On Social Exclusion and Compulsive Buying

The following is a guest post from Dagmar Verheij, a recent graduate of the Rotterdam School of Management.  Back in January, some readers of “Recovering Shopaholic” assisted Dagmar with her master’s thesis in Marketing Management by completing an online survey on their compulsive shopping thoughts and behaviors.  Although Dagmar’s hypothesis was not originally revealed, her research explored the relationship between social exclusion and compulsive buying. In today’s post, Dagmar shares her findings, which are quite interesting and thought-provoking!  I know I could see myself in a lot of what Dagmar reports, and I’m sure many of you will, too…

Social Exclusion and Compulsive Buying

How does social exclusion affect compulsive buying? Read on…

A few months ago, some of you helped me by filling out a questionnaire for my master thesis on the impact of social exclusion on compulsive buying. I would like to thank you for your help by sharing my findings.

It is ironic that for many people, compulsive buying seems to be strongly tied to their need for affection and support from others, but it also often results in distancing important others. Alienating other people could lead to a life of social exclusion.

Social Exclusion and Loneliness

Social exclusion is a common experience encountered by most people. May it be getting dumped by your beloved, being ignored by the staff of a store, or being the only one out of your group of friends who did not have the money to purchase a ticket to the Beyoncé concert, social exclusion and its consequences for people’s psychological and physiological functioning are prevalent. As one example, social exclusion impairs the immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis and type II diabetes.

In today’s society, loneliness is ever-increasing. People maintain fewer stable relationships and consequently, feel less connected to others. Globally, the number of one-person households has risen by eighty percent over the last fifteen years.

In my data, I found that one acute moment of social exclusion could lead to an increased general sense of loneliness.

How Social Exclusion Influences Compulsive Buying

Consumers use the symbolic nature of consumption as a way to communicate information about themselves to others. These communication attempts are predominately used to facilitate social interaction by making a good impression on others. It has been argued that the motivation to make a good impression leads to consumption, with a motive of differentiating ourselves from others by signaling uniqueness.

Others have reasoned that consumers motivated by a desire to facilitate social interaction are driven to consume so as to fit in with the immediate social environment. Both compulsive buyers and socially-excluded individuals are motivated to consume in order to gain and safeguard an inclusionary status.

People who feel socially excluded demonstrate increases in self-defeating behaviors such as foolish risk-taking and selecting unhealthy food options. A specific self-destructive activity related to compulsive buying is financial risk-taking. As you may know, compulsive buying is very much a self-destructive behavior; a strong focus on material goods strains social relationships. Long-term compulsive consumption has harmful consequences for most individuals, comprising excessive financial debt, marital and family disruption, legal difficulties, and personal sorrows, including the low self-esteem and guilt associated with these problems.

A connection can be found between social exclusion and compulsive buying through loss of self-control. It was found that exclusion impairs self-control, and it is obvious that compulsive buyers lack self-control. Therefore, one could assume social exclusion and compulsive buying are connected.

Compulsive Buying and Social Acceptance

Compulsive buyers dream about social acceptance: an individual engaging in compulsive behavior temporarily escapes negative feelings through fantasies of social acceptance. This could be an explanation for why compulsive buyers frequently buy clothes, cosmetics, shoes, and gifts for significant others. Because compulsive buyers are highly interested in their physical appearance and attractiveness, they may buy products to match their subjective perceptions of themselves with a socially desirable or required appearance as a self-defining goal.

Apparel products are used to communicate an ideal self-image or to increase self-esteem. Are compulsive buyers shopping for these types of products hoping to gain social acceptance through the products they purchase? Compulsive buyers also frequently buy gifts for significant others with the belief that these gifts will make their recipients happy, which would result in the giver being liked. The motivation to please by buying gifts is explained by the desire to be socially accepted.

In my data, I found that loneliness and compulsive buying are correlated. This means that a compulsive buyer is generally lonelier than a non-compulsive buyer.

Social Exclusion and Self-Esteem

Research has long demonstrated that perceived social approval and acceptance are fundamental, powerful foundations for self-esteem. Therefore, it is no surprise that it also has been found that social exclusion interferes with one’s self-esteem in a negative way. It has been argued that trait self-esteem is a compilation of the individual’s history of experienced inclusion and exclusion. If an individual is continually or chronically rejected by others, or perceives this rejection by others, he or she reports significantly lower trait self-esteem than non-rejected individuals.

My research supported this theory. People who are lonely generally report lower self-esteem levels than people who do not feel lonely.

Likewise, research shows that compulsive buyers have significantly lower self-esteem scores than buyers who do not show this compulsive behavior. Shopping for clothes, cosmetics, and gifts creates an interaction with the salesperson, which can provide the compulsive buyer with higher self-esteem. The gratification received from compulsive buying is very frequently linked to generated positive self-esteem.

Unsurprisingly, I found that compulsive buyers have a lower self-esteem than non-compulsive buyers. Self-esteem partially mediates the relationship between loneliness and compulsive buying.

Loneliness, Self-Esteem, and Compulsive BuyingSocial Exclusion, Social Anxiety, and Compulsive Buying

Anxiety neuroses are often explicitly based on fears of social exclusion. Solely, the anticipation of future exclusion may be enough to threaten the individual and invoke anxiety; merely thinking about a situation in which an individual incurred social exclusion increases anxiety.

Being socially excluded by others induces anxiety. A specific anxiety that is evoked by social exclusion is social anxiety. A fear of negative evaluation is the defining characteristic of social anxiety. Social anxiety evolved as a mechanism for fostering social inclusion and minimizing the possibility of rejection and exclusion.

My research has not supported this theory. I found that self-esteem almost fully mediates the relationship between loneliness and social anxiety. This means that loneliness does not induce social anxiety directly.

High levels of anxiety can increase the occurrence of different kinds of compulsive behaviors, including drug addiction, alcoholism, and compulsive buying. A specific anxiety related to compulsive buying is social anxiety; social anxiety is directly related to a fear of social rejection.

I found that compulsive buyers experience more social anxiety than non-compulsive buyers.

Loneliness, Self-Esteem, Social Anxiety, and Compulsive BuyingThe Influence of Demographics

Because I wondered whether demographic variables influence compulsive buying, I also checked for this. I did not find a significant relationship for either income or age. However, I found that compulsive buyers are more often females than males. And what I found to be interesting is that education has an influence on compulsive buying.

Education and Compulsive Buying

As the graph above shows, people with higher levels of education score higher on the compulsive buying scale (meaning that the compulsive buyers in my research sample tend to be more highly educated). This is very surprising to me and would be interesting for further research.

Concluding Remarks

Both loneliness and debt are on the rise. In the United States of America, household debt jumped by $241 billion to $11.5 trillion during the fourth quarter of 2013 (see this Time article for more information).  This represents the biggest increase in a given quarter since the third quarter of 2007.

In addition, the number of one-person households has risen globally by eighty percent over the last fifteen years. If people’s increased spending habits are driven by social exclusion, then there is hope for changing the recent trends of loneliness and debt by changing the social norm of spending.

I hope this information will help some of you understand your shopping problems by finding out where your compulsive buying drive is coming from (for example, loneliness or self-esteem).

Disclaimer & For More Information…

All the information above comes from my master thesis: “The Impact of Social Exclusion on Compulsive Buying”. All of the sources of this information can be found there as well, as well as my research survey questions.

I have made my thesis available for those who are interested in learning more.  To read my master’s thesis, CLICK HERE (right-click to download).

16 thoughts on “On Social Exclusion and Compulsive Buying

  1. These are very interesting findings, thank you very much for taking the time to share them with us. Ever since I started questioning consumerism and the definition of a meaningful life, I have been wondering about the relation between self esteem and extreme consumption, and this study gives interesting insight about that.

    I never made the link with social exclusion, but it makes sense, as objects are often used as social symbols in our society, so it would logically follow that it is the ones who feel like their social status is threatened who would turn to material social symbols to ensure their inclusion, or reassure themselves about this inclusion.

    I’m really surprised about your demographic findings too. Why would this behaviour be linked to the level of education of the subjects? We would naturally tend to think that more educated people are more capable of understanding these behaviours and steer avay from them, but that seems to be quite the opposite. If you do research this part more in depth, I’d love to hear about your findings!

    • Thank you for your comment. At first thought it would indeed be easy to assume that educated people are more capable of understanding and staying away from compulsive buying behavior. However, you can also look it at from another way. Compared to less educated people, individuals wit a higher education often have jobs that require more devotion; they are more often workaholics. These people may feel that they have no time or energy left to keep up with social contacts. All types of compulsive buying behaviors are very similar and often go hand in hand. These people probably also have more money to spend. It is a misconception that shopaholics are always in debt. You can be very rich, without debt, and still feel the negative consequences of compulsive buying. Note that these are just thoughts and I am not sure that this is the case. Unfortunately, I will probably not research this subject in the future. I am also very interested in these results!

  2. Interesting research, Dagmar, and congratulations for finishing your thesis. I’m not sure I follow the argument on social exclusion. Where does a person’s natural tendencies towards introversion and extroversion fit in? I’d think an introverted person may feel more loneliness and social anxiety as a consequence of that, and may not have experienced exclusion per se. Of course, I guess more research would be needed to tease that sort of information out! Thank you for updating us.

    • Thank you very much. The distinction between introversion and extroversion would indeed be very interesting. But looking at it from another way, I would think that an introvert is more comfortable with being lonely than an extrovert and therefore social rejection would have less effect. Could go both ways, thanks for the insights!

  3. This is fascinating. I even read part of the thesis–thanks for including the link here. Do marketers use such findings to attract those with tendencies to engage in more compulsive shopping and spending?

    • Thank you very much! Let’s hope that it is not used for the bad, but of course there are some heartless people out there. Marketers do not only cater companies, but also for example policy makers. Therefore, this research can be a stepping stone in overcoming the problems of loneliness and compulsive shopping.

  4. Thanks so much for your recap and guest post, Dagmar! Very interesting.
    I’m a fairly highly educated overshopper and my personal explanations are that I experience high levels of work stress and online shopping is a welcome distraction and reward. (It’s something I feel I deserve.) But my shopping first became problematic when I left my day job to take care of my children and started feeling trapped and isolated at home.

    Education may correlate with disposable income and it would be interesting to see how accounting for personal/household income would influence this relationship.
    Oh, and I read Thorstein Veblen’s classic ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ last year and it has lots of interesting insights (I think he coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’).

    Anyway, very interesting, and good luck with your future projects!

    • Thank you for your comment. In my thesis I also researched income, but it does not influence compulsive buying (same with age). It is solely education and gender that makes the difference. You can check it out if you like to know more about it. Do you think that your overshopping is a problem? And if so, do you think it was only a problem when you left your day time job or do you think it was already a problem beforehand? I would like to know, I find it interesting if people with a good income see it as a problem as well.

  5. That is fascinating – thank you.
    I wonder if the higher the education, the higher the expectations of ourselves, and therefore the greater the disappointment when we feel rejected socially, or when we fail to be high achievers.

  6. This is very interesting- thank you for sharing your findings. In The Overspent American, Juliet Schor also found that highly educated women were more likely to overspend on status items, even accounting for income differences. I haven’t read the book in a while, so I did a search and found someone who quoted a passage from the book about this topic, here:
    I recommend The Overspent American to anyone who is interested in this topic- it was very eye-opening for me.

  7. Thank you so much to Dagmar for summarizing her research findings in this post and to all those who have commented thus far. I really enjoyed reading this article and I’m glad that readers of this blog and I were able to contribute to Dagmar’s research!

    I definitely think that social exclusion has played a role in my overshopping behavior. As I’ve shared in a number of my posts, I often struggle with loneliness. I enjoyed the interaction and banter with salespeople and fellow shoppers that I would do while I shopped. While I wasn’t really sure how to make the deep and lasting friendships that I craved so deeply (still crave them, still not sure how to make them…), I knew that I could have positive interactions (albeit on a more “surface” level) when I visited department stores, boutiques, and consignment shops. I also struggle with both low self-esteem and social anxiety. When I shopped, I became a more confident person, if only for a little while. Of course, I now know that I was only putting a “band-aid” on my problems through shopping, so I’m now working to heal myself on a deeper level. I have a lot of work left to do, as you all know.

    I look forward to checking out the book that Heather mentioned, as it is very intriguing. I guess I’m one of those “highly educated women” who overshops. I have never made a huge salary, but I DO have multiple degrees (and I would get more if money and time were of no consequence!). Love all of the “food for thought” that Dagmar’s research provided. I’m glad others enjoyed it, too. Thank you, Dagmar!

  8. Thank you Dagmar for sharing your very interesting findings, and Debbie for providing us with the opportunity to read them. Although I didn’t answer the survey, I can see a lot of myself in the findings. I am fairly highly educated, and also introverted and have social anxiety. Despite this I’ve always wished I was extroverted and had many friends, and as a result often feel social exclusion. In my case, at least part of my reason for overshopping in the past was the mistaken belief that I would somehow be able to make more friends if I looked good. Then when things didn’t go as I hoped socially, I would shop more because I thought that I could at least feel some satisfaction in looking better than everyone else (but of course I’m never happy with how I look…). I’m also happy when I’m shopping, not because of the interaction with sales associates (actually I prefer to be left alone), but because it’s something that I enjoy doing alone and therefore can escape the feelings of social exclusion and loneliness.

  9. Oh thanks for sharing, a fascinating read. And I’m also looking forward to the book recommendation. While I do think people overshop for various reasons, if one cannot isolate the cause, then a change in behavior cannot occur.

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