Is Compulsive Shopping Really an Addiction?

Model poses as woman with online shopping addiction
Online shopping addiction is a form of compulsive shopping. Echo/Getty Images

Shopping addiction, also known as compulsive shopping, compulsive spending, compulsive buying or oniomania, is often trivialized in the media. It is posed as the behavior of superficial fashion victims -- invariably female -- and typified by wealthy celebrities with little more to do with their time than purchase shoes. In this context, compulsive shopping in itself doesn't appear to be a problem.

The movie "Confessions of a Shopaholic" in some ways reinforced this view, although it also contained some observations that are relevant to those suffering from problems of compulsive shopping.

Rarely is compulsive shopping taken as seriously as addiction to substances like alcohol and drugs or other behaviors, such as compulsive gambling. Is this because it is not a legitimate addiction?

Latest Developments

Although there is a large and growing body of research into compulsive shopping, unlike research into other addictions, much of the compulsive shopping research is published in journals on marketing and consumer research. These journals have a different audience, consisting mainly of marketing professionals rather than clinical professionals. Clearly, the motives of those interested in marketing and understanding consumer behavior are quite different from those who are interested in preventing and treating addictions.

So, for compulsive shopping to be recognized as a disorder in its own right, it will have to be taken on as a topic worthy of research by the addiction and medical fields and studied from that perspective.

One of the latest developments in compulsive shopping research is the finding that shopping online is particularly attractive to people who are "addicted" to shopping.

This is because online shopping appeals to several motivations that are particularly strong in compulsive shoppers, including the need to seek out variety in and information about products; to buy without being seen; to avoid social interactions while shopping; and to experience pleasure while shopping.

As secrecy in carrying out the activity of compulsive shopping and intense pleasure while engaging in the activity are common across all addictive behaviors, this research supports the notion that compulsive shopping is, indeed, an addiction.

Online shopping is one of several computer-based activities that have an addictive component; others include online gambling, online porn, and video game playing. However, these activities are not included in the DSM as stand-alone addictive disorders just yet.

While these "cyber-addictions" are yet to gain full recognition, that is largely a reflection of the lack of a strong record of research on which to base the required detail for DSM-listed conditions. It does not indicate that cyber-addictions are not prevalent, problematic or taken seriously by the psychiatric community.

There is also a growing awareness of the need to help people who suffer from financial hardship as a result of compulsive shopping.


Compulsive shopping has been recognized for the past 100 years, and people with problems controlling their spending can be diagnosed under impulse control disorder, not otherwise specified. Although compulsive shopping, along with many other behavioral addictions, was under consideration for inclusion in the DSM 5, it is not currently listed as an addictive disorder, nor as a stand-alone impulse control disorder.

Some experts have suggested that compulsive shopping is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. A continuum between obsessive-compulsive disorders and impulse control disorders, with compulsive shopping and other behavioral addictions appearing around the middle of the continuum, has been proposed.

However, in reviewing the available evidence, the DSM taskforce argued that compulsive shopping does not fit with OCD criteria. The conditions have different phenomenology, there is a lack of OCD family history in people with shopping addiction, and there are different treatment responses in people with shopping addiction -- for whom SSRIs may be ineffective -- from people with bone fide OCD.

An alternative suggestion is that compulsive shopping is a form of "affective spectrum disorder," based on its similarity to bipolar disorder. Overlap between bipolar disorders and impulse control disorders include engaging in behaviors that are potentially harmful, sensation-seeking and/or pleasurable; rapid, impulsive thinking; poor insight into dangers or consequences; and the association of mood symptoms with impulses, and euphoria with carrying out the "impulsive" behavior, such as compulsive shopping.

The DSM 5 criteria for a manic episode include, among many other symptoms, "Excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees...)." However, compulsive shopping is just one example of manic behavior, and people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder are not all compulsive shoppers.


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