March 25, 2021 – The pleasure of acquiring superfluous shoes and kitchenware is, predictably, fleeting. “Shortly after they make a purchase, they often feel really bad,” Norberg says. This shame and disappointment is another hallmark of an unhealthy habit, and it feeds the habit. “It’s this reinforcing cycle,” she adds. “You feel good, then you feel bad, so then you want to feel good again.” 

A spree of compulsive buying often begins, as it ends, with negative emotions: loneliness, depression, anxiety. A person may turn to shopping because they are unable to deal with some stress in their life, or to boost their own sense of self. But it can also begin with a more neutral state of mind, like boredom. 

The underlying principle is that humans seek to enhance their mood, and in a year of isolation and uncertainty, many are more in need of coping mechanisms than ever before. We often refer (quite flippantly) to this emotional spending as “retail therapy.” The name is misleading, as it implies the act will improve mental health — the opposite is far more likely.  There’s been little research into the causes of compulsive buying, though researchers guess that it hijacks our body’s reward system in the same way as other behavioral addictions, like gambling. The activity of shopping and purchasing delivers a rush of dopamine, and the brief euphoria associated with it, then leaves us feeling as low as ever.

Internet vendors wield an arsenal of clever sales tactics against our meager brains, making it all the more difficult to resist the desire to buy. “Marketers know, perhaps better than the clinical psychologists, what drives purchaser behavior,” Norberg says. “They’re totally in tune with how people consume.” Algorithms present you with unsolicited advertisements based on your search history. Amazon automatically suggests items to pair together. E-tailers offer flash sales and “buy now, pay later” schemes.


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