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Shopping Addiction: Is It a Real Thing?

‘Your Brain on Shopping’ explores the real meaning of the word ‘shopaholic.’

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The concept of “shopping addiction” is thrown around in jest in pop culture, from Cher Horowitz’s mall habits to Becky Bloomwood in the popular Shopaholic book series. But shopping can be a real addiction rooted in a person’s ability to exercise self-control.

As a human behavior, self-control is in the pre-frontal cortex — but that’s a relatively new, feeble part of the brain, according to researchers. We can work it like a muscle to strengthen it, but also like a muscle, it has its limits, and those “computational limits” ultimately predict our decision-making.

While most people can more or less exercise self-control when it comes to impulse shopping, an estimated 5.8 percent of the US population actually cannot. They’re the compulsive shoppers, for whom shopping isn’t just about wanting an item, but about fulfilling a deeper need — to escape, to take the edge off, to strive for perfection.

Compulsive shoppers are “in the zone,” says Ronald Faber, a professor emeritus from University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It blocks out their thoughts and they don’t feel bad about themselves for that period.”

And like anyone with an addiction, the compulsion can lead to strained relationships, not to mention a strained pocketbook.

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