Driving force: Can people become addicted to joyriding?

In the UK, car theft is a big criminal problem, with thousands of cars stolen every week. Much of this car crime is theft by young males in their late adolescence or early twenties who simply steal the car for one evening and go joyriding for fun. Joyriding typically involves the person stealing the car so that they can drive them at the fastest speeds possible and impress their friends who may be either in the car with them or watching them from afar. Much of the excitement surrounding the activity is that it is risky, illegal and dangerous. As Jack Katz (University of California, USA) in a chapter on ‘Sneaky Thrills’ notes: “joyriding captures a from of auto theft in which getting away with something in celebratory style is more important than keeping anything or getting anywhere particular”

Back in 1980, Dr Joseph Reser (Griffith University, Australia), discussed the psychological relationship between people and cars. He argued that cars (and driving in cars) served five functions: (i) transportation, (ii) providing a sense of freedom and allowing escape from an inherently stressful urban environment, (iii) identification and self-presentation, a sign of socioeconomic status, (iv) privacy, security, and familiarity, and (v) providing a responsive micro-environment that allows a feeling of competence and mastery. In relation to joyriding, the second, third and fifth functions appear to be the most important in terms of motivation. However, these functions focus on the more positive sides and presumably from the perspective of car driver as owner (rather than car driver as stealer).

For joyriders, such behaviour can result in social costs (e.g., getting arrested, being imprisoned) and/or health costs (e.g., getting injured, being killed). The fact that joyriding behaviour by those taking part is often something that they engage in repetitively (in spite of the many risks involved) has led some to suggest that the activity may have an addictive potential to a small minority. Although there is a growing literature on joyriders by both criminologists and psychologists, there are very few empirical studies that have examined ‘joyriding addiction’.

Believe it or not – and I’m not making this up – the first peer reviewed academic paper published on addiction to joyriding was by Dr Andrew McBride who provided a case study of the fictional character Toad (from Kenneth Grahame’s novel Wind in the Willows). Dr McBride, who at the time was working for the Community Addiction Unit in Cardiff, published an interesting paper in a 2000 issue of the journal Addiction Research, and argued that the adventures of Toad “can be read as an embodiment of late twentieth century ideas of dependence. Toad’s seemingly reckless driving, car theft, related problems, and his friends’ treatment of him are described” (p.129). Using various criteria of dependence, McBride argued that Toad fulfilled many of these criteria in relation to his driving and car theft. This included:

  • Salience and persistence: “When Toad’s preoccupation is at its height, he neglects all alternative pleasures and persists with his driving despite the catalogue of harmful consequences listed by his friends and a period of imprisonment. Grahame’s description of Toad’s driving clothes suggests he also recognized the importance of ritual to the process of addiction”
  • Subjective compulsion: “Toad clearly experiences a strong desire and a sense of compulsion to drive and steal cars”
  • Tolerance: “Toad’s first exposure to cars, as a pedestrian casualty of a road traffic accident, is sufficient to leave him in an intoxicated state for days. Latterly his appetite for cars and driving appears to have been temporarily sated only after extreme recklessness and the destruction of the vehicle”
  • Loss of control: “Toad is unable to hold back from initiating driving and literally, as well as metaphorically, loses control of the cars that he drives”
  • Desire or efforts to control use: “Toad generally contemplates change only under conditions of extreme coercion. A healthy corrective for those who imagine addicts continuously bloodied and bowed”
  • Withdrawal symptoms: “Upon forced withdrawal from cars Toad displays hostility and the intriguing amateur theatricals, akin to occupational delirium, complete with marked autonomic changes, followed by depression, despair and anorexia”
  • Relapse after abstinence: “In the description of Toad’s car theft I would argue that we have the clearest most elegant account of any relapse in literature: cue exposure, akrasia, lapse, and immediate loss of control”

McBride says that in Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame described Toad’s physiological responses to behavioural addiction long before experts in the addiction field had even thought about the possibility of non-chemical dependencies. (Interestingly, McBride notes that following the death of Grahame’s mother in early childhood, Grahame’s father developed a serious addiction to alcohol and eventually abandoned the family, and wondered whether the fact he witnessed addiction first hand influenced his characters).

Previous (but unpublished) academic questionnaire studies have hinted that joyriding may be addictive. For instance, in an unpublished postgraduate study of youth car crime by Reeves in 1993, it was reported that her survey data supported the idea that for some offenders the behaviour appeared to be “a compulsion or addiction in its own right”. Another unpublished postgraduate study by McCorry in 1992 surveying persistent joyriders claimed that the sample included individuals who showed signs of tolerance, salience, conflict, withdrawal, craving and relapse with regards to their joyriding. Both of these unpublished studies used surveys and neither study examined the ‘addictiveness’ of joyriding in any great depth. A German study of 84 delinquents by Dr Thomas Kneckt (1996) also claimed that “in several cases [joyriders] can show addiction-like traits”.

The first published empirical study was a qualitative study comprising interviews of 15 juvenile offenders who were also joyriders (aged 14 to 17 years of age) published in 1997. The research was carried out in Northern Ireland by Dr Rosemary Kilpatrick (Queen’s University Belfast) and published as a chapter in the book ‘Addicted To Crime?’ Kilpatrick concluded that joyriding contained addictive elements. More specifically, it was reported that in relation to the juvenile joyriders interviewed that all 15 of them displayed characteristics of tolerance, salience, and conflict. She also reported that nine of the joyriders in the sample could be described as having four characteristics of addiction (i.e., tolerance, salience, conflict, and relapse), while at least seven of the sample displayed five of the six characteristics (including withdrawal and/or craving). Kilpatrick also noted the strong resistance amongst people who work with young offenders to the concept of addiction as applied to joyriding, due to perception that it may ‘‘bolster the joyriders’ glamorous image of themselves’’.

Arguably the most well known study on ‘joyriding addiction’ was carried out by Sue Kellett (as part of her PhD at Loughborough University [UK] in 2000). A paper from the PhD (co-written with Dr Harriet Gross) was eventually published in a 2006 issue of Psychology, Crime and Law. Kellett and Gross further explored the notion of joyriding addiction in another qualitative study but with a larger and more diverse sample than Rosemary Kilpatrick’s study. The study comprised semi-structured interviews with 54 joyriders (aged 15 to 21 years of age) all of whom were convicted car thieves (“mainly in custodial care”).

Although the study’s main aim was to examine the notion of joyriding addiction, the authors were keen to stress that the study was “not an attempt to pathologize the activity by looking for causes or predispositions to ‘’joyriding addiction’’, such as the identification of certain personality types, nor was it an attempt to compare groups of joyriders with different demographic characteristics”.

The interviews aimed to examine the “joyriding career’’ by exploring (but not restricted to) (i) the initial involvement in joyriding activities, (ii) regular patterns of behaviour, including excessiveness, (iii) the importance, or salience of the behaviour, (iv) the consequences of joyriding, including negative experiences, and (v) experiences of stopping – or attempts to stop – joyriding.

With regards to addiction, the interviews also looked for signs of salience, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse. The results of the study indicated that all of the “dependency criteria” used by Kellett and Gross occurred within the joyriders’ accounts of their behaviour particularly ‘‘persistence despite knowledge and concern about the harmful consequences’’, ‘‘tolerance’’, ‘‘persistent desire and/or unsuccessful attempts to stop’’, “large amounts of time being spent thinking about and/or recovering from the behaviour’’ and “loss of control”. Kellett and Gross also cited examples of ‘withdrawal’ symptoms when not joyriding, the giving up of other important activities so that they could go joyriding instead, and spending more time participating in joyriding than they had originally intended. Overall, the findings appeared to confirm the earlier study by Kilpatrick.

Addiction to joyriding (and criminal behaviour more generally is evidently a highly controversial issue. As an interesting aside, Kellett and Gross also debated the issue around what behaviours should be even considered as potentially addictive. (I have a vested interest as I have been accused by some in the addiction field as “watering down the concept of addiction” by researching into such behaviours as internet addiction, video game addiction, exercise addition, mobile phone addiction, and sex addiction).

They noted that the book in which Kilpatrick’s earlier study had appeared (‘Addicted to Crime?’) was attacked in a review by David Crighton in a 1998 issue of The Psychologist (the ‘house’ journal of the British Psychological Society). Crighton asserted that some of the book’s authors had resorted to ‘‘worryingly trite definitions of addiction’’ and that the use of the addiction model to explain many of these criminal behaviours had been ‘‘stretched beyond all logical credibility’’. Despite such harsh criticism, I agree with Kellet and Gross that the debate regarding the addictive potential of criminal behaviours should continue to be encouraged and that further empirical research within an addiction framework should continue – particularly as such a framework might at least partly explain why some individuals feel compelled to engage in criminal behaviour such as joyriding.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Crighton, D. A. (1998). Addicted to addictions? The Psychologist; Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 11, 349.

Hodge, J., McMurran, M & Hollin, C. (1997). Addicted to crime? Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Katz, J. (2004). Sneaky thrills. In M. Pogrebin (Ed.), About criminals: A view of the offender’s world (pp. 25-32). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kellett, S. (2000). An investigation into joyriding as an addictive behaviour. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis in Psychology (Loughborough University).

Kellett, S.  & Gross, H. (2006). Addicted to joyriding? An exploration of young offenders’ accounts of their car crime. Psychology, Crime & Law, 12, 39-59.

Kilpatrick, R. (1997). Joyriding: An addictive behaviour? In J. Hodge, M. McMurran, & C. Hollin (Eds.), Addicted to crime? (pp. 165-190). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Kneckt, T. (1996). Joy riding und dissozialität. Eine vergleichsstudie anhand einer 84köpfigen straffälligengruppe [Joy riding and dissocial behavior. A comparative study based on 84 members of a delinquent group]. Archiv für Kriminologie, 198(3-4), 110-116.

McBride, A. (2000). Toad’s syndrome: Addiction to joy riding. Addiction Research, 8, 129-139.

McCorry, H.  (1992). Joyriding and its addictive aspects. Unpublished M.Sc. thesis in Developmental and Educational Psychology (Queen’s University of Belfast).

Reeves, S. (1993). The addicted joyrider: Fact, fiction or fad? Unpublished M.Sc. thesis in Applied Criminological Psychology (Birkbeck College, University of London).

Reser, J.P. (1980). Automobile addiction: Real or imagined? Man-Environment Systems, 10, 279-287.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 14, 2012, in Addiction, Adolescence, Crime, Psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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