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…
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.
Social 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.
The 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.
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.
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).