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Understanding the Role of Purchasing Behaviors in Mental Capacity Assessments:

In the realm of mental capacity assessments, especially those involving financial decisions, it's essential to discern whether a purchase is made compulsively or impulsively. Understanding the Role of Purchasing Behaviors in Mental Capacity Assessments is necessary as the distinction between impulse and compulsion can significantly influence how an individual's mental capacity is evaluated.

Defining Impulse Purchase:

An impulse purchase is a fascinating phenomenon in consumer behaviour, where a person spontaneously decides to buy a product without prior planning or thoughtful consideration. This concept is eloquently described by Stern (1962) in his work on impulse buying, which he defines as "a buying action undertaken without the problem having been previously recognised or a buying intention formed before entering the store." This type of purchase is typically characterised by a sudden, strong urge to buy, often triggered by an emotional response such as excitement, desire, or even a sense of urgency created by marketing strategies.

An Everyday Example of Impulse Purchasing:

Chocolate Bar
Chocolate Bar

Imagine you're queuing at the checkout in a supermarket, your shopping basket filled with items from your list. As you wait, your gaze lands on a display of chocolates conveniently placed next to the till. Without much thought, you find yourself adding a bar of chocolate to your basket. This is a classic example of an impulse purchase. It's unplanned and driven by a sudden desire - perhaps influenced by the strategic placement of the product, a momentary craving, or a treat to uplift your day. This spontaneous decision, while seemingly trivial, is a textbook case of impulse buying, illustrating how our purchasing decisions can be influenced by our environment and immediate emotional responses.

Understanding Compulsive Purchasing:

Compulsive purchasing stands in contrast to impulse buying. It is defined as a chronic, repetitive purchasing behaviour that becomes a primary response to negative emotions or stress. Black (2007), in his study on compulsive buying, describes it as "an over-preoccupation with buying and shopping, accompanied by a lack of impulse control over these behaviours." Compulsive purchasing is often associated with significant distress, feelings of guilt after shopping, and financial problems. Unlike impulse purchases, which are typically one-off occurrences, compulsive buying is characterised by a pattern of behaviour that indicates a deeper psychological issue, often linked to anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem.

The DSM-IV Perspective on Compulsive Purchasing as a Disorder:

The DSM-IV, a widely respected guide for the classification of mental disorders, does not categorise compulsive purchasing as a distinct disorder in its own right. However, it acknowledges behaviours that are characteristic of compulsive purchasing within the context of broader mental health conditions. Specifically, compulsive buying behaviour can be seen as part of impulse control disorders or as a symptom associated with other psychiatric conditions like mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In the DSM-IV framework, key aspects such as the inability to resist impulses, the presence of increasing tension or arousal before committing an act, and a sense of relief or gratification following the act are considered crucial in identifying impulse control disorders. While compulsive purchasing is not explicitly named, the behaviours and psychological patterns it entails align closely with these criteria. It's the recurring, uncontrollable nature of the buying, accompanied by distress and interference with one's daily functioning, that aligns with the DSM-IV's conceptualisation of problematic impulse behaviours.

Implications in Clinical Assessment:

Clinically, when compulsive purchasing behaviour is observed, mental health professionals often look for underlying conditions as per DSM-IV guidelines. It's not the mere act of buying that flags a potential disorder, but rather the compulsive, repetitive nature of the behaviour and its impact on an individual's life. This approach helps in understanding whether compulsive purchasing is a symptom of a larger issue requiring treatment and intervention.

A Critical Look at Impulse Purchasing and the DSM-IV Criteria:

The question of whether impulse purchasing aligns with the criteria for a disorder as outlined in the DSM-IV is a subject of considerable debate in both psychological and financial decision-making spheres. While the DSM-IV does not explicitly categorise impulse purchasing as a disorder, its characteristics warrant a closer examination of the manual's criteria for impulse control disorders.

Understanding Impulse Control Disorders in DSM-IV:

The DSM-IV characterises impulse control disorders by several key features: the failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or others; an increasing sense of tension or arousal before committing the act; and experiencing pleasure, gratification, or relief at the time of committing the act. Following the act, there may be feelings of regret, guilt, or remorse.

Does Impulse Purchasing Fit the Bill?

Applying these criteria to impulse purchasing presents a nuanced picture. On one hand, impulse purchases often involve a failure to resist the sudden urge to buy, aligning with the DSM-IV's emphasis on the failure to resist an impulse. There's also typically a sense of immediate gratification or relief upon making the purchase. However, the critical distinction lies in the aftermath and the frequency of such behaviour. Impulse purchases are usually not followed by significant regret, guilt, or distress, nor do they typically interfere with normal functioning or cause harm to the individual or others – aspects that are crucial in defining an impulse control disorder in the DSM-IV.

The Argument Against Categorization:

From this perspective, classifying impulse purchasing as a disorder under the DSM-IV's guidelines seems overly broad and potentially misleading. Impulse buying, in most cases, is a common and non-pathological behaviour that does not result in the significant distress or functional impairment required for a diagnosis of an impulse control disorder. Moreover, impulse purchases are often isolated incidents rather than a pattern of chronic, repetitive behaviour.


While there are elements of impulse purchasing that superficially align with the DSM-IV's criteria for impulse control disorders, a critical assessment suggests that it does not fulfil the necessary conditions to be classified as such. The lack of sustained distress, significant functional impairment, and the typically non-chronic nature of impulse buying are key factors that separate it from the disorders described in the DSM-IV.


  • Stern, H. (1962). The significance of impulse buying today. Journal of Marketing, 26(2), 59-62.

  • Black, D. W. (2007). A review of compulsive buying disorder. World Psychiatry, 6(1), 14–18.

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