A search for self

Studies of how the internet plays into compulsive buying are in their early stages, but the evidence so far suggests there may be a link. One small study published in 2009 noted a “linear relationship” between online shopping and compulsive buying. Another from 2014 of shoppers in the UK concluded that the “new shopping experience” offered by e-commerce “may lead to problematic online shopping behaviour.”

Evidence on whether compulsive shopping overall is increasing remains sparse. A 2008 study (paywall), which compared its own estimates of compulsive shopping rates in the US with those found in previous research, did suggest the number was on the rise. In the three sample groups it looked at, the study identified compulsive buying rates of 15.5 percent, 8.9 percent, and 16 percent. Earlier research estimated rates between 2 percent and 8 percent.

One of the few relevant longitudinal studies (PDF) on compulsive shopping, published in 2005, looked at the way East Germans integrated into Western society after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The study found that, as East Germans settled into Western consumer culture, they showed a “marked increase” in compulsive buying. The authors concluded that postmodern consumer societies “create an atmosphere which supports the rise of compensatory and compulsive buying.”

Dr. April Lane Benson, a psychologist and the author of To Buy or Not To Buy: Why We Overshop and How To Stop, specializes in treating compulsive shopping. When she describes the reasons for people constantly browsing as entertainment, she makes it sound like an existential crisis.

“I think that it has something to do with the pace that we live our lives at and the paucity of time that so many of us spend in pursuits that really feed our souls,” she says. “Shopping is a way that we search for our selves and our place in the world. A lot of people conflate the search for self with the search for stuff.”

Shopping becomes a substitution, a “quick fix” as she puts it, for other problems.

What should we do about this?

There has been a backlash against what some perceive as mindless overconsumption. In the past few years a “slow fashion” movement has emerged which emphasizes buying less clothing and sticking to garments made using sustainable, ethical practices.

The recent book by Japanese organizational guru Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has led to what’s been described as a “cult” of decluttering, with her acolytes boasting of shedding piles of clothing.

The internet is also full of articles such as this one by parents trying to raise kids with non-materialistic values, as well as blogs by recovering shopaholics.

So let’s take a breath here. Residents of industrialized societies are not all doomed to endless “compensatory” shopping just because our brains seem to enjoy it and our cultures are set up for it. The five-minute break from work you take to look at clothes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re searching for your identity in a pair of pants, or that you’re trying to fill a void.

The evidence does suggest, however, that shopping has taken on a new role in our society and in our lives. It’s no longer just a transaction, a way to procure necessities or luxuries, but rather has become an end in itself. It’s a leisure activity, much like watching TV. It’s consumerism as entertainment.

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