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Published: Sunday, 9/18/2005

Psychology of impulse buying


Occasional impulse buying isn't anything to worry about, according to April Lane Benson, a New York City psychologist who specializes in a more serious condition called compulsive buying disorder. Ms. Benson is the editor of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self (Aronson, 2000), and has created a treatment program for people with shopping problems and a Web site, stoppingovershopping.com.

"It's only a problem if it leads to significant impairment in some aspect of your life - financial, emotional, social, occupational, or spiritual," Ms. Benson said in a telephone interview from her office.

"If it's not done to excess, it's like any other impulse: You want to do something different every once in awhile, give yourself something special. As long as it's not impairing your life, I think it's great."

Shopping, she explained, is an "act of self-expression, self-definition, creativity, even healing."

One of the primary reasons that we buy - other than genuine need - is that "we want to be more like who we see as our ideal self," Ms. Benson said. "Usually there's a big discrepancy between who we are and how we would like to be seen, or who we would like to be, and buying things is mistakenly thought of as a way to bridge that gap."

Some recreational shopping is aimed at "mood repair," she continued: maybe we're feeling sad or lonely and think that buying something will lift our spirits.

Impulse purchases also are likely during vacations, when "We tend to let go more [and] we don't see the bills piled up on the desk. We don't see the closets filled with stuff already," Ms. Benson said.

Maybe that wouldn't stop us, though. "You can never get enough of what you really don't need," she observed.

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