The first step to figuring out if you have a problem is to identify what kind of shopper are you—are you an impulsive or compulsive buyer? Impulsive buying is what happens when you see an object, want it, and buy it on the spot, without much consideration for whether you need it.
Like this skirt for $370. I’d wear it once and never again. If I bought this skirt, it would be a total impulse purchase and totally out of my league.
Compulsive buying, on the other hand, is when you’re constantly preoccupied with the idea of shopping, even when you’re not physically shopping—and definitely shouldn’t be shopping. For example, if I’m at work and still going at it, I could be a compulsive buyer.
Compulsive buying is more about the need to buy than wanting to buy one item in particular. While both can backfire, compulsive buying tends to lead to more serious consequences.
Notably, the brains of compulsive buyers may work a little differently than the brains of non-compulsive buyers, according to a small study published in the Journal of Consumer Policy in 2011. Compulsive buyers appear to derive more pleasure from the anticipation of purchasing and experience fewer negative feelings when it comes to footing the bill. This double whammy keeps them buying and buying.
Here’s what this cycle looks like in the brain. First, compulsive buyers’ nucleus accumbens—sometimes referred to as the brain’s “pleasure center”—shows more activity when exposed to products.
Then, when it comes time to consider the financial impact of their purchase—that time when most of us think “woof, that’s not worth the money”—the insular cortex, which is involved in negative emotional processing, shows less activity than those without a compulsion.
Think you might have a problem? Here are some handy questions to ask yourself ahead of any future shopping trips. This list comes from April Benson, a New York-based psychologist who specialises in treating shopping addictions.
If you can answer those questions satisfactorily, says Benson, then you’re probably not poised to make an unhealthy purchase. Though I confess—my answer to all of the above is, “I’m an adult, let me live!!!”