R. J. Faber

American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 35, Issue 6, 809-819 (Jul/Aug92)

Abstract: Focuses on the problem of compulsive buying or compulsive shopping. A demographic profile; The phenomenology of compulsive buying; Biological factors; Sociological factors; Psychological factors.

Keywords: WEALTH

 Compulsives Buying From a Biopsychosocial Perspective

For most people, buying is just a small pan of their everyday routine. For some, however, buying can become an all-encompassing central part of their existence. They experience uncontrollable urges to shop or buy. These urges create a mounting tension or anxiety that can only be relieved by buying. However, this relief is usually only momentary. Overtime, buying often leads to severe emotional, financial, and interpersonal consequences.

This type of problem buying was originally noted in the psychiatric literature by Kraepelin (1915) and Bleuler (1924) and was referred to as oniomania, or buying mania. They characterized this problem as buying that was impulsive, excessive, and uncontrollable. Both authors considered it one of the various forms of impulse pathologies. Kraepelin noted that it was mostly women who suffered from oniomania.

Reports of buying mania virtually disappeared from the psychiatric literature until recently, when a few articles reported on cases of compulsive buying or compulsive shopping (Glatt & Cook, 1987; Krueger, 1988; McElroy, Satlin, Pope, Keck, & Hudson, 1991b). Recent discussions of this problem have also appeared in the consumer behavior literature (Faber, O’Guinn, & Krych, 1987; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989; Scherhom, Reisch, & Raab, 1990; Valence, d’Astous, & Fortier, 1988) and the popular press (Damon, 1988; Jacoby, 1986; Mundis, 1986). Descriptions of the problem of compulsive buying in these various sources have been strikingly similar.


Until recently (Faber & O’Guinn, in press), there has been no way to identify compulsive buyers in the general population. Therefore, all of the existing knowledge about this problem comes from people who have sought the help of psychiatrists or self-help groups or those who responded to ads. As a result, any demographic descriptions of compulsive buyers are likely to overrepresent the types of people who seek help for personal problems. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of compulsive buyers are female. In the largest sample to date (O’Guinn & Faber, 1989), over 90% were female. Similar percentages have been reported in other studies (Christenson et al., 1992; Scherhorn et al., 1990).

Early explorations of compulsive buying suggested that this problem might be confined to middle- or lower-income individuals who had a high desire for things and little will power to resist these urges (Faber et al., 1987). These people were hypothesized to experience debt problems because their income could not match their desire. However, empirical research suggests that this is not the case. Compulsive buyers appear to come from all income groups (Faber et al., 1987), and studies that compare compulsive buyers to other consumers suggest that there are no significant differences among these groups based on household income (Christenson et al., 1992; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989; Scherhorn et al., 1990).


There appear to be many forms of compulsive buying. Some people buy every day, whereas others are episodic buyers, typically buying in response to negative life events (Christenson et al., 1992; Faber et al., 1987). Most compulsive buyers primarily purchase things for themselves, but some buy almost exclusively for others (Faber et al., 1987). Some, but not all, compulsive buyers report that they make multiple purchases of the same item (Christenson et al., 1992; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989). Although these differences may represent separate typologies of compulsive buyers, there are several commonalities that characterize almost all compulsive buyers.

Most people with this problem report that at least some of the items they purchase are not needed or never used (McElroy et al., 1991b; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989). Many people hide new purchases to avoid conflicts with other family members. It is not uncommon for compulsive buyers to never even take a purchased item out of its packaging. It would therefore seem that items often lose their meaning after purchase.

However, the items purchased do not appear to be random or capricious. Certain classes of products arc purchased much more frequently among compulsive buyers than others. These include clothes, jewelry, makeup, electronic equipment and collectibles (Christenson et al., 1992; Faber et al., 1987; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989). These items are often tied to self-esteem either through affecting how one looks or how one thinks of oneself (an innovator, a music lover, a collector of some item). Furthermore, these types of purchases facilitate positive interactions with sales personnel, which can also help raise self-esteem (Faber et al., 1987). Earlier in this issue, Doyle pointed out how self-esteem and avoiding isolation can be important human motivations that relate to the meaning of money. This may be particularly true for compulsive buyers.

O’Guinn and Faber’s (1989) study also provided some evidence to suggest that self-esteem is more central to the problem of compulsive buying than is a desire for goods. They administered a 24-item scale of materialism to compulsive buyers and «normal» consumers. This scale is composed of three subscales representing possessiveness, envy, and nongenerosity (Belk, 1985). Although the compulsive buyers did score higher than the normal consumers on [he overall materialism scale, further analysis showed that this was the result of differences in levels of envy and nongenerosity. There was no significant difference between the groups on their desire to have things.


As mentioned earlier, Kraepelin (1915) and Bleuler (1924) believed that compulsive buying was one of a number of impulse disorders. Although more recent researchers have indicated that compulsive buying shares some commonalities with a number of different illnesses including obsessive-compulsive disorder (Christensonetal., 1992; McElroyetal., 1991b) and mood disorders (McElroy et al., 1991b), most believe that it is a form of impulse control disorder (Christenson et al., 1992; McElroy et al., 1991b; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989). Other impulse control disorders include substance abuse (alcoholism and drug abuse), paraphilia (sexual addictions), and a catch-all category called impulse control disorders-not elsewhere classified that includes pathological gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling), and intermittent explosive disorder (see American Psychiatric Association, 1987, DSM-III-R). Additionally, some experts believe that certain forms of eating disorders including bulimia and binge eating are also forms of impulse control problems (Popkin, 1989).

There appear to be a number of characteristics common to all of the impulse control disorders (Christenson et al., 1992; Faber & O’Guinn, 1991; Popkin, 1989). These include the fact that the individual initially makes a voluntary decision to engage in an activity but eventually experiences urges to repeat the behavior that cannot be controlled. These behaviors often become a primary means of escaping stress or unpleasant situations. Typically, people experience repeated failure in attempts to stop or limit these behaviors. Although the behavior provides initial gratification, this is usually short-lived. Ultimately, the behavior begins to interfere with normal life functioning. Each of these characteristics has been associated with compulsive buying (Faber & O’Guinn, 1991).

A recent trend in research on addiction and excessive behaviors, such as the impulse control disorders, has been to view them as related problems having common characteristics and causes (Jacobs, 1989; Levison, Gerstein, & Maloff, 1983). Associated with this view is the notion that each of these problem behaviors is the result of multiple factors rather than any single cause. These include biological, psychological, and sociological factors. As a result, this perspective is referred to as the biopsychosocial model (Donovan, 1988). The rest of this article is devoted to discussing what is known or speculated about the biological, psychological, and sociological correlates of compulsive buying and how these relate to what is known about other impulse control disorders. It is hoped that this can provide insights regarding the nature of compulsive buying as well as reasons why some people develop problems with money and buying rather than in some other area of their life.


Although the relationship of biology to compulsive buying and other impulse control disorders is still speculative, several indications of a biological component exist. Some researchers believe that there is a genetic element making people from families with some form of impulse control problem more at risk for these disorders (Donovan, 1988). For example, well-known studies of alcoholics have found that sons of alcoholic fathers are four times more likely to ultimately become alcoholics than other males, even when reared apart from their biological father (Collins, 1985; Goodwin, 1984). Other researchers report that people with impulse control disorders are significantly more likely than other people to have relatives with other impulse control disorders (McElroy, Pope, Hudson, Keck, & White, 1991a).

If all the impulse control disorders have common causes and there is a physiological link, we might expect that people with one type of disorder will also be more likely to have other impulse control disorders. Evidence for this has appeared in research examining many different types of disorders including trichotillomania (Christenson, Mackenzie, & Mitchell, 1991), kleptomania (McElroy et al., 1991a), and pathological gambling (Lesieur, Blume, & Zoppa, 1986).

Studies of compulsive buyers have tended to find that people suffering from this problem are also likely to have other impulse control disorders. Both case studies and research comparing compulsive buyers with control subjects have reported a relationship between compulsive buying and eating disorders and alcoholism (Christenson et al., 1992; Krueger, 1988; McElroy et al., 1991b). Similarly, an unpublished study comparing overweight women who meet criteria for binge eating disorder versus overweight women without this disorder found that those who had binge eating disorder scored significantly higher on a measure of compulsive buying (Faber, Mitchell, & Fletcher, 1992). Anecdotal evidence suggests that for many compulsive buyers, when one type of impulse control disorder is controlled via counseling or willpower, another form emerges. Although certainly not conclusive, these findings are consistent with what would be expected if a common biological cause was present.

Although evidence of comorbidity and family history may be suggestive of a biological linkage, the strongest evidence comes from research on brain activity and chemical intervention. Studies of patients with brain lesions and organic mental disorders suggests that these disorders influence control of various impulses (Popkin, 1989). The DSM-III-R notes that patients with these types of disorders exhibit decreased control of sexual, aggressive, and acquisitive impulses. All of the impulse control disorders could tee considered to involve problems with these three broad classes of behavior, and this may help to explain why the rather diverse impulse control behaviors are all related.

More recent studies point to a relationship between impulse control disorders and neurotransmission, especially to one neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin is an amino-acid-based neurotransmitter that helps relay impulses between neurons. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with several impulse control disorders, and treatment with drugs that block the re-uptake of serotonin (thus keeping more available to aid in neurotransmission) appear to alleviate these disorders in many patients (McElroy et al., 1991a; Nathan & Rolland, 1987; Popkin, 1989; Winchel et al., 1989). A recent study found that three compulsive buyers treated with serotonin re-uptake blockers for other disorders reported their compulsive shopping urges also diminished or disappeared while taking these drugs (McElroy et al., 1991b). During the time that drug therapy was temporarily stopped for one of the patients, her shopping urges returned.

Although drugs arc one way to regulate scrotonin levels, certain activities are also thought to alter the production of neurotransmitters (Sunderwirth, 1985). Many behaviors that increase neurotransmission are also associated with increases in feelings of arousal (Milkman & Sunderwirth, 1982). Numerous compulsive buyers describe their shopping experiences as «a high» or «a rush» and indicate that both the shopping experience and its consequences are experienced as a heightened state of arousal (Faber & O’Guinn, 1991; Faber et al., 1987). Compulsive buying may then be away of achieving a change in brain chemistry that is associated with the desired increase in neurotransmission. This relationship between addictive or excessive behaviors and brain chemistry may explain why arousal is viewed as a critical component in a general theory attempting to account for a wide range of addictions (Jacobs, 1989).


In his general theory of addictions, Jacobs (1989) argued that along with a chronically hypotensive or hypertensive arousal level, individuals prone to addictive behaviors must also have experienced a childhood and adolescence marked by feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Several studies have found that compulsive buyers score lower than control subjects on measures of self-esteem (O’Guinn & Faber, 1989; Scherhorn et al., 1990). Using depth interviews, O’Guinn and Faber (1989) found many instances of compulsive buyers disparaging themselves, especially when making comparisons to siblings. This suggests that at least some of their lack of self-esteem may emanate from early family experiences. Several compulsive buyers indicated that they felt their parents treated them differently from their siblings. Additionally, they often described themselves as trying to be «perfect» and always aiming to please their parents (Faber & O’Guinn, 1988). The inability to accomplish this may play some part in the development of low self-esteem among compulsive buyers. Among episodic compulsive buyers, events that trigger buying binges are typically ones that negatively affect self-esteem.

Jacobs (1989) suggested that behaviors might become problematic if they meet one of three criteria: provide recognition or acceptance to people with low self-esteem; allow them to act out their anger or aggression; or provide an escape through fantasy. Evidence suggests that compulsive buying affords an opportunity for each of these things. First, buying is a way of gaining recognition and approval. This can occur in several ways. Some compulsive buyers buy almost exclusively at sales and discount outlets and pride themselves on being able to find bargains. This ability to be «a good shopper» may create heightened recognition among friends and a feeling of pride that otherwise is lacking. Other compulsive buyers buy mostly high-tech products or the latest fashions. These people may achieve recognition among friends and neighbors as innovators. One compulsive buyer interviewed bought predominantly expensive stereo and television equipment but demonstrated little affect when discussing the types of music or programs he liked. Eventually, it came out that his motivation for buying came mainly from the fact that neighbors recognized him as an expert in electronic equipment and came to him for advice when making their purchases.

Another form of recognition and approval for compulsive buyers comes from sales personnel. In interviews, several compulsive buyers talked about the attention they received when buying as being an important element of their problem and even suggested that they bought things to please salespeople who were nice to them (O’Guinn & Faber, 1989).

A second way that a behavior can provide relief from feelings of low self-esteem is through acting out or retaliating against others. A few compulsive buyers appear to buy as a way of gaining attention from a spouse or parent. Their debt is seen as a way of hurting this other person or expressing their anger.

Finally, buying provides a way of escaping into a fantasy where the individual can be seen as important and respected. Some people indicated that the possession and use of a charge card made them feel powerful; others found that the attention provided by sales personnel and being known by name at exclusive stores provided feelings of importance and status. O’Guinn and Faber (1989) also found that compulsive buyers scored higher on a general measure of propensity to fantasize than did other consumers. Thus compulsive buyers may be able to create a fantasy persona that allows them to temporarily overcome feelings of low self-esteem.


The biological and psychological factors suggest reasons why some people may be-particularly at risk for developing an impulse control disorder. However, it is reasonable to ask why some people become compulsive buyers rather than becoming alcoholics, bulimics, pathological gamblers, or kleptomaniacs. Why should buying or money become an addiction? The answer may partially be a function of sociological and cultural factors.

To some degree, how a society views a particular behavior influences the likelihood that some people will engage in this behavior. The more acceptable a behavior is, the more likely people will try it. For those who fit the biological and psychological pattern of people particularly susceptible to addictive behaviors, there is a chance that many different behaviors may provide the relief they seek. Thus through trial and error, these people may eventually learn that a particular behavior makes them feel better. This leads to more frequent repetition of the behavior, and people eventually become conditioned to repeat an addictive behavior whenever they seek temporary relief from negative emotions or desire to alter their brain chemistry.

In some cases, it may be socially unacceptable behaviors that are more likely to be tried. This is particularly true for people who are acting out their anger. In either case, however, social or cultural views of disorders influence the likelihood that a particularly susceptible individual will develop a problem with the behavior.

At the current time in theUnited States, we see a range of perspectives that seem to be associated with potentially problematic behaviors. For example, drug abuse may be viewed as a criminal activity, alcoholism as a disease, obesity as laziness or a lack of pride, smoking as a bad habit, and excessive work as a positive attribute. Yet each of these behaviors has the potential to become problematic for some people. Depending on their view of themselves and their attitude toward society, different people may be more or less likely to develop problems with specific behaviors.

Socialization within a culture is also likely to play an important role in determining the type of impulse control disorder that an individual develops. For example, if we look at the different impulse control disorders, we see large gender differences with each of them. Researchers have consistently reported that 80% or more of kleptomaniacs, trichotillamaniacs, and compulsive buyers are female (Christenson et al., 1991; Goldman, 1991; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989). On the other hand, the vast majority of people suffering from pyromania, intermittent explosive disorder, and pathological gambling are male (Popkin, 1989). The most likely reason for these gender differences is the differential socialization of men and women.

Certainly, not all impulse control disorders should be expected to occur in all cultures. At a minimum, an opportunity to engage in a behavior is necessary. For compulsive buying, one must have opportunities to buy. Thus there have been reports of compulsive buying in several Western countries, including the United States (Christenson et al., 1992; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989), Canada (d’Astous, Maltais, & Roberge, 1990), and West Germany (Scherhorn et al., 1990). However, it is unlikely that compulsive buying is common (or would even exist) in most developing countries or in societies where the opportunity to buy is limited due to shortages. In these situations, one is likely to manifest another type of impulse control disorder.

In theUnited States, not only is buying an easily accessible activity, but it is also often portrayed as a way in which a person (especially a woman) might cope with stress or feeling depressed. Such portrayals are common in the mass media and are even proclaimed on bumper stickers («When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping» and «Shop ’til you drop»). These messages frequently link shopping with a negative emotional antecedent condition. This may lead some people who are susceptible to impulse control disorders to shop during depressed periods, and if it provides a desired short-term improvement in arousal level and self-esteem, this behavior may be repeated. Eventually, it becomes a primary response and dependency sets in.

Current Western society also typically treats excessive buying (particularly in women) as humorous or not a «real problem» in much the same way as the «town drunk» was viewed in the 1950s. This nonserious perception makes it much more difficult for compulsive buyers to talk to others about their problem and limits the likelihood they will seek treatment. As a result, people with already low self-esteem may end up feeling even worse about themselves.


This article has attempted to provide a description of compulsive buyers, indicate its interrelationship with other forms of psychopathology, and suggest some of the possible underlying causes of this problem. Hopefully, in the process, it has shown that buying is more than a means of acquiring goods for people. It is a method of connecting with others, expressing anger, boosting self-esteem, obtaining relief from unhappy events, and perhaps of self-medicating to improve biological functioning. Each of these outcomes can also be functions of buying for more «normal consumers.» In a sense, it appears that money is capable of changing everything. We buy to cheer ourselves up, to express who we are to others, to relieve frustrations or take our minds off unpleasant events, to feel better, and to relieve boredom. These uses and gratifications of buying are areas that need further exploration if we are truly to understand the meaning of money.


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