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Why we shop and shop and shop

TIME FOR A confession: My book-buying problem outgrew the confines of my shelves long ago. Now, piles of paperbacks and hardcovers stacked 15-high on the floor threaten to crush the cat.

I own upwards of 50 pairs of jeans. Just jeans. I have 30 pairs of sneakers, not counting my running shoes. If one pair of cowboy boots is good, clearly nine pairs in various shades of brown is even better.

I recently bought a tan linen suit for reasons that remain unclear to me. How many denim jumpsuits does one woman need? Well, one has long sleeves, one has short sleeves, and one is a summer-weight denim, so the answer is definitely three. Until I find another one. And then it’ll be four.

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My closet is stuffed with dresses that will look amazing on me in my fantasy life — the one featuring a calendar chock full of cocktail parties, visits to art museums, or literally anything that isn’t just taking my kids to school. In real life, all those dresses still have their tags on.

Dozens of times a day, I pull out my iPhone and scroll through Instagram and blogs, then scour the web for the best prices. When I have a little extra cash, I head straight to “wish lists” and hit “add to cart.” I shop when I’m down, or angry, feeling unappreciated (which, as the parent of two small children, is often). I want to stop, I’ve tried to stop, but I can’t.

When purchases arrive, I stuff them deep in my closet, out of sight, and often out of mind, pretending they were there all along.

My friend Sarah Lucas suffers from this habit, too. We recently made a pact to go two months without shopping. We lasted two days. Sarah’s even tried counselling for shopping addiction, a cognitive behavioral therapy-based program. It didn’t take. Now, she says, the only way she’d stop is if her husband lost his job — then there wouldn’t be money for clothes.

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So we decided to form a two-woman support group. Admittedly, it’s not very effective: After half-an-hour of talking about our shared compulsion — the clothes shoved in the back of wardrobes, the ditching of evidence like shipping receipts and packing boxes in public trash cans, the agony of recognizing the strain it puts on our relationships and wallets — I pulled out my phone. To show her the summer dresses I’d just bought.

SARAH AND I are not alone. A 2015 study estimated that between six and seven percent of the population is dealing with a “compulsive buying disorder.” That means at least 19 million Americans obsessively buy stuff they don’t need every single day.

And it’s become easier than ever to nurse the compulsion, thanks to the smartphone, which enables buying anything, anywhere, any time. More than 197 million people make Amazon purchases each month. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, netted more than $500 billion last year — that’s a lot of laptops, crayons, and Instant Pots, which were among the top-selling products, according to the company.

Though only 28 percent of Americans in 2018 could be considered financially healthy, we still spend. In 2018, American credit card debt closed at a record $870 billion. Much of that spending is on things we actually need, but one survey found that 64 percent of Americans recently bought something they wish they hadn’t. That’s a lot of buyer’s remorse.

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Yet in our consumer-driven culture, shopping addicton is often considered benign, even cute. Consider Sophie Kinsella’s bestselling Shopaholic book series (titles include “Christmas Shopaholic,” “Shopaholic & Baby,” and “The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic”); or the old “Shop ’til you drop” meme; and tote bags that defiantly declare, “I’m not a shopaholic, I’m helping the economy.”

But it’s not cute. When I’m spending my kids’ college funds on slip skirts and bucket bags, it’s wrong, it’s irresponsible, and it’s a major problem in my life. So I turned to the science to try to understand why I, along with millions of others, just can’t quit.

SHOPPING COMPULSION FIRST entered the canon in 1915 when the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin coined the term “oniomania,” or “buying mania,” which he described as a compulsion similar to kleptomania.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s — following the mall-building craze, the increase in disposable incomes, the declining cost of consumer goods, and the widespread adoption of credit cards — that researchers began examining the disorder up close. By then, experts found that compulsive shopping was widespread — affecting upwards of six percent of the population. It’s also gender-blind: According to a 2005 Stanford study, as many men as women engage in compulsive buying.

“Shopping addiction” was established enough in 2001 that a federal judge declined to send a woman to prison after she’d fed her compulsion with money stolen from her employer’s expense account. The judge agreed that she needed psychological treatment, not jail time.

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Once in treatment, she would learn that compulsive shopping isn’t about acquiring a specific thing. In fact, if you have this problem, you rarely actually use the stuff you buy — the tags stay on the dress, the shoes stay in the box, the books are left unread. (Case in point: I once shopped for groceries and came home with a leash for the cat, who does not walk on a leash.)

Psychotherapists Dr. Jean Petrucelli and Dr. Ricardo Rieppi, who have written about the compulsion, explain that it’s about the act of buying something, anything. Simply clicking “buy” taps into a complex range of emotions. Shopping for stuff distracts from feelings of dissatisfaction, inadequacy, or anxiety. It offers a way to literally buy yourself out of feeling bad.

When I hear that, everything begins to make sense. I do tend to do most of my buying when I’m sad or angry or even just bored, or when my children are being difficult. Just being in places like Target or H&M calms me down.

But after the rush of getting something comes the guilt and the shame. I know I’m overspending and I feel awful hiding the extent of my consumption from my husband (and myself). It’s a relief to cull my closets and donate everything, to purge the evidence. But after a bad day spent with a whiney child, even a glass of wine (the average American buys $447.57 worth of stuff while drinking each year) doesn’t quite take the edge off like filling a shopping cart.

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Rieppi says that people like me consume not only to distract, but also to outfit an alter-ego, an aspirational identity. This also makes sense to me: My shopping habits got worse after the birth of my children; buying clothing became a way to reclaim my lost pre-maternal identity, and to interact with the world as someone other than a mother, even if that was as a consumer.

Clothing and books are part of how I reassure myself that I am not just a harried mom.

At the same time, recent science demonstrates that the brains of people dealing with a behavioral compulsion like this are nearly indistinguishable from those with substance addiction. Both behaviors produce the kind of neurochemical feedback that can hijack and fundamentally alter our neural pathways.

Here’s how it works: The initial pleasurable experience — ooh la la, that bag! — releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain that plays a major role in our neural reward circuitry. Each time we do this pleasurable thing, dopamine is released faster, more intensely. The bits of the brain charged with memory encoding record the purchase as a nice experience, thus generating a conditioned emotional response to the cue.

When I first started shopping as a child and a teenager, I got that little zing of dopamine every time I handed over my money in exchange for something I wanted: a CD, a book, cheap jewelery, a pillow with Luke Perry’s face on it. Do this enough times — I did — and the brain craves more. But do it too much — I did that, too, because being a teenager was difficult — and the brain tries to put the brakes on by reducing the dopamine release.

Scientists have recently started to describe addiction as a kind of “pathological learning,” a maladaptive commandeering of normal neural mechanisms of learning and memory. “Over time, the pleasure associated with an addictive behavior subsides, but because the memory of the desired effect and the need to recreate it persists, desire becomes compulsion,” explained Dr. Carolyn Mair, a psychology consultant and author of “The Psychology of Fashion.”

So my past experiences tell me that buying things is fun. But I’ve done it so much that it can’t give me the same high that it used to. It’s not fun and it leaves me full of self-loathing. But the memory is so deeply carved into my brain, that I reflexively think it will be fun, so I keep buying. And buying. And buying.

AND IT’S GETTING more difficult for all of us, not just addicts, to show restraint. Fully 44 percent of Americans who filed for bankruptcy between 2013 and 2016 blamed overspending or living beyond their means.

That’s by design: The siren call of shopping is ubiquitous, says psychologist Dr. April Benson, an expert on shopping compulsion and the author of “To Buy or Not To Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.” “Unlike drugs or alcohol, from which we can be totally abstinent if we want to be, shopping and eating have to be done,” she said.

Worse, the call to shopping excess is coming from your own pocket or purse.

Even watching other people buy stuff has become its own entertainment: A YouTube video of someone opening 20 cartoon-themed Kinder Eggs has, as of this writing, 913,557,392 views. The YouTube channel Unbox Therapy has more than 14 million subscribers. In her “summer clothing haul” video, one woman declares, “Hi, guys, so today I am back, doing what I do best — and that is exceeding my card’s spending limit for entertainment purposes.” The video earned nearly 500,000 views in just five days.

But modernity is making shopping easier in practical ways, too. The Internet is open 24/7. And in our increasingly cashless society, the amount we’re spending is becoming more abstract. Research has shown that paying with cash hurts more than paying with plastic in large part because we can see and feel our resources dwindling.

Meanwhile, social media inflames desire. So-called influencers peddle lifestyles and the goods to outfit them. They seem to say, just buy this thing, this flamingo unicorn pool float, this “it” bag, this kitchen gadget, this watch, this phone, and you can be just like me.

Powerful stuff: According to a 2018 survey, 80 percent of Gen-Zers and 74 percent of millennials say that social media influences their shopping decisions.

It sure does affect me, even though I’m painfully aware of its power. Did I buy that satin souvenir jacket from Topshop just because Olivia Palermo once wore it? Why yes, I definitely did! Am I considering green gingham because the Internet told me to? Of course! Did I buy that sundress because I saw someone on Instagram wearing it while she sipped rosé in the Provençal sun? Yes again!

But what if I had added that sundress to my cart and then left it? The next website I visit will feature a handy reminder right in the ad space: “Did you forget something?”

And this is where the modern world veers toward dystopia. Dr. David Courtwright, emeritus professor of history at the University of North Florida and author of “The Age of Addiction,” has written about the much more sinister marketing ploys at work in the digital age.

Humans naturally gravitate towards things that light up the limbic regions of our brains, the deep system wired for survival and pleasure motivation. Alcohol and high-calorie foods stimulate this region — that’s what drives us to feed ourselves and seek comfortable lifestyles.

But the modern world — industrialization, globalization, the democratization of consumer goods, governmental intervention, and digital technology — has conspired to capitalize on every aspect of our pleasure-seeking brain, encouraging us to over-stimulate it, he says.

Courtwright calls the sum of these forces “limbic capitalism.”

Modern corporations and marketers exploit our limbic weaknesses to sell us food, porn, and alcohol, using language steeped in reward — you deserve a cupcake, a weekend in Vegas, a shopping spree, a break. “That’s part of the strategy to normalize and make innocuous these things that really aren’t,” Courtwright continued.

Using digital tech, marketers are getting ever better at exploiting this neural wiring and psychology to get us to buy things through what Courtwright calls “addictive engineering.” Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, even eBay turn internal triggers — boredom, for example — into cues for a dopamine hit.

Seeing how many likes you’ve gotten from an Instagram post, enjoying the pleasure that comes from finding something new, or “winning” at an eBay auction massages those pleasure centers. So we keep going back for more.

Perhaps the most insidious marketing technology now being used is what Courtwright calls “neuromarketing” — advertising that relies on using various online behavior metrics and our personal data to measure our brain activity to determine how to best grab and hold onto our attention. And attention, says Courtwright, is the “key to the new digital economy.”

Some people are more vulnerable to these tricks than others, and retailers know this. Approximately 80 percent of their profits come from about 20 percent of consumers, said Courtwright: “Their revenue streams are really dependent on the heavy consumers. Corporations, especially those that market temptation goods, depend on excessive consumption for their bottom line.”

Some of those people will end up bankrupt. Others will end up in the therapist’s office. “With more materialistic attitudes and more marketing, it’s making it harder in general for people to deal with this stuff,” said Rieppi, who as a psychotherapist, has seen a lot of compulsive buyers. “We have all this media, and yet we’re supposed to be able to control our shopping and we’re looked down upon if we don’t.”

And then? The worse we feel, the more we buy.

WHEN I SPOKE to Petrucelli and Rieppi for this article, I mentioned that I may have a problem with shopping addiction myself. Petrucelli suggested that acknowledging the addiction may make me more mindful about spending.

I hope so. I haven’t had a credit card in two decades because I know that I can’t handle the temptation. (I use a debit card instead.) I stopped following fashion “influencers” on Instagram long ago, replacing them with swimmers and runners for workout inspiration, and I’ve unsubscribed to most of the fashion retailers’ newsletters.

But addictions are hard to shake. They’re also heritable, influenced both by genetics and environment.

So when I see this gnawing want blossoming in my children, I’m not surprised, especially when I learn that corporations are expected to spend $4.2 billion on ads directed at children this year alone.

This past weekend, I took my five-year-old son to the grocery store to buy dinner. We ended up in the toy aisle where he found a Lego set he desperately wanted. “But please, mommy, please,” he pleaded.

I wavered — it was on sale (my addiction is transferrable to buying for others) — but I finally said no. As we left the toy aisle empty handed, I tried to change the subject. I asked him what would make him happiest to eat for dinner. “Nothing will make me happy unless you buy that Lego for me,” he responded, wilting under the weight of his sadness.

I didn’t buy it for him. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

It was a mini-triumph. In my mind, the most compelling reason to say no to him wasn’t just because he didn’t need another Lego set.

I said no because this crushing habit is one thing I definitely don’t want to buy for my kids.


Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.