Buying your way to happiness, or despair?

Half price sale window advertising
Has your shopping been a problem? Do you buy too much? Are you a keen advocate of retail therapy?

Many of us enjoy the buzz a shopping spree creates now and then. But for some people buying becomes very much like an addiction. There are people who find themselves unable to resist the allure of a sale; those who cannot keep a dollar in their pockets because they will spend it at the first opportunity they have.

In research, uncontrollable buying is most commonly referred to as Compulsive Buying, with other labels including Compulsive Acquisition and Oniomania. It is not classified as a distinct disorder, and may be better understood as a particular manifestation of a broader category of disorder, but it is a real problem for individuals who find themselves wanting, yet somehow unable, to limit their buying behaviour. It is a problem that can have very significant consequences – the most obvious being debt and other financial problems. It can also create friction or breakdown in relationships or be a source of severe guilt and shame.

Paradoxically, buying may be the outlet for relief from these very problems caused by buying – creating a vicious cycle.

A study by Dr Alishia Williams published in the December 2012 edition of the Australian Journal of Psychology looks at two factors that may play a role in compulsive buying: “Distress tolerance and experiential avoidance in compulsive acquisition behaviours”.

This research compared 47 individuals meeting research criteria as Compulsive Buyers with 38 individuals classified as not having compulsive buying traits. The two groups were compared on a range of self-report measures that included buying, distress tolerance and experiential avoidance.

Distress tolerance refers to a person’s capacity to weather distress. Individuals with low distress tolerance typically adopt a range of strategies to avoid being exposed to distress or to escape distress when it does occur. In the long term, these strategies prove unhelpful.

Experiential avoidance is a class of strategies believed to be adopted by individuals with low distress tolerance. It involves any attempt to avoid thoughts, emotions, memories or physical sensations.

The findings from this study give preliminary support to the idea that some individuals use shopping as a way to avoid the experience of emotional distress, and that the individuals who do so typically believe they couldn’t tolerate distress without using an avoidant coping strategy such as buying. It will seem like this strategy works – buying will temporarily provide a distraction from their emotional distress. But in the long term the distress is not avoided, only deferred. In this sense retail therapy is akin to scratching a mosquito bite – it provides temporary relief, but inflames the underlying trigger for the itch.

This new study would appear to indicate that an effective strategy for combating uncontrollable buying would be for the buyer to learn that they are able to cope with emotional distress. And how is this learned? By experiencing, and surviving, that distress.

Image credit: All Half-price Sale by George Hodan

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Psychology - Retail Therapy – what does shopping have to do with mood? | Thriving

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.