Study Detects Specific Brain Activity in Compulsive Shoppers

Many individuals find themselves shopping compulsively as a method for coping with stressful situations, but the behavior itself causes more stress. “These negative consequences are not only economic in character (debt and financial problems) but also psychological and societal,” said Gerhard Raab of the Transatlantik-Institut at Ludwigshafen University of Applied Sciences in Germany. “Researchers generally agree that compulsive buying can take on a pathological character, such as excessive gambling, and therefore requires therapeutic treatment.” However, the mental health profession does not recognize this behavior as a specific issue unto itself. “To date, there is no category for compulsive buying behaviour in either the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA 2000), or the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) of the World Health Organization,” added Raab. People who struggle with compulsive shopping often suffer with other psychological problems as well. Raab said, “Affected persons exhibit increased impulsiveness, deficits in impulse control (self-control), low self-esteem, depression, social anxiety, money management difficulties, disruption of autonomy orientation, and a greater materialistic orientation.” Additionally, recent studies have indicated that compulsive shoppers may experience different levels of brain activity than non-shoppers.

Raab and a team of researchers looked at 49 women, half of whom were compulsive shoppers. The women underwent brain imaging scans while participating in a purchasing versus savings experiment. They found that the compulsive shoppers had higher brain activity in the nucleus accumbens than the non-shoppers. They also noticed that these same women had less activation of the insula region. “The results are consistent with other neurological studies of buying behavior,” said Raab. “Higher activity in the nucleus accumbens is related to positive arousal, the preference of a product, the wanting of a product and the purchasing probability. Insular activity on the other hand was found to be associated with negative arousal and related to the purchasing probability.” Although these results are limited, Raab believes they are positive. He said, “This could lead to more willingness to support research in this field and to provide resources necessary for consumer information and preventive actions.”

Raab, Gerhard, Christian E. Elger, Michael Neuner, and Bernd Weber. “A Neurological Study of Compulsive Buying Behaviour.” Journal of Consumer Policy 34 (2011): 401-13. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • b.h.n


    October 26th, 2011 at 4:43 PM

    “They found that the compulsive shoppers had higher brain activity in the nucleus accumbens than the non-shoppers.” Who knew compulsive shoppers were like the Terminator! Remember how when you’re looking through the Terminator’s eyes he has this green computer grid pattern for locating the target? So do compulsive shoppers. It’s in that thar nucleus accumbens.

    The difference with compulsive shoppers is they see the same grid – only theirs is locating the Sale tickets at Target. Honest, that’s true. ;)

  • ricardo f.

    ricardo f.

    October 26th, 2011 at 6:06 PM

    I’m surprised that compulsive shopping doesn’t have a DSM-IV-TR classification when it’s so similar to compulsive gambling which does. It makes me wonder why. I don’t know how they decide what goes into and what comes out of it with each new publication.

    Are there not sufficient recognized or recorded cases to justify the inclusion of compulsive shopping in the manual perhaps? Can anyone voice a theory on that please?



    October 27th, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    People who can’t control the things their money is spent on certainly have issues coping with things and would exhibit things similar to an addict if you ask me..nothing is able to keep you away from it,you find yourself doing it whenever you’re low…I’m not taking about drinking but I’m talking about shopping-definitely sounds like an addiction!

  • Ellis


    October 27th, 2011 at 4:18 PM

    For me shopping can be such a high! Especially at the holidays I will run all around looking for the best deal and it is such a rush when you find just the perfect thing on sale. Or you spot that one thing that you know someone is going to love!

    I know if you have never experienced that kind of feeling it is hard to understand and hard for me to explain. But I guess I could almost liken it to a drug high.

    I have tried to find other things that would give me that same jolt but for me this is it. I know that the money spending can roller coaster but for now all I can think about is how amazing it feels.

  • B. Grant

    B. Grant

    October 27th, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    I suspect my sister-in-law is a compulsive shopper. She buys stuff all the time she doesn’t need and doesn’t have an inch of space at home left to put it. Her shed is packed to the roof too with boxes of Lord knows what. I’ve seen bagfuls in her closet of clothing where she’s not even taken the tags off them, so you know she’s never worn them. Same with shoes that still have the stickers on them.

    I said to my brother I was worried about her and he blew me off laughing. She’s a shopaholic and it makes her happy, which gives him peace so what’s the problem? That was his response. And it’s true, she’s at her happiest when shopping. She jokes about it being a legal rush. He earns very good money and doesn’t need to worry about what she’s spending so doesn’t care.I on the other hand think there’s cause for concern…is there?

  • sean rasmussen

    sean rasmussen

    October 28th, 2011 at 12:25 AM

    @B. Grant -As The Joker would say, why so serious? :) I would love to be a compulsive shopper but I’m too poor to take up that particular vice LOL. Does she need a friend to carry her bags that will work for goodies like that? :D

    Honestly? I think she’s fine and you’re jealous that she’s got the money to throw away like that.

  • slader


    October 28th, 2011 at 4:37 AM

    You think that it is the same kind of brain activity that is shown in druggies or alcoholics? Cause it does kind of read like addiction.

  • EmmaJane


    October 29th, 2011 at 6:38 AM

    Can anyone tell me of the most effective treatments for compulsive shopping? It has to go far beyond taking away credit cards because that is just a quick fix. For moost compulsive shoppers we all know that the issue goes far deeper than that.

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