Why Do People Shoplift?

“I don’t regard it as stealing, I regard it as a badly needed reallocation of economic resources.”​—A CHURCH OF ENGLAND PRIEST.

IF THERE is any truth to the legends, Robin Hood felt at liberty to steal. English folklore tells us that he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. The clergyman quoted above also believes that poverty is a valid motive for stealing. He says of shoplifters: “I have every sympathy for them, in fact I think they are fully justified.” He suggests that large stores should open their doors to the poor one day each year and allow them to take whatever is on the shelves without paying.

Many shoplifters, however, are driven by motives other than poverty. In Japan the police arrested two of their fellow officers for shoplifting. In the United States, a board member of a nonprofit food cooperative was caught stealing from the cooperative’s store. Teenagers with money in their pockets frequently steal things they don’t need. What drives such people to shoplift?

‘It Feels Good’

Thrills. Fright. Power. Like the two girls in the preceding article, some who shoplift get a big dose of these sensations, and the desire to drink from that emotional torrent keeps them stealing again and again. After stealing for the first time, one woman said: “I felt excited. I’d gotten away with it and it was thrilling!” About her feelings after stealing for some time, she later commented: “I was ashamed of myself​—but also exhilarated. I felt really alive. Stealing and not getting caught gave me a tremendous sense of power.”

A young man named Hector says that for months after he stopped shoplifting, he felt the urge to steal again. * “It followed me around like an addiction. I would be in a mall and see a radio in a store window and think, ‘It would be so easy to take that thing. I could do it and never get caught.’”

Some who shoplift for the emotional rush do not want the items they steal. One Indian newspaper states: “Psychologists say the thrill of doing the forbidden is what drives these people. . . . Some even replace the stolen goods.”

 Other Reasons

Depression affects tens of millions of people. At times, afflicted ones act out their depression through bad behavior​—such as shoplifting.

The family of a 14-year-old girl was stable and well-off materially. Despite her advantages, a hopeless feeling hung over the teenager “like a cloud.” “I couldn’t get away from it,” she said. She began using alcohol and drugs. Then one day she was caught shoplifting. Two attempts at suicide followed.

If a well-behaved youth suddenly begins shoplifting, parents might take emotional trouble into account. Dr. Richard MacKenzie, who specializes in adolescent health, said: “I believe that any kind of behavior that is unusual for your child should be thought of as possible depression until proven otherwise.”

Some young people shoplift because of peer pressure​—such theft may be the price of admission into a group of friends. Others may shoplift to dispel boredom. Professional shoplifters make their living by theft. Whatever the reason, thieves take millions of dollars in goods from stores every day. Someone has to pay the bill.


^ par. 7 Some names in this series have been changed.

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“Ever since I was a teenager,” says Maria, “I’ve had problems with shoplifting. The urge became worse and worse until I was stealing up to $500 of merchandise a day.

“It is not in my heart to steal, but the urge becomes very powerful. I really want to change.” Because her impulse to steal is so difficult to control, Maria suspects that her problem is kleptomania.

The word “kleptomania” means “a persistent neurotic impulse to steal esp[ecially] without economic motive.” Not a simple addiction, it appears to spring from deep-seated emotional problems.

Some loosely call habitual thieves kleptomaniacs, but doctors believe that true kleptomania is rare. According to the American Psychiatric Association, less than 5 percent of those who shoplift suffer from that disorder. So prudence is in order before attributing the practice of shoplifting to kleptomania. There may be other reasons why a person steals.

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Caring parents seek to understand why a child shoplifts