Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: Compulsive buying

Commentary

Compulsive buying

There's no doubt that many people take pleasure in acquiring possessions, and advertisers are getting better all the time at parting us from our cash. But according to a study, for as many as one in 20 people, shopping is something else: a compulsion or addiction. Compulsive shoppers repeatedly buy things they don't need and can't afford, causing guilt feelings, conflict in their personal lives, trouble at work, and financial difficulties. The habit can cause as much distress as psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety.

Today, most psychiatrists regard compulsive buying as an impulse-control disorder that involves mounting tension before the act and a sense of relief afterward. But some experts prefer to view it as an addiction or a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It could also be a way of soothing painful feelings, or the opposite — a result of manic exuberance and recklessness. Some even question whether compulsive buying should be called a mental disorder at all. They suggest that the problem is a social one, produced by easy credit and pervasive advertising.

No doubt social influences are important, but there is strong evidence of a biological vulnerability as well. Compulsive buyers have a high rate of depression, alcoholism, and other psychiatric disorders, and so do their close relatives.

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