame-proneness may sound similar to guilt-proneness, their relationship to compulsive buying is very different, Yi adds. His research shows that guilt-proneness sometimes serves as a buffer against compulsive buying. In his paper published in the Journal of Consumer Policy, he assessed compulsive buying with different self-report instruments to examine shame-proneness as an important risk factor in severe compulsive buying.

While previous research acknowledged that compulsive buying was a mood-management strategy, Yi’s research focus has been on which negative emotion is the specific trigger. His results show it is more than passing sadness or anxiety.

“The sensory-rich environment of a store can help block an overarching perception of low self-worth on a temporary basis,” he said. “In that sense, compulsive buying stems from the same root as problem gambling: vulnerability to frequently experiencing feelings of shame, a chronic affective trait that seems to develop in a person as early as nine to 12 years of age.”

Compulsive buyers who manage their negative emotions with what is sometimes referred to as “retail therapy” are likely to suffer intense shame yet again after a spending spree. This vicious circle can lead to long-term consequences, including alienation from significant others and accumulation of debt. Typically, these buyers resort to patterns of avoidant behaviour, Yi said.

“They mentally disengage, start drinking or sleeping more, or resign themselves to the situation. Following buying lapses, they often engage in 'mental undoing' in which they reconstruct what happened, telling themselves something like: ‘If only I weren’t such a spender.’

“A compulsive buyer’s experience with buying can be understood as learned helplessness. The compulsive buyer tends to believe that no matter how hard he or she tries, it is impossible to change, so there’s no point in trying, and this, in turn, can lead to mental health problems such as depression.”

He said shame-proneness is also strongly associated with obsessive-compulsive behaviour that entails intrusive shopping-related thoughts that lead to uneasiness, fear or worry and result in repetitive activity aimed at reducing anxiety. The impulse control dimension of buying, on the other hand, is characterized by irresistible spontaneous urges to purchase things.

“Compulsive buying does not simply reflect a greater degree of impulse buying, which most of us engage in from time to time. Because compulsive buyers are prone to experiencing shame, we need to help them deal with the origins of their shame, which may date back to their childhood or adolescence.”

Yi’s paper provides implications for public policies related to helping compulsive buyers recover from their spending problems.

“Quick-fix strategies such as attending money-management classes would not be much help for compulsive buyers. Compulsive buyers need treatment to help reduce or resolve their chronic issues. There may even be a genetic component. Other research has found that shame-proneness plays a key part in the development of problems like substance abuse and alcohol dependency."

Yi concludes: "More mental health support for compulsive buying and other behavioural addictions is needed.”

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

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