Men, women have similar rates of compulsive buying, Stanford study shows

September 30, 2006

STANFORD, Calif. - Contrary to popular opinion, nearly as many men as women experience compulsive buying disorder, a condition marked by binge buying and subsequent financial hardship, according to new research from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

"The widespread opinion that most compulsive buyers are women may be wrong," the researchers wrote in their paper, which will be published in the October issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Senior author Lorrin Koran, MD, emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said the study is the first large, nationwide effort to assess the prevalence of the disorder. The study found that more than one in 20 adults in the United States suffers from the condition.

People who have compulsive buying disorder - sometimes called compulsive shopping disorder - are often struck with an irresistible, intrusive and often senseless impulse to buy. It is common for sufferers to go on frequent shopping binges and to accumulate large quantities of unnecessary, unwanted items. Sufferers often rack up thousands of dollars in debt and lie to their loved ones about their purchases. The consequences can be bankruptcy, divorce, embezzlement and even suicide attempts.

Koran emphasized that this type of shopping and buying is not the same as occasional impulse buying, which many people engage in.

"Compulsive buying leads to serious psychological, financial and family problems including depression, overwhelming debt and the breakup of relationships," Koran explained. "People don't realize the extent of damage it does to the sufferer."

Prior to this study, researchers estimated that compulsive buying disorder affected between 2 and 16 percent of the U.S. population and that 90 percent of sufferers were women. Koran launched this study to get a more definitive estimate of how many people were affected by the disorder.

For the study, the researchers conducted a national, random-sample household telephone survey and interviewed 2,513 adults. The researchers asked respondents about buying attitudes and behaviors, and their financial and demographic data. The team used a screening instrument, the Compulsive Buying Scale, to determine whether respondents were compulsive buyers.

The researchers found that 6 percent of women and 5.5 percent of men had symptoms consistent with compulsive buying disorder. The gender-adjusted prevalence rate was 5.8 percent.

Koran said the fact that men and women have similar rates of compulsive shopping tendencies was surprising. "The difference that we observed between the prevalence in women and men is quite small and contrasts with the marked difference reported in clinical trials, in which women constituted 80 to 95 percent of the participants," the authors noted.

The researchers also discovered interesting tidbits about compulsive buyers. Compared with other respondents, compulsive buyers were younger and more likely to have reported incomes under $50,000. In addition, more of their credit cards were within a few hundred dollars of the credit limit, and compulsive buyers were more than four times as likely as other respondents to make only the minimum payment on credit card balances.

Koran said the latter finding is one that merits more investigation. "Many U.S. adults are laboring under their debt burden," he and his colleagues wrote. "The extent to which compulsive buying plays a role in [this] deserves investigation."

Koran said studies are also needed to explore the apparent link between compulsive buying and younger age and to clarify potential gender differences. As for Koran, he plans to seek federal funding for a study looking at the prevalence of so-called "behavioral addictions" - including pathological gambling, compulsive buying and skin picking - and whether these conditions are associated with other mental disorders.
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The study was funded by an unrestricted educational grant from Forest Pharmaceuticals Inc. Koran is on the speaker's bureau for that company and has received grants from Forest, Ortho-McNeil, Eli Lilly and Co., Somaxon, Jazz and other pharmaceutical companies.

Koran's Stanford co-author is Elias Aboujaoude, MD, director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. The recently opened clinic focuses solely on disorders such as compulsive buying and skin picking, and is one of only a handful of such clinics in the country. Aboujaoude is a member of Forest's speaker's bureau.

Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. For more information, please visit the Web site of the medical center's Office of Communication & Public Affairs at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

Stanford University Medical Center

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