Explaining the gap between compulsive and non-compulsive buyers regarding their actual/ideal self-discrepancies: how different, actually, are their ideal images?
It has been shown in a number of studies that consumers not only buy because they need a certain product but also because the shopping experience and the act of buying itself serves needs like diversion, self-gratification, sensory stimulation, physical activity, and aesthetic enjoyment (e.g., Kleine, Schultz-Kleine & Kernan, 1993; Levy, 1959; Sivadas & Venkatesh, 1995). A further aspect of shopping is its function as a compensatory instrumentality for satisfying immaterial needs. The present paper examines the compensatory function of buying and its extreme manifestation buying addiction. Despite often serious social, psychological and economic consequences, compulsive buying continues to be generally regarded as a somewhat marginal problem: "Oh yeah, my neighbor, she is a bit crazy about shopping. She's a shopaholic." Popular media portrayal of the issue has also tended to trivialize and sensationalize certain aspects of compulsive buying behavior. To dispel some of the myths surrounding this form of consumption behavior and to contrast it to 'normal' compensatory shopping behavior, the compulsive buying experience and the characteristics of the compulsive shopper are portrayed in more detailed. Quotes from in-depth interviews are used throughout to make the various aspects of the behavior more tangible to the reader. The findings presented are partly based on an extensive literature review and partly based on results from a research project conducted in the UK in the mid 1990s. The study included a survey with a total of 271 respondents and 55 in-depth interviews. Further, in order to explain the underlying mechanisms that motivate the behavior, the role of actual/ideal self-discrepancies and materialism are considered. The in-depth interviews add to these findings by providing examples of why certain groups of consumers become addicted to buying, how they came to rely on material goods as their preferred compensation mechanism and which ideal images they try to achieve via purchasing consumer goods. Overall, the paper is situated in the field of altruistic marketing that emphases the study of negligent or problematic consumer behavior, and the development of treatment and preventive methods to reduce the maladaptive actions of consumers.

Marketing research
Friese, Susanne
Pub Date:
Name: Academy of Marketing Studies Journal Publisher: The DreamCatchers Group, LLC Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business, general Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 The DreamCatchers Group, LLC ISSN: 1095-6298
Date: Jan, 2001 Source Volume: 5 Source Issue: 1
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Within a psychological context, compensatory consumption has been described as an inadequate attempt to obtain need satisfaction. It is an effort to make up for failure or weaknesses in one activity through excelling in another activity, which is a priori not more valuable or desirable (Gronmo, 1988; Hilgard & Atkinson, 1967). In a sociological context, compensatory consumption is a reaction to threatened status, a way to make up for some lack or loss. It includes attempts to gain self-esteem by developing some quality other than the quality a person feels lacking. At the same time, the importance of the quality that is lacking is denied (Fairchild, 1968).


According to Gronmo (1988) two types of compensatory behavior can be distinguished. People may a) engage in compensatory behavior because of resource poverty or b) because they are unconscious of their real, objective needs. In the first case, real needs and motives are known, but a lack of resources prevents people from taking adequate action to satisfy their needs. In the second case, all actions taken are necessarily inadequate because they are not motivated by real needs. Hence, not only an inconsistency between motive and action exists but also an inconsistency between need and motive (see Figure 1 above).

Attempts to differentiate between real and artificial needs have been a topic of much discussion in the literature because the arguments that have been put forward are often value laden and judgmental. A reason for this is that needs are based on subjective rather than on objective observable experiences. Therefore, based on scientific grounds it is difficult to determine whether a need is real or whether it has been artificially created. As a way around this, Hondrich (1983) proposed to distinguish between real and artificial needs based on the outcome of the actions taken to satisfy the need. The outcome can be assessed by asking the following questions: Did the action lead to inadequate or adequate need satisfaction? What were the intended or unintended consequences of the need satisfaction process and what kind of effect did it have on the satisfaction of other needs? Within the context of consumption, one may ask: Am I satisfied with the product I have purchased or do I feel regret or guilt? Did I stay within my financial limits or have I violated financial constraints and put myself into debt at the risk of loosing financial security? If one does feel regret and guilt because for instance one did not really need the purchased object, or due to having purchased it one can now no longer buy other needed items, then the buying motivation was likely not based on an authentic true need. One might then ask the question what kind of need did one actually try to satisfy with the purchase? Was it the hunger for love and recognition, did one feel left out and neglected, was it to compensate for a heated argument with one's partner? If so, then a likely reason for having purchased the item is the promise of comfort, relief or self-enhancement that has been attached to the product in form of a symbolic message. The purchase, thus, was motivated by an artificially created need. In a different situation, however, the purchase of the same object can be based on a real need. This shows how difficult it is to objectively determine whether an action is based on a real or on an artificially created need. Despite this difficulty, it is still possible to pinpoint a number of basic or essential needs; at least as far as individuals from Western consumer societies are concerned.

Following Maslow (1954), basic human needs can be classified according to five criteria: physiological needs (e.g., food, water, air, shelter), safety and security needs (protection, stability), social needs like affection, friendship and belonging, Ego needs (prestige, success, recognition, self-respect) and self-actualization (self-fulfillment, competence). Other authors developed different criteria, but essentially referred to the same needs. Alderfer (1972) for example proposed that basic needs are comprised of a) existential needs; b) relatedness needs and c) needs for growth and development. Nuber (1993) extended Maslow's list by adding three further needs: a cognitive need, which is expressed in needs for knowledge and education, an aesthetic need that longs for order and beauty, and a need for transcendence and unity with the cosmos.

Maslow proposed that needs are organized hierarchically based on the observation that all basic human needs have to be satisfied at some point. If one of these basic needs remain unsatisfied over a prolonged period of time, it cannot be held back longer and takes precedence over all other needs. Physiological needs form the most basic level within this hierarchy because hunger for example can only be suppressed for so long before it interferes with attempts to satisfy other needs. This most basic level is followed by safety and security needs on the second level, then by social and relatedness needs on the third level, ego needs on the fourth level and needs for self-actualization on the fifth level. Cognitive and aesthetic needs, according to Nuber, may be positioned somewhere between Maslow's fourth and fifth level. The implicit assumption is that lower order needs are predominant as long as they remain unsatisfied. In other words, self-actualization is difficult to achieve on an empty stomach, with no appropriate shelter, without feeling secure and loved and lacking in self-respect.

As all of the above needs are considered to be basic needs, they all have motivating power driving individuals to engage in appropriate action to seek fulfillment. If a need remains unsatisfied individuals will experience a deficiency that either motivates them to satisfy the need, or if this is not possible, to seek compensation. In the latter case, according to Freud, one possibility is to re-direct the unsatisfied need to a higher order need, for example by seeking satisfaction in intellectual or artistic activities for a perceived lack of affection and belonging. Freud called this strategy sublimation. Another strategy is to seek ersatz in a regression to the next lower level (Alderfer, 1972; Schnable, 1979; Scherhorn, 1995). If for instance the need for self-actualization is not satisfied, then people may try to compensate this lack via Ego needs, i.e. they will be more inclined to strive for recognition, success and approval. If the social need for love, affection and belonging is not satisfied, individuals might increasingly seek out security and protection or try to satisfy the need via food intake.

Empirical evidence for the various forms of compensation has been provided by a number of authors. Lange (1997) for example reported that young people from lower social classes and with lower levels of education exhibit a higher prestige orientation. This means that they show a higher tendency to purchase certain symbolically loaded products for the purpose of impressing friends and relatives. Other authors reported that people who either feel trapped in low social class positions or who experience a loss of status and personal identity due to unemployment are more likely to engage in excessive consumption of conspicuous products like clothing, modern appliances, owned homes and automobiles (Caplovitz, 1963; Chinoy, 1952; Jahoda, Lazarsfeld & Zeisel, 1933; Lynd & Lynd; 1937). Symbolically these kinds of products stand for the advancements and social mobility that have been denied to these individuals and provide visible evidence for the kind of status they desire. In addition, owning these products provides unemployed or low status individuals with feelings of self-respect because not having such products would mean to admit to failure since 'getting ahead' is greatly valued.

From the empirical findings, it can be derived that individuals in consumer societies seem to heavily emphasize the consumption of objects as a reaction to a general lack of esteem, education, knowledge or self-actualization. According to a number of authors, such attempts are likely to fail because material objects can never be an adequate replacement for unfulfilled immaterial needs (see for example Gronmo, 1988; Kilbourne, 1991; Marcuse, 1964; or Scherhorn, 1994). A reason for this is that the inherent qualities of consumer products have little in common with the kind of satisfaction that is sought, even if advertising messages may try to convince consumers otherwise.

In advertising messages, it is often promised that through the consumption of goods all sources of discontent can be solved. On offer are mass-produced solutions that appeal to the 'instinctive' strivings of the individual as well as to the ills of mass society itself. This is achieved by surrounding the product with an aura of all the things that potentially could be missing in a person's life like romance, exotic places, vivid experiences, love, beauty, adventure, freedom or comfort (King, 1981; Lash, 1979; Scherhorn, 1994). If the consumer 'buys' into these messages, the commodity itself is transformed into a placebo. It is no longer important for its utilitarian value but for its symbolic meaning and the image it stands for. The paradox is that we, as consumers, are often not consciously aware that we are lured into buying an item for this reason. If an advert is done well and the message is mainly communicated to our emotional right brain, then the left part of our brain, which is responsible for analytical thinking and language, becomes idle (see King, 1981). Thus, the information provided by ads may not be accessible to rational analysis and is persistent in spite of reasonable appeals to good-judgment and self-interest. An additional effect is that emotional advertising appeals result in positive affective reactions, which have been shown to relate to higher ad and brand recognition, to an enhanced impression of the brand and a smaller inclination to think of reasons not to buy the product (Geuen & DePelsmacker, 1998).

In addition, to the appeals that are made to a person's emotions, advertising also makes use of human vanity by endowing consumers with a critical self-consciousness that keeps them dissatisfied and discontent with their own person and mode of life. The conveyed message is that it is not you who is beautiful or who has the ability to make friends, but your commodified smile, your embellished hair, your luxury car, and so on. Anything natural about the consumer is portrayed as worthless or needing improvement. The aim is to make consumers schizophrenically self-conscious in order to channel their desire for social success, recognition and similar immaterial needs toward a commoditised acceptance of 'civilization' (Ewen, 1969).

An adjunct effect of being constantly exposed to such images is that they are more and more taken for real, obliterating the difference between reality and the portrayed dream world (Baudrillard, 1970/1988). In advertising spots as well as in films and television shows, there is little time to develop the characters at length through verbal forms of communication. Instead, objects and possessions are displayed to give the viewer an impression about the kind of personality presented. This constructs a reality that does not exist and produces a biased worldview. O'Guinn & Faber (1987) for example have shown that heavy television viewers are more likely to have incorrect beliefs about the real world. They overestimate the chance of being a victim of crime and the stability of the nuclear family; they have a greater faith in doctors, a more negative attitude towards elderly people, and are more likely to display a sexist attitude. Weiman (1984) reports a similar effect. He showed that Israeli viewers due to their exposure to television images overestimate the earnings of Americans and the percentage of households that have air-conditioning, dishwashers, multiple cars, electronic can openers and freezers. Hence, the outcome of this kind of media socialization is that viewers have an inflated opinion of the things other people possess and they adopt the belief that wealth is desirable and common. This produces unhappiness about our own situation because we believe everyone else is better off, and it works as an inhibitor against feeling guilty for wanting to have more things. A further aspect is that our self-perception is likely to be influenced by the mass mediated 'ideal' type, affecting the synthesis of who we (really) are or who we would like to be. This may lead to chronic unhappiness or malaise through comparing our real life with the false reality portrayed on television, which in turn creates an apparent necessity to acquire things and contributes to the belief that goods stand for happiness, success and life satisfaction (Brickman & Campbell, 1971). In other words, it results in a marked materialistic value orientation.

In summary, buying offers multifarious possibilities for compensation through the many symbolic meanings that are attached to it via personal experience and/or advertising, and thus has the potential to function as a universal drug promising to alleviate the discomforts of life. Occasionally, it is used by many as a way to brighten up a sad day, as a reward for an achievement, to enhance one's self-perception or to relax a negative mood state (e.g., Kacen, 1998, Kacen & Friese, 1999). If buying however is used excessively as a means of compensation, it can develop into an addictive behavior with serious consequences for the individual. Compensatory consumption becomes problematic if consumers constitute their entire lives around the meaning of goods, and if they limit themselves to the products provided by the market as a means to maintain and to enhance their self-concepts.

According to conservative estimates, about 20% of the population in Western consumer societies use buying regularly as a means of compensation, 5% rely heavily on it for compensatory purposes (Scherhorn, Reisch & Raab, 1990), and 1-2% of these are addicted to it (Faber & O'Guinn, 1992; Lejoyeux, Ades, Tassain & Solomon, 1996). Examining the Baby Bust generation in the US, born between 1965 and 1976, Roberts (1998) reported that 6% of this consumer group can be classified as compulsive buyers. Black (2001) estimated that compulsive buying affects from 2 to 8% of the general adult population in the US. This means that buying for quite a few million individuals has become the focal point of life around which everything else revolves, often to the detriment of relationships, healthy bank balances and last but not least authentic personal happiness. The milder form, compensatory buying is probably a behavior most consumers have engaged in, even if only occasionally. For example, after a bad day at work or in school, after a period of cold and rainy weather, after having had an unpleasant conversation, after receiving some bad news, when a relationship finishes, etc. etc., we go out and buy ourselves something nice with the purpose of making us feel better. It could also be that we reward ourselves with the purchase of a consumer good, e.g. after having achieved a goal or after having accomplished something successfully. Thus, most consumers are familiar with the experience and the kind of feelings accompanying a compensatory purchase. However, we may not always choose shopping as a means of making us feel better or for rewarding ourselves. At other times, we may choose to talk to a friend, to go for a 10k run, to take a long hot bath, or to have a relaxing evening in front of the television. Going shopping presents only one possible means of compensation. If someone likes to go shopping and engages in compensatory buying more regularly, we often hear in a more joking fashion that this person is a 'shopaholic'. Here, however, we need to distinguish between persons who engage regularly in shopping as a means of compensation, but not exclusively, and those that rely on it as the only means of compensatory behavior. The latter group of consumers are no longer compensatory buyers, rather they are addicted to it (see Endnote for an explanation of terminology). In order to show how compulsive buying behavior is different from compensatory shopping, below excerpts from interviews with compulsive shoppers are provided that describe the experience from their point of view. However, before the research questions guiding the present examination and the methodology will be discussed.


Numerous studies have shown that compulsive buyers have a lower self-esteem than average and show a low self-acceptance (e.g., d'Astous, 1990; Elliot, 1994; Faber & O'Guinn, 1992; Lange, 1997; Scherhorn et al., 1990, 1992). Based on these findings, Dittmar, Beattie and Friese (1996) proposed that this might have an effect on the subjectively felt gap between their actual and ideal selves, thus, between who they perceive themselves to be now and who they would rather like to be. We were indeed able to show that. The results and further theoretical explanations are provided under the heading 'The role of self-discrepancy in compulsive buying'.

Having established that compulsive buyers display larger actual/ideal self-discrepancies, though, does not explain why they use buying as a means to reduce or to compensate for this gap. Therefore, in a next step we used the Richins and Dawson's (1992) materialism scale as a proxy to measure the extent to which compulsive buyers rely on material goods as their preferred means of compensation. Again, the findings were positive, confirming that compulsive buyers, indeed, seem to use material objects to compensate for perceived actual/ideal self-discrepancies. The analysis was extended here by also including the subscales of the materialism scale into the model, in order to examine which aspect of materialism has the greatest impact on compulsive buying.

These findings are interesting by themselves, however, they do not offer any insights regarding the kind of ideal images compulsive buyers strive for. The quantitative findings only provide a number that shows that the gap compulsive buyers perceive to exist between their actual and ideal self is on average by about 5.53 scale points larger than that of other consumers. But what does this mean? Is the aspiration level of compulsive buyers larger than that of non-compulsive shoppers? Do they strive for irrational dreams? Or is the larger self-discrepancy due to an actual self-perception that is much below that of other consumers? Or can the answer be found somewhere in the middle, i.e. the discrepancy being a result of somewhat lower than average actual self-perceptions on the one hand and somewhat higher than average aspirations levels on the other?

In order to find an answer to these questions, in-depth interviews with three distinctive buyer groups were conducted. The three buyer groups were: the utilitarian shopper who does not enjoy shopping very much and who only buys items that are needed, the compensatory shopper, comprising probably the largest group among consumers in Western societies, and the compulsive buyer.

A further aim of this paper is to illustrate that the phenomenon of compulsive buying needs to be taken seriously and that the information collected by researchers in this area should be treated also by marketing practitioners with responsibility and care. Promotional marketing campaigns unfortunately illustrate that this is often not the case:

The findings presented below may not follow the classical way of reporting, which is usually preceded by a literature review. Here the literature review is integrated with the description of the results because of two reasons: a) it serves the aim of the paper better in terms of portraying the difference between 'normal' compensatory buying and compulsive buying; and b) the various findings from the literature and the present study build upon each other. Integrating the main results of both allows for the report and the story line to be build up gradually to form a coherent picture in the end.


The Sample

The data employed in the present examination have been collected as part of a larger project conducted by Dittmar et al. (1995, 1996). The project was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council L122251012, as part of the Economic Beliefs and Behaviour Programme. As the aim of the Dittmar et al. study was to test a model on compulsive buying, the respondents were chosen purposefully rather than randomly and addicted buyers were oversampled. This was achieved by getting in touch with a London based self-help group, which had contacts to compulsive buyers throughout the UK. A second group of respondents was selected on the basis that they residentially matched (by town and street) the individuals from the self-help group. Further addresses were obtained through "snowballing".

All selected persons received a survey through the mail, which they were asked to fill out and to send back in a post free envelop. Two follow-ups were designed to increase the response rate. In the first follow-up the selected persons were kindly reminded to mail back the survey and in the second follow-up, a few weeks later, a new questionnaire was mailed to them. The final sample size that served as the database for the present study was comprised of 271 respondents, 80 males and 191 females. The unequal gender distribution is an effect of having oversampled compulsive buyers, since they are more likely to be female. The overall response rate was 53 per cent, which is quite high compared to the standard rates of around 30 per cent.

The total sample was divided into three buyer groups based on the respondents' score on the addictive buyer measure. This resulted in the following group sizes: 100 utilitarian buyers, 106 compensatory buyers and 65 compulsive buyers. The demographic details that were assessed in the survey showed that the three buyer groups did not differ systematically concerning sociodemographic characteristics like income, occupation, education and number of children. The only difference that existed was with regard to age. The utilitarian shoppers were significantly older than the respondents of both the compensatory and compulsive buyer group. The means were 47, 36 and 37 respectively. As age, however, was not consistently linked to any of the dependent variables examined, this difference was not of any great concern.

The Survey

The compulsive buying scale (d'Astous, Maltais & Roberge, 1990) was used as a screener to divide the sample into utilitarian, compensatory and compulsive buyers. The respondents were asked to rate the eleven scale items on a six-point scale going from (1) not at all true for me to (6) very true for me.

The materialism scale (Richins & Dawson, 1992) was used as a proxy measure to assess whether buying is used as a compensation strategy. Richins and Dawson view materialism as a consumer value and not as a personality trait. They argue that a materialistic orientation, like a value, guides actions, attitudes, judgments and comparison across specific situations and beyond immediate goals. More specifically they regard materialism as a composite of three dimensions: acquisition centrality, acquisition as the pursuit of happiness and possession-defined success. Acquisition centrality is understood by Richins and Dawson as a life-style in which a high level of material consumption functions as goal and serves as a set of plans. It lends meaning to life and provides an aim for daily endeavours. The second dimension, acquisition as a means of achieving happiness is based on three beliefs. The first belief entails that material objects provide the greatest source of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The second belief is rooted in the idea that money and social progress bring personal happiness. The third belief is related to the idea that acquisition rather than experience is the main source of happiness. Possession-defined success, the third dimension of materialism, is based on the notion that members of society evaluate others and themselves in terms of their consuming life-style. Accordingly, materialists should view themselves as successful to the extent that they possess products that project socially desired self-images. All items were rated on the same six-point scale as described above.

The extent of self-discrepancy was measured in a two-step process. In the first step, respondents were asked to fill in the following statement up to seven times:

I am--, but I would like to be--.

In the second step, they were asked to indicate for each statement on a 6-point scale how far they felt they were away from their ideal (size of the discrepancy) and how much they worry about it (importance of the discrepancy). The six scale points for assessing the size of the self-discrepancy were as follows: I would like to be a little bit different, somewhat different, fairly different, very different, exactly the opposite. The six scale points for assessing the importance of the self-discrepancy were: I never worry about it, I rarely worry about it, I worry about it sometimes, I worry about it often, I worry about it very often, I worry about it so much that it is ruining my life. Based on the obtained numbers, a self-discrepancy measure was constructed by summing the products of the size and importance ratings and dividing them by the number of statements entered. Possible scores ranged from 1 to 36.

The following demographic characteristics were assessed: sex, age, income, occupation, education and number of children.

Follow up In-depth Interviews

On the last page of the survey, the respondents were asked whether they would consent to take part in a follow-up in-depth interview. They were offered 20 [pounds sterling] for their participation. Fifty-five respondents volunteered to participate. In total, 18 utilitarian, 19 compensatory and 18 compulsive buyers were interviewed, 17 males and 38 females. The interviews lasted between half an hour and three hours depending on how much the respondents had to say about their shopping behavior. Due to budget constraints, eight of the fifty-five interviews had to be conducted over the phone. The interviews were semi-structured, meaning that an interview guideline existed but interviewees were given room to elaborate on topics they found to be of special interest to them. Digressions from the interview guideline occurred most often when talking to compulsive buyers. Responding, listening and asking further questions in such situations was not only a 'must' on the basis of ethical concerns, but also desired since the most substantial results are often acquired when listening to the emic perspective and not by imposing the researcher's perspective on the views and experiences of the subjects. The interview guideline included the following questions:

How would you define impulse buying? How does it differ from planned buying?

What drives you to buy something on impulse? What level of planning is involved? What do you get out of it?

What sort of things to you buy on impulse?

Can you describe a typical impulse buying episode? And a typical planned buying episode?

Do you often regret when you buy something on impulse, how often and why?

Do you sometimes regret planned purchases? Why?

Do you actually enjoy what you have bought on impulse and used it, for how long?

What is more important for you, the actual buying process or the item itself?

What does the buying give you? What is it about the item that (possibly) makes you feel better? Would it have to be difficult to wait for it? Why?

Additional themes that were covered during the interviews dealt with childhood and other life experiences of the respondents that were closely related to the onset and continuation of the addiction to buying and were often the source of the problem. All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim.

Data Analysis

The data were analyzed with the aid of the software ATLAS.ti. This program belongs to the genre of software that has been developed in recent years to analyze qualitative data. Actually, one needs to state that such programs, unlike statistical analysis packages, do not analyze the data. The software is neither more nor less than a tool that supports the process of qualitative data analysis. The use of software has the advantage that it frees the researcher from those tasks that a machine can do much more efficiently like searching for words or strings in a text or retrieving coded text passages. With the support of the computer, it becomes much easier to analyze qualitative data systematically, and even large volumes of data can be structured very quickly and clearly presented.

The basic steps of the analysis process when using such programs can be described as 'code-and-retrieve'. Text passages are marked and coded with one or more code words. These coded text passages can then be retrieved, reviewed, put together in different ways, re-coded if deemed necessary, etc. Coded segments can be retrieved by either using single code words in a search or by combining multiple code words using logical functions. The search process is the stage where questions are asked and results are obtained. This process, unfortunately, is not as straightforward as it may sound. There will be coding, retrieving, thinking about what one has retrieved, more coding, more retrieving, more thinking, some writing in between, etc. throughout the entire analysis process. Some additional elements of this process are the writing of memos and comments and the graphical representation of categories and theoretical concepts in the form of networks or hierarchies, which are all activities supported by the software. The theoretical underpinnings of the methodological approach employed in this study go back to hermeneutic philosophy as understood by Dilthey (see Schwandt, 1997, 62). The original meaning of the word hermeneutics is 'bringing to understanding'. It "seeks to know how we can take the utterances of others and give them meaning based on our own understanding of the world" (Ozanne, 1998, 280).

As is evident from the above quote, a hermeneutic approach presumes that the researcher brings a certain pre-understanding to the subject of study. This however does not hinder the interpretation process, as prejudice (or anticipated meanings) are thought to be prerequisites of conscious thinking that empower the researcher to make sense of the world. The aim of this process is understanding. In contrast to Verstehen, which is the ability to appropriate the life experience of the other, hermeneutical understanding does not assume that a single objective interpretation of the text exists. Understanding always is 'perspectival'. This means that multiple interpretations of the same text may exist, whose quality, however, can be judged and evaluated based on their coherence (Arnold & Fischer, 1994; Ozanne, 1998).

A tool to achieve coherence is the hermeneutic circle. The hermeneutic circle refers to the process of constantly relating parts of the text to the whole text. In other words, the understanding of the text in its entirety is not possible without understanding its individual parts; but the interpretation of every text segment in turn also depends on the whole, since the parts by themselves are meaningless without taking the context into account. Therefore, understanding a text means to pass back and forth between the parts and the whole through the loops of the hermeneutic circle. Eventually "the circle spirals towards an increasingly consistent and inclusive account" of that which one seeks to understand (Ozanne, 1998, 282).


In the literature it has been shown that most compulsive buyers rely on buying as an external source of mood modification and as a reaction to stress, unpleasant emotions or situations, which they seek to avoid (Dittmar et al., 1996; Elliott,1994; Faber & Christenson, 1996; Faber, O'Guinn & Krych, 1987). Furthermore, shopping is used by compulsive buyers as a way to receive recognition and acceptance, as an occasion to fantasize and to escape into a dream world, or as a way to feel powerful and grandiose while spending money (Scherhorn et al., 1990). The statements below illustrate some of these aspects:

I'm aware I think I'm very aware I don't know how I compare with other people you talk to but but it's it it's all about fulfilling me. [...] Cope with anything go shopping. [laughs] But I don't cope with me. It doesn't, it doesn't, I know it. You know, this is what I'm still saying that I'm just looking for that flaming answer to stop it, you know, just desperately needing because it's just not, it is not right.

I don't know that it's it's all for me erm and it's like er but I it I mean to me it's like trying to make myself feel better but I don't know why because I don't feel I don't believe on the outside I feel bad or. [...] It's me. It's mine. It's possible mm. Interviewer: Mm. Mm. So it's not an image you try to buy. No. No and it's it it's only, I always, whenever I'm doing it, it's me I'm pleasing.

I think a lot of it was I felt quite down. Erm sort of just wanted, yeah, not really knowing what the problem was and sort of thinking: I've really, you know, these things'll make me feel better. They'll, probably thinking, they'll make a change. But they don't, they don't do that. You sort of realize afterwards they don't make you any happier. I think a lot of it was I felt as though like people let me down, so I went for the material and thought that that would make me er feel happy. But it didn't. [laughs]

For a lot of women going on a shopping spree signifies freedom; freedom from their assigned roles and the freedom to just be (by) themselves. For others, carrying bags full with purchased items provides them with the sensation of inner fullness. A yet different motive is to purchase goods in the hope of receiving compliments and desired recognition when using the items or when giving them away as presents. Thus, the driving force behind the addiction to buying is not the purchased objects per se, but the symbolic properties of either the good or the shopping experience.

I was feeling quite happy in the shops. I was [pause]. Sounds very stupid. One thing that used to go through my mind, I can remember, I remember thinking: Great, I'm buying this item. People think I've got money to buy clothes. I haven't really but people think I've got money to buy clothes. So I think, it was also a case of erm how I looked to society, [laughs] shall we say. You know and did I look like a weal+ not a wealthy person but somebody who could afford to buy clothes. Interviewer: Did it give you a feeling of power or was it? No, I think it was all me trying to say to people: I'm not only a housewife. I am somebody and I can go and buy myself these clothes and I can do this and I can just, I'm not only a housewife [laughs], you know. I think that's what it all came down to. Telling everybody that I'm not only, I am somebody.

The buying itself gives pleasurable feelings and is often compared to a 'high', a 'buzz' or a 'rush'.

But erm it used to give me a an incredible high at the time of buying it. It lasts while I am in the shop, it lasts until I get it home in the car. Then I think I better hide this so that my daughter doesn't see them. She starts making comments that I am spending too much on clothes. But, erm, yeah definitely sometimes a real high, a real buzz. And definitely sort of like a sort of racing feeling. Interviewer: ... your heart is going? Yeah. Yeah definitely.

I have a, erm, it's like a taste in my mouth, a dry mouth, erm, a ringing in my ears, believe it or not. Sometimes my vision will s+ well I'll be swaying a bit, I'll have to reach out something to steady myself. And I've often thought I'm having an attack, an anxiety attack or or whatever but it can't be because it seems to be every time I'm going in to spend money. Interviewer: When do you get that feeling? I get it before I spend the money.

Typical for all compulsive buyers is that after a buying episode feelings of guilt, anxiety and shame over the buying are experienced (e.g., Benson, 2000; Schlosser et al., 1994, Lejoyeux et al., 1996). Personal problems include severe depression, feelings of guilt, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, and break-up of relationships or marriages.

I had such bad trouble in the past like I lost my house and that. [...] I spent about twenty-five thousand and then there was about eight thousand that my dad left me. So I suppose in the end I spent about thirty-three thousand in about two years. [...] I kept drawing out insurance policies and paying them off. But then I run out. But when I run out of insurance policies then there wasn't anything to pay it off. So I had to remortgage the house then.

And the grief and the anxiety and the trouble I caused myself, was constantly spending money, getting into debt, then worrying about that and....

I just thought I can't go on with this any more; I can't possibly go to court. I can't face all that I'm not strong enough. You've handled MX's death, you can, and I thought: No, just say, well that was just it, that was, that destroyed me that was the final thing, I can't take any more. And I just thought how easy it would be, you know, just to end it all.

But sometimes I sit and work the interest I pay out on that, six or seven thousand. I mean imagine if husband's name found out that I owed, I couldn't risk it. [laughs]. [...] But you start and you just can't stop. I mean now it's too late. It is just too late. I mean I'd rather kill myself than tell him. At the moment I can't even think two years ahead. I've just got to get through each day. I just have to take each day as it comes. [...] Sometimes I'm so afraid of talking aloud in the night, having nightmares when I'm asleep. [laughs] I mean I can't help it, just frightened.

Latest at this point, it should also be clear to the uninitiated reader that compulsive buying is vastly different from normal compensatory buying, and that the good friend or neighbor that likes to go shopping, even if quite frequently, is most likely not a 'shopaholic.'


As already mentioned above, a number of studies have shown that compulsive buyers have lower levels of self-esteem and show lower self-acceptance than the average consumer. A possible reason for this is that compulsive buyers have often been raised in family circumstances that were less favorable for developing a healthy and stable sense of self. Later life situations and experience can, however, also contribute to these feelings. In a recent study, investigating a large sample of young people in one Eastern and one Western German city, Lange (1997) found that especially an overprotecting parenting style leads to weakened self-esteem and indirectly to the development of buying addiction. Other studies showed that first-degree relatives of compulsive buyers are more likely to suffer from depression, alcoholism, drug use disorders and to suffer more psychiatric disorders in general (Black et al. 1998). Compulsive buyers are also more likely to have experienced the divorce of their parents (d'Astous, et al., 1990; Friese & Koenig, 1993; Rindfleisch, Burroughs & Danton, 1997; Valence, d'Astous & Fortier, 1988). Below a number of situations that have been described by the respondents are portrayed that very likely have contributed to the onset of their later compulsive buying behavior.

Approval seeking and sibling rivalry: Because he's never been there for us. Me especially. Erm as soon as I started having male friends or boyfriends or whatever, he just changed seemingly overnight, just didn't want to know. I could never do anything right and I still can't. [...] I could never understand why I did it because I cut myself and it hurts so much to do it. I mean there's not much skin on your arms and to cut through with a knife or razor blade, the pain was terrible. And I used to think I'm punishing him by doing it and then I wouldn't show him, I'd hide it. And then it'd heal up and I'd do it again. I don't do it now. I stopped because, er, it wasn't having the desired effect. I think I somehow expected him to start caring about me again. He maintains that he does. You know, he says that he does. Sometimes he says he does but I find it so hard to believe. [...] What I did, I was always trying to win him over again, erm, I got all my O levels and A levels. I got all of them, everyone I went for, I passed them all. I didn't want them particularly. I did it to try and make my dad proud of me because my brother didn't get one. [...] He doesn't like books, he doesn't like to learn but he's very good with his hands. And my father was more proud of that than my achievements. He didn't care. And then I thought to myself afterwards: I should have failed more. I might have got erm a rise out of him then. But he wouldn't have helped me if I failed them all.

Appoval seeking and inconsistent parental behavior: I was and er desperately I suppose trying to get some show of affection for myself as a person off my mum. My mum mainly. My dad idolized me, I idolized him, and my mum was always jealous of that. [...] The only emotions I can say I experienced from my mum was anger and being told this is all your fault. [...] My mum used to buy me things to keep my mouth shut and I sort of used to feel guilty because I had pleasure in the things she bought me, erm, but also guilt because I knew what they were for.

Very often she (mother) had very black moods and just took to her bedroom and then came out and suddenly said it was my fault. I didn't even know what we'd done you know. Erm and then to overcome that perhaps we'd go into town or if I said I wanted something, I'd get it, you know. [...] So it was kind of a funny relationship. I felt anxious but was admiring her at the same time.

Education into incompetence, overprotection and overcontrolling influences : And er I didn't know how to boil an egg or anything because she'd never let me do anything around the place. The only thing I was allowed to do was dust my desk. I wasn't allowed to do anything else. Nothing whatsoever. So I had to teach myself everything from books and erm so on and so forth. I was a very naive as, you know, when I see youngsters of today like my kids and like they're erm very much wiser than I was 'cos I wasn't allowed to go out into the world. It was just not having confidence in myself to sort of think I can do this. A lot of things, I have noticed, that a lot of the things that I don't like doing are things where I'm relying on myself.

Suppression of feelings : And well, I suppressed them all because you don't tell anybody that at sixteen, you know (i.e. sexual abuse). Well you don't. It's only recently that I've been able to talk about it. But er yes it must have had a marked effect on my life.

Which is probably because of the show I put on, you know. As I was saying to you before, the hard exterior and that is so much like my father, erm, he'd never told us he loved us. [...] I don't think he realizes he's hurting me. Because, as I say, I put on a front and I think he thinks I'm just as hard as him. I'm not. (He) worshipped, my fiance, and the baby. Loved him. Erm and then when he when when my fiance died, he was he was upset. But he he wouldn't show it. And I in turn thought, well, I can't show my grief and I kept mine hidden up, didn't let anyone see me cry.

From the quotes above, it can be seen that negative feelings often were suppressed in the families of compulsive buyers and that verbal approval also was less prevalent. Many compulsive buyers reported that they tried hard to please their parents but that they most often failed. Inconsistent parental behavior and overprotection were also commonly experienced by the respondents. Instead of love, time and attention, or as reparation for their inconsistent behavior, parents often gave money or presents. The genuine need for tenderness and bodily nearness remained unsatisfied. As a consequence of this prolonged denial of their own feelings and absence of necessary approval, these individuals developed feelings of inadequacy and started to despise an important part of their very own self.


Based on the findings that compulsive buyers have a low self-esteem, are less likely to be satisfied with themselves and often detest an important part of who they are, two colleagues and I investigated in an earlier paper whether compulsive buyers display larger actual/ideal self-discrepancies than non-compulsive shoppers (see Dittmar et al., 1996). Generally, the existence of a gap between one's actual and ideal self or between one's actual and ought self is not problematic. It is even desirable as such discrepancies serve as self-guides and have motivational consequences. If for example the ideal self entails a picture of oneself to be knowledgeable in conversational Spanish, then the actual self will feel motivated to undertake efforts toward achieving this aspired to self-definition. Such attempts can however only be successful if a person is committed to a particular self-definition. If this is the case, then self-definitional goals can take on the character of needs. Failure to satisfy this need will result in substitute action. This is likely to occur if attempts to achieve the self-definitional goal are disrupted (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982). Another reason for failure might be that the self-definitional goal is too far away from a person's actual self-state. Based on these considerations, we hypothesized that excessive buying might be a result of seeking self-completion via substitute actions, motivated by a large gap between the consumer's actual and ideal self-state. The results of our study supported this thesis. Respondents who displayed higher compulsive buying tendencies also showed larger actual/ideal self-discrepancies. The mean self-discrepancy scores for the compulsive and non-compulsive buyer group were 16 and 10.47 (possible scores ranged from 1 to 36). This difference was highly significant. In other words compulsive buyers were more likely to perceive that their actual self-state is far away from the kind of person they rather would like to be. This kind of self-discrepancy has been shown to negatively effect self-esteem and to result in dejection-related emotions like disappointment, dissatisfaction and sadness (Higgins et al., 1986; Higgins, 1987; Moretti & Higgins, 1990). Hence, the maladies experienced by compulsive buyers like low self-esteem and depression might be related to their high actual/ideal self-discrepancies.

Drawing on Campbell's theory of the modern hedonist and McCracken's theory of displaced meanings, the negative consequences that arise from trying to compensate for a large actual/ideal self-discrepancy via buying can be explained further. Campbell (1987, 1997) proposes that individuals, for the purpose of deriving pleasure, engage in fantasies whose building blocs commonly consist of consumer goods. As the greatest pleasure lies in letting the dream come true, this frequently results in actual purchases. The contents of the fantasies may evolve around aesthetic images, or they may include idealized images of the self. In the latter case, the pleasurable fantasies mainly consist of oneself embodying perfection. Such fantasies encourage the belief that in reality one actually possesses these kinds of qualities. In order to obtain the necessary proof that this is indeed the case, this requires action in the form of conduct in the 'real' world. As reality however never matches the perfected dream, the dreamer necessarily experiences failure; the failure to live up to his ideal self-image. The consequences are severe since the degraded reality in this case is the individual himself and not an object that ceaselessly can be substituted. As has been illustrated by the quotes above, this results in feelings of guilt, self-condemnation and a deepening sense of worthlessness, leading to an ever-widening gap between the ideal and the real self. In turn, this adds extra pressure to the individual to reassure his feelings of self-worth, eventually causing a spiral of events that becomes difficult to control. A similar effect has also been described by McCracken (1988). He proposes that people relocate their ideals to a distant, safe location in order to prevent these ideals from being devalued by the facts of reality. Consumer goods in this scenario serve as bridges to these distant locations in order to reassure oneself that one's ideal or parts of it are within one's reach and can potentially become reality. McCracken also stated that a problem is likely to arise if the displaced meanings evolve around idealized images of the self, because then the goods intended to serves as bridges are unlikely to deliver their promise. This promise is to give access to the displaced meanings. This will result in individuals engaging in desperate and repeated but unsuccessful attempts to lay claim to the displaced meanings. The conclusion that can be drawn from these theoretical perspectives is that dreams or fantasies involving idealized images of the self are highly problematic. Instead of serving as thriving motivational forces, they lead to feelings of self-condemnation and despair.


Showing that a high actual/ideal self-discrepancy exists in addicted buyers, however, does not establish any causal link. Singer (1993, cited in Toates, 1996) for example has shown that high actual/ideal self-discrepancies are also present in cocaine addicts, who employ the drug as a form of self-medication against depressed moods. Cocaine addicts thus seem to have chosen a different compensation mechanism than addicted buyers for bridging the perceived gap between their actual and ideal self-state. A likely reason for this is that the two groups of addicts have been subjected to different kinds of key experiences. From addicted buyers we know that through childhood and other life experience they came to associate material goods with love, attention, happiness and/or independence, and therefore they may prefer buying over other means of compensation:

My mum used to buy me things to keep my mouth shut and I sort of used to feel guilty because I had pleasure in the things she bought me, erm, but also guilt because I knew what they were for.... and then (she) come out and suddenly said it was my fault. I didn't even know what we'd done, you know. Erm and then to overcome that perhaps we'd go into town or if I said I wanted something, I'd get it, you know.

So we ended up with my mother and my dad, staying with them. And that sort of put pressure on. And I think it was my own way of getting heard, being independent by buying things. [...] I had a domineering mother. [...]. Everything was out of my hands. It was just bought and erm that was it. You had no say in the matter. Everything was bought through my mother. I lost confidence. [...] It was just that I wasn't good enough. I felt stupid and felt been made small....

Whether the assumption that the use of buying as a preferred compensation mechanism in conjunction with high actual/ideal self-discrepancies leads to an addiction to buying, can be tested by using a proxy measure that indicates that buying is indeed a person's preferred means of compensation (compare also Dittmar et al., 1996). Here the Richins and Dawson's materialism scale including its three sub-scales were used as a proxy measure. The first step of the analysis consisted of a main-effects-only model with self-discrepancy and materialism entered as the predictor variables. In the second step, the presence, strength and nature of the interaction between materialism, the three subscales and self-discrepancy were assessed. An additional variable that needed to be taken into account was gender. In a first trial run of the model, the only interaction term that was significant was the interaction term for the centrality subscale. This effect is likely due to sampling artifact. When gender is added into the model, this effect disappears and the only remaining interaction term is the one for the overall materialism score. In addition, self-discrepancy by itself and the happiness dimension showed an independent effect on compulsive buying. The final result of the regression analysis is presented in Table 1. A basic assumption of the regression model is that the explanatory variables are independently distributed. In other words, there should be no multi-colinearity among the explanatory variables. This assumption is violated in the above model, which however does not effect the validity of the reported results. If the explanatory variables are correlated, the variance of the estimates SE([beta]) will increase. This means that the computed t-ration will fall because t = [beta] /SE([beta]), and one is more likely to accept the null-hypothesis (type-II error). Thus, the test is more conservative.

As can be seen from Table 1, the full model explains 39% of the variance in individuals' compulsive buying scores. Compulsive buyers especially seem to use material goods to compensate for negative mood states and for unsatisfactory life circumstances (measured by the happiness dimension). Since the centrality and success dimensions had no independent effect on compulsive buying, it can be assumed that acquiring objects for the purpose of lending meaning to life (measured by the centrality dimension) or for projecting socially desired self-images as a sign of success and status (measured by the success dimension) appear to be of lesser importance to compulsive buyers. The finding that only the interaction term of the overall materialism score and not the interaction terms of the three subscales is significant supports the proposition that a generally high materialistic value orientation is an indicator for individuals using buying as a compensation mechanism for perceived actual-ideal self-discrepancies. In summary, it can be concluded that if both a high self-discrepancy and a materialistic value orientation are present, then there is a high risk for individuals to become addicted to buying.

Having established this, the next question to be answered is in what ways the actual/ideal self-discrepancies are manifested and whether the ideal images of addicted shoppers are different from those of non-addicted consumers. The cases described below highlight some of the possible ideal images that compulsive buyers may strive for.

Case 8: The greatest wish of this respondent is to be an actress. The closest she has come to this dream is that she has an office job at a film studio. She got the job after having applied for it three times. Sometimes she has a role as an extra in a film. The kinds of items this respondent buys are also a reflection of this dream: make-up, often glamorous clothes and jewelry. She likes to dress up every day and looks down on people who prefer to wear jeans.

Well, I shall always say I wish I'd been an actress but erm it's a bit late now. I think that's the only thing I really would have liked to have been is an actress. Or anything creative but mostly being an actress. But I like interior design or drawing or painting or anything like that. [...] Well, I think it was always that I wanted to be on the other side, you know.

When I was a teenager it was mostly make-up (what I bought) then. And in the end, I ruined my skin 'cos I was wearing too much make-up, you know. But erm [pause] most of it was to do with, I wanted to be an actress and the make-up was all to do with the stage.

I was sort of better dressed er you know dressing above my station you know. Always trying to look like the stars. But, I'm not a star, you know. But I've always liked jewellery and it does make you feel more confident. [...] 'Cos you never know who you're going to meet. You might all of a sudden turn a corner and walk into a star, but it's very rarely. But erm you might accidentally walk into one. Interviewer: So do you actually try to dress up because of that? Well, I always want to look as if I've got money, but I haven't got any money. [laughs]

Case 16: This respondent was brought up to believe that her destined role as a woman was to be a housewife and mother. She thought that this was what she wanted to do and she lived her life accordingly, not quite knowing why she did not feel happy. She was dusting, cleaning the house, preparing the meals, being there for her kids and not doing anything for herself. She never went out because for her it was not the proper thing to do. Instead, she took care of her friend's children when they went out.

I was thinking then that's the way you just plod on then. And all those years in my life I was ha+ not happy, but I was 'cos I had what I wanted. What I thought I wanted then.

She tried to make herself feel better by 'improving' her household environment:

Er, 'cos when we bought the house that we lived in, erm for over fifteen years we lived there, I altered it about four times the rooms and things, you know. We knocked a bedroom into the bathroom, then we put it back. That was all a waste of money. And you probably do things like that 'cos you're unhappy. I think, I did. [...] I wanted to move and we couldn't sell the house. I didn't really like it and I thought by buying the kitchen it would cheer me up and I'd like the house. And after doing all that then I was still low. I wanted to move. Which we did [laughs] and the kitchen went with it. Yeah. That is er what I used to be like. Interviewer: Mm. So why did you think the kitchen would help you or would help you to like the house? Erm [pause], I don't know. 'Cos it altered a part of the house probably. I hoped then probably that it would help me to stay there and to like it. But I would have had to have changed the whole house to do that. [laughs]

The last few sentences illustrate how difficult it often is for the respondents to find out why they engage in excessive or seemingly irrational buying. This particular respondent has overcome her addiction, but she would have never achieved this by changing the house. The reason why she now no longer feels the urge to change things around in her environment is related to the fact that she started to do things for herself again. Her life now does not only revolve around being a housewife. She took up a hobby and she started to work. Dusting and cleaning are no longer priorities in her life. If she still were fixated on the belief that her role is to stay in the house, she very likely would also feel unhappy in the new house and would continue to buy excessively.

Case 27: This interviewee expressed that her life was not very organized when she grew up. After she finally ran away from home in her teenage years, the striving for order and beauty became a priority.

I think I've got this vision of an ideal life, you know. I've got this vision of an ideal life where everything is very clean and very orderly. [...] My idea of a horror story is to be not very strong or even helpless and see everything deteriorate, actually getting dirtier and dirtier and more and more disordered. You know, that the converse of my ideal life.

Another dream of hers is to be a good woman, which in her eyes is to be the perfect housewife and mother. The respondent grew up during a time when the image of the ideal family was a working father, the breadwinner, and a wife who took care of the house and the family. Her buying resonates this dream:

I like very good kitchen equipment. I think, I've got this dream of an ideal life in an ideal kitchen and cooking lovely meals and you know. At one time I had six vacuum cleaners. I used to collect vacuum cleaners. Interviewer: Why was that? I was looking for the perfect vacuum cleaner. [laughs] Interviewer: So do you have the perfect one now? I've got the two ultimates at the moment. I don't know how long it will last. I've got the erm what do they call it? Oh goodness me. Not Whirlpool. Something Cyclone. I've got an upright Cyclone. And er also because being like I am I've got to have the other one to do the carpets, do the walls and everything. [...] But at the same time I'm unwilling to part with the surplus one because there's nothing worse than a vacuum cleaner going wrong and it does happen. It gives me a feeling of security to feel that I have got this standby vacuum cleaner. [laughs]

In addition to household items, the excessive purchase of clothes is another manifestation of her striving for order and beauty:

You see, I've got this dream that I can get a wardrobe and I can get everything right and then I won't have to bother going out to buy clothes because they'll last. But this is a fantasy that I have, that I've tried to, erm you know, bring about several times. And I know it's a fantasy really you know. I have said over and over I don't need any clothes. I've got enough clothes now, you know.

Case 28: This case has some similarities with case 16, but in comparison this respondent did not idealize the housewife role. The outcome however was the same. Both respondents felt uncomfortable with themselves and thought that a change of environment would make all the difference:

It's like for other people clothes and stuff like that. But it wasn't, it was just like, don't know. It was a want. I needed to buy, you know, I'd see [coughs] a wallpaper shop, you know, a room in this paper. And all the fittings, the couch and the furniture. I visualize it then. Erm that is how I want my living room or bedroom. That's how I want it. and I felt comfortable in that environment when I was in that and I wanted to bring it home. So that's why I did it.

Interviewer: So did you actually feel comfortable then when you decorated it the same way as you have seen it? I was comfortable. I felt comfortable, but it didn't last, did it. So I felt as though I would be satisfied. But I wouldn't and that's what I'm like with the furniture and things. I have to change things all the time. 'Cos I thought, if I changed things in my environment, everything else would be okay. [...] And then I didn't feel comfortable, so we had to strip it then and pick something else. And I'd go round and spend most of my time buying new paper.

Other manifestations of her buying addictions were to buy things for her husband, her children and the household, and to give gifts to people in order to make them like her. A possible reason why she felt the need to constantly re-decorate the house could be the fact that she hardly ever had anything that belonged to her. Throughout her upbringing her mother dominated her life and even after she got married, circumstances were such that she and her husband had to move back with her parents for a number of years. Choosing the wallpaper and furniture might have been an expression of wanting to rule over at least one part of her life, namely the environment she was living in.

Case 41: The following is a very classic example, at least in terms of what journalists generally think compulsive buying is. The respondent described her ideal image as follows:

I think, it was a sort of smartly dressed young trendy woman that you see around the places, can afford to wear designer labels and show them off and have Chanel make-up and that kind of thing. The sort of image that they portray sort of in the adverts. It was mainly the make-up stores in the big department store. And the way the girls are always so nice to you and you sort of thought, you know, and all around there's the pictures and the images. And that's seeing those started me off. It was the make-up I started off in first and then went on to the clothes. And the clothes I chose were like the clothes that were in the make-up adverts, you know. So I think it started really from that kind of image, you know. The sort of [pause], erm you know, the rich smart look kind of thing.

This interviewee was in her late teens when she tried to achieve this image via buying the appropriate accessories. She realized very soon that one cannot buy such an image and with the support of her parents she was able to sort out the financial mess she was caught up in. Her insecurities did not suddenly go away because of this but she discovered other ways of making herself feel better. Over time, these other activities are likely to give her the confidence and independence she desires. Her buying problem thus very likely was part of the process of finding an identity. The fantasies she was living out when shopping were similar to the kinds of daydreams she had played out together with her girl friend when they were younger. Her shopping excesses possibly were an attempt to turn these dreams into reality; or as expressed in the terminology of Erikson (1976), to draw together the threads of her childhood identifications in order to form an independent identity. The period of excessive buying in her case was very likely just part of the trial and error path of finding ways to cope with life, one's personality and the maturation process more generally.

The cases above illustrate concrete ideal images. However, not all compulsive buyers described such clear ideal images. For some respondents buying was the equivalent to a drug, or as one respondent expressed it: "It is like the insulin for a diabetic." They have become so dependent on it that they respond to every disturbance in their life with buying (or alternatively with binge eating). They view it as the only way to relieve miserable feelings: "Sometimes, I don't know how to get through the day. I feel like getting into a car and driving it into a wall." Instead, they take their credit cards and go shopping. The longed for ideal self-states of these compulsive buyers also is to feel better about themselves, but in their cases the immediate demand of the moment takes precedence over more elaborate ideal images.

Whether the respondents could express their ideal self-states in form of concrete images or not, in all cases the aspired to ideal consisted exclusively of non-material desires like wanting to be more loved, more accepting of self, nice looking, smart, outgoing, more open to praise, more grounded, more assertive, more appreciated, less wanting to please other, more secure, more in control of life, wanting to find out who one is and wanting to feel complete. In comparison, none of the utilitarian buyers and only four of the compensatory buyers made a connection between concrete or less concrete ideal self-images and their shopping behaviour.

A vital conclusion that can be drawn from these findings is that the ideal images of compulsive buyers are not vastly different from what most human beings desire. The reason why they exhibit larger actual/ideal self-discrepancies is moreover related to where they position their actual selves. If one takes the actual self of a perfectly happy individual as the baseline and sets it to zero, then the actual self-perceptions of addicted buyers are below the zero line (see Figure 2). In other words, addicted buyers are not highly irrational dreamers who want to achieve ideal states that are far from what we all desire in order to feel happy and content with ourselves and our lives. Rather, they are profoundly unhappy individuals for whom buying serves emotional rather than utilitarian needs and who attempt through buying to restore their depleted sense of self.


In summary, when taking into account both concrete and less concrete ideal images, it can be stated that the interview data support the thesis that the addiction to buying is driven by the desire to achieve an ideal state. This ideal self-state however is often nothing more than just wanting to feel happy and to be content with oneself. Non-compulsive consumers sometimes also engage in buying for these reasons. However, they are in less of a need for self-affirming actions, and they employ a larger variety of compensation mechanisms as is obvious in the following statements:

And when I feel miserable I tend to want to just be on my own [laughs] and eat a lot. [laughs] But [pause] Or I just ring a friend.

... doing something just a bit different or a bit special that's interactive. I mean I love going to the movies. That's a er that's a brilliant way to relax as well but if you go out for a meal then it's interactive isn't it because you're sitting with the person and you're getting a chance to talk to them.

Erm [pause] go down the pub with my mates [laughs] that sort of thing. Or go and get a video. Sometimes go and get a video out. That's about it.

I would have a foam bath or I would go for a run or go to the cinema or erm rather than shopping. Occasionally shopping but no, it wouldn't be, it wouldn't be one of the first things that I'd do because I had a bad day.

In comparison, compulsive buyers cannot conceive of either an alternative activity that would give them the same pleasure as buying:

At the moment I can't really think what gives me the greater pleasure now. It's hard for me to think of something because everything seems very mundane. It seems to come to second place. I could do all those things but I'd still need to go shopping.

I find it still very difficult to do something else to, erm, to give me that sort of, you know, er peace of mind and feeling, you know, to have something to fill my day. Going to the park, looking at a tree or, you know, I still find it very difficult.

I don't know. I feel as though I can't go out now and really join a gym or something 'cos I'm guilty really. I mean I shouldn't be doing it because it would mean spending extra money, which we haven't got.


Based on the findings reported in the literature and the data presented here, it has been shown that buying and material objects potentially provide individuals with recognition and approval; that both offer an escape through fantasy, that they allow acting out anger and aggression, that they promise power and control, represent love, security, affection, independence and identity, that they potentially create mood change, relieve anxiety, lift depression, and elevate self-esteem. Therefore, it is not surprising that individuals in consumer societies have 'discovered' buying as a means of compensation. The reason why some people become addicted to it is related to certain predispositions, which may be inherited and/or are induced by certain life experiences, mostly during childhood. If such dispositions occur in combination with the experience that objects and acts of consumption can serve as an ersatz for a missing parent, for love, affection, recognition or attention, it can be presumed that the preferred substitution mechanism for a perceived lack will be material goods and the associated shopping activities.

The problematic aspect is that the add-on benefits of buying will never satisfy the real underlying need of the compulsive buyer. Firstly, material goods, although symbolically representing immaterial needs, can never be adequate substitutes for such needs. Secondly, as the driving force that motivates the addiction is often not consciously known, it is highly unlikely that the real needs that long for fulfillment are satisfied by the addictive behavior. If a basic need however is not satisfied, it will become the predominant need driving people to engage in compensatory behaviors. This may either be achieved by re-directing the unsatisfied need to a top level need, or by regressing to the next lowest level. Metaphors like filling the empty self or buying comfort foods are an indication for a regression to the lowest level in the hierarchy of needs. Buying in those cases is used as an ersatz for higher order needs like security, affection and belonging. An example for re-directing an unsatisfied need to a higher order need was given in Case 27, where buying was used to achieve order and beauty to compensate for a lack of stability in life.


In the literature, addictive buying has often been described as compulsive buying. This however is not correct, as a compulsion is clearly different from an addiction on numerous accounts and the behavior described does not fit the characteristics of a typical compulsion. However, as the term 'compulsive buying' seems now to be established in the literature, it will also be used here.

A compulsion can be defined as a pressing feeling that urges one to engage in an activity against ones own will, driven by a force that cannot be controlled. Buying addicts often experience urges that they are unable to control, however not all the time. In a study by Scherhorn et al. (1990), only 64% of the respondents felt a loss of control, and 28% were even planning their buying sprees. Excessive buying therefore is different from abnormal behaviors like compulsive hand washing or compulsive hair pulling. It however shares a number of characteristics with obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). The buying impulse for instance resembles an obsession and the buying behavior a compulsion (McElroy et al., 1994). In addition, excessive buying also fulfills DSM-III-R criteria of an impulse-control disorder. In detail the criteria entail a failure to resist the impulse, a drive or temptation to perform some act that is harmful to the person or others, an increasing sense of tension/arousal before committing the act, and an experience of either pleasure, gratification or release at the time of committing the act. In a number of studies, excessive buyers have depicted their behavior as episodic, uncontrollable and causing significant distress (e.g., Faber et al., 1987, Faber & O'Guinn, 1988, Valence, d'Astous & Fortier, 1988). Most described irresistible urges, mounting tension or anxiety with the impulse. The impulse itself is experienced as senseless, intrusive, persistent, and overall as discomfort producing (e.g., McElroy et al., 1994). Most excessive buyers feel a relief of tension with the act of shopping or buying and experience pleasurable feelings, which they often compare to a high, a buzz or a rush (e.g. Elliott, 1994; Friese & Koenig, 1993; Krueger, 1988). Almost all run into significant problems due to their excessive buying behavior, either financial, personal or both. Thus, based on commonly accepted criteria, the observed phenomenon can also be described as a disorder of impulse control.

A similar view is put forward by Schlosser et al. (1994). They concluded that on the one hand addictive buying shares many superficial similarities with OCD such as repetitive and problematic spending, intrusive thoughts about spending and resistance to such thoughts and behavior. On the other hand, the behavior seems to have many characteristics in common with other impulse control disorders like pathological gambling or binge eating. Unlike patients with OCD who view their obsessions and compulsions as unwanted, addicted buyers experience shopping as fun, exciting and desirable, at least initially. (Black, Monahan & Gabel, 1997; Christenson et al., 1994; Faber et al., 1995; McElroy et al., 1994). Statistical evidence has been provided by Nataraajan and Goff (1991) that excessive buying is related to both a disorder of impulse control and to an obsessive-compulsive personality trait. Thus, calling the observed consumption phenomenon compulsive buying describes only one aspect of it. The term addiction in comparison includes both the obsessive-compulsive as well as the impulsive side of it (Shapiro, 1981). Therefore, referring to this form of excessive buying as addictive buying seems to be more appropriate (compare also Scherhorn, 1990).


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Susanne Friese, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
One of the most fashionable stores in New York City recently mailed
   postcards to its customers inviting them to a "psychotherapy sale,"
   urging them to bring in their emotional baggage to fill with mood
   enhancing bargains (http:// www. finanicalrecovery .com/ resources/
   interviews/ benson2.html, last accessed 1. July 2001).

Table 1: Predictors of Compulsive Buying Tendencies

Variable                              [beta]      SE ([beta])  stand. r

Self-discrepancy                     0.574522      0.144659      0.25
Happiness (high/low)                 6.646301      1.710194      0.24
Gender                               4.88098       1.497305      0.16
Interaction term for Materialism     0.352714      0.129366      0.21
(Constant)                          14.111605      2.892815
Variables not in the equation:      Centrality (high/low)
                                    Success (high/low)

Variable                             t-value        sig. t

Self-discrepancy                      3.972         0.0001
Happiness (high/low)                  3.886         0.0001
Gender                                3.260         0.0013
Interaction term for Materialism      2.726         0.0068
(Constant)                            4.878         0.0000
Variables not in the equation:        0.492         0.6234
                                      0.045         0.9642
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