Compulsive Buying Tendency As a Predictor of Attitudes and Perceptions

Allison Magee, Arizona State University
ABSTRACT - Compulsive buying is a phenomenon with serious societal and personal consequences. An exploratory study using scenarios of consumer's purchasing behavior tested whether compulsive buying tendency influences identification and perceptions of others' behavior. Empirical findings show the compulsive buying tendency predicted identification with others' buying behavior. The findings also support the greater the compulsive buying tendency, the more likely one would permit the use of credit cards for purchases. However, the greater the compulsive buying tendency, the more likely one is to view dysfunctional behavior as appropriate was not supported by the findings. The discussion highlights implications.
[ to cite ]:
Allison Magee (1994) ,"Compulsive Buying Tendency As a Predictor of Attitudes and Perceptions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 590-594.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 590-594

COMPULSIVE BUYING TENDENCY AS A PREDICTOR OF ATTITUDES AND PERCEPTIONS

Allison Magee, Arizona State University

ABSTRACT -

Compulsive buying is a phenomenon with serious societal and personal consequences. An exploratory study using scenarios of consumer's purchasing behavior tested whether compulsive buying tendency influences identification and perceptions of others' behavior. Empirical findings show the compulsive buying tendency predicted identification with others' buying behavior. The findings also support the greater the compulsive buying tendency, the more likely one would permit the use of credit cards for purchases. However, the greater the compulsive buying tendency, the more likely one is to view dysfunctional behavior as appropriate was not supported by the findings. The discussion highlights implications.

INTRODUCTION

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

I can't be out of money, I still have checks.

I'd rather be at the mall.

Born to shop.

Shop until you drop.

The bumper stickers and slogans abound. It is commonplace in our society to make light of people who frequently shop and buy. However, for many Americans the process of shopping and buying has caused their lives to go out of control. Much like substance abusers, they get a "high" by buying items and are unable to control their behavior. These people are called compulsive buyers and it is estimated that fifteen million Americans suffer from this phenomenon (Arthur 1992).

Consumer researchers have been exploring this phenomenon in an effort to describe, explain, and identify it. Psychology has given us answers concerning the origins of the phenomenon. We now know that compulsive buying is a behavioral disorder that causes an individual to continually make purchases regardless of financial, social, or psychological consequences (Damon 1988; Faber 1992; Krueger 1988; Faber and O'Guinn 1992; Scherhorn 1990, Valence et al. 1988). Compulsive buying is the result of dysfunction in any or all of the following processes: heredity, family of origin, psychological, and society (Damon 1988, Faber 1992, Hirschman 1992; Scherhorn 1990; Valence et al. 1988). Compulsive buying is distinguished from functional buying by the following characteristics: the items are not bought for their intrinsic value, there is denial to the negative consequences of the actions, it is disruptive to the individual's life, repeated failures in attempts to control the behavior, and a urge or drive to buy (Faber, O'Guinn, and Krych 1987; Krueger 1988; O'Guinn and Faber 1989; Valence et al. 1988).

It has been proposed that the socio-cultural environment is one of the many factors in the creation of compulsive buyers (Damon 1988; Faber 1992; Hirschman 1992; Valence et al. 1988). People's perceptions of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior are based on societal, cultural, and individual norms. During the socialization process, consumers learn what is acceptable and unacceptable. If one's socialization process has been dysfunctional, that is, dysfunctional behavior has been modeled to the individual, that person will "grow up" believing the dysfunctional behavior is "normal." Furthermore, if the socio-cultural environment is conducive to this type of dysfunctional behavior, the individual's norm becomes reinforced.

While the literature recognizes the presence and importance of the socio-cultural environment in compulsive buying, none of the literature focuses on how its characteristics shape people's attitudes towards buying behavior. If social norms play an important part in encouraging compulsive buying, it stands to reason that the creation of compulsive buyers will influence society and individuals' attitudes and norms. This paper reports a study which explores the degree to which compulsive buying tendency influences attitudes toward buying/purchasing behavior. The paper is divided into three parts: the first part deals with the literature on compulsive buying and what has been found about the phenomenon, the second part details the study and its results, and in the third part, implications are discussed.

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

Compulsive buying had been recorded in the early 1900's by psychiatrists. However, it was not until the late 1980's that compulsive buying began to receive much attention. All of the compulsive buying research has centered on defining and explaining the phenomenon. Faber and O'Guinn (1988) derived their definition from the much broader category of compulsive consumption. They defined compulsive consumption "as a response to an uncontrollable drive or desire to obtain, use, or experience a feeling, substance or activity that leads an individual to repetitively engage in a behavior that will ultimately cause harm to the individual and/or to others."

That led to the description of compulsive buying as "chronic, repetitive purchasing that becomes a primary response to negative events or feelings (O'Guinn and Faber 1989)." d'Astous (1990) provides a less extreme definition of compulsive buying "as a generalized urge to buy in the consumer population and that individuals who are extremely high on this factor may be called compulsive buyers." d'Astous suggested that by dichotomizing consumers into two categories, compulsive or not compulsive, that we were missing much of the phenomenon. By ignoring what lies between compulsive and functional, we may be overlooking information that would help us to better understand the phenomena and its origins. First, there is much evidence to support d'Astous's idea of a generalized urge. For example, a barrage of advertising messages constantly and strongly encourage consumers to buy and to use credit. Our country's burgeoning federal deficit portrays our culture's receptiveness to debt and overspending. The increase in credit card debt, often incurred by compulsive buyers, over the last 20 years is associated with the growth in the federal deficit. Second, this definition portrays buying or purchasing behavior on a continuum with compulsive buying occupying one end and functional purchasing at the other.

Nataraajan and Goff (1991) also view purchasing behavior on a continuum. They described a continuum as based on motive and control. Thus, compulsive buyers are those who are high on motive and low on control. Our cultural norms that encourage purchasing behaviors affect the motivational component.

Several empirical studies have yielded interesting findings about factors related to compulsive buyers. Consistent with the work of Moschis and Churchill (1978), O'Guinn and Faber (1989, 1992) found that compulsive buyers tend to be younger. However, Scherhorn et al. (1990) did not find age to be a significant factor. O'Guinn and Faber (1989, 1992) have also found that women tend to score higher as compulsive buyers. This is supported by d'Astous (1990) and Scherhorn et al. (1990). Compulsive buyers have also been found to have lower self-esteem (O'Guinn and Faber 1989).

Not much has been written in our literature about the various components that make up the socio-cultural environment factor that contributes to compulsive buying. Valence et al. (1988) suggests that it has three components: culture, commercial environment, and advertising. Probably the best treatment of this comes from the popular press, in a book by therapist Janet Damon titled Shopaholics (1988). In it, Damon looks are three aspects that have contributed to the creation of compulsive buyers in our society. She cites the breakdown of family and community, advertising messages, and that spending has become a form of worship in our society. These all combine to create an environment that reinforces one's beliefs, attitudes, and personal norms that overspending and excess buying is acceptable.

O'Guinn and Faber (1989) suggest that how society views compulsive behavior will have implications for society's perception of the consequences, the amount of self-control a person is expected to have with respect to purchasing, and the appropriate treatment of the compulsive behavior.

Perceptions of Appropriate Behavior

Based on these findings, people differ in their degree of compulsive buying tendency. These differences are derived from socialization experiences, all within the context of a culture that is permissive about buying and spending behaviors.

Compulsive buyers are those who have an uncontrollable urge to repetitively engage in the act of buying and have been taught dysfunctional norms. They learn that this dysfunctional behavior is "normal" and perceive their own and other's behavior accordingly. Therefore, compulsive buyers may view certain purchasing behaviors differently than people who are less compulsive. They may be more apt to view dysfunctional purchasing behaviors "normal" and identify with those exhibiting this behavior. The forms the basis for the first hypothesis.

H1: The greater the tendency toward compulsive buying, the more likely one will identify with the dysfunctional purchasing behavior of others.

It also stands to reason that if a person views their own behavior as appropriate even though it may not be, that they will tend to judge others exhibiting the same purchasing behavior as behaving appropriately. This yielded the second hypothesis:

H2: The greater a person's compulsive buying tendency, the more likely the person is to view the dysfunctional purchasing behavior of others as appropriate.

Past research has shown a correlation between compulsive buyers and irrational credit card usage (d'Astous 1990) as well as the fact that compulsive buyers are likely to own more credit cards than normal consumers (O'Guinn & Faber 1989). These results tend to indicate that compulsive buyers are more likely to condone the use of credit cards for purchases whether it is appropriate or not. This formed the third hypothesis:

H3: The greater the compulsive buying tendency, the more likely a person would be more permissive in the use of credit cards.

METHODOLOGY

Instrument

A questionnaire was devised composed of three parts. Only minimal information was provided to the subjects. Subjects were informed that their help was needed in providing answers and opinions for a study being done on purchasing and spending habits. Conditions of anonymity and confidentiality were stated in addition to being expressed on the cover sheets of the questionnaire. The terms "compulsive" as well as "compulsive buying" were never mentioned, as it was thought that this might sensitize the subjects.

The first part solicited personal and demographic information. This information was used to describe the sample and to analyze for differences due to age or sex.

The second part of the survey contained the Faber and O'Guinn (1992) clinical screener for compulsive buying. The scale measures a person's capacity for compulsive buying on seven items. Items are scored using a five point Likert scale. Faber and O'Guinn (1992) report an alpha of .95 and the scale to be unidimensional.

In the third part of the questionnaire, the respondent was presented with one of two scenarios, as a projective device to elicit respondent's perceptions of certain purchasing behaviors. The two conditions, labeled Consumer A and Consumer B, were randomly assigned to subjects. Forty-nine subjects received the Consumer B scenario and 45 received Consumer A.

In the two conditions, the subject read about a "recent graduate" who had not yet found a job. In both cases, the protagonist received a credit card through the mail. Neither the sex, age, marital status, nor race of the consumer was mentioned to allow the respondent to project his/her self into the scenario. The two conditions were manipulated with respect to credit card usage. Scenario A portrays relatively dysfunctional purchasing behavior. Consumer A uses a credit card heavily and does not have the income to pay off the purchases. In the other condition, Consumer B is more responsible. He or she makes similar purchases but uses cash from savings and demonstrates the activities of budgeting and comparison shopping.

Following the scenario, the subject was asked how much they identified with the consumer in the scenario. The item was a 7 point Likert scale ranging from strongly identify to do not identify at all. Next, the subject was asked to rate the consumer on a ten-item bipolar adjective "responsibility" scale. These ten items were designed to capture the subject's projection of how responsible they viewed the actions of the consumer. The ten items were comprised of various synonyms for the word responsibility. All ten items used a 7 point Likert scale. As an additional indicator of perceptions, subjects were also asked to what extent they agreed with the various behaviors exhibited by the consumer in the scenario. To operationalize permissiveness concerning credit card usage, one question asked the respondent to indicate how much the consumer should use the credit card. The item was based on a 7 point Likert scale anchored at one end by the credit card's limit and at the other end by none at all.

Two open-ended questions completed the questionnaire. These questions prompted the subject to describe the consumer as well as to relate their thoughts on what happened next in the scenario.

Pretesting

A pretest showed that the questions were understandable. Upon debriefing, none of the pretest subjects indicated that they were aware of what the researchers were trying to accomplish.

TABLE 1

REGRESSION ANALYSIS RESULTS

Sample

The questionnaire was administered to a convenience sample of 95 respondents. Of the 95, 94 questionnaires were returned, yielding a return rate of 98.8%. The sample was comprised of college students from five upper level marketing classes at a large Southwestern university and various respondents from the community. Fifty-two or 55.3% were male and 44.7% or 42 were female. The mean age of the sample was 26.75. Seventy-nine point eight percent of the sample was under the age of thirty.

RESULTS

On the compulsive buying scale, the mean score was .142. The scores ranged from -4.19 to 3.30. Faber and O'Guinn (1992) classify compulsive buyers as those who score less than or equal to -1.34. Fifteen or 16% of the respondents fell into this range.

A factor analysis was performed on the ten item responsibility scale. All items loaded on one factor with values of .70 or higher and were retained for analysis. Coefficient alpha was an acceptable .94 for the ten items.

Hypothesis Testing

Regression analysis was used to test the hypothesis of whether compulsive buyers identified more with the consumers than people who were not as compulsive. The compulsive buying score was used to predict to what extent the respondent identified with the consumer in the scenario. The analysis was conducted first for the entire sample and then by condition. The regression equation was significant. Table 1 summarizes the results of this analysis. Compulsive buying tendency does predict the respondent's identification with the consumer portrayed in the scenario.

Analyzing by condition, the compulsive buying tendency predicted the respondent's identification with the consumer for each scenario. Results are reported in Table 1.

The second hypothesis proposed that compulsive buying tendency would predict the respondent's rating of the scenario on the responsibility scale. Regression analysis did not confirm this hypothesis. See Table 1 for results. Furthermore, it was found to be non-significant in an analysis by condition. Compulsive buying score did not predict the perceived responsibility of the scenarios' consumers. However, Consumer B was perceived as more responsible than A, thus affirming that the manipulation was effective. See Table 2 for results.

The third hypothesis proposed that compulsive buying tendency would predict how much the respondent would allow the consumer to charge on the credit card. The regression equation was significant and the results are reported in Table 1. Compulsive buying tendency predicted how much the respondents allowed the consumer to use the credit card. An analysis by condition yielded slightly different results. For the more dysfunctional scenario, compulsive buying tendency predicted how much the respondent would allow the consumer to use the credit card. However, for the more "appropriate" consumer, compulsive buying tendency did not predict how much the respondent would allow the consumer to use the credit card. Results are reported in Table 1.

Open Ended Responses

Two open-ended questions asked the respondents to describe what happened next in the scenario and to describe the consumer. The answers were coded by the researcher and several themes identified. Three categories describing the endings to the scenario were determined: positive consequences (e.g. got a good job, paid off bills), negative consequences (e.g. went bankrupt, credit rating declined, took a job beneath standards), and neutral consequences. Two main categories described the consumers: irresponsible (e.g. doesn't think about consequences, immature, spontaneous) and responsible (e.g. plans ahead, reliable, careful). Two judges were then asked to recode the data using the new categories. The interjudge reliability rating was an acceptable 86.4%. An anova analysis showed the endings proposed for consumer A were significantly different from consumer B. Table 2 reports the results. Thus, respondents viewed Consumer A's behavior as having more negative consequences than Consumer B's behavior. An anova analysis also showed that the descriptions for Consumer A were significantly different from Consumer B. These results are reported in Table 2. However, looking at each consumer separately, it was found that descriptions of Consumer B revealed a responsible/irresponsible dichotomy.

TABLE 2

ANOVA ANALYSIS RESULTS

Additional Findings

Past research has found that age and sex may be important factors in determining one's compulsiveness (d'Astous and Tremblay 1988; Moschis and Churchill 1978; O'Guinn and Faber 1989, 1992; Scherhorn et al. 1990). Through regression analysis, age was found to be a significant factor in predicting one's compulsiveness. See Table 1 for results. Consistent with previous research (d'Astous and Tremblay 1988; O'Guinn and Faber 1989), the younger a respondent, the higher his or her compulsive buying score. There may be some limits to this finding. Sampling procedures yielded a relatively young sample. Since age can be a predictor of compulsiveness, future research may want to utilize purposeful sampling procedures to avoid imbalances in the age factor. An analysis was performed to check for a interaction between age and the the manipulation of low/high responsibility. The results were non-signficant indicating there was no interaction present.

With regards to sex, an anova was performed. For this sample, there is no significant difference between genders for the compulsive buying score. The F value (1,92) was 2.28 for p=.135. An analysis was performed to check for a interaction between sex and the the manipulation of low/high responsibility. The results were non-signficant indicating there was no interaction present. These results do not support the previous findings of d'Astous and Tremblay (1988), O'Guinn and Faber (1989), and Scherhorn et al. (1990). One explanation may be that this study's sample was not self-selected unlike previous research. O'Guinn and Faber (1989) suggest that women are more likely to seek help concerning personal issues and would be more aware of compulsive buying. They attribute their finding that women score higher as compulsive buyers to methodological artifact.

Summary

The empirical findings showed that compulsive buyers are more likely to identify with the dysfunctional purchasing behavior of others. The study also found that the greater a person's compulsive buying tendency, the more they condone the use of a credit card for purchases. The study did not support the hypothesis that the greater a person's compulsive buying tendency, the more likely the person is to view dysfunctional purchasing behavior as appropriate. Supporting previous work, age was found to be a predictor of one's compulsive buying tendency. However, the study did not confirm that sex was a predictor of one's compulsive buying tendency.

DISCUSSION

This study was concerned with to what degree one's compulsiveness influence's one's perceptions of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. While the study showed that a relationship exists between one's compulsiveness and how one identifies with and perceives others' behavior, there are several limitations to it. The use of such a relatively young sample when age has been shown to be a predictor of compulsiveness may have biased the results. Second, different results may be obtained if different scenarios are utilized. Finally, a univariate analysis may provide only part of the picture. Future research should include multivariate analysis to draw a more complex picture.

The results of the study support the use of the scenarios as stimuli to elicit respondents' attitudes and perceptions toward compulsive buying. As a projective device, the scenarios provide a way to portray compulsive buying without having to label it as such and thus, biasing responses. Other types of dependent measures might be used to determine the different types of attitudes that people hold.

In contrast to previous research, sex was not found to be a significant factor in determining compulsive buying score. More work should be conducted to investigate this relationship.

Based on the study's findings, it would appear that a person's compulsive buying tendency is related to his/her identification with, and attitudes towards, dysfunctional buying behavior. Additionally, the study suggests that the greater a person's compulsive buying tendency, the more permissive their attitude toward dysfunctional buying behavior. This has many implications for society. First of all, if society is helping to create an environment that enables compulsive buying, and since it has been shown that compulsive buyers have more permissive attitudes towards dysfunctional behavior, societal norms and attitudes may be modified over time to reflect this dysfunctional orientation. Thus, societal attitudes and norms could become more permissive over time, thus creating even a more friendly environment for this phenomenon.

The study did not confirm the hypothesis that the greater a person's compulsive buying tendency, the more likely they are to view others' dysfunctional purchasing behavior as appropriate. However, this is consistent with the idea that compulsive buying is a compulsion and not a permanent inability to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate purchasing behavior. This is especially salient for those developing treatment programs for compulsive buyers as it indicates that rehabilitation is possible.

The lighthearted vein in which society treats the phenomenon of compulsive buying may reinforce the attitudes held by those afflicted. The humorous manner in which the town drunk was portrayed in the fifties and sixties (e.g. Otis on the Andy Griffith Show) is an excellent example of society reinforcing denial. If we are laughing at it, most likely there are those who will feel they do not have a problem.

This study explored the influence of compulsive buying tendency on identification with and perceptions of others' buying behaviors. By studying these implications, we will gain much needed knowledge. The time is ripe for research in this area as concern over the federal deficit has people questioning our cultural values. Compulsive buying is a phenomenon that has and will continue to seriously affect our society.

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