Buying-shopping disorder – the ease of online purchasing could be making things worse

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The holidays are peak buying time, and perhaps the worst time of the year for people who simply can’t control their urge to shop.

Now, research shows that the ease of online purchasing could be making things worse for people with so-called “buying-shopping disorder” (BSD).

BSD is still debated as a stand-alone diagnosis, and hasn’t yet been included in the psychologists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

But that’s probably only because not enough good data on the condition exists, said the author of a recent study into online shopping addiction.

There’s a “relative lack of published scientific literature,” said Dr. Astrid Muller – but psychologists have long dealt with such cases.

“There is well over 100 years of clinical history describing dysfunctional buying or acquisition excesses that interfere with daily life, and are associated with significant clinical distress and impairment in important areas of functioning,” said Mulle

She’s head psychologist in the department of psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy at Hannover Medical School in Germany.

BSD is defined as an “extreme preoccupation with shopping and buying [and] to impulses to purchase that are experienced as irresistible,” Muller said.

The condition can cause real harm, including post-purchase guilt and regret, a sense of loss of control, family conflict over excessive purchasing, and financial distress.

According to Muller, BSD is thought to affect about 5% of people globally. And in the 21st century, it has moved online.

Reporting in the current issue of Comprehensive Psychiatry, Muller’s group tracked the online shopping habits of 122 patients already diagnosed with BSD.

Study patients ranged in age from 20 to 68 (at an average of about 43), and more than 75% were women. All were already seeking treatment—which usually takes the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy—for their shopping addiction problem.

Participants were asked to complete a number of diagnostic questionnaires, including the so-called “Internet Addiction Test” and the “Pathological Buying Screener.” All were also assessed for anxiety and depression.

In the end the team concluded that a third had developed an online shopping version of BSD. These individuals tended to be younger, and typically had more severe anxiety and depression.

According to Muller, people with BSD may have their reasons for preferring one shopping venue over another.

“Some individuals with BSD may always prefer shopping in brick-and-mortar-based stores because they appreciate the opportunity to touch merchandise, try out goods, enjoy the stimulating traditional retail environment, and experience comfortable social interaction with salespersons,” she explained.

But some BSD patients may be especially attracted to online purchases, because shopping via the web involves such a huge variety of products. It’s also easy, quick and has “the opportunity to buy unobserved and secretly,” Muller said.

“All contribute to the migration of traditional buying-shopping disorder to the online retail market,” she concluded.

Dr. Petros Levounis is chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and chief of service at University Hospital in Newark, N.J. He wasn’t involved in the new research, but said any new data on BSD is crucial.

“We’re not close to having all the research we would like to have for issues like BSD, which is part of an emerging group of disorders called behavioral addictions,” Levounis noted.

“These include compulsive suntanning, gambling and compulsive internet gaming. But they also include behaviors that are usually part of everyday life, and which for most people are helpful. Things like exercising, eating, emailing, texting, and, yes, shopping.

“But what we do know is that for people who are addicted these behaviors are like a drug,” said Levounis.

“And the fewer the barriers to the addictive behavior, the greater the potential for negative consequences.

“So if you have BSD, and you find that you don’t have to go to the mall to shop, if everything is just a click away, then that is very, very compelling,” he said. “And it certainly has the potential to turn your disorder into even more of a problem than it was before.”


With the rapid development of the Internet, online shopping is becoming increasingly popular. However, there seems to be a return boom of goods after each seasonal sale (e.g., the shopping festival on Nov 11 every year in China), which is mainly caused by the consumers’ impulsivity.

Online impulsive buying, an academic concept associated with this phenomenon, refers to the impulsive buying behavior through the Internet. Impulsive buying is a kind of unplanned, sudden, thoughtless, and hedonic purchasing behavior, which is considered as an irrational consumer behavior done without careful consideration of potential adverse consequences of buying.1,2 

Impulsive buying has a potentially negative impact on both individuals and society. For individuals, it may lead to negative emotions such as regret, guilt, and dissatisfaction as well as economic problems such as overspending or even overdraft.3

 For society, it is not conducive to resource conservation, ecological environmental protection, and sustainable development.

Moreover, consumers are more likely to be impulsive in online shopping situations than in traditional physical stores.4 Therefore, it is necessary to explore the factors influencing online impulsive buying and take appropriate actions to reduce this behavior.

Throughout the previous studies, materialism has been widely recognized as an important psychological factor affecting impulsive buying.

Materialism is a value that emphasizes material wealth as the center of life, the source of happiness, and the criterion for success in personal life.5 

Many studies have shown that materialism correlates positively with impulsive buying.612 However, these studies mainly focused on a traditional purchase situation; only a few studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between materialism and online impulsive buying tendency.13 

Thus, the relationship between materialism and online impulsive buying needs further examination.

More importantly, there is a lack of research about the moderating factors, so it remains unclear how we can reduce online impulsive buying among materialists. When shopping online, consumers cannot see, touch, or try on real goods, and can only make purchase decisions by observing models, reading the product description, and then using imagination.

Therefore, this mode is completely different from a traditional physical store purchase situation. Mental simulation is an approach that can help consumers make decisions by using imagination.

The concept of mental simulation, proposed by Taylor and Schneider,14 refers to the imitative representation of some event or series of events. It may involve the replay of events that have already happened, the cognitive construction of hypothetical scenarios, fantasies, and mixtures of real and hypothetical events.

Taylor et al15 particularly emphasized that mental simulation, as an effective self-regulating mechanism, could construct a path that makes individuals preview the future by providing a clear vision of the future, thereby facilitating the connection between thought and action.

They classified mental simulation into two types: process simulation and outcome simulation. More specifically, process simulation refers to the imagination of concrete steps that people would take to achieve a given goal, whereas outcome simulation refers to the imagination of expected results when achieving the goal.

For example, a person who wants to lose weight and imagines the ideal weight or body shape after successful weight loss belongs to the outcome simulation group, while a person imagining how to make an exercise plan, diet menu, daily exercise schedule, and so on, belongs to the process simulation group. Other researchers16 later pointed out that mental simulation may not necessarily be directed towards the future.

For instance, one could simulate how the past could have turned out differently (i.e., counterfactual simulation). Similarly, Sanna17 defined mental simulations as imitative cognitive constructions of hypothetical events or reconstructions of real events, including anticipations about the future (prefactual simulation) and retrospections about the past (counterfactual simulation). Regarding simulation direction, both simulations could be either upward (thinking about positive outcomes) or downward (thinking about negative outcomes).

By analyzing the above concepts and considering the aim of this study, we adopted the concept of mental simulation directed towards the future and divided mental simulation into three types: process simulation, upward outcome simulation, and downward outcome simulation.

Research shows that mental simulation technique has wide applicability in many fields, such as promoting physical health,18 reducing alcohol dependence,19 improving academic performance,20 and promoting advertisements.2123 

The purpose of most advertisements is to trigger more purchases by making consumers imagine an improved life after they use the product. For example, after using some kind of shampoo, one would enjoy smooth and bright hair.

This outcome-oriented imagination may contribute to further purchases by consumers. Thus, it is clear that online impulsive buying is closely related to mental simulation. However, different types of mental simulation work differently.

Process simulation focusing more on cognition encourages people to imagine specific processes and steps of purchasing, and such an approach can reduce impulsive buying since it can improve consumers’ ability to plan and rationally analyze the purchase.24 

Unlike process simulation, outcome simulation that focuses more on emotions leads people to imagine various outcomes they expect, such as a charming image, praise, and envy from friends, thus greatly stimulating consumers’ desire to buy a product when they face temptation. It has been demonstrated that upward outcome simulation makes consumers pay more attention to the pleasure produced by buying rather than supervise their behavior, and this attitude promotes impulsive buying.24 

However, there is little research on the role of downward outcome simulation in the shopping context. Nevertheless, some literature for upward and downward mental simulation can be found in other domains such as academic performance, health, and self-perceptions. For example, Spiegel et al25 found that promotion-focused (a concern with positive outcomes) students were more likely to finish their reports and ate more fruits and vegetables than their prevention-focused (a concern with negative outcomes) counterparts.

Markman et al26 demonstrated that participants who received the feedback that their performance on a verbal intelligence test was improving subsequently rated themselves as higher in verbal intelligence than participants who received the feedback indicating worse performance. Furthermore, within the context of status momentum, Pettit et al27 found that participants who were exposed to an ascending rank scenario subsequently developed enhanced perceptions of feelings of acceptance from others than those who were exposed to a descending rank scenario, even though the final rank itself was held constant.

These studies indicate that simulations allow people to “preview” events and “pre-feel” the pleasures and pains that those events will produce, thus affecting judgments and decision-making.28 Therefore, we can speculate that in the context of shopping, contrary to the effect of upward simulation, the downward simulation will elicit negative emotions, thereby inhibiting impulse buying.

Through the literature review, we know that mental simulation is a key factor affecting impulsive purchases, especially online impulsive buying. Therefore, can different types of mental simulation improve or reduce the materialists’ impulse buying behavior?

In other words, does mental simulation play a moderating role between materialism and online impulsive buying? This is the core concern of this study.

China is experiencing an era of materialism. A French market research company, Ipsos, released a global survey on materialism among 20 countries in 2016, showing that the Chinese ranked at the top of the list regarding the pursuit of material wealth. Therefore, based on the prevalence of materialism in China, this research aimed to examine the moderating role of mental simulation between materialism and online impulsive buying among Chinese college students.

This study also extended the previous studies in several aspects. Firstly, we further tested the relationship between materialism and online impulsive buying. Secondly, this study was the first to propose the moderating role of mental simulation, and that it could help us understand ways to reduce online impulsive buying for materialists.

Thirdly, we compared the effects of upward and downward outcome simulations in the context of shopping, which could expand the application of mental simulation. Finally, regarding the research method, previous studies on materialism and impulsive purchase mostly used a self-report method to measure impulsive buying tendency, which did not necessarily represent the actual purchase behavior.

In the present study, we set up a simulated online store to measure impulsive purchase behavior based on the actual order data submitted by the participants. This approach was closer to the real shopping situation and could improve the ecological validity of the study.

We hypothesized that mental simulation would moderate the relationship between materialism and online impulsive buying.

Under the condition of upward outcome simulation, individuals with higher levels of materialism were expected to engage more in online impulsive buying. Under the condition of downward outcome simulation or process simulation, the relationship between materialism and online impulsive buying was expected to be weak or absent.

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