HealthCompulsive Buying Behavior: A unique disorder

Compulsive Buying Behavior: A unique disorder

To some, the idea of a shopping trip will elicit only groans of frustration. For these individuals, shopping is nothing more than a chore to be marked off the list – something you do when you need something, like food or clothing. For others, the act of shopping itself is rewarding, providing a form of entertainment or relaxation1. Though this sort of behavior is mostly positive, it can take on a more nefarious, addiction-like quality for some individuals. In such cases, a person may become obsessed with shopping, leading to uncontrollable urges to shop for and buy items, even when they are not needed2. A clinical psychologist may refer to this type of behavior as Compulsive Buying Behavior (CBB).

Not a “True” Disorder

CBB is unlike many of the disorders discussed on Whereas disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been formally recognized and defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), CBB has yet to receive official recognition as a disorder. A clinical psychologist is likely to diagnose an individual with CBB as having an “unspecified disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorder”3. This is in part because there is simply not enough research describing the disorder to enable consistent diagnosis4. Consequently, there are no agreed upon criteria that qualify a person as “having” CBB.

That said, one should not discount CBB as a serious condition. In fact, aspects of CBB have been recognized by medical professionals as far back as 19095, and there have been an increasing number of researchers calling attention to this behavior4,6. Findings suggest that CBB can result in substantial debts, social conflict with friends who are critical of the shopping behavior, and even major legal or criminal problems for individuals suffering from the condition1. It’s important, then, to understand how CBB develops, its symptoms, and ways to find treatment.

How Does CBB Start?

Developing CBB might look a lot like forming an addiction. For instance, it could start as a positive experience, with the person using shopping as a form of relief. They shop to help “manage or enhance a poor sense of self and negative mood”2,6. Though these individuals are not typically interested in using the items they buy (sometimes even making purchases of gifts for other people), the act of shopping and buying makes them feel better. However, after making these purchases, these people experience intense feelings of remorse and guilt, and their gratuitous spending can lead to significant conflict with friends and family members7. Overtime, these individuals seem to become increasingly obsessed with shopping as a reward, feel increasingly distressed by these desires, and feel increasingly guilty in response to their over-the-top behavior2. Thus, much like other behavioral addictions, such as gambling, shopping may start as fun for individuals with CBB, but it becomes an incredibly disruptive cycle of behavior1.

Who Develops CBB?

Researchers are still investigating who is most prone to developing CBB. One finding is that individuals with other disorders are more likely to experience CBB. Individuals with personality disorders such as avoidant, depressive, borderline personality, and obsessive-compulsive (not to be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD]) personality disorders are all more likely to report symptoms of CBB7. Other findings are less clear, though. For instance, according to a recent analysis of the literature4, some studies suggest that women might be more prone to developing the condition. However, others find that men and women are equally as likely to experience CBB, and one study even found that men were more likely to exhibit CBB. These conflicting findings might be the result of different definitions of and ways of measuring CBB. Developing a clearer, more precise definition of CBB and its associated symptoms will help researchers parse through these confusing findings. But the lack of clear definition has not stopped enterprises like QVC from building it into their business model, helping them grow to be a multi-billion dollar business11.

What You Can Do Now

As it stands, the best course of action appears to be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In fact, several CBT-based group therapies for CBB have been developed, and studies have found them to be effective at improving people’s symptoms8-10. Such approaches work by having groups of patients attend weekly or bi-weekly meetings for 8 to 12 weeks. During these sessions, the therapist leads clients through different topics related to CBB, such as ways of identifying problem behaviors, restructuring thoughts, and developing plans in case a client relapses. The group format gives patients a source of support, showing that they’re not alone, and allows them to learn from others’ experiences. Meanwhile, the therapist serves as a guide, helping clients to think of their behavior in more productive ways and find new ways of coping with the stresses they feel.

If group therapy is not an option in your area, standard, individual CBT might help as well. Therapists using CBT work with clients to identify the thoughts and behaviors that lead to problematic behaviors, in this case shopping. They also help clients find healthier behaviors to reduce their stress, possibly helping them to break their addiction. If you think you might suffer from CBB, please consult with your therapist. If you need help finding a therapist that’s right for you, please see our guide on the topic.


1. Christenson, G. A., Faber, R. J., de Zwaan, M., Raymond, N. C., Specker, S. M., Ekern, M. D., … & Eckert, E. D. (1994). Compulsive buying: descriptive characteristics and psychiatric comorbidity. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 55, 5-11.

2. McElroy, S. L., Keck Jr, P. E., Pope Jr, H. G., Smith, J. M., & Strakowski, S. M. (1994). Compulsive buying: a report of 20 cases. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 55, 242-248.

3. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

4. Maraz, A., Griffiths, M. D., & Demetrovics, Z. (2016). The prevalence of compulsive buying: a meta‐analysis. Addiction, 111, 408-419.

5. Kraepelin E. (1909). Psychiatrie. Ein Lehrbuch für Studierende und Ärzte. Leipzig, Germany: Johann Ambrosius Barth.

6. Müller, A., Mitchell, J. E., & de Zwaan, M. (2015). Compulsive buying. The American Journal on Addictions, 24, 132-137.

7. Schlosser, S., Black, D. W., Repertinger, S., & Freet, D. (1994). Compulsive buying: Demography, phenomenology, and comorbidity in 46 subjects. General hospital psychiatry, 16, 205-212.

8. Mitchell, J. E., Burgard, M., Faber, R., Crosby, R. D., & de Zwaan, M. (2006). Cognitive behavioral therapy for compulsive buying disorder. Behaviour research and therapy, 44, 1859-1865.

9. Mueller, A., Mueller, U., Silbermann, A., Reinecker, H., Bleich, S., Mitchell, J. E., & de Zwaan, M. (2008). A randomized, controlled trial of group cognitive-behavioral therapy for compulsive buying disorder: posttreatment and 6-month follow-up results. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 69, 1131-1138.

10. Müller, A., Arikian, A., Zwaan, M., & Mitchell, J. E. (2013). Cognitive–behavioural group therapy versus guided self‐help for compulsive buying disorder: A preliminary study. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 20, 28-35.


Program Analyst, U.S. Department of Agriculture at Emory University

Sam Hunley holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Emory University. He pursued his Bachelor's degree in psychology from Furman University and a master's from Emory. Sam's research, alongside Dr. Stella Lourenco, focuses on human perception of the space surrounding the body, exploring the impact of anxiety and phobias on this perception. Together, they contribute to articles. Post-graduation, Sam became a Presidential Management Fellow.


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