What is kleptomania?

People with kleptomania cannot resist the urge to steal items for the sake of stealing, not because they need or want the items, or because they cannot afford to buy them. Kleptomania is not the same thing as shoplifting. Most people who shoplift take things they want, need or cannot afford, or — as in the case of some teen shoplifters — because of peer pressure. Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder. Impulse control disorders are mental illnesses that involve the repeated failure to resist impulses, or urges, to act in ways that are dangerous or harmful. People with these disorders know they can hurt themselves or others by acting on the impulses, but they cannot stop themselves.

How common is kleptomania?

Although shoplifting is common, true kleptomania is quite rare (0.3-0.6% of the general population). 4-24% of shoplifters have kleptomania. It is difficult to know exactly how many people have this disorder because it involves secrecy and deception. Kleptomania seems to be more common in females than in males.

What causes kleptomania?

Little is known about the exact cause of kleptomania. Researchers are looking at a possible link between impulse control disorders — including kleptomania — and certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help nerve cells in the brain send messages to each other. An imbalance of these chemicals can affect how the brain controls impulses. It is believed that major stress might trigger the impulsive behavior.

People with kleptomania often have other mental disorders, as well. The most common are depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse disorders. This suggests that there also might be a link between these disorders and the development of kleptomania.

What are the symptoms of kleptomania?

A person with kleptomania has a recurring drive to steal that he or she cannot resist. Some people with this disorder might feel guilty afterward and even try to return the objects they steal. Other symptoms that occur with kleptomania include the following:

  • Sense of tension and excitement related to the impulse.
  • Feeling of relief, satisfaction and/or pleasure after acting on an impulse to steal an item.
  • Unplanned stealing that is done on the spur-of-the-moment.
  • Stealing that is not done out of anger or to “get back at” someone.