How the High of Shopping Can Hurt our Giving

How the High of Shopping Can Hurt our Giving

In previous blogs, I’ve written about psychological barriers that prevent people from donating money or donating more money to those living in extreme poverty.  These have included diffusion of responsibility, feeling ‘cheapened’ by requests for money, and parochialism.  In this blog, I suggest that addictions therapy and research might have something to teach us about barriers.  Perhaps the key to giving more is understanding the nature of and learning to modulate our urge to spend.

In the residential substance dependence rehabilitation unit where I worked as a psychology intern, the main theoretical framework used to understand substance abuse was that unmet emotional needs or unresolved emotional issues were at the core of why so many people turn to substance use.  In other words, people use substances to regulate moods or cope with emotions they haven’t learned to manage otherwise.  This was particularly relevant for veterans, who often had experienced significant trauma.  “Nope,” I remember one elderly man repeatedly pronouncing, “I don’t got any of that emotional stuff.  I just like to drink!”  He was nearly 80 years old and had been drinking beer daily on his front porch for decades. 

When it comes to how we spend our money, I think many of us are more like the 80 year-old veteran than we would like to believe.  We say we shop because “we like it,” “it’s fun,” it’s “something to do.”  Some of us may even playfully acknowledge its addictive qualities.  For instance, blogger Lizzy Charles writes, “Where does Serotonin lead you in your daily life? For me… it’s Target. There’s something about that place that just sends those little serotonin messengers flying. I can get a good buzz by just walking through the store on a regular grocery trip. If I REALLY want to amp it up, I go alone and just linger and wander. There’s honestly not an inch of that store that doesn’t make these chemical messengers go wild.” (

But this isn’t just the stuff of pop-psychology humor.  Addictions research has shown that spikes in dopamine activity in the reward center of the brain associated with shopping are similar to spikes in dopamine activity associated with substance use (see The Case for Compulsive Shopping as an Addiction:  Within the psychology community, there is also increased recognition that behaviors such as gambling, exercise, sex, and shopping can rise to the level of addiction, causing just as much distress and impairment as substances (


As with alcohol and drug use where the occasional use of these substances is not necessarily indicative of a substance use disorder, the enjoyment of shopping is not necessarily problematic.  Addictions counselors often draw the line at when the behavior starts to feel as though it is controlling us versus us controlling the behavior.  Or, another way of thinking about it is whether our emotional urge to engage in the potentially addictive behavior overrules a previously made rational decision not to engage in the behavior.  For example, we may decide (using our rational mind on Sunday evening) that we are not going to drink alcohol on the weekdays—we have been hung over a few times at work!—but our Wednesday evening (emotionally-based) craving is too strong and we go ahead and drink anyway, breaking our ‘rule to self.’  For some of us, I think the Target buzz is pretty powerful and prevents us, at least some of the time, from doing with our money what our more rational brain is telling us is right.


If someone is committed to donating more of their income to those living in extreme poverty but struggles with reigning in their spending, it may be helpful to apply some addictions counseling techniques.  One is to replace the problem behavior with a healthier and more adaptive one.  So perhaps instead of buying a new gadget on, I decide to exercise.  

Another technique, borrowed from weight loss research where participants lost more weight when they wrote down exactly what they ate each day, is to keep track of every penny you spend over the course of a day or a week.  In the weight loss studies, participants said they sometimes didn’t go for more food just because they didn’t want to have to record it in their food journal (  

Applying this technique to keep track of our spending habits can help us know where exactly our money goes—so that we can work toward giving more.  Lastly, it’s important to evaluate whether some of the money we spend is being used to meet emotional, rather than financial, needs.  As with Alcoholics’ Anonymous sponsorship, we could designate a ‘sponsor’ who gets a phone call every time we need distraction from our urge or a reminder of the importance of following through with our spending goals.

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About the author:

Angie Vredeveld

Angie Vredeveld is a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma. She works for the nonprofit Give An Hour in Washington, DC, which provides free mental health services to military personnel and their families. She has also worked in internationally, most recently in Uganda, where she helped establish a mental health treatment program for a NGO serving refugees. Angie is particularly interested in psychological factors related to giving and the psychological impact of living in extreme poverty.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.