Friday, 22 March 2013

A Compulsive Buyer? Who, Me?

Jess of Empty Emptor found a cool website that focuses on people's spending habits and the relationships between shopping and happiness. Registered users can participate in all sorts of online tests and quizes to check how they consume, how materialistic they are etc. I took a test regarding compulsive and impulsive shopping, and guess what? After all the sweat and tears I've shed over learning to be smarter with my shopping, my test scores suggest that I might suffer from a form of obsessive-compulsive (OCD) shopping with severe impulse control disorder (ICD) tendencies. It seems that I am still just as clueless about shopping as I was when I first started learning to shop smart.

Looking at my test scores (I scored 3.0 on the OCD scale, compared to 2.2 average for females, and a whopping 7.0 on the ICD scale, compared to 3.6 average for females), my first reaction was that the test must be wrong. I thought that I'd be way below the average, especially on the OCD scale. See, I like to think that I've come a long way. I no longer buy random stuff online, I've pretty much abandoned buying anything new. I buy good-quality clothes that have something special about them. I no longer buy stuff "just because" or to make myself feel better. So here's what I was thinking: the test must have been drafted in such a way that it skews the facts. I feel pretty good about my shopping these days, and here's this test, telling me that I might suffer from pretty intense behavioral problems that could be categorized as an anxiety disorder. A compulsive buyer buys things because  he/she is too preoccupied with the act of buying. An impulsive buyer buys things without planning it beforehand. The test says I'm it.

Yikes. It's time for The Waves to look in the mirror. And here's what I see:

I am okay with admitting that I am an impulsive buyer. I buy almost all of my clothes second hand, and the aspect of the treasure hunt in thrifting is pretty much the reason why I tend to buy things impulsively. You just never know what you might find, and there are times when one might not realize that one needs that perfectly cut suede pencil skirt before one sees it on the rack at the thrift store. I try to thrift with a plan or a purpose, but it's tough sometimes. One might need a pair of black trousers, but finds a gorgeous 1950s floral dress instead. A  thrifter will not leave the dress behind just because she needs the trousers. She will buy the dress and make it work, because it would be a shame to not jump on such a wonderful opportunity. She might even buy the dress for a friend, or a sister, because the dress deserves to be "saved". I admit to giving myself that type of leeway while thrifting. I'll even go beyond that and admit that because thrifting is cheap and a lot of fun, I have more clothes than I need. Overall, I still have less clothes than I used to own, and I still do my very best to get rid of one thing if I buy another. But I do like my revolving-door wardrobe, I do. The truth is, then, that I am an impulsive buyer. I buy clothes without planning in advance. But is it a problem? Is impulsive buying automatically a bad thing? When it comes to thrifting, you pretty much have to be impulsive. You snooze, you lose. I'm going to go ahead and say that yes, I am an impulsive buyer - but only when it comes to clothing. I can accept that. It's just the name of the game if you are a thrift shop enthusiast.

The aspect of obsessive-compulsive buying is a tougher one for me. No matter how much I'd like to be able to trust the test score and the findings that come from it, I just... can't. I can't be more OCD about buying than most women! I don't feel like I shop compulsively, not anymore. There are plenty of times when I could buy things, times when I am tempted to buy something crazy, and I truly keep myself in check these days. I no longer get a rush from handing over the money like I used to. I can leave a charity shop without buying anything - I rarely do, but I can. My rush comes from really liking the clothes I buy and from wearing them, not from throwing money at the cashier. So I don't know what to think. And then it hits me: am I just like a junkie, who says that she could stop anytime? I think of the Great American Apparel Diet from two years ago, and yeah, we all remember how long I lasted before I started coming up with all sorts of excuses to buy clothes. Or the twelve allowed items of clothing last year - it took me about 6 months to reach the number, and the rest of the year was all trousers and sweaters and other warm clothes piling up. Yes, I've gotten rid of a huge amount of clothes in the last year or so, and yes, my closets are less crammed than they once were. I like my clothes much more than I used to, because I buy better clothes. But am I just denying the fact that I still have a problem? Am I learning to shop smarter so that I can keep telling myself that I don't have a problem, so that I can just keep shopping and spinning that revolving door?

Well, if I am perfectly honest, the answer is probably yes. I don't believe in a "ready" wardrobe, and I don't see myself deciding to stop thrifting. No way. I might be better at controlling the number of pieces in my wardrobe these days, but I still like to change things up, to get rid of one thing and buy another. I like to have pretty clothes, and I like to have new (new to me, anyway) clothes every once in a while. My style has started to set in and find its elements, but I still like to experiment with a new piece here and there. I like the revolving door, because that's who I am.

A long time ago I had a conversation with a friend about personality. My friend felt that people's personalities were fixed in place, that one's personality must be clearly definable. Someone fickle and restless, someone not sure about his or her values or beliefs, my friend thought, had no real personality. Those types of people couldn't really exist at all, because they didn't fulfill their part of being a real human being. I remember sitting in my friend's car, on the passenger seat, feeling a huge lump sit on the bottom of my stomach. I had no religion, I felt unsure about what life was all about, I didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up. My opinions felt, at times, like warm clay - easy to mold, tough to grasp. I felt like I was open to the world - nothing more, nothing less. I had no personality, my friend told me. "But this is who I am", I said. "I am fickle and uncertain, and I like change. I like myself the way I am, analytical and prone to asking questions rather than providing others with answers. That is my personality."  My friend shook his head in disbelief. We drove for a long time, not speaking. It was obvious that there was an enormous chasm between us, one that would later become continents-and-oceans wide, lives apart.

I tell you this story because...

... yeah, whaddayagonnado. I am who I am. Just shoot me. 

I'm just going to take comfort in the fact that the online test doesn't give you a score analysis - just a comparison with the other participants. Maybe the others were lying.


Sarah said...

I don't know why "impulsive" buying has to always be such a pejorative thing. I bought a pair of gray riding boots last fall on impulse--in the sense that I wasn't looking for gray riding boots, didn't know this particular boot existed nor that it was carried at this particular store, and just happened to spy them there on the clearance rack. I felt a lot of shame about it at the time! But you know what, I've worn them just about every day since then. Certainly I've worn them a lot more than the black and brown boots that I "shopped carefully" for. Sure, I've made some mistakes buying on impulse too, but just because a decision is made quickly doesn't mean it is made poorly. Harrumph!

jesse.anne.o said...

The thing about personality traits, though, is that they manifest in different ways. I have a very addictive personality...for some things. And those things change.

So I do agree that our personalities are often what they are, and we can work with them as best as we can...but I also believe that traits don't need to manifest the way they are currently, always. So that gives us some room to redirect the traits to something less harmless or more aligned with our values.

I do think a lot is social construct and habit, too. That provides the environment in which our traits unfold.

Anonymous said...

Long-time reader but first time commenting... This sounds similar to something that I've been trying to figure out for myself. I like to think of myself as a someone who doesn't consume much. And, when I do, it's almost all secondhand (so clearly everything's cool, right?)

Recently, though, I've been feeling that this is mostly an excuse or a justification for a not-entirely-healthy consumption habit. The truth seems to be that get too sucked in by the thrill of the hunt and the lure of a good bargain and therefore buy too much. Sure, it's used and inexpensive, but I'd like to cut back and work on this some more. I'm looking forward to checking out that link - thanks for including it!

Jess said...

Oh wow, I feel like I should have done some of the scales before I recommended that website, because I really don't like the way that they problematise consumption behaviours using clinical diagnoses - OCD? ICD? Scales should measure traits (i.e. obsessiveness, compulsiveness, impulsiveness) and *not* couch it in terms of a disorder (that is a much more variable, multi-faceted thing that cannot be measured with a couple of scales and needs to be considered as part of a much wider context). Rating people on an "ICD" or "OCD" scale is really weird and is going to make even a mild rating seem much more severe than it is.

That said, I shouldn't jump the gun and judge the site before I've actually had a look at the scales and how they're formatted! (I've only been reading the blog so far.) So I will take a look and if anything strikes me as a bit odd or weird or deviant from best practice, I'll update my blog post. to reflect that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the very interesting post. I am generally sceptical of standardised tests, because I don't believe that it is possible to "quantify" human behaviour in the same manner that physical scientists can quantify and predict in their field.
The way that you, and the fact that you, reflect on the test scores and your behaviour certainly has me convinced that these labels are just not applicable.

Hippocampe said...

You suffer from pretty intense behavioral problems that could be categorized as an anxiety disorder ??!! Oh, sorry, I can't shoot you, injured horse, I'm laughing too hard.

OK. You buy on impulse. Well, thinking ahead doesn't garantee you make better decisions. If you're happy with your purchases, then you're right to trust your instinct.

Also : just because you repeat a pleasurable experience doesn't mean you suffer from an addiction. An addiction, in my book, is a pleasurable experience that turns into disaster in the long run, a clutch that helps for a while but brings dire consequences in the future, on your health, your finances, your relationships...
So, tell me, how's this awful OCD behaviour of yours is endangering your future ?

The story of your friend stating you lack personality (what nonsense, every person has a personality) fits right in this post : your behaviour is judged abnormal, on what ground, really ? What is the norm you're supposed to stick to ?

Jess said...

Just a comment in response to Korien's - human behaviour is quantifiable, it just needs to be done the right way. Behavioural data (and data arising from biological systems in general) are always incredibly messy - by its nature that sort of information can never be as pure and absolute as physics or maths. Doesn't mean we can't attempt to make sense of it. That's why psychology researchers are some of the most accomplished statisticians out there - they need to objectively discern signals from noise and minimise the chances of false positives/negatives. With large amounts of data, finely tuned measures developed over years of research, and appropriately conservative statistical analysis, you can get meaningful and insightful results, and those results can be tested again through things like test-retest reliability, predictive validity, etc. But saying you can't quantify human behaviour because you can't do it as precisely as you can quantify physical phenomena is, well, kind of weird. Apples and oranges. Not that I haven't encountered that attitude before, and I can kind of see where it comes from, but hey, even Prof. Brian Cox finally started to respect non-physics research after he filmed The Wonders of Life. :)

That said, I signed up for that website and did a couple of the scales, and yeah, they're not *that* informative at an individual level - they just give food for thought in that context. The actual results will come from a dataset accumulated from hundreds (maybe thousands) of participants.

The Waves said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Sarah: I agree that there is no reason to automatically label impulsive buying as "bad" - there's a fine line between being impulsive and completely out of control. :)

jesse.anne.o: I do feel like I shop completely differently for, say, food or electronics (compared to clothes-shopping) so I agree with you that our personalities manifest themselves differently in different circumstances. I might have a tendency to buy clothes impulsively, but I've also learned to not buy into one-season-trends and to only buy clothes made of good materials... so I guess that means that I'm not destined to be a bad, ocd-type buyer for the rest of my life despite my character traits.

notherethenwhere: Oh, the troubles of thrifting! I know what you mean re: thrill of the hunt. It is almost too easy to buy stuff when it's so cheap and easily available. I've found it really useful to get rid of one thing if I buy another - that helps to keep buying in large quantities in check.

Jess: I, too, was surprised to see terms like ocd and icd used in the poll, especially since the quiz only had 15 questions (I think). The questions were very generic, and of course they don't include individualized results... so I guess the quiz-taker must engage in some creative interpretation of his or her results. Either way, the quiz gave me a lot to think about! And huge thanks for sharing your insights into quantitative methods re: human behavior!

Korien: I often shy away from these types of tests, not necessarily because I don't believe in them, but because it scares me to be quantifiable! :)

Hippocampe: I'm still laughing, too! :) Fully agree that quick decisions are not necessarily bad ones (in fact, "gut feelings" sometimes provide the best types of decisions). I also agree that one should really weigh the positives and the negatives of outcomes before jumping into conclusions about particular behavior. As my shopping habits stand at the moment, I'm doing better than ever re: closet space, shopping-related guilt and finances, so it can't be all bad! :)

Ryan said...

The Waves,

This is Ryan Howell from BeyondThePurchase.Org and I wanted to clarify what we present on our Compulsive Buying feedback page. First, we used the Compulsive Buying Scale developed by Nancy Ridgway and others (read more about it here: It is important to know that the authors are the ones who use the terms obsessive-compulsive and impulse-control disorders, and so, we so that language in our graphic to be consistent. I think if you look at all our feedback pages, you will find that we are not trying to handout clinical diagnoses (far from it really). On all our feedback pages, we try walk the very fine, and very difficult, line between providing scores on interesting published surveys (hopefully in interesting ways) and proving tips for behavioral changes (something our readers have asked for constantly). And maybe we should be using better language on this particular feedback page (and we are always open to suggestions, so don't be shy). In the end, I agree with what Jess said about the feedback pages--they really can only get you thinking about your behaviors and attitudes in the context of others. After all, they are just the means of the items you already answered. So, from an individual level we hope to get people thinking about their buying habits (e.g., " Either way, the quiz gave me a lot to think about!"). We started the website because, during some research studies, people far too often said they didn't think much about how they spent their money. So this blog and all the comments are really exciting for us because your scores started a conversation. If you have any questions or suggestions please feel free to email me directly at rhowell (at) sfsu (dot) edu.



The Waves said...

Ryan: Thanks so much for leaving a comment! I really appreciate it! I figured that the results weren't meant to label anyone in a diagnostic way - mainly I was surprised that my scores were higher than the average. I do admit that I certainly took advantage of the words OCD and ICD to write a thought-provoking post. :) Overall, I think your website is a delight. It provides a lot of food for thought for a recovering shop-a-holic like myself.

Anonymous said...

Compulsive buying isn't the same as impulsive buying. Compulsive buying implies that your shopping has detrimental affects on your overall lively hood.There is also a lot of disagreement in the medical world whether or not OCD has anything to do with compulsive shopping. Check out this awesome article I found here,