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
"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
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
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