How Kleptomania Works

Actress Winona Ryder was convicted of shoplifting in 2002, but she didn't attempt a kleptomania defense.
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Shoplifting in the United States costs retailers approximately $10 billion annually [source: Grant]. Professional thieves do some of the damage, but amateur shoplifters do the most. Most amateur shoplifters steal for personal use rather than resale, but a small percentage feels a compulsive need to steal. An addiction to stealing items not for personal use or monetary gain characterizes a behavior known as kleptomania.

While shoplifting has been a problem for centuries, kleptomania was first described as a psychological disorder in the early 1800s and has been only intermittently recognized by the American Psychiatric Article System Association as a type of mental illness since the 1950s. Psychiatrists continue to debate whether kleptomania is a distinct mental illness or a manifestation of some other psychological disorder. Although there has been little research on the neurobiology of kleptomania, some studies have provided biological clues, and some have attempted pharmacological treatment of this condition.

­There are many reasons for shoplifting: resale, supporting a drug habit, personal use and "just for the thrill of it." However, most of these reasons fit stealing, but not kleptomania. Kleptomania is characterized by an impulsive need to steal, and many kleptomaniacs are first discovered in the act of shoplifting. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) has outlined the following criteria for a diagnosis:

  1. The individual repeatedly fails to resist the impulse to steal items that are not needed for personal use or monetary value.
  2. The individual experiences tension before stealing.
  3. The individual's tension is relieved or gratified by the act of the theft.
  4. The theft is not due to anger, revenge, delusions, hallucinations or impaired judgment (dementia, mental retardation, alcohol intoxication, drug intoxication).
  5. Other psychological disorders can't account for the individual's stealing behavior (like manic episodes and antisocial behaviors).

In this article, we'll examine what kleptomania is, how oft­en it occurs, who suffers from it, what might cause it and how it can be treated.