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Compulsive buying

Prevalence study

Bandolier is relatively minimalist when it comes to shopping. Groceries, obviously. Books, certainly. But for the rest, shopping is a necessity, and definitely not a pleasure. Yet shopping is clearly a pleasure to many people, and for some, like other behaviours, it is a behaviour taken to extreme. Compulsive buying is now becoming a “condition” to be medicalised, and even has a posh name, oniomania. We now have an estimate of its prevalence [1].

Prevalence study

Prevalence was studied using a random telephone survey of 2,500 US adults that addressed buying attitudes and behaviours, colleting additionally information about demography and financial consequences. Participants were found by a random telephone interviewing system using the first person aged 18 years or older who answered the telephone. Up to 15 calls were made to each number answered in the continental USA, using a structured interview.

Questions included a compulsive buying scale with seven items reflecting a need to spend money, awareness that the need to spend money is aberrant, a loss of control over spending, buying to improve mood, and the probable financial problems that could ensue. Cutoff scores used were two and three standard deviations below the general population mean.


The study sample was different from the US population as a whole, having more women, being slightly older, and with slightly more married people. Overall prevalence of compulsive buying was 5.8% using a cutoff of two standard deviations, and 1.4% using three standard deviations. The results were generally similar for men and women, and when corrected for an average US adult population.

Those defined as compulsive buyers using either criterion were significantly more likely to purchase items because it made them happy (Figure 1), or because items were on sale, didn't care what they bought, were unsure why they bought things, and felt depressed after shopping. Most were close to their credit card limits, and 60% made the minimum payment each month, compared with 13% of other respondents. Compulsive buyers were more likely to have lower incomes, defined as incomes below US$50,000 per annum.

Figure 1: Responses to attitudes on shopping by 134 compulsive buyers and 2,162 other respondents


Any analysis looking for people outside a set number of standard deviations from the mean (any mean) is going to find some who are, and the proportions here of 5.8% and 1.4% for those outside two and three standard deviations is more or less to be expected. But these folk, with lower incomes, had more money on their cards and paid back less. It sort of fits, both internally, and what most of us know from acquaintances or the media.

Is it a medical problem, though. Well, some attempts have been made to treat compulsive buying, primarily with antidepressants. Case series suggest some positive results, and a few randomised trials have been negative. Psychotherapy similarly has been positive in case series and one pilot non-randomised comparative study [2] of cognitive behavioural therapy compared with waiting list controls (Figure 2). It makes for an interesting dilemma for purchasers of healthcare.

Figure 2: Effect of cognitive behavioural therapy on buying in a small, non-randomised pilot study


  1. LM Koran et al. Estimated prevalence of compulsive buying behavior in the United States. American Journal of Psychiatry 2006 163:1806-1812.
  2. JE Mitchell et al. Cognitive behavioural therapy for compulsive buying disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy 2006 44:1859-1865.

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