Some become so obsessed with shopping, they may go deep into debt.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- In the battle of the sexes one more stereotype has fallen: A new Stanford University study suggests men are just as likely as women to be serious shopaholics.
But they're much less likely to get help for their problem, according to the most comprehensive survey to date of out-of-control spending among Americans.
The random telephone survey of 2,514 adults found that 5.5 percent of men and 6 percent of women are addicted to shopping -- so obsessed they may go deep into debt, wind up divorced or even consider suicide.
These aren't your average folks who enjoy a day at the mall. The problem must be so severe that the sufferer is in personal turmoil and has problems functioning.
"What's shocking is how common this problem is," said Eric Hollander, professor and chairman of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the study.
Previous studies indicated that perhaps 2 percent of the American public had such severe shopping compulsions that they could be labeled as having an "impulse control disorder."
Yet the Stanford researchers found the prevalence is about three times greater, with about 1 in 20 Americans afflicted.
They didn't come out and ask people whether they were shopaholics. Instead, they asked a series of questions designed to reveal the urges within. Compulsive buyers were more likely to say they need to spend money, buy things to improve their moods, lose control when shopping, see their spending as aberrant and have financial problems as a result.
Shopaholics, the researchers found, tend to be young and live in homes with annual incomes less than 50,000. They're also about four times less likely than the average consumer to pay off their credit card balances in full.
"The behavior creates stress in the form of guilt or remorse, or dysfunction in the form of family conflict or unapproved time away from work to shop," said Lorrin Koran, lead author of the study and an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford. While men and women may be afflicted to the same degree, they do differ in one area, Koran said.
Previous research has shown that men are much more likely to be obsessed with tools, electronic gadgets, books and CDs. (One of Koran's patients just had to have 2,000 wrenches, while another purchased 50 cameras that he didn't use.) Women overspend on clothes, jewelry, makeup, craft paraphernalia and items for the home.
Never in doubt
Tom Hedges, co-owner of the Mad Hattress in Los Gatos, Calif., said he hasn't seen too many compulsive buyers come into his shop -- hats aren't that trendy, after all -- but he doesn't doubt the researchers for a second.
Everyone knows someone who goes overboard in the shopping department, he said. And Hedges, a self-proclaimed "high-tech geek type" admits to rushing out and plunking down 40,000 on a stereo the day a start-up company he used to work for went public.
"I haven't ever done it since," he said.
Scientists who consider compulsive buying a mental disorder believe the problem could be biological, sociological, psychological or a combination of all three.
Some say shopping addictions are really no different than addictions to gambling or sex. Others theorize that shopping gives some people a physical rush, a pleasurable feeling they want to capture over and over.
Still others see it as a natural outcome of our increasingly affluent society: Consumers have easy access to credit cards and often use them to assuage boredom and depression or boost their self-esteem.
"Nobody knows the cause," said Koran, adding that a generation ago, this was an area that wasn't defined, researched or understood.
Scientists have recently begun investigating whether medications might help curb obsessive shopping.
But some experts don't buy the notion that the tendency to shop 'til you drop is a problem requiring medication.
"Calling irresponsible buying a disease or a disorder is a way for removing responsibility for the behavior," said Jeffrey A. Schaler, a psychologist and professor at American University's School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. Schaler, author of "Addiction Is a Choice," argues that "impulse control disorders" such as compulsive buying are "fabricated" to serve the financial interests of doctors and researchers.
Medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes and AIDS are true diseases, he said. Behaviors, such as gambling, smoking and shopping, are not.