Can’t buy me love

There are more and more people with the problem every year. Life as a compulsive shopper is no laughing matter, as Lissa Christopher reports. EVEN the uber-monied Sir Elton John knows about the personal and financial grief that out-of-control shopping can cause. A few years ago, the superstar found himself spending about $250,000 a week on things he neither needed nor really wanted and, according to British media, he had to take out a loan to pay off his credit cards. In less than two years he had spent close to $500,000 on cut flowers alone.
Nanjing Night Net

Elton John did it on a particularly grand scale but compulsive shopping is a growing concern worldwide. Almost 12 per cent of the population has a full- blown buying compulsion, according to the first study of the prevalence of this shopping behaviour in Australia.

Professor Mike Kyrios, director of the Swin-PsyCHE Research Unit at Melbourne’s Swinburne University, who recently completed the Internet-based project, also found that an additional 18 per cent have a serious buying problem. Its prevalence in other developed countries ranges from 2 per cent to 16 per cent.

Full-blown compulsive shopping is not about that expensive pair of shoes you bought a few years ago but have never worn. It’s chronic, destructive and, as in many addictive-type behaviours, has a nasty tendency to escalate. “(Compulsive shopping) ruins people’s lives,” Prof. Kyrios says. “It ruins families. It leads to financial disaster and loss of trust in relationships. People lie, they steal, they can end up in jail.”

Dianne Searle, a mother-of-three from Melbourne, is one such example. In 2004, she received a three-year jail sentence for stealing $1.7 million from her employer, the Commonwealth Bank, by creating false home-loan accounts.

Then 51 and a respected employee, Searle spent most of the money on jewellery, white goods, renovations and a number of properties. She also paid off her mother’s home loan.

In sentencing Searle, the judge said he accepted psychiatric reports that said she was a shopaholic and seriously depressed.

For the compulsive buyer, shopping is used as “a pick- me-up”, Prof. Kyrios says.

Typically, an urge arises, there is a fleeting sense of euphoria when it’s sated, then the bad feelings return. Or worsen.

In the course of their study, Prof. Kyrios and colleagues found that “doubts about self-worth” as well as the belief that shopping was an effective way to improve mood and self- esteem were important predictors of who was more likely to develop a problem. The latter has led to an important new avenue for cognitive behavioural treatment.

At the clinic connected to Swinburne’s psychology department, Kyrios says, “we will get the patient to monitor their mood before, after and then several days after (an impulse purchase)”.

“It’s a behavioural experiment to help them see, from experience, that their belief is not true. When people monitor their feelings they can see clearly that they’re not happier. If you no longer believe shopping is going to help you with your depression or self-esteem then you are less likely [to do it].”

Unfortunately, problem buyers often won’t seek help until late in the game.

“At the clinic, we most commonly see people once they’ve become clinically depressed or their family is starting to fall apart or when there’s police or bank involvement.” The problem, however, often shows up early…in the teens”, Prof. Kyrios says, “when you are searching for identity”.

“There are some very startling numbers coming out of research in the UK – that 30 per cent of teenagers (are problem shoppers).”

Compulsive shoppers can focus on all sorts of products, from comics to pet accessories. However, women most commonly buy clothes, shoes and body-care products while men prefer tools, gadgets and software. British academic Helga Dittmar says such items are seen by the problem shopper as symbols of status and identity.

Prof. Kyrios says the items are often never used or even unwrapped. Compulsive shopping is commonly thought of as women’s business but, he says, several studies have shown it’s almost as common among men as women. Some studies have even shown it is more prevalent among men. Young men, Prof. Kyrios says, are also buying more clothes and shoes than older men.

There has been some talk in the US of giving compulsive shopping status as an independent medical condition in the next edition of the widely used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders. However, Prof. Kyrios says, “the proposal is controversial. Should we medicalise a behavioural habit or problem that is supported and promoted by a consumer-oriented society?”

It’s a reasonable question. Opportunities and exhortations to buy are, after all, hard to avoid and advertisers would happily have us believe that we are what we buy. Perhaps compulsive shopping is simply the wayward child of consumer culture.

A European study, for example, showed a tenfold increase in the prevalence of compulsive shopping in the decade after the reunification of East and West Germany.

As if there weren’t already enough ways to thrash the plastic, now we also have eBay.

“People are buying second-hand stuff as well now,” Prof. Kyrios says. “I think that’s an emerging issue. It’s a whole new world of trouble.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.