What You Should Know About Kleptomania

Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Woman Stealing Bottle Of Wine From Supermarket
istockphoto

Kleptomania is a condition characterized by an irresistible urge to steal. People will steal items that they do not need, that they could afford to buy, or that have little to no monetary value. Individuals with kleptomania experience tension that is relieved by committing the theft.

Kleptomania often emerges sometime during adolescence and appears more commonly in women than in men. Because stealing is illegal, this disorder can lead to significant legal consequences.

People with kleptomania may face arrest, trial, and incarceration as a result of their symptoms. One study of clinical patients found that more than 68 percent of those with kleptomania had been arrested for stealing. Just over 20 percent of these patients had been convicted and incarcerated for their crimes.

Signs of Kleptomania

Some of the key symptoms of kleptomania include:

  • A repeated failure to resist the impulse to steal
  • Stealing items of no value or that one does not need
  • Feelings of relief or pleasure during the theft

According to the diagnostic criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association in the DSM-5, kleptomania is characterized by a repeated inability to resist the urge to steal. People with this condition experience a buildup of tension before the theft and a consequent release of anxiety and tension when committing a theft. Stealing results in feelings of gratification, relief, and even pleasure.

While the theft may relieve the tension the individual was experiencing, he or she may be left with feelings of guilt and remorse following the crime. Feelings of shame, self-recrimination, and remorse are quite common following a stealing episode.

It is important to note that kleptomania does not involve theft for personal gain.

People with this condition are not stealing things based on a financial incentive or because they covet the items that they take. These thefts are also not related to not being able to afford the items in question. In many cases, the items themselves may hold little to no monetary value.

Sometimes an individual with kleptomania will store the items away somewhere, often never to be looked at or used. Others may rid themselves of the stolen objects by giving them away to friends and family or even by returning them to the place where they were taken from.

Episodes of theft usually do not involve elaborate planning and often occur spontaneously. People with this condition may be in a public setting such as a mall or supermarket when the urge to steal strikes. The intensity of these urges can vary. People with this condition may avoid committing thefts when the likelihood is high that their shoplifting will be detected, such as when store personnel or law enforcement is nearby.

What Else Could It Be?

Kleptomania is distinguished from normal shoplifting because shoplifters typically plan their thefts and perform this behavior to acquire items they desire but cannot afford. Individuals with kleptomania, on the other hand, steal spontaneously in order to relieve the tension that continues to build if they do not act.

Kleptomania can occur alone, but it often appears alongside other conditions as well. People with this condition may be prone to substance use and anxiety, as well as other disorders associated with impulse control.

Some other disorders that can occur alongside kleptomania include:

The disorder has also been shown to be associated with substance and alcohol use. Some experts suggest there may be some type of shared genetic link between substance use disorders and kleptomania.

Research has also found that 59 percent of individuals with kleptomania are also diagnosed with an affective disorder at some point in their lives. Studies also suggest similarly high co-morbidity rates with other psychiatric conditions including anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders. Between 43 and 55 percent of individuals with kleptomania have also been found to have a co-occuring personality disorder—paranoid personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder being the most common.

In order to diagnose kleptomania, it must first be established that the symptoms cannot be better explained by another psychiatric condition such as conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder.

What Causes Kleptomania?

The exact causes of kleptomania are skill under investigation, although it is suggested that both genetic and environmental influences may play a role.

Different perspectives in psychology have suggested a few possible explanations:

The Psychoanalytic Approach: Psychoanalytic explanations for kleptomania have conceptualized it in a variety of ways. Some suggest that people are driven to obtain objects in order to symbolically compensate for some type of early loss or neglect. According to this approach, treatment for the disorder lies in discovering the underlying motivations for the behavior.

The Cognitive-Behavioral Approach: Cognitive-behavioral explanations suggest the disorder may begin when an individual is positively reinforced for stealing something. After the first theft occurs with no negative consequences, it becomes more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future.

Eventually, the cues that become associated with the stealing actions become very strong, making it much more likely to continue. When a person finds themselves in a situation where similar environmental cues are present, they may find the overwhelming urge to steal simply irresistible.

Because the act of stealing relieves the stress and tension the individual was experiencing, the behavior also becomes associated with stress relief. Over time, the individual may begin to steal as a means of coping with and relieving stress.

The Biological Approach: Biological explanations suggest that the behavior may be linked to specific regions of the brain and possible dysregulation of certain neurotransmitters. Some studies have linked the emergence of kleptomania to dysfunction in the frontal lobe of the brain. In two reported cases, blunt trauma to the frontal lobe resulted in physical symptoms such as dizziness, behavioral symptoms such as aggression, and cognitive symptoms such as memory loss followed by the sudden emergence of kleptomania-related behaviors.

Studies have also shown that SSRIs have been used to effectively treat kleptomania, indicating that the regulation of serotonin might be involved. Other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endogenous opiods may also play a role in the development of the disorder.

How Prevalent Is Kleptomania?

Just how common is kleptomania? It is thought to be relatively rare. Estimates place the lifetime prevalence at somewhere between 0.3 to 0.6 of the population, although it has also been suggested that the real number may be higher.

Some suggest:

  • The exact prevalence of kleptomania is not known but it is estimated to impact approximately 1.2 million U.S. adults, or 6 out of every 1000 adults.
  • It is estimated that kleptomania accounts for 5 percent of all shoplifting, translating to an annual economic loss of around $500 million.

Because people may feel embarrassed or ashamed of their condition, the disorder is thought to be underreported. National data assessing the prevalence in the general population does not exist, but numbers pulled from clinical samples suggest that kleptomania may be much more common than previously believed. For example, one study of clinical patients found that nearly 8 percent reported current symptoms consistent with kleptomania.

How Is Kleptomania Diagnosed?

Kleptomania is typically diagnosed by a physician or mental health professional. Because kleptomania commonly co-occurs with other conditions such as eating disorders, substance and alcohol abuse, and anxiety disorders, it is often diagnosed when people are referred to a doctor for their comorbid psychiatric symptoms. Diagnosis may also occur if the symptoms of kleptomania have led to an arrest for stealing.

Upon initial examination by a medical doctor, the patient may be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further evaluation. Diagnosis may involve utilizing patient interviews and a review of legal records. Administering psychometric scales such as the Kleptomania Symptoms Assessment Scale (K-SAS) or the Yale Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale, Modified for Kleptomania (K-YBOCS) may also be useful in making a diagnosis.

The secretive nature of the disorder as well as associated feelings of guilt and shame can interfere with diagnosis and treatment. In some cases, people only receive a diagnosis and treatment due to contact with the legal system as a result of being caught committing a theft.

How Is Kleptomania Treated?

Two of the most common treatments for kleptomania include:

Medications: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) as well as other antidepressants have shown effectiveness in treating the symptoms of kleptomania and may be used in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Psychotherapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy targets both the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to stealing and has been shown to have some effectiveness at managing the symptoms of kleptomania.

Psychotherapy is often a first line of treatment for impulse control disorders, with a goal of helping the patient learn to recognize their urges, discover why they act on these impulses, and find more appropriate ways to relieve urges and tension.

Recently there has been a shift toward using psychopharmacological interventions alongside psychotherapeutic approaches.

Early intervention and effective treatment are important in order to help people experiencing the symptoms of kleptomania avoid unnecessary distress and associated legal consequences of their condition. It is also important to treat any co-occurring conditions that may be present with the appropriate interventions.

A Word From Verywell

Kleptomania is a serious psychiatric condition that can have a major impact on an individual's functioning and life. Not only can the disorder lead to significant distress, it can also result in serious legal consequences for people who are caught stealing. Arrest, incarceration, and legal costs are not uncommon for those with kleptomania.

Fortunately, there are steps that you can take if you or someone you know has kleptomania. With appropriate treatment, you can find ways to cope with your impulses and replace negative behaviors with more beneficial ones. If you suspect that you may have kleptomania, consult your doctor or a mental health professional to determine a treatment plan that is most appropriate for your needs.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.

Grant, J.E., Kim, S.W., & Odlaug, B.L. (2009). A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the opiate antagonist, naltrexone, in the treatment of kleptomania. Biological Psychiatry. 2009; 65(7): 600-606.

Grant, J.E., Odlaug, B.L., Davis, A.A., & Kim, S.W. Legal consequences of kleptomania. Psychiatric Quarterly. 2009; 80(4): 251-259.

Ries, RK, Fiellin, DA, Miller, SC, & Saitz, R. Principles of Addiction Medicine. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins; 2009.

Schreiber, LRN, Odlaug, BL, & Grant, JE. Interventions for Additions: Chapter 58. Medications for Behavioral Addictions. San Diego, CA: Academic Press; 2013.

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