Shop Until You Can’t Stop: Compulsive buying affects both men and women

Talk about buyer’s remorse. A new national telephone survey indicates that nearly 6 percent of adults find themselves unable to resist frequent shopping binges that leave them saddled with debt, anxiety, and depression.

BUY BUY, BABY. A new survey identifies nearly 6 percent of U.S. adults as compulsive buyers, who feel depressed or anxious after shopping binges. iStockphoto

Buying gone bad, also known as compulsive buying, occurs almost as often in men as in women, says a team led by psychiatrist Lorrin M. Koran of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The new survey offers the best estimate to date for what some mental-health workers regard as an addiction to spending money. Earlier prevalence figures for compulsive buying, based on interviews with small groups of consumers, ranged from 2 percent to 16 percent. Because women seek psychiatric treatment for uncontrolled spending more often than men do, scientists previously pegged it as a predominantly female condition.

“The widespread opinion that most compulsive buyers are women may be wrong,” Koran says.

He and his colleagues describe their findings in the October American Journal of Psychiatry. Koran says that he would now like to see a larger survey that probes the emotional and social impact of uncontrolled purchases on people’s lives.

In 2004, the team conducted roughly 11-minute interviews with 2,513 individuals, ages 18 and up, contacted randomly by phone. Interviewers asked about cardinal signs of compulsive buying, such as intrusive or senseless impulses to buy, frequent purchases of unneeded or unaffordable items, and shopping for longer periods than intended. Questions also touched on financial problems and emotional letdowns after buying sprees.

Compulsive buying, as defined by a high score on a tally of the cardinal signs, occurred in 6 percent of women and 5.5 percent of men, regardless of racial or ethnic background, Koran’s group says. Compulsive buyers averaged 40 years of age, compared with 49 years for the other participants. A majority of compulsive buyers reported annual incomes under $50,000, whereas only 39 percent of the others reported incomes in that category.

Compulsive buyers reported having the same number of credit cards as other participants did. However, compulsive buyers tended to stretch credit card limits thin, often to within $100 of the maximum. Compulsive buyers also preferred to make minimum payments on credit card balances, regardless of their annual incomes.

Prior evidence suggested that compulsive buyers often suffer from anxiety and depression. Koran has studied antidepressant drugs as treatments for this condition.

Although compulsive buying isn’t currently accepted as a psychiatric disorder, it deserves consideration as a behavioral addiction in the next official manual of psychiatric diagnoses, slated to appear in 2011, remark psychiatrist Eric Hollander and psychologist Andrea Allen, both of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, in a commentary published with the Koran group’s survey.

Studies such as the new survey will be reviewed over the next few years to determine the diagnostic fate of compulsive buying, says psychiatrist Darrel A. Regier, director of research for the American Psychiatric Association in Arlington, Va., which publishes the manual.

Although the Koran team’s survey relies solely on self-reports, it improves on earlier prevalence estimates of compulsive buying, says anthropologist Shirley Lee of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Still, if this condition gets labeled as a mental disorder, researchers may unwisely ignore social contributions to compulsive buying, such as easy credit and pervasive advertising, Lee contends.

Uncontrolled buying can’t be isolated from the depression and anxiety that people experience as a result of conflicting pressures to consume and to avoid debt, Lee adds.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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