What Happens to Compulsive Shoppers?

A little shopping can be a healthy pick-me-up. For some people, though, the desire to buy becomes an outright compulsion that causes serious problems in their lives.

It’s estimated that about 5 percent of adults are compulsive shoppers. The financial problems and stress that come with compulsive buying can wreak havoc in every part of these people’s lives.

It’s thought that compulsive shopping is related to other psychiatric and addictive disorders. Compulsive buyers often have family histories of depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse, for example. Some researchers have also suggested that compulsive shopping can be an identity substitute.

However, many things remain not very well understood about compulsive buying, so researchers from University of Iowa recently decided track 26 compulsive buyers over a five-year period and see what happened to them.

What the study found was that overall, compulsive shoppers tended to see their symptoms improve over time and to become less impulsive generally. At the five-year follow-up, 47 percent of participants reported less interest in shopping.

That said, 29 percent reported the same amount of interest, and 24 percent reported even more interest in spending than before. While 65 percent of the people in the study had tried to give up compulsive buying, only 18 percent had succeeded in doing so.

Several common triggers for compulsive shopping showed up in participants’ responses. Specifically, all of the following tended to give participants the urge to buy:

  • Boredom
  • Negative emotions like sadness and anger
  • Wanting to feel positive emotions like happiness and elation

On one hand, then, compulsive shoppers’ symptoms were significantly better five years later on average. On the other hand, many compulsive shoppers continued their behavior, despite experiencing negative financial, social and emotional consequences.

This is a mixed result, but it does come with a message of hope: although compulsive buying is a chronic problem that can last for years, improvement over time is a real possibility.

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