Kleptomania is a condition in which a person experiences a consistent impulse to steal items they do not need. The things people with kleptomania steal typically have little value to them and are often discarded or given away after being taken.
People with kleptomania do not typically plan their thefts, but they will generally avoid stealing when the risk of arrest is high. They commonly feel depressed or guilty about the thefts after they occur.
Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder (ICD), a class of psychiatric disorders characterized by difficulty controlling antisocial or aggressive impulses. Because these disorders may involve physical violence, theft, or destruction of property, they often have harmful effects on both a person with the disorder and those around them.
According to the DSM-5, the symptoms of kleptomania include:
- A persistent, recurrent impulse to steal items that are not needed for personal use and do not bring financial gain.
- Feelings of increased tension before a theft; of pleasure, gratification, or relief at the moment of a theft; and, often, of guilt, shame, and/or remorse after a theft, and sometimes of depression.
- The individual’s thefts are not committed due to delusions, mania, or hallucinations, and are not motivated by revenge or anger.
- A person’s thefts cannot be better explained by Antisocial Personality Disorder, Conduct Disorder, or a manic episode.
Unlike those who steal for monetary gain, need, or revenge, the focus of people with kleptomania is generally not the item itself, but the act of the theft. They steal for the sake of stealing. The items they steal are typically small, and of little value.
They often do not. Individuals with kleptomania typically take things they could otherwise have afforded to buy. Occasionally an individual will hoard the things they take, although this is believed to be rare and appears to be more common among women with the disorder. Some people attempt to surreptitiously return the things they take.
While the prevalence of kleptomania in the general population is rare—occurring in about 0.3 to 0.6 percent of people—the disorder is three times more prevalent in women than in men. People with kleptomania generally act alone without help.
No. Shoplifting is much more common than kleptomania, but it has been estimated that anywhere from 4 to 24 percent of people arrested for shoplifting do live with kleptomania. Arrest does not generally deter people with kleptomania from stealing. In many cases, the disorder continues for years despite multiple arrests or convictions, leading to legal, family, career, and personal difficulties for those with the disorder.
According to the DSM-5, kleptomania appears to be caused in part by disruptions of neurotransmitter pathways in the brain associated with serotonin and dopamine, which can influence aggression and the brain’s reward system. Individuals may also experience an imbalance in the brain’s opioid system, which influences the ability to resist urges.
People with kleptomania often also live with another psychiatric disorder, such as depressive or bipolar disorders (particularly major depressive disorder), anxiety disorders, eating disorders (particularly bulimia), personality disorders, substance abuse disorders (particularly alcohol use disorder), and other impulse-control and conduct disorders.
Some clinicians see kleptomania as part of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum of disorders, because many people experience the impulse to steal as an unwanted intrusion into their minds. Other evidence suggests kleptomania may be more closely related to, or be a variant of, mood disorders such as depression.
It does not appear to, although immediate family members of people with kleptomania may have higher rates of obsessive-compulsive disorder than the general population, according to some research, and there appears to be a higher rate of substance use disorders, including alcohol use disorder, in relatives of people with kleptomania than in the general population.
There is little clinical evidence of the typical course of kleptomania, but research has described three typical pathways. In some people, episodes of kleptomania are only brief and sporadic, with long periods of remission between them. In others, episodes are more protracted but still alternate with periods of remission. And in some, kleptomania is chronic with some fluctuation.
The treatment for kleptomania may include a combination of psychotherapy and psychopharmacology. Counseling or therapy may be one-on-one or occur in a group setting. In either case, the focus is dealing with underlying psychological problems that may contribute to an individual’s kleptomania.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most common therapeutic approach, although some clinicians employ psychodynamic therapy. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which raise serotonin levels in the brain, may also be used to treat kleptomania, typically in conjunction with therapy.
Aversion therapy is sometimes used to treat kleptomania. Typically, the individual is asked to purposely associate something unpleasant with the urge to steal, such as training themselves to think of something disgusting whenever an urge to steal arises, or to hold their breath to bring on discomfort when thoughts of stealing emerge.