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December 11, 2003

Holiday Shopping, Dreaded By Many, Can Trigger Serious Consequences for Compulsive Buyers

Smith College Psychologist Finds Risk Factors in End-of-Year Retail Push

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- The holiday shopping season can bring out the worst in people. Crowded stores, empty shelves, pressing deadlines and endless check-out lines lead quickly to irritation and stress.

But for the 2 to 8 percent of the U.S. population estimated to have a problem with compulsive buying, setting out to purchase a gift can trigger a complex series of behaviors and reactions that are psychologically -- and even physically -- debilitating.

Randy Frost, professor of psychology at Smith College, studies adults who suffer from compulsive disorders, including compulsive buying. As part of his research, he often visits subjects at their homes.

"It's not uncommon to see piles of items, decades old, still wrapped, that were intended as gifts but never given away," he says.

Although Frost hasn't studied the particular effects of holiday gift-buying on compulsive shoppers, he believes the recognized trigger points are all there. Situations that are hard for compulsive shoppers, he says, include sales, discounts, two-for-one incentives and even cable television shopping programs.
"Compulsive shoppers struggle particularly," Frost explains, "when confronted with items that they know to be good bargains."

Little is known about compulsive shopping except that it is more common in women than men, is correlated with anxiety and depression and runs the gamut of income levels. Some researchers have suggested it may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorders, such as compulsive acquisition and hoarding; others have posited a link to impulse-control problems such as kleptomania.

Ordinary holiday shopping, while typically concentrated and time-consuming, is not the same as compulsive buying, Frost emphasizes, unless it manifests some of the disorder's key diagnostic qualities. Compulsive shopping is "excessive, uncontrollable, time-consuming and repetitive and causes marked emotional distress and financial difficulty." Although research has typically focused on the economic effects of excessive purchasing, Frost and others say this isn't the only outcome. Compulsive shoppers may find themselves, over time, isolated, estranged from family and friends and fearful of social situations.

"In a consumer society such as ours," he points out, "an inability to resist purchasing messages can have serious and devastating effects."

Frost recognizes many of the consequences of compulsive shopping from his studies of compulsive hoarding, a condition in which, in extreme cases, people are unable to discard even the most trivial items, including household trash, outdated newspapers, junk mail and even decayed food.
Like people with hoarding problems, Frost explains, compulsive shoppers seem to imbue the objects they acquire with inordinate sentimental attachment or talismanic significance; although they spend little time with items once acquired, often not even removing them from their packaging, the prospect of separating from the object induces anxiety, fear and grief.

In some cases, the objects become so meaningful that they seem to the patient to have human qualities.

One client, Frost recalls, noticed a puppet being featured for sale in a cable television auction. When the puppet received few or no bids, the client "felt sorry for it"; over the course of the evening, she bid on and purchased six expensive puppets.

"She had no need or even desire for the puppets," Frost explained. "But she admitted later that she didn't want them to feel ignored or unwanted."

Some compulsive shoppers try to manage their illness by avoiding stores and other purchasing situations. But Frost and others believe that's not the answer. Instead, they advocate a model of exposure therapy in which clients repeatedly attempt to browse but not buy. In a trial of the model, Frost and his students observed a self-identified compulsive shopper during several "non-shopping" trips. The volunteer was instructed to pick out an object she desired, handle it, contemplate what it would feel like to own it, and then walk away without making a purchase. As expected, her discomfort and anxiety increased markedly at two notable points -- when noticing another shopper contemplating "her" item and when leaving the shopping complex and acknowledging that, as Frost recounts, "she had truly given the item up." With repeated visits, however, the volunteer became accustomed to these stresses and felt less overall anxiety about relinquishing the potential purchase.

In tandem with exposure therapy, Frost and his colleagues advocate treatment for a number of underlying cognitive deficits that compulsive shoppers -- as well as people with hoarding problems -- typically manifest. These include difficulties with making decisions and categorizing objects; inappropriate attachments to purchases or objects; and unrealistic ideas about the emotional effects of a purchase on one's quality of life.

Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 60 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's college in the country.


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