The Dark Side of Consumer Behavior: Empirical Examinations of Impulsive and Compulsive Consumption


Brian Wansink (1994) ,"The Dark Side of Consumer Behavior: Empirical Examinations of Impulsive and Compulsive Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 508.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Page 508


Brian Wansink, Dartmouth College

Whereas much of the investigation into consumer behavior examines purposeful choice behavior intended to optimize consumer utility, there is also a darker side to consumer behavior. This deals with the impulsive and compulsive behaviors that can influence both the purchase of products and the consumption of them. In mild forms, such behaviors include eating bouts or shopping sprees. In more extreme forms, they include pathological forms of binge eating or serious patterns of overspending.

As pointed out by Meryl Gardner and Christine Wright-Isak, common elements exist between the compulsive aspects of consumption (eating bouts and binging) and the impulsive aspects of it (impulse buying). Three different sets of studies and three different methodologies are used to triangulate on the commonalities which exist between these compulsive and impulsive aspects of consumption.

Brian Wansink ("Antecedents and Mediators of Eating Bouts") suggests that the cues (internal or external) which stimulate an eating bout dramatically affect one's perception toward that eating bout. The results of his studies indicate that when an eating bout is stimulated by external cues (such as visual salience), perceptions of the food's versatility, perishability, and nutritional value mediate the volume of the food that is eaten. In contrast, eating bouts which are stimulated by internal cues (such as moods, emotions, and cravings) are unaffected by these factors.

A measure validation study by Wendy Martin, Seungoog Weun and Sharon E. Beatty ("Validation of an Impulse Buying Tendency Scale") suggests how such impulsive and compulsive behaviors can be measured. Though this scale is developed and validated in the context of shopping behaviors, the resulting scale contains variables that can be used across many consumption contexts.

The third set of studies ( "Two Forms of Compulsive Consumption: Comorbidity Between Compulsive Buying and Binge Eating") exemplifies the interdisciplinary theme of all the studies that have been discussed. This work by Ronald J. Faber, Gary A. Christenson and James Mitchell involves quasi-experimental designs which explicitly show the conceptual synergies between compulsive eating and impulsive buying. Results from their first study indicate that binge eaters may be more likely to demonstrate compulsive buying symptoms than non binge eaters. Using a separate set of subjects, their second study used scales and retrospective reports to confirm this finding. Consistent with their first set of findings, compulsive buyers were shown to have demonstrated a greater predisposition toward binge eating.

The findings from all three of these sets of studies can be interpreted in light of the biopsychosocial model of compulsive or excessive behaviors. This model assumes that a number of compulsive, addictive and impulsive behaviors are related and that all of these behaviors have multiple causes.



Brian Wansink, Dartmouth College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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