Why do people steal?
Ponder that question for a moment. If you’re like most people, you will immediately think the best by equating a person’s act of theft with a need; hunger drove them to steal food or a lack of clothing caused them to shoplift a set of clothes. Sometimes the motive behind stealing is this simple, but in other cases a serious psychiatric disorder is in play.
When a person has no physical need to steal but suffers from a repeated failure to fight the urges to take items of little value, it is a condition known as kleptomania (klep-toe-MAY-nee-uh). People who suffer from this disorder cannot resist the temptation to commit a harmful, excessive, and often illegal act.
Why Some Impulsively Shoplift
Little is known about what causes kleptomania. As more research is conducted, some theories have been presented to the scientific and medical communities:
- Addiction to shoplifting may stem from problems with serotonin production. Serotonin is the brain chemical responsible for regulating emotions and moods. Low levels are frequently present in people prone to impulsive behaviors.
- The act of stealing can cause the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for sensations of pleasure. Unhealthy cognitive behaviors can develop when the brain releases dopamine during and after the action. A pattern forms, much like a drug or alcohol habit.
- The onset of kleptomania has also been linked to the brain’s opioid system. When an imbalance is present, urges are not regulated and impulsive behavior takes over.
Research also indicates that some risk factors increase a person’s likeliness to develop an addiction to shoplifting. The onset of this disorder usually begins during adolescence or young adulthood. Four major risk factors have been pinpointed:
- Family History: Individuals who have immediate relatives with kleptomania, OCD, or a substance abuse problem are more likely to develop this condition.
- Gender: Research indicates that two-thirds of the people suffering from a shoplifting addiction are women.
- Mental Illness: The majority of those diagnosed with kleptomania suffer from another mental illness, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, a personality or eating disorder, or a substance use disorder.
- Head or Brain Trauma: Research has also divulged that people who experience a brain injury or head trauma have a greater risk of developing kleptomania.
Symptoms of a Shoplifting Addiction
Recognizing kleptomania can be tricky. We are preprogrammed to see the act of theft in two distinct ways:
- The thief was in need and turned to extreme measures to satisfy those needs, which are usually a necessity in nature (clothing, food, drink, ).
- The thief was not in need and chose to commit an illegal act by stealing.
A closer examination of cognitive behaviors has exposed the fact that people who have a psychological disorder will steal for the same reason an addict uses: to feed their addiction. One of the most heavily believed myths in the world is that addiction is always a choice, but it is often an uncontrollable impulse fed by a cognitive disorder. Shoplifters are sometimes victims of an addiction they—and others—do not understand.
According to the Mayo Clinic, kleptomania has specific symptoms and features. Someone suffering from this disorder may present:
- An inability to resist the urge to steal things they do not need.
- Before stealing, they are overcome by tension and anxiety.
- While committing the act, they experience sensations of pleasure, gratification, and relief.
- After stealing, they fight strong feelings of shame, fear, guilt, remorse, and self-loathing.
- They enter a reoccurring cycle of the above.
“Typical shoplifters” steal for gain. They thrive on the thrill, act on a dare, or harbor a rebellious motivation. People who suffer from a psychological or cognitive behavioral disorder act on impulse. They fall victim to an urge so powerful they cannot resist it, and afterward they feel genuine guilt and shame.
Kleptomania sufferers often steal spontaneously. They do not premeditate or plan their actions, and they act without collaboration. They steal in public places, and they often take from friends and family. The items taken are usually of little to no value or necessity because they are acting out of an uncontrollable impulse they cannot explain. They often stash these items, never use them, give them away, or return them from where they were taken. Over time, people suffering from this disorder notice their impulses will increase or lessen in intensity.
Seeking Help for a Shoplifting Addiction
Cognitive Behavioral Intervention (CBI) may be an option if you or a loved one suffers from a shoplifting addiction. Some people recognize the problem and seek medical help, but many do not. Many who have kleptomania do not seek help or realize it is available until they are arrested.
The CBI program gives shoplifting addicts a chance to expunge their records and receive the help they need to fight—even overcome—the uncontrollable impulses that cause them to commit illegal theft. The program focuses on influencing cognitive behavior through intervention. It offers needed education and proven treatment.
Supporting a Loved One with Kleptomania
What if someone you love is struggling with an addiction to shoplifting? What can you do to help?
- Encourage Them to Get Help: Cognitive disorders make it hard for those affected to seek help. They often feel as if there is something wrong with them, and they feel guilt, shame, and/or embarrassment because of it. Remember that their addiction is not a character flaw but a mental health condition. Encourage them to get the right help without blame or accusation.
- Emphasize Concern: Instead of harping on the negatives—like illegal actions and legal consequences—emphasize your concern. Let your loved one know you care about their health and well-being more than anything else.
- Share Worry: Individuals struggling with a shoplifting addiction face the same damaging repercussions of those with a substance addiction. The more they feed the addiction, the more likely their compulsive stealing is to cause arrest, damage relationships, and even lead to a job loss. Share your worry, but temper it with understanding of kleptomania. It is crucial for your loved one to see that you understand their urge to steal isn’t always controllable.
A shoplifting addiction does not have to rule your life or the life of a loved one. The right treatment can help anyone handle the irresistible urge to steal, and calming the urge can lead to a more productive and fulfilling life.