This article was written with Elizabeth Corsale, MFT, co-director at the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control.


When most people think about theft, they think about criminals who steal possessions of other people in order to resell them and make money. Or the identity theft who is able to steal money out of the bank account of others. The “criminal” who profits from stealing from others rather than working for his or her money. But there is a different kind of stealing – stealing that people do when they don’t “need” to. People who compulsively steal and experience intense urges, obsessive thoughts and elaborate rituals and planning.

Recently a high tech executive was arrested for forging bar codes on Lego toys, purchasing the Lego’s way below value and reselling them on eBay and making thousands of dollars. When this hit the news he was being called “a man with an obsession” because he couldn’t possibly need the money and could well afford to pay full price. Maybe it was because he was a highly educated individual and it’s harder to think about those with status and privilege really having a stealing problem, but on the surface he appears to be suffering from kleptomania, or compulsive stealing.

What about the rest of us who are not “criminals” or suffering from compulsive stealing? Are people such as this executive so different from us? Consider for a moment, you are going on a trip and in order to make reservations and  you need to submit a copy of your passport. You take your passport into work, make two copies, and mail it in with your application, which you print out while you are there.

Is this stealing? It depends on what the policy is at the office, but most likely it is, since office equipment and paper was not likely purchased for employee personal use. Is it something you are likely to get fired for? Probably not, but it may depend on just how many copies you are making and how strict the workplace is.

The above example represents the myriad of ways that people steal every day, without even thinking about it. Whether we make copies at work, walk off with a pen we borrowed, use someone’s unsecured wifi, or don’t report the income from a garage sale on our taxes, most of us steal in some form or another during the course of our lifetime and even on a regular basis. If we do think about the fact that we are stealing, we typically rationalize it, telling ourselves that “a few pieces of paper and a little ink is a drop in the bucket at work” or “I’m only making a few dollars at the garage sale – the government doesn’t need this money as much as I do.”

Why is this important to think about? When most people think about stealing, we think of it as something “I would never do” and hold ourselves as separate from “people who steal” – we assume the person caught stealing is simply greedy and only in it for themselves. But whether we don’t tell the server they forgot to include a drink in the bill, pocket a pack of gum at the grocery store, or rob a bank, the common thread is the rationalization in our mind that makes it possible. This distancing may be part of why we are so blind to how commonplace the problem is in our society, or why the field of psychology is not thinking enough about stealing and discovering what the thoughts and behaviors are telling us about the person committing the acts.

Larry came into treatment in order to deal with his stealing issues. Larry was diagnosed with kleptomania and bulimia (he threw up and over-exercised after over-eating). He was a well-educated having attended and graduated from a prestigious college prep boarding school and an Ivy League University. He was under employed, frequently complained of boredom and struggled with personal and professional relationships. It was difficult for Larry to open up and be honest in therapy. Overtime he began to trust his therapist and group members. He shared that he felt incredibly out-of-control and ashamed of his obsession with stealing. He shared that his problem wasn’t only the everyday simple shoplifting it went much deeper. Over several years he had been going to music stores and large big box store that sold DVDs. He would purchase the DVDs and then with painstaking care using exacto blades, hot glue guns he would slowly and carefully unpackaged the DVD’s, take them out and upload them to his computer and then repackage them and return them to the store for a full refund. It took hours upon hours and he expressed that it gave him and incredible high and a tremendous sense of accomplishment and he felt less guilt having returned the merchandise. 

In the example above, as well as the recent case of the executive who stole Lego kits, or an individual who purchases an outfit, wears it to an event, and then returns it, these actions take more planning to execute than simply walking off with a pen. However, oftentimes these individuals don’t need the money from these transactions, in the same way that you can afford the pen you walk off with (or afford to pay the taxes on the earnings from the garage sale), and so the motive for the stealing, and the subsequent rationalizations, are often complex. But these rationalizations, similar to the distancing, keep us from acknowledging the ways we steal and how commonplace it is in our society – and keep us from being able to effectively help those who steal compulsively and need it.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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