Self-observation is the monitoring of one's own actions to provide diagnostic information about the impact of behavior and the attainment of goals. To self-monitor effectively, individuals must attend to their behavior (with respect to the quality, rate, originality, sociability, morality and deviancy of their performance), analyze regular patterns in behavior in relation to the situations in which it is performed, be accurate in their self-observations, and conduct them in temporal proximity to the performance of the behavior (see Table 1a, left column). Internal emotional states, such as irresistible shopping urges, and arousing external stimuli, such as seductive retail displays, may disrupt or defer accurate self-observation.
The judgmental process evaluates behavior against personal standards of excellence or in reference to group norms, social comparisons with associates, prior behavior, or collective comparisons (i.e., individual contributions to group accomplishments). However, evaluations of performance are only relevant when the activity is valued and within the individual's locus of control (Table 1b, left column). Judgment may be distorted by faulty moral justifications (as in exacting revenge on a spouse with an expensive shopping spree), euphemistic labeling (“shopping spree,” rather than “shopping binge”), advantageous comparison (comparing oneself to worse “shopaholics”), misattribution of blame (attributing excessive buying to uncontrollable urges), and self-deception (e.g. hiding unwanted purchases).
The self-reactive function provides tangible behavioral incentives, such as self-rewards for good behavior, or self-evaluative incentives, such as self-respect or self-satisfaction (Table 1c, left hand column). The self-reactive process is engaged when behavior is observed and judged to deviate from personal or social standards for conduct. Since depressed people have a negative cognitive bias that causes them to slight their own successes and blame themselves for failure (Bandura, 1991), the downward spiral of despair and unregulated buying may reflect ineffective self-reactive control. Depressed shoppers are perhaps unable to gain encouragement from their occasional successes in their struggle for self-control and, blaming themselves, plunge deeper into despair.
Understanding Unregulated Buying Behavior
Thus, unregulated buying may be understood as the product of deficient self-regulation, which may be weakened through any of its three subfunctions. Many of the unique symptoms and correlates associated with unregulated buying (in the right hand columns of Table 1) can be re-interpreted as factors that undermine self-regulatory functions.
For example, the diagnostic criteria for compulsive buying are a maladaptive preoccupation with buying or shopping that is associated with irresistible shopping urges, buying items that are not needed or affordable, shopping for longer than intended and accompanied by marked distress or interference with social, occupational or financial functioning (McElroy et al., 1995). In social cognitive terms, these symptoms describe a state in which self-observation is disrupted by a pre-occupation with buying or by feelings of distress or uncontrollable urges. Extended shopping expeditions provide extended contact with retail stimuli that overwhelm self-observation. Judgmental comparisons with normal standards of conduct (i.e., norms for behavior on the job or at home, one's own objective shopping needs and budget, or reasonable time allocations for the shopping function) have been suspended or else replaced by dysfunctional norms related to buying. Normal self-reactive influences (e.g., guilt or rational economic decision-making) have been replaced by maladaptive ones (e.g., seeking relief from depression through shopping, Krych, 1989). Case studies of compulsive buyers (Krueger, 1988) recount internal battles with self-control and (in case 3) willful disruption of accurate self-observation by blocking thoughts about credit card balances.
The personality traits associated with compulsive buying may also be understood in social cognitive terms. Across multiple studies, compulsive buyers scored higher than normal buyers on obsessive-compulsiveness, fantasy and envy, but lower on self-esteem (Faber & O'Guinn, 1992). Compulsive buyers are not truly obsessive compulsives in that they enjoy the behavior (while obsessive compulsives feel compelled to carry out unpleasurable tasks (APA, 1994). So, their compulsivity perhaps reflects a general weakness for behavioral addictions, including the work, exercise and sex addictions also reported by compulsive buyers (Faber & O'Guinn, 1989), that bespeaks a general lack of effective self-regulation across behavioral domains. This is confirmed by research that found compulsive buying is inversely related to conscientiousness (a cardinal personality trait indicating general organization and efficiency (Mowen & Spears, 1999). Product-related fantasies may overwhelm accurate self-observation, while fantasies of imagined wealth (as reported in Faber & O'Guinn, 1989, p. 153) may negate the self-reactive fear of indebtedness. The envy scale (Belk, 1985) contains items (e.g. “I am bothered when I see people who buy anything they want,” and “when Hollywood stars or prominent politicians have things stolen from them I really feel sorry for them”) that imply advantageous comparisons are being made with other unregulated buyers.
The inverse relationship between self-esteem and compulsive buying is so consistent that low self-esteem has been suggested as a determining factor in the etiology of the disorder and as a trigger to buying binges (Faber, 1992). However, self-esteem may only be a factor for “internal” compulsive buyers who seek to relieve internal anxiety states, but not for “external” compulsive buyers who are influenced by external circumstances (DeSarbo & Edwards, 1996). Moreover, the measure of self esteem (Rosenberg, 1965) used in many compulsive buying studies (e.g., d'Astous, 1990, Sherhorn et al., 1990) has a substantial negative correlation with depression (Rosenberg et al., 1995). The inverse relationship between self esteem and compulsive buying may thus be a third variable effect reflecting the interaction among depression, self-slighting and faulty self-regulation mentioned earlier (Bandura, 1991). The possibility that depression contributes to poor judgment about spending has also been discussed in the compulsive buying literature (Black et al., 2001). A direct relationship between depression and compulsive buying has not been established empirically, but its effects may have been masked by other variables such as anxiety and coping ability (DeSarbo & Edwards, 1996). Alternatively, anxiety may itself directly disrupt self-regulation and also impact self-esteem. In other words, depression or anxiety may be prior causes that contribute to both faulty self-regulation and low self-esteem.
Generally, self-observation may be disrupted by both external distractions and internal states. For example, the sensory qualities of retail displays that provoke impulse buying (Hoch & Loewenstein, 1991) and also the overall complexity of those stimuli (Hausman, 2000) may overwhelm self-observation. The extended browsing engaged in by compulsive buyers (Christenson et al., 1994) prolongs exposure to those sensory stimuli. The feelings of shopping enjoyment, excitement and empowerment experienced by impulsive buyers (Rook & Gardner, 1993) and the uncontrollable shopping urges (Christenson et al., 1994), chronic anxiety (Black, 1996), intense moods (Faber & Christenson, 1996), object attachment and emotional lift (Faber & O'Guinn, 1989) reported by compulsive buyers while shopping are emotional states that can make shoppers inattentive to their own performance. Credit cards are widely abused by compulsive buyers (Faber & O'Guinn, 1992), disrupting the temporal proximity of excessive buying behavior and the perception of its financial consequences. Accurate self-observation of excessive buying may also be impaired by hiding or giving away purchases as compulsive buyers often do (Black, 1996).
The judgmental process is disrupted when personal standards that regulate normal buying behavior are ignored or replaced with ones that stimulate buying. The build-up of a tolerance for addictive purchases (Marks, 1990) arguably betrays a failure to make comparisons with one's own prior consumption levels. Impulsive buyers are unlikely to have regularly scheduled shopping days or to write out shopping lists (Rook & Hoch, 1985), perhaps to avoid comparisons with their own objective shopping needs. Distorted moral justifications may be developed, such as gaining revenge on a former spouse by running up a balance on the former spouse's credit card bill (Elliot et al., 1996). Comparisons of one's behavior to unrealistic or self-defeating standards such as an idealized self-concept (Burroughs, 1996) or sex-role stereotypes (Ditmar & Drury, 2000) also defeat rational self-judgment and promote unregulated buying. Rationalizing an impulse purchase on the grounds that it is an unbeatable bargain or that it meets a personal need (Rook & Hoch, 1985) are further examples of faulty personal comparisons.
The unique patterns of social interaction that surround unregulated buying might be understood as impairing valid social comparisons rather than as efforts to bolster self-esteem or to correct one's self-image. Many unregulated buyers shop alone (Schlosser et al., 1994; Lejoyeux et al., 1999), at night, by phone (Rook & Hoch, 1985), or through home shopping channels (Lee et al., 2000), thereby avoiding discovery by family or friends who might provide reminders of normative standards for buying. Conversely, enablers (Krych, 1989) may provide tacit social approval for excessive buying by helping the buying addict cover up their life problems. Many prefer the company of sale clerks (McElroy et al., 1994), a group that perhaps upholds rather lax norms for excessive buying. Consumption behavior modeled in product advertisements may also play a role (Faber, 1992), providing an advantageous comparison with other prolific, if fictional, consumers. The knowledge that others in one's social circle possess a certain product stimulates impulsive buying (Hoch & Loewenstein, 1991), perhaps another form of advantageous comparison with other unregulated shoppers.
The judgmental function may also be distorted by the relative valuation of activities and the misattribution of performance to external causes. As compulsive shoppers become preoccupied with buying, work and family interaction become devalued and less subject to personal scrutiny. The perception that shopping urges are irresistible (Christenson et al., 1994) and that products sometimes seem to take on a life of their own (Rook & Hoch, 1985) shift the locus of control away from the individual.
The general tendency to disregard the consequences of unregulated buying (Hoch & Lowenstein, 1991) may be viewed as the avoidance of evaluative self-reactions. Disruption of the self-reactive function may explain one of the most remarkable phenomenon associated with problem buying: Hiding, returning, giving away, or selling unwanted purchases, as compulsive buyers often do (Black, 1996). These are ways of avoiding the self-observation that unregulated buying has produced a horde of products and also the judgment that those products are unnecessary and unaffordable when compared to one's true needs or budget. But these actions also neutralize the self-reactive incentives of guilt and debt that would normally regulate buying. Guilt is assuaged by hiding the offending purchases from view or by substituting feelings of generosity for guilt pangs when the unwanted products are given away. Product returns and yard sales mitigate the financial disincentives to continued unregulated buying. The delivery of the product may occasion pangs of guilt over an unwanted and unaffordable purchase, which may be why compulsive buyers often tolerate considerable delays between buying urges and taking possession of the product (Christenson et al., 1994).
Controlling Unregulated Buying
Attempts to curb excessive buying are sometimes considered to be further symptoms of both compulsive (Black, 1996) and addictive buying (Krych, 1989). However, within the socio-cognitive framework the success of these efforts is precisely what distinguishes unregulated buyers from normal consumers and also the means of curing problem buying. Self-regulation is bolstered by strengthening, or reasserting, the subfunctions of self-observation, judgment, and self-reaction (the middle columns of Table 1a-c).
For example, the self-observation subfunction is activated by addiction therapies that call attention to problematic behavior by keeping diaries or taking self-diagnostic tests (Young, 1998). Bundling of costs, such as considering one's total credit card bill instead of a single purchase, also restores accurate self-observation. Other strategies reassert control over factors that disrupt self-observation by reducing desire (e.g., avoiding the shopping mall), postponing the purchase decision, distracting oneself when buying urges occur (Hoch & Loewenstein, 1991), controlling emotions, or selectively processing marketing stimuli (Dholakia, 2000). The regularity of excessive buying behavior may be heightened by learning to recognize the triggers of addictive behavior (Young, 1998) while the temporal proximity of self-observation and buying may be increased by leaving the credit card at home and using cash instead (Glatt & Cook, 1987).
The judgmental subfunction is targeted by interventions that identify discrepancies with personal or normative standards of conduct (Miller, 1998), force recognition of budgetary constraints (Rook & Fisher, 1995), or formulate explicit rules for conduct (such as a personal savings program, Dholakia, 2000). Other approaches make appeals to moral precepts or higher authority (Hoch & Loewenstein, 1991). Internet addiction therapists teach their patients to recognize faulty self-justifications (Greenfield, 1999; Young, 1998), a way of neutralizing faulty judgmental standards. Identifying sources of social support for good behavior (Young, 1998) may provide helpful social comparisons with normal buyers. Encouraging affirmations of personal responsibility (Young, 1998) moves the locus of control back to the person, away from externalized urges. Linking individual behavior to a collective goal (e.g., sending the children to college) or devaluing the shopping activity could also be effective (Bandura, 1986), although these strategies are not evident in the literature of unregulated buying.
Many therapeutic approaches provide incentives to change behavior, invoking the self-reactive subfunction. These include setting goals for behavior change, providing reminders of negative consequences, and identifying incentives that motivate abstinence (Young, 1998). Other therapies (Miller, 1998) transfer control from one set of contingencies to another (e.g., from the joy of shopping to the guilt of credit card debt) or re-interpret the consequences of behavior (e.g., viewing credit card debt as a family problem instead of a personal financial problem). Pre-commitment to constraints on buying behavior include leaving the credit card at home (Glatt & Cook, 1987), avoiding the shopping mall, promising oneself or others to restrain spending (Hoch & Lowenstein, 1991), imposing time limits on shopping (Rook & Fisher, 1995), shopping without purchasing, and destroying one's credit cards (McElroy et al., 1994). Self-rewards for resistance to temptation, concentrated attention to long-term economic or life consequences, and willing indulgence in guilty feelings are approaches suggested by economists (Hoch & Loewenstein, 1991) and therapists (Greenfield, 1999; Young, 1998) alike.