That's what researchers including Lorrin Koran, MD, report in The American Journal of Psychiatry. Koran works in the psychiatry department at Stanford University's medical school in California.
Compulsive buying has mainly been studied in women, Koran's team notes. But if their findings are correct, compulsive buying is just as common among men.
Compulsive buying isn't in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), the handbook of psychiatric disorders. But Koran and others have suggested that it should be.
"Compulsive buying leads to serious psychological, financial, and family problems including depression, overwhelming debt, and the breakup of relationships," Koran says in a Stanford news release. "People don't realize the extent of the damage it does to the sufferer."
The researchers polled 2,513 U.S. adults by telephone in the spring and summer of 2004.
Poll topics included out-of-control shopping, overwhelming impulses to buy, needless purchases, credit card use, and debt.
About 6 percent of women and men qualified as compulsive buyers, based on a scale designed to separate compulsive shoppers from everyone else. Estimates from other studies have ranged from about 2 percent to 16 percent, the researchers note.
Here are some of the traits that the researchers note for the compulsive shoppers:
Compulsive buyers tended to be younger (average age: nearly 40, about nine years younger than other participants' average age). They were also more likely to earn less money. About 54 percent of them reported earning less than $50,000 annually, compared with 39 percent of the other participants.
Compulsive buyers didn't have more credit cards or bigger average credit-card balances. But their lower incomes would likely make it tougher to pay off those balances.
Compulsive buyers were more likely to be within $100 to $500 of their limit, and they said they "very often" or "often" just made their minimum card payment.
The poll's results may not be perfect. It's not clear if some people were more open than others about their buying and debt, or if some exaggerated their shopping habits, the researchers note. The poll doesn't substitute for an in-depth interview and diagnosis, Koran's team adds.
The study "raises several intriguing questions," write editorialists including Eric Hollander, M.D., of the psychiatry department at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Impulse control problems "exist on a continuum ... with many individuals having some of the behaviors, a few showing none, and a few showing a great deal," the editorialists write.
The study was sponsored by Forest Pharmaceuticals. Koran reports serving on Forest Pharmaceuticals' speakers bureau and receiving grants from other pharmaceutical companies.
One of his colleagues, Elias Aboujaoude, M.D., who directs Stanford's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, reports serving on Forest Pharmaceuticals' speakers bureau during the study. Editorialist Hollander reports having consulted for drug companies including Forest Pharmaceuticals.
SOURCES: Koran, L. The American Journal of Psychiatry, October 2006; Vol. 163: pp. 1806-1812. Hollander, E. The American Journal of Psychiatry, October 2006; Vol. 163: pp. 1670-1672. News release, Stanford University Medical Center.
By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D