We joke about it all the time: "Shop till you drop," "mall immersion," "retail therapy." The task of hunt-and-purchase, a chore to previous generations, has risen to the level of sport. Our society is anchored by retail centers, driven by advertising and saturated with material goods. We savor shopping. We do it with friends, when we're depressed or bored.
We do it long after we actually need what we buy. If hitting the mall was hitting the sauce, you could say our society has a problem. Do we? Has shopping become a disease?
IS IT a Cause ...
"I think it's premature to call it an addiction," Aynne Henry says. "You have to examine the root of the behavior. Is (shopping) its own disease, or part of some other pathology." A licensed psychologist since 1980, Henry has seen compulsive shopping become a common issue in her Phoenix practice. It's a subject she'll discuss in her talk at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's "Branded and on Display" exhibit tonight.
"What's amazing is that there isn't more research on it," Henry explains. "Or at least more publicity, since it's ubiquitous - particularly now, with bankruptcies everywhere and people losing their homes." The American Psychological Association does not have a category for compulsive shopping. "There is thought, however, that the next (diagnostic manual) will find some way to include a diagnostic mention," she says.
Such a development would not surprise Henry, who specializes in couples counseling and mood disorders. Compulsive purchases, she says, play a role in both arenas. "It can be a co-morbid addiction, for someone with a mood disorder. For example, if a person has a bipolar personality, they may express a behavior to excess - like shopping or gambling."
In couples counseling, the mall is a frequent culprit. "Opposites often attract. Frequently, the spender and the saver get married. It can do a lot of damage, because there's usually hiding and denial, as well. It can tear the fabric of a relationship, and ruin the sense of trust."
... OR A Symptom?
In some ways, shopping doesn't fit the profile of addiction. "Usually, with addictions, there are substances like drugs or alcohol," Henry explains. Compulsive shopping, gambling or working are more abstract "but still destructive," she says. "They fit into this giant gray space."
In other ways, it mimics the pathology. "There's an endorphin release (when you shop), absolutely. For some, it's the process. When they shop, they're fueling their neuro brain transmitters." Compulsive shopping can manifest in different ways. "It's not always related to price," she explains. "Someone may have one thing in mind that they want, and spend an extraordinary amount or time and money looking for it. They may spend hours and hours on the Internet for something that only costs three bucks. The psychological payoff is in the satisfaction of finding.
"Then, you have someone who goes to the mall. They have 400 little black dresses in the closet at home. But they'll buy two more." In most cases, the satisfaction is short-lived. "For most, it's the thrill of the chase. Some people don't really care what they catch. You'll see people go to the dollar store and come out with 20 bags. It's 'stuff-itis.' Like a bulimic, who doesn't care what they eat. Just buy something, and lots of it."