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Compulsive buying not just for women

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(U-WIRE) STANFORD, Calif. -- From glossy pink chick-lit like "Confessions of a Shopaholic" to "Sex and the City," women have traditionally been portrayed as more prone to therapeutic shopping trips and lust for expensive shoes than men. But new research from the Stanford University School of Medicine rejects this conventional wisdom and the statistic -- that 90 percent of people suffering from compulsive buying disorder are female -- that has supported it.

"It's not true," said Dr. Lorrin Koran, emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine and senior author of "Estimated Prevalence of Compulsive Buying Behavior in the United States," which was published in the October 2006 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. "Eighty to ninety percent of people who respond to advertisements about therapy and help [for compulsive buying] are women, which makes people think that women have this problem more than men do. But men and women are equally likely to suffer from compulsive buying."

Koran and his colleagues conducted a nationwide random telephone survey and rated respondents on the Compulsive Buying Scale, which asks seven questions about spending habits and the respondent's level of fiscal control. One question was "I have written a check when I knew I didn't have money in the bank," and respondents were asked to answer often, very often, sometimes or never. Respondents were then scored on a set scale, and those with scores lower than a certain mark gained the label of "compulsive buyer."

The study, which is the first of its kind to use a large general population sample, found that 5.8 percent of the respondents -- more than one out of twenty adults -- suffer from a shopping addiction. Despite the prevalence of the condition, Koran said it is often underestimated or misunderstood.

"As one self-help book says, it's the 'smiled-upon addiction,'" he said. "People don't take it seriously, but having dealt with these folks, I know they're suffering a great deal."

Though it has no formal definition, compulsive buying disorder includes such symptoms as frequent, irresistible, intrusive and senseless impulses to buy; marked distress; and financial problems as a result of excessive buying. The serious and habitual damage wreaked on sufferers and their loved ones is the most important distinction between compulsive buying disorder and occasional impulse purchases.

Koran also noted that college students are at an age when they can start to identify these patterns.

"The problem usually starts at that age -- 18, 19, 20 -- when people first get credit cards and access to money," he said. "And then, at least for the people who come for treatment, the problem tends to be chronic."

Despite the fact that similar percentages of the male and female populations suffer from compulsive buying disorder -- 5.5 percent of men and 6.0 percent of women -- most who seek treatment or help are women.

"The same is true of depression," Koran said. "A much larger percentage of women who have it come for treatment than men. Maybe it's that culturally, men perceive that it's not manly to get treatment. I don't really know."

He emphasized the need for sufferers to seek professional guidance.

"Compulsive buying leads to serious psychological, financial and family problems including depression, overwhelming debt and the breakup of relationships," Koran said. "People who think they might have the condition should seek help, because it's available to them."

Koran added that Stanford is uniquely equipped to help people suffering from compulsive buying disorder, in part because of the recently opened Impulse Disorders Control Clinic at the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

"Disorders like compulsive buying disorder fall under the general category of impulse control disorders, which includes conditions like pathological gambling, kleptomania, pyromania and hair-pulling," he explained. "We opened a clinic this year to help people with those disorders. There are only a handful of such clinics in the whole country."

Ultimately, Koran and his colleagues hope to identify factors that cause compulsive buying disorder and other impulse control disorders.

"What we're trying to do is figure out who's vulnerable and why, and how to help them," he said. "We don't know why some people are vulnerable, but we're trying to learn."

(C) 2006 The Stanford Daily via U-WIRE

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