Materialized Socialism

I often get interview requests from undergraduate and graduate students who are writing papers about compulsive buying.  Every so often, the finished paper seems to capture something about compulsive buying that some of the seasoned writers have missed.  Rachel Davidson’s paper is one of those. A rising senior of UC Santa Clara, majoring in communication, Rachel’s particular mix of interviewees – experts from a number of disciplines as well as compulsive buyers from here and abroad – her lively style, and important information motivated me to want to share it with you. Here’s what Rachel has to say:

Scrolling through the protected webpage of a Yahoo Group named “Shopping Addicts Only” is like stepping into a hidden world of shame, worry and excitement. Anonymous or first-name-only users chat about their secret spending habits, sharing stories, anecdotes, tips and tricks that help one another both overcome their shopping addictions, while some members also trigger others’ impulses to overshop by the stories they tell. A member writes on the blog wall: “I think I shop because it fills my time. It is easier to shop than to make new friends… I wish I could fill my time with more productive activities, but I just cannot break the cycle.

One group member contributes to the conversation “I know what you mean about the UPS man. I love it when he shows up. He just came by yesterday… Do you hide the stuff you buy? I do.”

Another user pours her heart into a page-long confession about her crumbling relationships, lack of physical intimacy, anxieties and stresses of her pregnancy, and how each of these contribute to her dependency on her Visa credit card. Her only solution thus far has been to cut herself off entirely from personal funding and rely on an allowance given to her from her husband, which only increases the tension in their marriage.

Some post short replies offering support, others introduce themselves as new members or “former lurkers” who choose to come forward after realizing this group offers an understanding environment and is a safe way to discuss personal issues tied to debt. While each have different motives, backgrounds and urges, they all have one characteristic in common: they recognize that they have unhealthy shopping habits.

Compulsive shopping is one of the least discussed and researched addictions today. Its definition and even existence is wavering among experts in the medical world, many of whom have a difficult time determining exactly how to characterize or quantify its symptoms. Many people, victims of shopping addiction or not, are unaware that treatment is available and that bad spending behaviors could be warning signs of this.

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            April Benson, Ph.D. and author of To Buy or Not To Buy: Why We Overshop and How To Stop, specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying. She is one of the forerunners in the study of the overshopping epidemic and she has helped clients around the world struggling with their own personal monster. Her website “shopaholicnomore.com” offers an online incognito service for shopaholics and their loved ones to assess their behavior and to learn how to provide support and where to go for help.

“Some are very relieved to know that there are people who specialize in working with compulsive buyers, because there’s a lot of shame around this habit, more so for some people than if it were for alcohol or drug addiction,” Benson explained. Society doesn’t frown upon overshopping the same way it does with substance abuse. In fact, materialism may be seen as a badge of access, influence, and power.

Arianna DiCicco loves to shop. She says this with a smile that shines luminously, complimenting the wavy golden hair that falls around her face. “It is an emotional and psychological experience,” she explains. “You may decide to shop because you’ve had a rough day… you try on a handful of items – and if something looks bad, you are instantly put in a bad mood. If something looks good, it’s made your day. You justify the price with any reason, no matter what. You’ll regret it if you don’t buy it. You’ve convinced yourself: you need it.”

America’s financial crisis has imposed equally harsh restrictions on individual’s salaries and budgets, turning the routine purchases into the unaffordable. Such economically devastating times have increased personal stresses and pressures, leaving ordinary people desperate to fill the vacancies in their life with objects that they cannot afford.

In October of 2006, the American Journal of Psychiatry estimated that 5.8 percent of the United States population,  more than15 million people, suffer from unhealthy shopping habits. A second prevalence study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2008, which used a different type of sample,  suggested that 25 million Americans fall under this category; a staggering 8.9 percent of the nation’s population. And this sample of people are well past ‘living beyond their means,’ they are living in danger.

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            Dr. Paul Albanese focuses on consumer behavior in the classes that he teaches as the Associate Professor of Marketing at Kent State University. He used his expertise on human personality in a study published in 2002 to explore the tendencies exerted by overshoppers. His findings revealed that many of these individuals had adopted neurotic and primitive buying patterns, which often means that “the appearance of their shopping is more important than its function,” he explains.

The stereotype of women as being the primary candidates for shopping addiction, or ‘shopaholics,’ was shattered in the aforementioned American Journal of Psychiatry 2006 study, which concluded that men and women had a virtually equal chance of developing overshopping tendencies. Benson described that while women tend to buy things that contribute to impression management like clothing, jewelry, shoes, and accessories, men usually overbuy things like sports equipment, cars, and artifacts. “Men adapt shopping to a work frame while women fit it to a leisure frame,” explained Benson. Men may buy goods that can be self-oriented and activity-centered and women, who are more other-oriented and relationship-centered, will want things that enhance their appearance. Both genders may exert materialistic qualities, though this does not necessarily mean they are buying beyond their financial means.

“They use style as a personal language,” she says. “It is a kind of signature.”

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A 16 year old sophomore, let’s call her Chelsea, strolls towards her parent’s room mid-day looking for a pair of tennis shoes her mom has borrowed. The one-story suburban house is empty and quiet after Chelsea returns home from her local public high school, so she takes her time rummaging through the clutter in the closet. She tosses aside a pair of short, tan boots, two pairs of Tori Burch flats (one black suede, one dark animal print), and some Nike runners that look almost identical to her own, but without the distinguishable pink lining that came as a special offer which her mom insisted Chelsea had to have. She slows down during her search, carefully noticing the number of black boots her mother has stored, finding more stuffed in the back of the closet. A strange pattern unfolds: the farther back in the closet Chelsea searches, the newer each pair of shoes looks, smells, and feels – some still stamped with price tags advertising triple digits. These are hidden behind the modest collection of plain, practical shoes that line the front of the closet and belong to her dad, whom she guesses never bothers to explore any further back. Anxious and unsettled, Chelsea finds three tall, black, leather, heeled brand-name boots without a single match. Soon she has picked apart the entire closet and found their missing counterparts, but she is horrified to find stickers on each sole, advertising bold, steep numbers for these designer brands. Sitting in front of the pile of expensive shoes and surrounded by many more, Chelsea panics about how her mom, and more importantly – how her family, is going to pay for these.

“At the sociological level, what makes people want to buy is status,” Jeffrey S.J. Baerwald stated definitively.

As the chair and associate professor at the Santa Clara University Department of Psychology, Baerwald looked relaxed in his dimly-lit office within the maze of hallways that makes up the Loyola building which hosts the departments of education, human resources, counseling, and psychology. He leaned back in his swivel chair and paused between thoughts while considering how to best apply his typical neuroscience approach to the issue of shopping behavior. “From the psychodynamic perspective, the kind of personality that would tend towards that is somebody who probably doesn’t feel very confident in who they are… they put their value of who they are as a person into the external world.”

Baerwald is a Jesuit priest; as such he shares all of his belongings with the rest of his order. Such a simplified lifestyle allows him to analyze materialism from a grounded and objective perspective: “In Jesuit Ignatian spirituality, we say that all material things are neutral. It has no real value in and of itself. It’s really how you use them and the intention that you see that a thing has for doing something.”

Purpose becomes a major determinant in the behaviors of compulsive shopping, and Baerwald quickly diverted from his previous train of thought to consider the pointlessness of some objects that some people are driven to buy. He scoffed in a perplexed expression, leaned forward, and eagerly brought up the phenomenon of people owning or renting a storage space miles away from where they live simply because they’ve run out of room to hold their stuff. Between chuckles, he asked the question: “Why would you want to have so much stuff that you can’t even keep in your own home? You’re basically acquiring things just to acquire them, not for any use… but just ‘in case of.’”

He is careful to make the distinction between those who have miscellaneous or useless things rather than those who consider themselves collectors. Not everything has a specific function, like when people collect art, jewelry, memorabilia or other objects that they find personally fulfilling or pleasing. “There’s an aesthetic value that’s not utilitarian there,” commented Baerwald, “that’s okay as long as it’s within means.”

However, there is a thin line between normal collecting and obsessive collecting, or hoarding. Albanese calls one symptom of the latter “splitting,” which happens when individuals divide their collections into equal and opposing parts of “the sacred and the profane.” This is a primitive defense mechanism where people will display certain purchases that they are proud of while hiding others. “Sacred” objects become household trophies while “profane” objects carry shame or are seen to have no value, and their owner will try to dispose of them as quickly as possible. A similar primitive characteristic is narcissism, which is motivated by envy and which Albanese describes as “an ugly human emotion.”

“My mom says she collects shoes, but I don’t really know if that counts,” Chelsea says of her mother’s accumulation, “people don’t really hide their collections, that’s not the point.”

Her voice was quick and full of worry as she described her hidden anger towards her mother for jeopardizing their family’s financial comfort. As one of three children, Chelsea knows that her mom shouldn’t be so frivolous, but she has also grown up with the understanding that buying nicer items can translate into a long-term investment. This ideology is shared among the clients that Chelsea serves as a part-time shoe salesperson at Nordstrom. Because her paycheck is based off of commission, it is her job to target people who will spend the most money, and she is often able to judge these customers solely based on their appearance.

“We have some regulars who know the schedule of designer’s releases and come in the first day they can buy whatever shoe is the newest of the season,” Chelsea says apathetically. “Some of these people are crazy. They’ll drop a thousand bucks in half an hour. Then there are other people, the ones dressed kind of drab who are all nervous and take hours deciding before they make their purchase. And when they pull out their credit card, and I can tell they don’t know if they should, I just want to say: put it down. You don’t need it.”

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            Benson reports on her website that people shop compulsively as “a way of attempting to deal with thorny individual issues and unmet personal needs… In order to soothe the self and improve a negative mood state, to counteract negative self image and lack of self acceptance, or to avoid dealing with something important in life.”

Image-consciousness is an influential factor in competitiveness across every spectrum, including the designer brand market. Designers build their reputation through the popularity of their products, and trends are created by the people who follow them. The more popular a certain designer is, the more they are allowed to charge for their merchandise, and as this price rises, so does the exclusivity and allure of the designer. Names have become more marketable than the product they advertise, despite quality, comfort, or use. Noticing this increasingly superficial nature, Baerwald agrees “it’s all about appearances, ‘Keeping up with the Jones…’ I have to have this because our neighbors have this,” he said.

When considering whether people buy things in order to stand out or fit in, Baerwald laughed out loud, leaned further back in his swivel chair and responded; “That’s an awesome question…. People want to stand out, but not too much. I think that’s socialization. It’s also about what our brain encourages us to do in terms of socialization… I want to be unique, but I don’t want to be too unique. That’s always the big danger.”

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            On a crowded, humid afternoon in Sulmona, Italy, Arianna DiCicco hits the shops. Armed with her Visa credit card and only halfway through her study abroad program, she already expects to have to check an extra piece of luggage on her way back to the states because of all the leisurely shopping she’s been doing. DiCicco has been observing local fashion and recognizes the trends that flood the streets; parachute pants, suede boots, and skulls and stars adorning every handbag, top and scarf that meet the eye.

She describes shopping as an “appreciation for art and style… It takes research to understand the latest trends, what the fashion world in coming up with in Europe.”

DiCicco’s favorite store in Italy, Stefanel, boasts some of the hottest Italian fashions that keeps her coming back to check in on new items almost every week. Today she discovers a beautiful, delicate floral dress on full price for 250 euro. After admiring the piece for a couple minutes, she grabs her size and swipes her Visa without bothering to calculate the conversion rate into dollars, which amounts to almost $350. Her card gives her a sense of invincibility that refuses to be worn down with the adrenaline rush of a new purchase.

While compulsive buyers occur all along the age spectrum, young adulthood is a particular time where a lot of people would qualify as compulsive buyers because it’s the time when they have moved away from home and may not have had any financial education yet. “A lot of that compulsive buying is transient,” says Benson. “Some of it, though, endures.”

One of the greatest adjustments in moving out of one’s parents’ house is the opportunity to reach adulthood through the acquisition of a credit card. Colleges and university campuses are notorious for hosting credit card companies which attract innocent and vulnerable students who know little about the functions of credit and may see this new piece of plastic as their ticket to the good life. Even worse, oftentimes these companies target young people because they know that they will be able to take advantage of their ignorance by charging them late fees or increasing their interest based on slow or infrequent payments. These irresponsible advertising tactics can be compared to big-name retailers who promote their expensive merchandise to people they know won’t be able to afford their product.

“I don’t blame the marketing,” said Baerwald, “but that’s the moral question.” Drawing on an interesting comparison, he continued to ask: “Do you blame McDonalds for obesity? Should there be a warning label on a Big Mac? Should there be a sign for somebody walking into the Range Rover dealership that says if you make less than $180,000 a year and you have this much debt, you shouldn’t come into our store?”

Baerwald calls American consumerism “symptomatic within our society; our accumulation of material goods is just out of control.” Shopping addicts and overshoppers are alike in that they feel an irresistible compulsion to spend money, regardless of whether this is driven by personal, relational, or psychological reasons.

“So the question then becomes… what’s enough?” Baerwald questions, “When do we ask ourselves that question? I have enough. I don’t need anything more.”

DiCicco began speaking freely about the trend of buying expensive handbags for the sheer sake of having a brand name in your closet. She cringed, thinking about the $250 Longchamp bag she got for her birthday, the $300 Michael Kors black patent leather sidebag that was accompanied with a matching $60 clutch purse, and the $150 grey fabric backpack she’d bought for the new school year, even though she already two sturdy backpacks and half a dozen fashionista book bags.

“I think materialism is one of America’s biggest downfalls,” DiCicco declared. “As much as I love shopping and have a willingness to shell out money, I know how and when to draw the line,” she says hurriedly as she walks out the door to class, tearing the price tag off of a new patent leather pencil case, decorated with an embroidered designer logo.

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