The purpose of this study was to investigate the mediating roles of materialism and self-esteem in explaining how family conflict leads to adolescent compulsive buying. Despite the importance of family as a primary socialization agent, scant research has focused on how family conflict impacts adolescents’ attitudes and behaviors as consumers.
A survey of 1,289 adolescents was conducted in a public high school in the Midwestern USA. Regression analyses were used to assess the mediating roles of materialism and self-esteem on the relationship between family conflict and compulsive buying. Additionally, gender was hypothesized to moderate the relationship between family conflict and the two mediating variables.
Results showed that family conflict increased adolescent materialism and lowered self-esteem. Gender moderated the relationship between family conflict and self-esteem with a more pronounced effect for females than males. Materialism and self-esteem were significantly related to compulsive buying. Family conflict had a significant indirect effect on compulsive buying through materialism for females and through self-esteem for both male and female.
Findings suggest that family conflict impacts compulsive buying through its impact on both materialism and self-esteem. Future research is needed to explain why adolescents use compulsive buying as a coping mechanism for family conflict. Then, whether such behavior leads to improved well-being.
Results suggest that adolescents use compulsive buying to cope with family conflict. The study’s focus on family conflict, not simply divorce, expands its implications to all households, intact or not.
This study created a new model of family conflict’s impact on adolescent consumers’ attitudes and behavior.
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Described as a consumer tendency to purchase products far more than one’s needs and resources, compulsive buying is an increasingly common dysfunctional consumer behavior associated with negative psychological and overall well-being (Rindfleisch et al., 1997; Kasser, 2002). Large-scale nationally representative studies estimate that approximately 6 per cent of adults are compulsive buyers (Koran et al., 2006; Maraz et al., 2016). Other research suggests that this is an underestimation and that compulsive buying is an increasingly prevalent behavior (Neuner et al., 2005; Ridgway et al., 2008).
The growing prevalence of compulsive buying could be harmful to societal well-being, and thus, warrants additional research attention. Compulsive shopping is associated with harmful consequences including social distress, financial debt and negative overall well-being (Dittmar, 2005a); however, it is less clear what leads to compulsive buying behaviors. Early research suggests that compulsive buying is rooted in early life experiences related to children’s family situations (Faber and O’Guinn, 1992; Rindfleisch et al., 1997). Despite the rise of compulsive buying, developments in the literature have been scant, with Dittmar’s research being among the only to offer a model of compulsive buying. Dittmar’s (2005a) two-factor model conceptualizes materialism and self-discrepancies as two important factors leading to compulsive buying. Other research suggests, however, that compulsive buying begins in the teenage years when individuals have less well-established family connections (Koran et al., 2006) and is reinforced and perpetuated with time (Richins, 2017). Dittmar’s (2005a, p. 488) research on compulsive buying did not focus on teenagers, but rather called for future in-depth research on compulsive buying among adolescents as compulsive buying is a “progressively more prominent feature of adolescence”.
The current research focuses on adolescents’ compulsive buying and presents a conceptual model of compulsive buying as an outcome of family conflict. Drawing from early research on family structure as a driver of compulsive buying, we blend two existing models of compulsive buying and offer a new model of adolescent compulsive buying. Our research contributes to the consumer literature on family dynamics by studying the impact of family conflict, rather than specific family circumstances (e.g. married or divorced parents), which have largely been the focus of extant research. As discussed next, mixed findings have been reported in the literature related to family dynamics and compulsive buying. The present research extends extant family-related research by focusing on interactions (i.e. family conflict) rather than on situations (e.g. divorce). Indeed, research suggests that inconclusive evidence surrounding the relationship between family disruptions and adolescent behaviors may be due to the bulk of extant research focusing on specific disruptive situations, rather than parents’ interactions with their children, the latter of which may well be the key driver (Richins, 2017).
Family dynamics and compulsive buying
Research suggests that compulsive buying is associated with family structure or divorce. Using a sample of young adults (20-32 years of age), Rindfleisch et al. (1997) found that persons from divorced families are more likely to exhibit compulsive buying inclinations compared to those from non-divorced families. However, a study by Roberts et al. (2003) using a sample of adolescents (11-15 years of age) did not confirm a relationship between divorce and compulsive buying. One possible reason for inconsistent results regarding the impact (or lack thereof) of divorce could relate to family conflict. Specifically, family conflict likely exists not only in divorced families but also in intact families, and it is possible that family conflict is the key driver of past findings regarding the role of family structure. Arguably, examining family conflict as the root cause of these dark side consumer behaviors provides a theoretical explanation not fully captured by family structure (divorce vs intact) alone. This theorizing is consistent with family systems theory, which emphasizes the impact of family relationships on the adjustment of individual family members (Vandewater and Lansford, 2005).
According to the family conflict perspective, it is the attendant conflict, not the divorce per se, that is the cause of problems in affected children (Amato, 2001). In a meta-analysis of 92 studies that compared the well-being of children from divorced versus intact homes (Amato and Keith, 1991), the most consistent support was found for the family conflict perspective. Dysfunctional family communication in general and conflictual communication between parents, in particular, can adversely affect all family members, especially children (Brunner, 1998). If the conflict is not resolved in a healthy manner, it may result in maladaptive and/or compulsive behaviors (Rindfleisch et al., 1997). Indeed, Hirschman (1992) theorized that compulsive behavior derives from a family that is rife with conflict.
In a similar context, Faber (2004) describes a situation within dysfunctional families where parents expect children to be perfect (the expectation for perfection is communicated to children by their parents) and children, ultimately, fail in their attempts at perfection. This destructive dynamic (i.e. the child’s inability to please his/her parents, the child not receiving recognition for his/her efforts to be perfect and any resulting anger) can, in turn, ultimately lead to compulsive buying. Krueger (1988) emphasizes that, among adolescent children, compulsive buying is often closely tied to the lack of a significant emotional bond with one’s parents. Compulsive buying and/or shopping represent attempts to tangibly recreate a disrupted bond with an important other person (Krueger, 1988, p. 580).
Given the above, we posit that family conflict is associated with compulsive buying. Specifically, and as discussed next, our conceptual model posits that the relationship between family conflict and compulsive buying is mediated by self-esteem and materialistic values. The newly proposed conceptual framework is tested using a large sample of high school students (n = 1,289), and support for the model is found, showing how family conflict affects adolescents’ materialism, self-esteem, and ultimately, compulsive buying behavior See Figure 1 for the current model tested.
Family conflict, self-esteem and compulsive buying
Self-esteem is best understood as the amount of self-regard an individual possesses (Rosenberg, 1965). It is generally accepted that low self-esteem leads to poor outcomes. As noted by Dittmar (2005a), perceived shortcomings in one’s sense of self-drive individuals to find ways to compensate for real or perceived threats to their sense of worth.
Research suggests that family disruption leads to lower self-esteem in children, and particularly among adolescents. In a meta-analysis of the impact of divorce on children’s well-being, Amato and Keith (1991) found that effect sizes were greatest for children 12-18 years of age. The conflict between parents during a divorce creates a stressful situation and engenders a sense of insecurity in the affected children (Amato, 2001). For example, the stress surrounding a divorce can lead to less affectionate parenting and more frequent use of punishment as a parenting alternative (Kasser, 2002); this less nurturing style of parenting leads to feelings of insecurity and vulnerability in children.
Research suggests that parental divorce is not the only form of family dysfunction that is linked to low self-esteem in children. Marital discord among parents, for instance, appears to have the same long-term effects on children as full-fledged divorce (Amato and Sobolewski, 2001). Indeed, family disruption in various forms has been linked to lower self-esteem in children (Hill et al., 2001; Prevoo and Weel, 2015). Based on this review, we posit that family conflict is negatively associated with self-esteem. Further, we propose that self-esteem has a mediating role, such that family conflict is indirectly associated with compulsive buying (through self-esteem). As discussed next, the relationship between self-esteem and compulsive shopping is supported in the extant literature.
The model of compulsive buying by Dittmar (2005a) suggests that compulsive buying is brought about by two significant factors, namely: self-discrepancies and materialism. Based on the theories of self-completion (Wicklund and Gollwitzer, 1982) and self-discrepancy (Higgins, 1987), Dittmar’s (2005a) model posits that perceptions of inadequacies concerning one’s self-concept produce motives to compensate for such shortcomings. One form of compensating may entail engaging in compulsive buying. Compulsive buying in this way can be thought of as identity-seeking behavior brought about by perceived identity deficits.
The self-esteem to compulsive buying relationship is corroborated by substantial empirical evidence (d’Astous, 1990; Dittmar, 2005b; Hanley and Wilhelm, 1992; O’Guinn and Faber, 1989). DeSarbo and Edwards (1996) describe low self-esteem as the most common personality characteristic of compulsive buyers and define self-esteem as an individual’s self-evaluation (approval or disapproval) and the extent to which the person considers him/herself worthwhile. The depiction noted earlier of compulsive buyers as perfectionists (DeSarbo and Edwards, 1996; O’Guinn and Faber, 1989) trying to please others – most notably their parents – and failing to do so can be understood by taking self-esteem into account. Specifically, the failure experienced in trying but failing to please one’s parents contributes to the development and reinforcement of low self-esteem and ultimately compulsive buying as an attempt to block out these negative feelings (Faber, 2004). Indeed, self-destructive behavior such as compulsive shopping provides “cognitive narrowing” in which individuals focus wholly on immediate, concrete tasks (such as buying material possessions), while blocking out painful thoughts (about the self) (Faber and O’Guinn, 2008); such cognitive narrowing also brings about disinhibition and prevents contemplation of long-term consequences (Heatherton and Vohs, 1998). Overall, the literature suggests that self-esteem is negatively associated with compulsive buying.
Based on the above, we posit that family conflict indirectly affects adolescents’ compulsive buying through self-esteem. Specifically, family conflict is negatively associated with self-esteem; self-esteem is negatively associated with compulsive buying, and family conflict is indirectly associated with compulsive buying through self-esteem.
Family conflict, materialism and compulsive buying
Materialism is considered a personal value or as Richins and Dawson (1992, p. 308) contend, a “set of centrally held beliefs about the importance of possessions in one’s life.” Belk (1985) describes materialism as the importance a person attaches to worldly possessions. Thus, a person showing highly materialistic tendencies will likely center his/her life on acquiring possessions as a pursuit of happiness and/or a determinate of success.
Several family circumstances have received attention from materialism scholars. Using a sample of young adults, Rindfleisch et al. (1997) found a direct positive relationship between divorce and materialism. Their hypothesis was based on the premise that children of divorce may come to equate love and desired feelings with material goods. A re-inquiry by Roberts et al. (2003) used an adolescent sample and also found a direct relationship between divorce and materialism. In addition to divorce, separation of parents, parental absence and other forms of family disruption have been studied as antecedents to materialism; a review of empirical results from these such studies (Baker et al., 2013; Rindfleisch et al., 1997) reveals inconclusive evidence of a relationship between the disruptions and materialism, suggesting that it may be parents’ interactions with their children, rather specific disruptive situations, that drive materialism (Richins, 2017). Based on this review, we posit that family conflict is positively associated with materialistic values. Further, we propose that materialism has a mediating role, such that family conflict is indirectly associated with compulsive buying (through materialism). As discussed next, the relationship between materialism and compulsive shopping is supported in the extant literature.
The second determinant of compulsive buying in Dittmar’s two-factor model is materialism. Previous research suggests materialism has a robust empirical association with compulsive buying (Dittmar et al., 2014). O’Guinn and Faber (1987) and DeSarbo and Edwards (1996) found that compulsive buyers are more materialistic than subjects from the general public and that their behaviors are often motivated by materialism. In a series of studies carried out in the UK, Dittmar (2005b) evaluated gender, age and the endorsement of materialistic values as predictors of compulsive buying. Although both gender and age were significant indicators of compulsive buying, the central finding of the research was that materialistic value endorsement emerged as the strongest predictor of subjects’ compulsive buying tendencies. Overall, the literature suggests that materialism is directly and positively associated with compulsive buying. Based on the above, we posit that family conflict indirectly affects adolescents’ compulsive buying through materialism.
To summarize, our conceptual model is meditational in nature as the self-esteem and materialism constructs together should account for some or all of the effect of family conflict on compulsive buying. Specifically, parallel mediation is predicted, such that self-esteem and materialism are direct outcomes of family conflict and are directly associated with compulsive buying. Given the potentially significant yet somewhat misunderstood role of gender with respect to the constructs and relationships currently under investigation (Amato, 2001; Amato and Sobolewski, 2001; Ching et al., 2016; Elizur et al., 2007; Gaspard and Clifford, 2016; Hill et al., 2001; Roberts and Roberts, 2012), we opted to consider the potential impact of gender in the present research, specifically as it relates to the impact of family conflict on adolescent self-esteem and materialism (Figure 1). Research by Elizur et al. (2007) found that emotional distress was more likely to be associated with negative parent-child interactions in adolescent girls ranging from 14 to 18 years of age compared with boys of the same age. Girls, the authors contend, have more negative reactions to family discord compared with boys because they are more closely monitored and perhaps more harshly judged by important socialization agents including family members and friends. Indeed, girls have been found to “internalize” parental marital conflict more than boys (Amato, 2001; Amato and Keith, 1991; Bambino, 2015; Boyd, 2012; Gaspard and Clifford, 2016). Conventional thinking, however, is that boys are thought to respond to parental marital conflict with more negative “externalizing” (conduct) behaviors. Based on these findings, we expect that female adolescents, as compared to male adolescents, are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and higher levels of materialism when experiencing family conflict.
Participants and procedure
A survey was conducted with 1,289 adolescents (552 men and 732 women) in Grades 7-12 from a public high school located in a large metropolitan area of the Midwestern USA. Permission to survey students was granted by school administrators; hardcopy surveys were distributed and completed in students’ classes. All respondents answered the same questions in the same sequence (only one version of the questionnaire was used). Respondents were first asked to complete the study’s materialism scale, followed by the compulsive buying scale, self-esteem measure, family conflict scale items, and finally the study’s demographic measures. Details on the exact measures used are provided below.
In total, 13 per cent of students were in 7th grade, 15 per cent in 8th, 21 per cent in 9th, 22 per cent in 10th, 15 per cent in 11th and 13 per cent in 12th grade. Ages ranged from 11 to 19 with an average age of 14.7. Approximately, 51 per cent were Caucasian. As proxies for SES, one question asked about home ownership and another the respondent’s perception of their family’s financial well-being. Of respondents, 16 per cent reported their families owned their home (as opposed to renting). In total, 16 per cent reported their family has “a lot of money”, while 63 per cent reported having “some extra money to spend,” 18 per cent reported having “enough money to pay for food and clothing,” with the remaining 13 per cent reporting “not having enough (money) to cover expenses”.
Family conflict was assessed with a measure developed by Beavers and Hampson (1990). The 12-item measure represents the family conflict resolution subscale of the larger, Self-Report Family Inventory (Version 2) and gauges unresolved conflict, fighting, blaming, arguing, problem-solving and acceptance of personal responsibility among family members (1 = does not fit my family - 7 = does fit my family, α = 0.91, M = 2.77, SD = 1.32).
Self-esteem, was measured using the 12-item Core Self Evaluations Scale (CSES) by Judge et al. (2003), which assesses how respondents feel about themselves (e.g. “Overall, I am satisfied with myself”) and their abilities to handle life (e.g. “When I try, I generally succeed” – 1 = strongly disagree - 7 = strongly agree, α = 0.84, M = 4.67, SD = 1.00).
Materialism was measured using the ten-item Youth Materialism Scale developed by Goldberg et al. (2003) specifically for younger consumers. The scale assesses the extent to which subjects hold materialistic values (e.g. “I’d rather spend time buying things than doing almost anything else,” “I would be happier if I had more money to buy more things for myself”, etc.; 1 = strongly disagree - 7 = strongly agree, α = 0.81, M = 3.57, SD = 1.10).
We used an 11-item scale developed by d’Astous (1990) to measure compulsive buying. Like the materialism measure, this compulsive buying scale was designed specifically for use with adolescent consumers. The scale assesses the extent to which subjects have compulsive buying tendencies (e.g. “I sometimes feel that something inside pushes me to go shopping,” “There are times when I have a strong urge to buy clothing, music jewelry, etc.,” 1 = strongly disagree - 7 = strongly agree, α = 0.87, M = 3.55, SD = 1.27). Finally, the Crowne and Marlowe (1960) ten-item measure of social desirability bias was assessed (α = 0.68) and included as a covariate in our analyses.
The PROCESS macro for SPSS was used to test our conceptual model (Hayes, 2013). PROCESS Model 7 was conducted with self-esteem and materialism modeled as meditating the relationship between family conflict and compulsive buying. In addition, the model examines whether the effects of family conflict on self-esteem and materialism are moderated by gender. Bootstrapping with 5,000 draws was used to examine the indirect effects of family conflict (Hayes, 2013, Model 7). Correlations for key variables are shown in Table I. Details on the results presented below are provided in Table II.
As hypothesized, family conflict has a significant effect on materialism (β = 0.12, se = 0.04, t = 3.12, p < 0.01) and self-esteem (β = −0.34, se = 0.03, t = −11.27, p < 0.01). The interaction effect of family conflict and gender on self-esteem is significant (t = 2.77, p < 0.01) with a more pronounced effect of family conflict for female adolescents (βfemales = −0.42, se = 0.01, p < 0.01) than for male adolescents (βmales = −0.30, se = 0.01, p < 0.01). The interaction effect of family conflict and gender on materialism is not significant (t = −1.38, p > 0.16).
As predicted, materialism (β = 0.72, se = 0.03, t = 26.63, p < 0.01) and self-esteem (β = −0.17, se = 0.03, t = −5.09, p < 0.01) are significantly related to compulsive buying. In the mediation model, the direct effect of family conflict is not significant (β = −0.008, t = 0.35, p > 0.70). However, family conflict does have a significant effect on compulsive buying through materialism (indirect effect = 0.058, se = 0.019, 95 per cent CI: 0.022, 0.096) and self-esteem (indirect effect = 0.045, se = 0.010, 95 per cent CI: 0.027, 0.064). The index of moderated mediation indicates that gender moderates the mediating effect of self-esteem (index = −0.018, se = 0.008, 95 per cent CI: −0.036, −0.005); gender does not moderate the mediating effect of materialism (index = −0.047, se = 0.037, 95 per cent CI: −0.121, 0.025). As stated above, gender moderates the effect of family conflict on self-esteem; similarly, the results show that the effect of family conflict on compulsive buying is stronger for females (conditional indirect effectfemales = 0.057, se = 0.01, 95 per cent CI: 0.03, 0.08) than for males (conditional indirect effectmales = 0.039, se = 0.01, 95 per cent CI: 0.02, 0.06).
In summary, for our adolescent sample, reported family conflict is significantly related to both materialism and self-esteem. As predicted, materialism and self-esteem are directly associated with compulsive buying. Family conflict has a significant indirect effect on compulsive buying through materialism and self-esteem. Although the indirect effect of family conflict on compulsive buying through self-esteem is significant for both males and females, the family conflict appears to operate more through self-esteem for women than for men.
The goal of this research was to better understand the impact of family conflict on compulsive buying. Using a large sample of often hard to reach adolescents, the present study tested a newly proposed model of compulsive buying among adolescents. We blended Dittmar’s (2005a) two-factor model and previous research on the role of family structure (Rindfleisch et al., 1997) in treating family conflict as an antecedent to materialism, self-esteem and compulsive buying. As predicted, family conflict, through effects on materialism and self-esteem, was a significant driver of compulsive buying. Arguably, examining family conflict as the root cause of these dark-side consumer behaviors provides a theoretical explanation not fully captured by family structure (divorce vs. intact). Family conflict likely exists not only in divorced families but also in intact families, and it is possible that family conflict is the key driver of past findings regarding the role of family structure.
Family conflict significantly impacted both materialism and self-esteem. The effect of family conflict on self-esteem was moderated by gender, such that this relationship was more pronounced for women than for men. While gender or sex, is often studied, it suffers from the same criticism leveled at family structure. Specifically, there likely is an underlying individual difference variable or some aspect of gender identity, that truly drives the effect; future research is needed to explore such possibilities.
Our results indicate that the role of family conflict in driving compulsive buying operates through materialism and self-esteem. Our results provide evidence that turning to material possessions and values is a common response to family conflict for adolescents. Adopting materialistic values likely serves as an attempt to cope with such conflict (Bambino, 2015). The impact of family conflict in creating compulsive buying operates through self-esteem for both males and females, although the effect is more pronounced for females than for males. Given the complex nature of gender identity, our results are tentative and deserve additional exploration. Our findings suggest that females may “internalize” family conflict more so than their male counterparts. Future research is needed to Roberts and Roberts (2012) argue that female adolescents have a greater tendency to ponder their problems, exhibiting the qualities of repetitive and passive thinking representative of ruminative thinking.
In summary, our model brings together two literature streams (Dittmar, 2005a; Rindfleisch et al., 1997) to explain the relationship between family conflict and compulsive buying. As all families experience some level of conflict, the present study offers insights that affect more families than the study of the impact of divorce alone. Although approximately 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce (www.divorcerate.org), nearly every family/couple experiences the disruptions captured in the present family conflict measure. In a sense, the current focus on the consumer outcomes of family conflict transcends a myopic focus on divorce. Given the important role, family plays as a consumer socialization agent, continued research into its impact on consumer behavior is critical.
Limitations and future research
The present research offers a new model of compulsive buying that is both theoretically sound and empirically tested. Several limitations of the research provide fruitful directions for future investigations. The correlational nature of the current study prohibited tests of causality. Research by Promislo et al. (2010) suggests that materialistic couples experience greater family discord than less materialistic couples. Materialistic values held by family members could be the genesis of family conflict. Similarly, problems with self-esteem could undermine family functioning. Longitudinal research is needed to ensure the direction of causal flow in the current model.
The current research used a large sample of adolescents to test the newly proposed model of compulsive buying. Rather than focusing on adolescents, future research could investigate the role of age on the consumer outcomes of family conflict. As suggested by Roberts et al. (2005), the impact of parental divorce – and very likely family conflict – may well be contingent upon the individual’s age when the divorce/conflict is experienced and the amount of time as the experience.
Although the present study used an established compulsive buying scale (d’Astous, 1990), exclusive use of self-reported data is a limitation of the present research. Future research, which measures actual compulsive buying could add to our understanding of this often-times enigmatic consumer behavior. Relatedly, in addition to purely quantitative research, which relies on scales or other measures, qualitative research could be helpful in providing additional, and perhaps, richer insight into adolescent’s compulsive buying behaviors. Future research could also focus on the precise level and nature of the family conflict. In many cases (e.g. relationships marred by mental and/or physical abuse), it may be best for families to break-up rather than stay together. Research has shown that family stress levels may be lower for divorced families compared with intact dysfunctional families (Amato and Keith, 1991), but it is not clear how this translates into consumer outcomes such as compulsive buying behavior.
Descriptive statistics and study intercorrelations
|Variable(s)||M||SD||Family conflict||Materialism||Self-esteem||Compulsive buying|
|1. Family conflict||2.77||1.32||−|
|4. Compulsive buying||3.55||1.27||0.15**||0.62**||−0.19**||−|
**Correlation p-value < 0.001
Regression for conditional indirect effect
|Materialism (R2 = 0.07, F = 24.67, p = 0.000)|
|Family conflict (FC)||−0.11||0.04||3.12||0.019|
|FC × G||−0.06||0.04||−1.38||0.169|
|Self-esteem (R2 = 0.29, F = 123.56, p = 0.000)|
|FC × G||0.11||0.04||2.77||0.006|
|Compulsive buying (R2 = 0.41, F = 211.04, p = 0.000)|
|Index of moderated mediation|
|Boot conditional indirect effect|
Unstandardized regression coefficients are reported. Bootstrap sample size = 5,000. Values represent an abbreviated version of output provided by the Process Macro (Hayes, 2013, Model 7)
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About the authors
James A. Roberts is based at Department of Marketing, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, USA.
Chris Pullig is based at Department of Marketing, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, USA.
Meredith David is based at Department of Marketing, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, USA.