Painless steal? Another look at shoplifting as an addiction
In a previous 2014 blog, I looked at the psychology of shoplifting (which I called ‘Men of Steal’) based on the work of American psychologist John C. Brady (who’s upcoming book is also entitled ‘Men of Steal’). Brady is a really engaging writer and he recently published an article in Counsellor magazine on celebrity theft and why for some people it should be classed as an addiction.
Brady briefly recounted the cases of three celebrities who had been caught shoplifting (Lindsay Lohan, Kim Richards, and Winona Ryder – click on the links to get the stories of each of these celebrity shoplifting stories). Other famous celebrity shoplifters include Britney Spears, Megan Fox, Kristin Cavallari, Farrah Fawcett, and WWE Diva Emma (if you’re really interested in these and other celebrity shoplifters, then check out this story in Rebel Circus). According to Dr. Brady “psychological analysis reveals they are not greedy, rather they are addicted to the ‘rush’ associated with theft” and that there is an ‘addictive criminal syndrome’.
Brady’s article used the ‘celebrity’ angle as the ‘hook’ to write more generally about ‘shoplifting addictions’ and briefly outlined the cases of three high profile ‘theft addicts’:
“The first man is Bruce McNall, former LA Kings owner, Hollywood film producer, and a convicted felon. He received five years in Lompoc Federal Prison for stealing $238 million. The second man, John Spano, former owner of the New York Islanders, went off to two terms in federal prisons for stealing $80 million. He is currently an inmate in an Ohio prison doing ten more years for a crime he did not originate. Finally, William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, former Silicon Valley venture capitalist operator and founder of Heritage Bank in San Jose, graduated in 2016 from eight years at Lompoc for fraud. He stole $110 million to buy the Nashville Predators hockey team. He later expressed regret—maybe too little too late”.
Brady believes that these individuals had a behavioural addiction to stealing. The cases he outlined were all true and were examples of what Brady described as “elite offenders who became addicted to the rush connected to stealing”. Some commonalities between the three individuals was noted: they were charming, deceptive, had personalities that were outgoing, never used violence or aggression in the carrying out of their thefts, and (in Brady’s view) were addicted to crime. Like many addicts, they harmed themselves, their families, and their communities as a consequence of their behaviour.
The idea of being addicted to crime is not new, and the addiction components model that I have developed over the last couple of decades was based on that of one of my mentors – Iain Brown – who used such a model to explain addictive criminal offending in a really good book chapter published back in 1997 (in the book Addicted to Crime? edited by the psychologists John Hodge, Mary McMurran and Clive Hollin – see ‘Further reading’ below). Like me, Brady also read Addicted to Crime? in which it was posited that some criminals appear to become addicted to stealing (and that the act of theft made them feel good psychologically by providing a ‘high’ or a ‘rush’ similar to the feelings individuals experience when they ingest psychoactive substances). Brady argues that an addiction to stealing is a behavioural addiction and that it is “functionally equivalent” to substance-based addictions for two main reasons: that theft addicts (i) “generally derive the same initial uplifting, euphoric, and subjective sensations similar to substance abusers”, and (ii) “are almost blindly driven toward their goal and they cannot stop their self-defeating behaviors”.
Brady contends that there are five addictive criminal stages of what he terms “the zone”: (i) criminal triggers, (ii) moral neutralisation, (iii) commission of the criminal act, (iv) post-criminal-act exhilaration, and (v) post-criminal-act confusion. Brady asserts:
“The five addictive stages comprising the criminal addictive zone helps explain why certain offenders arrived at such low points in their lives and progressively became drawn deeper into the addictive zone. Because these three men became frozen into one or more of these stages, they simply could not easily find an exit sign. I have applied this criminal zonal theory to a variety of deviant groups, including white-collar deviants and now to these three elite, nonviolent bank robbers. An analysis of the criminal addictive personality forms the foundation of the addictive zone. This zone is marked with multiple, negative psychological forces evidenced during each of the five stages…The movement through these overlapping stages results in a negative, criminological, transformative process during which theft addicts surrender their prior noncriminal status (positive), thereby adopting a new deviant one (negative)…After entering into this enigmatic zone, offenders often become locked into one or more of these overlapping stages. The one factor that remains constant is that the progression through these five stages dramatically and unalterably changed these men’s lives, their victims’ lives, and the lives of people around them”.
Brady’s five addictive criminal stages are:
- Criminal triggers – In the first stage. these internal triggers revolve around salience and low self-esteem and comprise “confusing and mostly illogical thoughts” that criminals acquire. These negative thoughts are “reflective of peoples’ compromised self-concepts coupled with the desire to overcompensate for perceived personal shortcomings” and primarily originate from feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and inadequacy.
- Moral neutralisation – In the second stage, Brady claims that this stage is the most complex and essential of all the stages and is rooted in conflict. The destructive and self-defeating behaviour that criminals experience is not driven by material (economic) motives but is simply individuals “trying to enrich their empty shell identities” and fuelled by irrational thoughts of wanting to prove to significant others that they are really important. These motives may be completely unconscious
- Commission of the criminal act – In the third stage, the actual carrying out of the criminal acts demands that criminals “neutralize the unsavory aspects of their offenses…and lend meaning to inexplicable behaviors”. The more a criminal engages in the activity the more criminals become “skilled practitioners in the art of self-deception”. Here, the criminal behaviour is paired with “exciting sensations” associated with the risk of engaging in criminal activity (“an anticipated visceral feeling or mental excitement and stimulation, if not an elation, a thrill, a rush, and even a sense of euphoria”). In short, the euphoric sensations experienced reinforce the criminal behaviour.
- Post-criminal-act exhilaration – In the fourth stage, Brady claims there is typically a “flooding of mood-elevating feelings similar to an adrenaline rush, accompanied with thoughts that synthetically increase their sense of well-being” and what my mentor Iain Brown refers to as “hedonic mood management”. In short, the criminal act can help individuals feel like “bigshots” and criminals may justify doing something bad because it makes them feel so good. Brady also claims that many of these exhilarating feelings “manifest themselves on an unconscious level that is easily experienced, yet not easily comprehended by a theft addict”
- Post-criminal-act confusion – In the fifth stage, Brady claims that the mood modifying experiences in the third and fourth stages are “replaced with new, dramatic, and unexpected changes in the offenders’ emotional awareness”. Here, criminals become confused, depressed and socially withdrawn, as well as experiencing withdrawal-like reactions (e.g., sweating, headaches, anxiety, nausea, heart arrhythmia, etc.). Brady says that on a psychological level, the fifth stage five is characterized by “confusion, guilt, afterthoughts, misgivings, anxiety, depression, and dramatic mood shifts ranging from feelings of sadness to hopelessness”. It is also during this stage that criminals might start to show signs of remorse.
Brady concludes that for the criminals he has known and treated “used the stolen money to boost their status and enhance their enormous egos so they could attain ‘big shot’ fame”. I find this last observation interesting given a previous blog that I wrote on fame being addictive. I’ve also written other blogs on addictive criminal behaviour (such as joy-riding).
I am of the opinion that specific types of crime can be classed as an addictive behaviour because addictions rely on constant rewards (i.e., reinforcement) and crime can provide many rewarding experiences (both financially and psychologically), at least in the short-term. I’m not for one-minute condoning such behaviour, just simply stating my opinion that I believe it’s theoretically possible to become addicted to activities such as stealing.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Brady, J.C. (2013). Why Rich Women Shoplift – When They Have It All. San Jose, CA: Western Psych Press.
Brady, J.C. (2017) Celebrity theft: Unmasking addictive criminal intent. Counselor, July/August. Located at: http://www.counselormagazine.com/detailpageoverride.aspx?pageid=1729&id=15032386763
Brown, I. (1997). A theoretical model of the behavioral addictions: Applied to offending. In J.E. Hodge, M. McMurran, & C.R. Hollin (Eds.), Addicted to crime? (pp. 15–63). Chichester: Wiley.
Hodge, J.E., McMurran, M., & Hollin, C.R. (1997). Addicted to crime? Chichester: Wiley.
Shulman, T.D. (2011). Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls – Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding. West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing.
Soriano, M. (2015). 15 celebrities who were caught shoplifting. Rebel Circus, May 13. Located at: http://www.rebelcircus.com/blog/celebrities-caught-shoplifting/