Serious ShoppingReview - Serious Shopping
Essays in Psychotherapy and Consumerism
by Adrienne Baker
Free Association Books, 2000
Review by Daniel L. Buccino
Jul 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 31)

In today’s high-flying economy, everybody seems to be taking her IPO profits and going shopping.  Conde Nast publishing takes shopping so seriously these days that it has even launched a new glossy lifestyle magazine, Lucky, not just dedicated to conspicuous consumption, like all of their periodicals, but offering value-added bargain hunting strategies as well.  Yet all is not well in the malls and the chic boutiques in this stock option- rich economy, at least as the authors in Serious Shopping see it.  Perhaps there is a difference between the U.K. and the U.S., but Serious Shopping offers no sense of it, and there is hardly a mention of today’s go-go global economy.  Indeed the book is a bit of an anchor on fun for those enjoying the bull market, though it will be a sober and bracing tonic for any bears left standing.

Serious Shopping is a rather dry, dense, and often redundant exploration of shopping from a predominantly British, academic, object relations point of view in which excessive shopping is seen largely as an addiction, both a disease and a behavior, which is said to be a solution to the inner pain of afflicted participants in the marketplace.  The recurring premise of most of the psychotherapist contributors to this volume is that austere, loveless childhoods lead to emotional emptiness that can be assuaged by shopping.   Consumer commodities come to fill in the blanks caused by inadequate parental love.  Afflicted, suffering subjects console themselves with acquisitions from the external world which are thought to repair the primary hurts and absences.  While providing a solid, schoolist review of the basics of object relations theory and therapy, the book also begs as many questions as it attempts to answer.

            For instance, if emotionally barren childhoods can engender fantasies of replenishment and reparation at every purchase, how are we to understand those who are self-punishingly abstemious?  Several patients of mine who came of age during the Great Depression in the 1930s in the U.S. seem to have been denied both affection and worldly goods yet they are often the opposite of this book’s excessive shoppers or shoplifters.  Their emotionally barren childhood seems to have been repeated into adulthoods of intense self-denial.  If shopping can be seen as an effort to repair hurt, then not shopping must also be an effort to not hurt, as if to say, “I didn’t need that anyway.”

            Most of the contributions to Serious Shopping try to shore up their thin theoretical constructs with a nod toward more rigorous research and include small research projects as part of their conclusions.  However, these qualitative studies are often just as ambiguous as the theoretical arguments and each undercuts the other.  For instance, in a generally interesting chapter from a theoretical and therapeutic standpoint, “Women, Body Image and Shopping for Clothes,” Gemma Corbett, reports on a combination interview/questionnaire she administered.  Though she makes much of the main findings which support her theoretical premise, that women shop to look better in order to feel better, the findings also seem to reveal that an equal percentage of women find shopping to be as unsatisfying as those who find it satisfying.  Indeed, most women appear to be at best decidedly neutral about the process and effect of shopping. 

Corbett argues that women who have internalized messages of inadequacy from childhood (not to mention the mass media) shop for affirmation, to complete the equation, “If I am attractive then I must be lovable.”  Yet her findings suggest that if this is the impetus for many women, then it is not a useful exercise in affirmation or as a way to find love.

And what about the men?  I guess we’re too busy drinking and brawling to go shopping.

Serious Shopping could serve as a useful reference for those interested in the topic, especially clinicians who are struggling to work with compulsive shoppers who are not simply experiencing a transient manic state.  In today’s bombastic media environment, clinicians must be able to understand not only how early emotional deprivation can engender yawning chasms of need in patients, but more immediately, how the media plays on that tendency to both create and offer the antidote to every flaw. 

The basic thrust of all advertising seems to be not only that your teeth will be whiter, your breath fresher, your hair fuller, your dishes cleaner, your beer colder, your clothes hipper, your sneakers cooler, but that power, agency, and self-efficacy can be had more broadly through alignment with the advertised commodity.  Most egregiously, the hot, smoky, and deadly addiction of cigarette smoking is often negated in its advertising representations of coolness and health.  Therapists must often be tutors in media literacy and Serious Shopping certainly provides a primer into what makes people vulnerable to the commodity fetishism of the marketplace.

            Though there is a fair amount of repetition in Serious Shopping (each chapter seems to review the same introductory historical and theoretical material before moving to its own specific focus), there is also a fairly wide sweep of approaches to the issue.  Simon du Plock takes a rather philosophical approach in his consideration of how confrontations with mortality in adulthood can engender “Gifts of Life.”  Rosalind Pearmain’s contribution, “The Ecology of Shopping – A Transformational Experience,” succeeds because of its unexpectedly environmental psychological insights.  She considers how the act of shopping is inseparable from the environment in which it occurs and that many shoppers appear to seek a comfortable and spacious environment as much as they seek any particular goods.  It is an easy step then to see how the mall has become our new village green.

            In another contribution, welcome because it is a bit outside the typical object relations clinical milieu of the bulk of the book, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Research, Richard Elliott, makes two interesting arguments based on his researches.  The first is that shopping provides for the “expression of creativity and control” and the “exercise of power within personal relationships.”  We know from other research into psychotherapy that goal-directed action is one of the most useful ways to enhance self-efficacy.  Mere abreaction and historical review are often insufficient to lead to any lasting changes or reduced symptoms, but having some sort of plan and engaging in action toward that end are more effective mood-regulating strategies.  Elliott suggests that shopping can be such a useful goal-directed action.

            His second point is that shopping occasionally functions as an act of revenge within personal relationships.  Whether in the realm of fantasy or in the reality of financial sabotage, shopping can be an effort to redistribute power and control within a relationship.  Elliott calls for even more research into this “social life of things.”

            In a rather unwieldy chapter, “Addictive Shopping as a Form of Family Communication,” Paula Riddy attempts to explore some of those dynamics but gets sidetracked by musings on narcissism, addiction, and the differences between shopping and collecting, each of which could be an illuminating chapter by itself.

            Serious Shopping is a difficult book designed primarily for therapists.  Lay readers and therapy consumers may do better to consult a therapist to translate the book’s premises into real-world applications.  Despite its concern with the addictive qualities of excessive and compulsive shopping, Serious Shopping makes little effort to explore differential diagnoses.  Most tellingly, why do we see one behavioral expression of addiction and not another?  Why does one underloved individual become an alcoholic, another a crackhead, and a third a shopper?  How are we to know when excessive shopping may not be a symptom in itself, but rather an expression of another disorder, such as bipolar affective disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, with a radically different treatment approach?  And finally, beyond the thinnest case history reports, there is no effort in Serious Shopping to consider treatment outcome and effects.

            Since Freud, we have had 100 years of elaborately sectarian mythologizing into why things may have gone wrong, yet psychotherapists remain largely uninterested in empirical and evidence-based studies as to whether their theories actually have an effect on treatment outcome.  What we do know is that theory counts for very little:  relationship, hope and a plan are the simple common factors of all therapy approaches that are at the heart and soul of change.  Readers truly interested in doing something different about the problems of consumerism would be well advised to check into the media literacy and culture-jamming activities of, for instance, the Adbusters Media Foundation. 

Yet the dilemma for all who are interested in psychotherapy as being more than an exploration of the nursery and the inner child, is how to help people find the adult within and become better participants in the marketplace, all the while mindful of the alienations the marketplace can engender.  Now back to the day trading.



Daniel L. Buccino is Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Baltimore-Washington Brief Therapy Institute, Inc., a training and consulting group in accountable, outcome-informed psychotherapy, and he is finishing a book on psychoanalysis and consumer culture.