Shop to drop - a modern disease

British Association: Compulsive buying habits, deadly American invaders and a technique to prevent brain damage
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The Independent Online
THE PAST 20 years have seen compulsive shopping, where people find they cannot control their buying habit, more than doubling and it is affecting more men and children than ever before, researchers told the British Association's science festival in Cardiff yesterday.

An estimated 2.5 million people in Britain can be described as compulsive shoppers, with the rise being largely attributed to a 20 per cent increase in disposable income since 1979. The researchers also believe more people are suffering "self-image" problems which they attempt to remedy by purchasing goods that are specifically directed at boosting personal identity.

A detailed survey of 95 compulsive shoppers who were asked to keep diaries of their shopping habits over several weeks found that one of the most important motives for their behaviour was an attempt to gain a better self-image, said Helga Dittmar, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex.

Men have traditionally been in a minority among compulsive shoppers because, it was thought, they had other outlets - such as sport and the pub - to bolster their self-image, but this is changing, she said. "I would not be surprised if compulsive shopping goes up among men as well as going up generally."

With disposable income increasing, cash has begun to trickle down into the hands of children and, Dr Dittmar said: "Shopping is now a hobby, even down to 10-year-olds".

The researchers found that women have tended to suffer from feelings of personal vulnerability and self-doubt, which have led them to buy clothes, handbags and jewellery to make them feel good. Men tended to buy electronic and leisure goods, such as compact discs and sports equipment.

"These purchases often did not meet the need for which they were bought. Compulsive shoppers frequently regretted their impulse purchases because they did not feel better as a result. Ordinary shoppers ... were more likely to rate unplanned purchases as having helped to boost self-image," the researchers said.

Peter Taylor-Gooby, professor of social policy at the University of Kent, said the changing role of men and women in society, with more women taking up full-time careers, was likely to lead to more men becoming compulsive shoppers. Increasing wealth and the growth of large shopping centres have both made it easier for people to get caught up in compulsive shopping, he said.

"What we are talking about is not ordinary shopping but compulsive shopping, which is uncontrolled. People are aware of what they are doing but they cannot control themselves. It is more than impulsive buying," Professor Taylor-Gooby said.

"It's a psychological condition and has been identified by psychiatrists who offer treatment at compulsive shopping clinics."