Men of steal: A brief look at the psychology of shoplifting

In previous blogs I have examined activities like shopping as an addiction. One similar such behaviour is shoplifting. I have to admit that from a personal perspective I came from a family where at least two of my siblings were regular shoplifters and were both regularly caught by shop staff members and reported to the police. As a teenager, my brother was a habitual shoplifter. His behaviour was economically motivated at the start (i.e., we came from a very poor and impoverished family and he stole things because he couldn’t afford to buy things that his friends had) but was later carried out to help feed his addiction to slot machines (i.e., he would steal shop items, sell them, and use the money to gamble). This latter behaviour is common among adolescent gamblers and I have written about this in both of my published books on adolescent slot machine addiction as well as in a number of my published papers.

Last week, one of my regular blog readers, forensic psychologist Dr. John C. Brady, sent me a copy of his latest book Why Rich Women Shoplift – When They Have It All. It’s an engrossing and fascinating read (I sat an read it all in one sitting) and there are many references throughout to seeing some forms of shoplifting as an addiction. I will return to this topic in a future blog (along with a look at the related behaviour of kleptomania) but I thought I would use today’s blog to talk about something very specific in Dr. Brady’s book.

One of the many interesting things I read was Brady’s classification of 16 different types of shoplifters with seven underlying psychological dimensions. The classification included those that are (i) impulse driven (The Externalizer; The Compulsive; The Atypical Shoplifter), (ii) psychologically motivated (The Kleptomaniac; The Thrill Seeker; The Trophy Shoplifter; The Binge-Spree Shoplifter; The Equalizer; The Situational Shoplifter), (iii) economically influenced (The Professional; The Impoverished [Economically Disadvantaged] Shoplifter), (iv) age determined (The Provisional/Delinquent Shoplifter), (v) alcohol and substance connected (The Drug or Alcohol Addict), (vi) mentally/medically impaired (The Alzheimer’s Sufferer/Amnesiac; The Chemically/Alcohol Driven Shoplifter), and (vii) no identifiable psychosocial drivers (The Inadvertent/Amateur Shoplifter). Brady acknowledges that the typology is purely descriptive, not exhaustive and was not developed to be mutually exclusive. Here is a brief description of the 16 types:

  • The Externalizer: These are people who feel that they are not in control of their lives (“controlled by outside forces that serve as negative psychological drivers, lowering their moral threshold”) and have an external locus of control. Brady argues that shoplifting simply channels to express anger or help legitimize their personal aggression. All of Brady’s rich women that shoplift fit this particular profile.
  • The Compulsive: From the descriptor, it is self-evident that this type of shoplifts as a compulsive behaviour and may also engage in other types of addictive behaviour such as gambling addiction and shopping/buying addiction. According to Brady they are generous individuals but do not care about themselves. When they are caught shoplifting they are full of remorse (and only feel good during or just after the shoplifting incident) but simply cannot resist the urge to shoplift.
  • The Atypical Shoplifter: This type of shoplifter is based on the work of Dr. Will Cupchik and described in his 2011 book Why Honest People Shoplift or Commit Other Acts of Theft: Assessment and Treatment of ‘Atypical Theft Offenders. Brady describes such people as not shoplifting for any kind of personal economic gains. Such people claim they had no idea why they engaged in shoplifting except to say that it wasn’t economically motivated.
  • The Kleptomaniac: Like atypical shoplifters, kleptomaniacs also steal and shoplift for no apparent reason (and do so impulsively). Many people may have the impression that most shoplifters are kleptomaniacs but as Brady is keen to point out, only 5% of shoplifters are kleptomaniacs. Brady claims this category is the most controversial although the classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (correctly) classes kleptomania as an impulse-control disorder and the behaviour is not carried out as an expression of anger or vengeance. (Dr. Brady spends a whole chapter in his book explaining why the DSM classification of kleptomania is poor).
  • The Thrill Seeker: Brady describes this group of people (typically adolescents) as a “higher risk shoplifter” who shoplift for the intrinsic excitement of carrying out an illegal behaviour. They may also shoplift as part of a dare simultaneously with other shoplifters. Brady claims that shoplifting for thrill seekers gives them a sense of autonomy (and that the goal is “psychological overcompensation” for individuals that may have a history of failure in the lives).
  • The Trophy Shoplifter: Brady claims there have been an increasing number of cases of trophy shoplifters reported in the media. Citing Terence Shulman (who also wrote the Foreword for Brady’s book), Brady quotes from Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls – Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding (Shulman’s 2011 book) and says trophy shoppers “tend to need to have the best of everything: they seek out that perfect object, be it fashion, art, car, etc. – the more special, unique, or rare, the better”. To me, this behaviour appears to be a by-product of being an ardent collector, and Brady does go on to say there is a “direct connection” between a collector and a trophy shoplifter.
  • The Binge-Spree Shoplifter: According to Brady, binge-spree shoplifters are typically adolescents (but may carry on as an adult) where the person shoplifts in a short bout of thefts arising from a combination of weak impulses and doing it to impress their peers (i.e., or as Brady terms it “subcultural recognition”). Like binge drinking and binge gambling, the behaviour occurs in short specific bouts followed by appreciable periods of abstinence.
  • The Equalizer: This category of shoplifter arose from some of Brady’s own case studies. Some of the shoplifters he interviewed felt that over the course of their lives, many things (both real and perceived) had been taken from them and that shoplifting was “retaliatory justification” for such past events. Brady also described such individuals as going through their lives with “a good-size chip on their shoulders” and who are agitated, edgy and resistant to treatment.
  • The Situational Shoplifter: Brady describes the situational shoplifter as an opportunist that steals on the spur of the moment after seeing an item that has some kind of appeal to them. The process itself was described by Brady as “almost unconscious”. In many ways, the motivation is similar to the compulsive shoplifter but the activity is much more likely to be done on a very occasional basis.
  • The Professional: Professional shoplifters are very simply those that steal (often expensive “high-end”) items for profit. A number of television shows in the UK have profiled such people and as Brady points out, this type of shoplifter shows no remorse if caught and will often try to resist arrest.
  • The Impoverished [Economically Disadvantaged] Shoplifter: Like the professional shoplifter, the motivation to steal is economically motivated but is done out of necessity rather than for profit and/or greed. Items stolen may be basic necessities (food, toiletries, nappies, etc.) and when caught such people may show remorse (however, according to Brady they are hostile towards the “system” that has led to them being economically disadvantaged).
  • The Provisional/Delinquent Shoplifter: This type of shoplifter is usually an adolescent delinquent that shoplifts as part of a wider group of antisocial behaviours in their “troubled teens”. There appears to be some crossover with thrill seeking shoplifters and binge-spree shoplifters as there are elements of both hedonism and peer pressure associated with the criminal act. The good news is that many teens appear to mature out of such behaviour.
  • The Drug or Alcohol Addict: This type of shoplifter engages in shoplifting behaviour to support their addictive habit (and as such – and as Brady acknowledges – could technically be in the ‘economically influenced’ category of shoplifters. Brady claims they often take high risks and will try to steal as many items as quickly as possible and then run out of the shop. According to Brady, pre-planning is almost non-existent.
  • The Alzheimer’s Sufferer/Amnesiac: This group of shoplifters includes those with severe memory problems and who simply walk out of shops without paying simply because they forgot and/or didn’t realize they hadn’t paid. Brady claims that this group of shoplifters is arguably the fastest growing group as we live in a society where the average age of dying is increasing all the time.
  • The Chemically/Alcohol Driven Shoplifter: Brady claims that this group of shoplifters is distinct from drug and alcohol addicts because the shoplifting is not economically motivated and occurs because they are in an altered state of awareness (due to the psychoactive effects of the substances ingested). As Brady notes, their “mental state typically involves such symptoms as confusion, psychomotor agitation, memory lapse, disorientation, nervousness, and perceptual disturbance” (especially those high on cocaine or meth). From a public safety perspective, the police claim that it is these individuals that pose the biggest threat.
  • The Inadvertent/Amateur Shoplifter: This final category refers to those without any kind of psychological or physiological disorder who simply “forget to pay” for an item. People may not even realize for some considerable time after that they didn’t pay for the item(s) and it is then up to the person’s conscience as to whether they return the “stolen” items.

I think this typology is intuitive and covers almost all the types of shoplifter that I can think of. I say ‘almost’ as my own brother’s late teenage shoplifting behaviour would not be included in any of the 16 types listed here. However, the ‘drug/alcohol addict’ category could be widened to ‘chemical or behavioural addict’ and then he would be able to be included.

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

Further reading

Brady, J.C. (2013). Why Rich Women Shoplift – When They Have It All. San Jose, CA: Western Psych Press.

Cupchick, W. (1997). Why Honest People Shoplift or Commit Other Acts of Theft: Assessment and Treatment of ‘Atypical Theft Offenders. Toronto: Tagami Communication.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Adolescent gambling. In B. Bradford Brown & Mitch Prinstein(Eds.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Volume 3) (pp.11-20). San Diego: Academic Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (in press). Gambling and crime. In W.G. Jennings (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. London: Sage.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sparrow, P. (1996). Funding fruit machine addiction: The hidden crime. Probation Journal, 43, 211-213.

Shulman, T.D. (2011). Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls – Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding. West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing.

Yeoman, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Adolescent machine gambling and crime. Journal of Adolescence, 19, 99-104.

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 May 16, 2014, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Crime, Drug use, Gambling, Mania, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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