Socialization As an Etiological Factor of Compulsive Buying Behavior Among Young Adult Consumers


Louis Fabien and Dany Jolicoeur (1993) ,"Socialization As an Etiological Factor of Compulsive Buying Behavior Among Young Adult Consumers", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 262-268.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 262-268


Louis Fabien, +cole des Hautes +tudes Commerciales, Canada

Dany Jolicoeur, +cole des Hautes +tudes Commerciales, Canada


This article explores the socialization process in the development of compulsive buying behaviour. Based on structured questionnaires and in-depth interviews conducted with 78 subjects, the results have revealed certain differences in the socialization process of compulsive buyers versus that of "normal" buyers. The parents seem to be influential socialization agents when it comes to the adoption of compulsive buying behaviour during childhood.


The study of buying behaviour has long been governed by the use of objective approaches which tend to perceive the consumer as a rational being, conscious of his motivations and the uses underlying his behaviour. Without rejecting these traditional approaches, Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) have suggested a more complete study of the emotional aspects of the act of buying. While it is true that buying behaviour can be motivated by utilitarian purposes, it can also be motivated by emotional reasons such as pleasure, fancy, and dream which result from the activity itself (Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982; Hirschman and Holbrook, 1982).

In the last few years, this hedonistic approach has led to the emergence of a new research trend in the consumer behaviour literature: compulsive buying behaviour. This is a deviant buying behaviour, motivated by the activity and the consumption experience, and not by the satisfaction derived from using or owning the product. In fact, for the majority of people, buying constitutes a mere functional transaction, one of the many routine gestures integrated into everyday life. However, for a certain portion of the population, this activity represents a major problem which generates serious consequences for the individual who is dominated by it.

A review of the literature shows that, while the descriptive characteristics of compulsive buyers are well known, few studies have paid sufficient attention to the etiological factors related to this type of behaviour. We believe that compulsive buying behaviour starts with the earliest phases of the socialization process. Based on a comprehensive review of the available literature, this article presents the conceptual framework used in the development of this research. We will subsequently expose the results of an empirical study on the effects of the socialization process on the development of compulsive buying behaviour.


Faber, O'Guinn and Krych (1987) introduce the study of compulsive buying in consumer behaviour by showing, based on a qualitative methodology, certain results, the majority of which have been validated by subsequent studies. As compared to "normal" consumers, compulsive consumers are aware of losing control and becoming submitted to the act of buying from which they derive psychological fulfilment, but which is quickly replaced by severe consequences: guilt, shame and then the debt reality. They are also likely to perceive shopping as a recreational activity, being more materialistic without, however, being more anxious to possess, more envious and less generous; they manifest low self-esteem as well as a significantly higher level of extravagance and imagination than "normal" consumers (O'Guinn and Faber, 1989).

Given the nature of the consequences of this behaviour, i.e., loss of control and psychological dependence, and because of their severity, the authors assume a strong relation between compulsive behaviour in general and compulsive buying. In view of these considerations, O'Guinn and Faber (1989) associate compulsive buying with pathological behaviours and suggest a definition which attributes to compulsive buying a symptomatology of pathological consumption similar to that of boulimia and toxicomania:

"We define 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 behaviour that will ultimately cause harm to the individual and/or to others."

They are not alone in associating compulsive buying with pathological consumption. Valence, d'Astous and Fortier (1988) embrace this same orientation and define compulsive buying as:

"... a reckless impulse to buy, triggered by a psychological tension disorder due to internal factors, and accompanied by a feeling of relief, as well as by frustration similar to that provoked by an addiction."

This perspective also leads them to an investigation of similarities and contrasts between compulsive and "normal" buyers. According to Valence, d'Astous and Fortier (1988), compulsive consumers are more worried and it is more likely that excessive consumption behaviours such as alcoholism, toxicomania and boulimia will be found in their family. Similarly, d'Astous and Bellemare (1989) discover that compulsive consumers tend to respond more positively to publicity displaying a socially desirable image than to publicity which conveys product benefits.

A completely different perspective can also be found in the current literature. D'Astous and Tremblay (1989), d'Astous, Maltais and Roberge (1990) do not attempt to include compulsive buying in the category of compulsive behaviours. They suggest the existence of a "generalized impulse to buy" which makes it possible to classify consumers in a hierarchy based on the intensity of their impulse. The compulsive buyer feels a more intense urge to buy than the "normal" consumer, and thus represents an extreme case of the "generalized impulse to buy".

Therefore, these authors do not divide the population into "normal" and compulsive consumers. They examine the phenomenon of compulsive buying in the population. Based on this approach, they assume the presence of different stages of compulsive buying and imply a gradual induction of this behaviour. They seem to abandon the pathological approach in favour of a sociological approach. Consequently, d'Astous and Tremblay (1989) discover that the tendency towards compulsive buying is stronger among women, positively correlated to the irrational use of credit, then negatively to age and self-esteem.

Socialization and Compulsive Buying Behaviour

Certain of the results from major studies in the literature lead us to believe that experiences that occurred during our youth and that are related to consumption do indeed play a part in the development of compulsive buying behaviour.

Faber, O'Guinn and Krych (1987) indicate that some compulsive consumers associate their buying behaviour with their youth, attributing their behaviour to the fact that they did not have money to spend when their were young; according to others, their behaviour is the result of a lack of control over their spending.

Therefore, it would seem that the first experiences of consumption have a significant impact on the compulsive buying behaviour adopted (d'Astous and Tremblay, 1989). Since the family environment is an influential factor, even a model, for the young consumer's first consumption experiences (Moschis, 1987), it is reasonable to assume that certain characteristics of that environment favour the adoption of the compulsive buying behaviour. In fact, one must consider the parents' attitude who, in a certain way, through the education and support they provide, could influence the child to become a compulsive buyer later in his life (Valence, d'Astous and Fortier, 1988).

D'Astous, Maltais and Roberge (1990) substantiate this last proposition. They reveal that the family has a significant influence on the tendency towards compulsive buying among teenagers. They have noticed a significant relation between teenagers' tendency to compulsive buying behaviour and their perception of that same tendency in their parents. The authors explain this by suggesting that it is likely that teenagers observe and then imitate their parents' buying behaviour. In addition, the results reveal a positive relation between teenagers' compulsive tendencies and divorce. As for other family problems, for example, absence of the parents, violence and alcoholism, they are more frequent in the families of teenagers who show a tendency towards compulsive buying, without however reaching a statistically significant difference.

Scherhorn, Reisch and Raab (1990) obtain similar results. They discover a strong association between the phenomenon under study and certain problematic relations in the family. Accordingly, individuals prone to buying have been exposed to a systematic, repeated and sustained denial of their emotions as a result of conflictual family relations. For example, in certain cases, problems between parents or between parents and the child were not discussed in order to keep up the appearance of family harmony, thus creating serious anxiety in the child. For others, the relation was distinguished by parental domination, fear, obedience, lack of freedom, disinterest or overprotective parents. Consequently, the child starts to doubt himself and his capabilities and to look for outside support: buying.

Briefly stated, according to Scherhorn (1990) and to Scherhorn, Reisch and Raab (1990), the socialization process creates an distortion of autonomy, that is, an inability to act as an independent agent, which assimilates the bodily or environmental stimuli and interacts with them without intervention from a defense mechanism. Therefore, in order to compensate, this distortion of autonomy leads the individual to use the act of buying as an external support. Compulsive buying could be the result of an abnormal socialization process.

Figure 1 shows the major concepts related to the compulsive buyer's socialization process; this model is derived from the work of Moschis and Churchill (1978).

The antecedents variables allow one to locate the socialized individual in relation to his cognitive development (age), to certain individual propensities (self-esteem, materialism and sensitivity to interpersonal influence) as well as to some previous experiences (first consumption experiences). These antecedents variables can directly or indirectly influence the socialization results (compulsive buying) through the socialization process. This process represents the relation between the socialization agent, namely, the parents, and the socialized individual, namely, the unit under analysis.

During interaction with the socialized individual, parents communicate specific attitudes, values, standards and behaviours through three learning mechanisms: modeling, reinforcement and social interaction. Modeling implies the observation followed by the reproduction of the agent's behaviour. This mechanism can be generated consciously or considered spontaneously as the most adequate alternative, sometimes as the only possibility. Reinforcement implies learning through encouragement, reward (positive reinforcement) and punishment (negative reinforcement). The socialized individual learns to copy behaviours rewarded by the socialization agent and not to repeat those for which he has been punished. The type of learning is less specific regarding social interaction. It is frequently a combination of the above mechanisms of imitation and reinforcement (Moschis and Churchill, 1978).

The contents of social interaction represent the standards believed by the socialization agents to correspond to their idea of a certain social role. As for the social interaction structure, it refers to the power and communication characteristic of the relation between the socialization agent and the socialized individual. This conceptual framework of compulsive buying from the perspective of consumer socialization naturally brings us to these three research questions:

* Does the family (parents) form an influent socialization agent when it comes to the adoption of compulsive buying behaviour in young adults?

* What are the characteristics of the relation between the socialization agent, i.e., the family (parents), and the socialized individual which favour the adoption of compulsive buying behaviour in young adults?

* How does the socialized individual acquire the attitudes, values and standards related to compulsive buying behaviour?


An interval scale measuring the level of compulsion to buy was developed based on the statements proposed by Valence, d'Astous and Fortier (1988) and Faber and O'Guinn (1989). The scale composed of 23 statements was presented to 1,186 young adults attending college. From the individual score of compulsion, fifty-five (55) subjects were identified as compulsive buyers. Thirty-two (32) agreed to complete a second questionnaire focusing on their socialization process; thirteen (13) others agreed to participate in an in-depth interview. Thirty-three (33) subjects declared "normal" according to their score of compulsion to buy also completed the second questionnaire. This structured questionnaire, composed of 100 statements, covered every variable listed in Figure 1.

Self-esteem was measured from a scale developed by Rosenberg (1985); the scale of Belk (1985) was chosen to measure the level of materialism; and the statements proposed by Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel (1989) and d'Astous (1990) were selected to measure the level of susceptibility to interpersonal influence. Characteristics of the family environment were measured using the indicators proposed by Moos and Moos (1974).

The alpha validity coefficient varies between .60 and .90, which is acceptable for new measures (Nunnally, 1978). In order to substantiate the qualitative data, individual profiles were presented to the subjects a few days after the interview; only one profile was altered. First, qualitative data was gathered, then it was analyzed based on the method suggested by Miles and Huberman (1984).




Sample Characteristics

The participants in the study are between 17 and 23 years old and 75.4% are women. No significant differences regarding these variables were observed in relation to their compulsive buying scores.

The study of individual propensities, i.e., interpersonal influence, self-esteem and materialism, allows us to examine whether consumers designated as compulsive according to a score on compulsive buying have personality traits associated by researchers to compulsive buying. To a certain extent, it is a form of nomological validity.

Results related to interpersonal influence as well as to self-esteem reveal a significant difference between the two consumer groups. In fact, as in d'Astous and Tremblay (1989), compulsive buyers are significantly more prone to interpersonal influence (p=0.004). However, compulsive buyers are the ones who scored the highest self-esteem (p=0.006), which is in total contradiction with the results of d'Astous and Tremblay (1989), Faber and O'Guinn (1989), O'Guinn and Faber (1989), d'Astous, Maltais and Roberge (1990), and Scherhorn, Reisch and Raab (1990).

Contrary to predicted results, the compulsive consumer seems significantly more anxious to own (p=0.001); we could observe no important difference related to envy and non-generosity. During the interviews, possession does not emerge as the factor motivating the majority of compulsive consumers, but rather, as shown by the following quote and Figure 2 and 3, as a pleasure associated with the activity of buying which seems to affect the emotional state:

"When I buy something, it makes me feel better. For example, if things aren't going well at school, I go buy pens, sometimes 5 or 6 and I feel a lot better. It's almost exhilerating and euphoric."

(Marianne, 18 years old)

Compulsive Consumer's Socialization Process

Among all variables related to consumer socialization, several (Table 1) significantly distinguish compulsive consumers from "normal" consumers.

First of all, the first consumption experiences of compulsive buyers are distinguished by a drive to buy. When they were young, compulsive buyers were the only ones who could not stop themselves from spending their money. In fact, compared to "normal" consumers, they used to spend a lot of their time in the stores with their friends. In addition to this inclination to buy, the parents' behaviour allows us to recognize the first consumption experiences of compulsive buyers. The results show that their parents used to bring them to the store more often and bought them everything them wanted. From the same perspective, it appears that the parents of "normal" consumers bought them what they needed but little extra. In addition, parents of compulsive buyers seem to have offered more reinforcement towards certain behaviours and also expressed their affection through consumption. Qualitative data show the same pattern:





"My parents bought me everything I wanted. I think that this is how they compensated. My mother is very protective, since she doesn't want me to go out and she knows that I want to and that I might complain, it's her way of compensating: It doesn't matter if I don't let you go out, here is a nice jacket, you need one?"

(Marianne, 18 years old)

"My mother never apologized, we used to fight and then she would come to see me and tell me: "Here, take my card, you can spend as much as you like."

(Nadia, 17 years old)

Only compulsive buyers perceive a certain tendency to compulsive buying in their mother, who seems to portray, for these young adults, the most influent buying behaviour. In conclusion, these results, in addition to qualitative data, seem to suggest that compulsive buying is learned based on the parents' buying behaviour, particularly that of the mother:

"When I see my mother spend, it makes me want to spend too. I say to myself: "My mother buys herself things, so will I". I admit that I tend to imitate her, of course, and that I copy her impulsive behaviour ... But she never argues with me about it because she sees herself doing it."

(Nadia, 17 years old)

"She (mother) encourages me to save money and to plan a budget but she's in no position to say that. She's not a good example."

(StTphanie, 20 years old)

This last quote indicates an important tendency of qualitative data. In fact, when there is a will on the parents' part to convey values and standards related to socially desirable consumption behaviour, this attempt seems unsuccessful when it is not consistent with the young adult's perception of his/her parents' buying behaviour.

Finally, the compulsive consumers' family environment seems to have a more "explosive" quality than that of "normal" consumers. Compulsive consumers seem to live in an "open" environment since they can express their feelings and talk about their problems within the family surroundings. In addition, a strong majority of participants indicate an unhealthy family atmosphere. As the results of Scherhorn, Reisch and Raab (1990) show, this environment is characterized by overprotection, indifference, a feeling of rejection or a power relation:

"It's very "heavy" at home. I mean between my mother and Yvon (step-father). There's ... a lot of domination and insulting ... They always involve me in this and I don't like it."

(Hugo, 18 years old)

Discriminant Analysis

The discriminant analysis, following a stepwise procedure, allowed us to identify the combination of variables which best "discriminate" both consumer groups. Table 2 illustrates these variables.

The results indicate that the socialization process of compulsive consumers is associated with:

* the young consumer's propensity to buy (JDEPEN)

* the young consumer's savings put aside to buy the desiredproduct (JEPAR)

* the parents who bought everything that was wanted (JPAACHA)

* the perception of the father's socially desirable behaviour (ACHDEPE)

* the parents who often brought the child along when they went shopping (JPAMAG)

* the perception of the father's tendency to compulsive buying (TACPER)

* the presence of parental control over the young consumer's spending (JPACONT)

* the susceptibility concerning interpersonal influence (INFLU)





As for the socialization process of "normal" consumers, it seems to be associated with:

* the influence of one of the parents' buying behaviours (ACHPAINF)

* the perception of the mother's socially desirable buying behaviour (ACHDEMER)

* the closeness of the family environment (ENFACOH)

These results speak for themselves. They all follow the expected course, with the exception of three variables (ACHDEPE, TACPER, JPACONT) which stipulate that the compulsive consumer's socialization is related to the perception of the father's socially desirable buying behaviour, to the father's tendency towards compulsive buying and to parental control over the young consumer's spending.


Do the parents represent an influential socialization agent when it comes to the adoption of compulsive buying behaviour by the young adult? The quantitative and qualitative results enable us to answer this first research question. First of all, compulsive consumers are the only ones who perceive a tendency towards a buying compulsion in the mother, a tendency which they cited much more frequently than "normal" consumers did. Consequently, the mother seems to be an influential agent in the adoption of compulsive buying behaviour, as a result of her own buying behaviour which the young adult perceives as deviant.

Parents also seem to have an influence through the consumption behaviour they adopt with the compulsive consumer. Indeed, when he/she was young, they would often bring him/her along when they went shopping, buy him/her everything he/she wanted and, then, associate certain symbolic meanings with consumer products such as affection and the feeling of reward. In short, through these consumption experiences, the parents suggest to their children that buying has a compensatory power that is accessible to them. In this regard, it is not surprising that the young adult chooses buying as an external support.

What are the characteristics of the relation between the socialization agent, i.e., the parents, and the socialized individual which favour the adoption of compulsive buying behaviour in young adults? The results of family communication in relation to consumption are particularly interesting. Contrary to our expectations, they do not reveal a significant difference between compulsive and "normal" consumers. In fact, the frequency, structure and substance of communication are not significantly different between these two groups of consumers and do not have any discriminating power, thus making it impossible to qualify the nature of parental influence on the adoption of compulsive buying behaviour in the young adult.

However, the results of individual interviews allow us to specify the nature of the parental influence. Almost half of compulsive young adults' parents have tried to convey what are called socially desirable consumption values and standards (budget/saving), but this education does not seem to have much bearing or credibility compared to the example that they set. Let us recall that compulsive consumers perceive a certain tendency towards compulsive buying in the mother. In short, the parents' consumption behaviour seems to cancel their efforts:

"They (parents) project a little on me. They don't want me to behave like they do (compulsive buying)... but I think that my parents have set an example for me, a negative one."

(StTphanie, 20 years old)

These last results suggest that even if there is a will on the part of the parents to educate the young on the question of consumption, if the latter perceives a tendency towards compulsive buying in one of the parents, their attempt is sure to fail. In short, the example the parents set for the young consumer has more bearing than the variables related to consumption. In fact, even if the substance of the communication is socially desirable, it is not relevant for the young person if it does not reflect his/her parents' behaviour.

How does the socialized individual acquire the attitudes, values and standards related to compulsive buying behaviour? The results indicate that when compulsive consumers were young, their parents used to encourage certain behaviours and expressed their satisfaction through gifts and money. The results of the individual interviews also show that the parents of compulsive consumers used the same means to express not only their satisfaction but also their affection:

"The affection I received from my parents often took the form of gifts and money."

(StTphanie, 20 years old)

"My mother says to me: "We argue but look, I love you, I bought you this."

(Marianne, 18 years old)

Thus, it appears that compulsive consumers acquire values and standards related to this behaviour of dysfunctional consumption by observation and reinforcement.


In the light of the results obtained, one can consider several courses of research. The parents' influence, particularly that of the mother, seems very important. But what about the friends? Our results do not show any influence on their part, which is surprising. The family atmosphere plays a role in the development of compulsive behaviour. Which elements of the situation at home related to atmosphere have the most effect on the development of compulsive buying behaviour?

The study of compulsive buying involves major difficulties: difficulty to recruit subjects who agree to confide, tendency of compulsive subjects to deny their condition, in short, difficulties often met in the study of excessive behaviours (boulimia, alcoholism, etc.). Given the fact that every consumer shows, at different levels, a tendency towards compulsion, other types of consumers (ex.: older, having a higher purchasing power, etc.) should be studied.


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Louis Fabien, +cole des Hautes +tudes Commerciales, Canada
Dany Jolicoeur, +cole des Hautes +tudes Commerciales, Canada


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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