Shopaholics are Addicted to Attention, German Researchers Find | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 01.08.2008
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Shopaholics are Addicted to Attention, German Researchers Find

German researchers believe they've found the first effective treatment for shopping addicts. The key is to increase self-esteem and end the need for adoration of store clerks, the psychologists say.

Three women with shopping bags

As long as you put your purchases to use, it's all good

One out of 10 consumers in wealthy western countries are addicted to shopping to some extent, according to German researchers.

Oniomania, the scientific term for "pathological addiction to shopping," was first recognized a century ago by the Leipzig psychiatrist Emil Kraeplin, who wrote a scientific treatise about people in large cities who simply could not resist the urge to buy pretty things which made them feel better -- even if they stashed away the items at home unopened, never to be used.

But the Great Depression, World War II and the ensuing Cold War meant that shopping addiction was largely restricted to Britain and America -- where it was largely dismissed as a cliche or else as a "women's problem."

But the fall of Communism and the rise of prosperity in Eastern Europe, China and other nations has turned shopping addiction into a pathological disorder of global dimensions, according to Martina de Zwaan, head of the department of psychotherapy at Erlangen University Hospital in Germany.

A growing global problem

A credit card

For many shopaholics, the problem strains their bank accounts

"In view of the growing incidence not only in Germany but around the world, shopping addiction must be taken seriously by health professionals and by the health-insurance industry," says de Zwaan, who heads the group of researchers who came up with the revolutionary new course of therapy.

Together with researchers from the University of North Dakota in the US, the Erlangen psychiatrists conducted a four-year study of 51 women and nine men between the ages of 20 and 61 who were confirmed shopping addicts in need of urgent help. In all cases, the subjects felt an overpowering urge to go out and buy things, regardless of whether they actually needed or even wanted the things they bought.

In most cases, their shopping obsession put onerous stress on partners and families, financially and also psychologically. In some cases, entire rooms of homes were unusable due to booty from shopping binge forays.

Shopaholics often have other disorders

Woman with shopping bags

Shopaholics can be found at all income levels

The Erlangen researchers found that shopping addiction transcends all social and income levels. Shopping addicts also generally tend to have low self-esteem problems along with drinking problems and eating disorders and other impulsive-consumption problems. Like over-eating and drinking too much, shopping makes these addicts feel better in the short term -- before the hangover effects hit them later on.

Shopping addiction is more prevalent among women, but is also common among men.

"Women go out and buy pretty things for themselves or for others such as clothes, shoes, jewelry, food and things for the home," says Astrid Mueller, who wrote the study findings. "Men go out and buy their own version of 'pretty things' which tend to be things for the car or sporting equipment, power tools and household gadgets, most of which are packed away in a storage closet or in the garden shed and never used."

Some of the subjects in the study reported that the urge to shop comes on them on a regular basis, like binge drinking.

"For several days they will be 'good' and not go out shopping," says Mueller. "Then one day they can't resist any longer and go out and buy things in a shopping binge."

Collector or addict?

They derive pleasure from being in the shops among all the pretty things and interacting with sales people who treat them nicely all the way up to the cash register - where the feelings of guilt start creeping in.

"Shopping addicts rarely enjoy the things they buy because they feel so guilty afterwards," Mueller says. "They can't bear to look at the things they have bought on impulse. Often, they have bought several of the same thing, say, the same shoes but in several different colors. They feel so guilty afterwards that they hoard the things away in their boxes and try to forget about them."

Man with his beer mug collection

That's quite the beer mug collection

Some people who call themselves "avid collectors" are in fact shopping addicts.

"People who go out and buy everything in sight and then hide it all away in a closet are not 'collectors'," says Mueller. "They are 'hoarders' who are trying to cover up for their shopping addiction.

Collectors place things on exhibit. Hoarders hide things away for some future eventuality which, for shopping addicts, never comes. Their hoard is never brought out of hiding."

The tragedy for shopping addicts is that their pretty prized purchases will never be removed from those boxes.

A new treatment approach

Until now, the only therapy involved using anti-depressant medication. Even then, over 60 percent of shopping addicts reverted back to binge buying.

The Erlangen researchers say their new therapy is based on improving the psychological self-esteem of the patient. Their breakthrough came in understanding that a key factor in shopping addiction is the self-esteem boost that addicts get from interaction with store clerks.

Store clerk wraps a purchase

Store clerks are just doing their jobs

"We discovered that shopping addicts get a real kick out of the interaction they have with store personnel. Their fragile egos are given a tremendous boost by sales people who fawn over them and smile and treat them like royalty," says Mueller. "Their conscious minds know, of course, that these people only want to make a commission on a sale. But their subconscious minds enjoy being treated as a special somebody."

Shopping addiction therapy sessions, which will start this fall at Erlangen University Hospital, focus on making shopping addicts aware of their condition and the motives behind their shopping urges.

That is a step towards retraining their minds to find other ways to boost their self-esteem.

"The first step, of course, is for the shopping addict to admit that he or she has a problem and to decide that it is time to do something about that problem," she says. "They have to admit it to their friends and families who, generally, are willing to give them the love and support they need to beat their addiction."

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