Can You Really Be Addicted To Shopping? The Experts Say…

By Tim Werth

We live in a nation of shoppers. Every day, the typical American consumer is exposed to 3,000 advertisements, commercials, billboards, and other promotional messages. On top of that, online shopping and eCommerce allow us to make impulse purchases with the tap of a finger.

According to a 2015 study published in the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry journal, between 6% and 7% of consumers are considered “Compulsive Buyers.” Some psychiatrists see this as a growing sign that shopping addiction is on the rise. Yet many experts reject shopping addiction as a genuine psychological disorder altogether.

So can you really be addicted to shopping?

When does a love of retail therapy and online shopping qualify as a mental health disorder, if ever? Put another way:

Is shopping addiction real?

Until more research is performed on the physical pathology of compulsive shopping, the answer will remain ambiguous. Psychiatrists use the term compulsive buying disorder (CBD) instead of shopping addiction, and the disorder has been included in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the past. The DSM is the official record of psychological diagnoses, and every update to the medical text contains highly controversial inclusions and exclusions. Shopping addiction was included in the DSM-3 but was removed in the DSM-IV.

Compulsive shopping is a very real phenomenon. Even so, shopping addiction was also left out of the DSM-5, the latest version of the authoritative diagnostic manual.

What does the DSM-V say about shopping addiction?

There’s a reason compulsive buying was initially termed a “disorder” and not an “addiction.” In the past, the DSM only used the term addiction for drugs and alcohol, while behaviours (such as gambling or shopping) were deemed “impulse control disorders.” That’s no longer the case in the DSM-5, with gambling officially recorded as a behavioral addiction.

However, compulsive buying disorder didn’t make the cut, although the related condition, kleptomania, was listed in the “Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders” chapter.

In addition to “shopping addiction,” other impulse disorders such as “video game addiction” and “sex addiction” were left out of the DSM-5.

Researchers and authors Gabriela M. Ferreira, Isabela A. Melca, and Leonardo F. Fontenelle wrote about the exclusions in 2014 in the medical journal Current Addiction Reports. They describe the many similarities between shopping addiction and drug addiction:

In compulsive buying, the overpowering urge to buy, the repetitive loss of control over spending, and the negative emotional state that emerges when not buying resemble craving, drug seeking behavior, and withdrawal symptoms in substance use disorders. Accordingly, some patients report a feeling similar to the “high” resulting from drug intoxication while performing the buying act… Psychiatric comorbidities in both include mood disorders, eating disorders, and other impulse control disorders. Some studies suggest that nearly 60% of compulsive buying patients meet criteria for at least one personality disorder.

Shopping addiction, sex addiction, and video game addiction are in a medical grey area

Anecdotally, many people believe shopping addiction is on the rise. And it’s easy to see why so many people are looking for an outlet like retail therapy to relieve stress. We’re living through an especially over-stressed and sleep-deprived era in American history. For instance, even though 92% of American workers say that their vacation time is important to them, Americans routinely let more than 662 million vacation days go unused every year.

But despite the many similarities between substance abuse disorders and impulse control disorders, researchers simply have not performed enough empirical studies to definitively include shopping addiction in the DSM-5. In contrast, extensive research has been done into gambling addiction.

In the future, shopping addiction may once again be included in the DSM-5, if only with the softer “disorder” diagnosis. The same goes for new diagnoses such as sex addiction and video game addiction (Internet Gaming Disorder was listed as a “Condition for Further Study”).

The inclusion of shopping addiction in the DSM-V may seem trivial to laypeople, but it could go a long way to legitimizing the disorder. While heroin addiction and alcoholism are widely viewed as diseases, many people belittle those with addictions to behaviours like online shopping.

Until these behaviour disorders are officially included in diagnostic manuals, armchair psychologists will continue to insist that you can’t be addicted to shopping. And until further research can be done, they aren’t wrong.

Tim Werth is an analyst at Hubshout.