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Aug 05, 2021
3 min read

Kleptomania: what causes compulsive stealing?

Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder that involves compulsive stealing. Kleptomaniacs don’t steal for personal gain. Instead, they derive pleasure from the act of theft. Therapy and prescription medications can help treat symptoms of this condition.

yael coopermanhope chang

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD

Written by Hope Chang, PharmD

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

People steal for different reasons. Some people steal items they want or need but can’t afford. Others steal money or possessions to harm a specific person. 

And then there are times we hear about famous or wealthy people who shoplift things they could buy without thinking twice. In these cases, it’s hard to understand the rationale. Maybe they were looking for the rush that comes with the fear of being caught, or maybe they’re dealing with a condition called kleptomania. 

Kleptomania is different from regular stealing in that people have the urge to steal things with little monetary value or items they don’t need or want. Kleptomaniacs might even toss stolen items in storage or the trash.

Let’s take a closer look at what kleptomania is, potential causes, and how to get help for it.

What is kleptomania? 

Kleptomania, or compulsive stealing, is a type of impulse control disorder where an individual repeatedly gets the urge to steal things. Frequently they steal things of non-importance or of low value. 

What distinguishes kleptomania from stealing is these two concepts: repeated theft and stealing items with no monetary value. People who steal things for personal gain do not have kleptomania. Taking that useless street sign one time in college doesn’t mean you’re a kleptomaniac. 

Causes of kleptomania

The exact cause of kleptomania is unknown, but there are several possibilities.

Some cases may result from childhood trauma, parental neglect, and abuse. With this theory, stealing could represent repossessing childhood losses (Talih, 2011). 

Many kleptomaniacs have other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The clustering of psychiatric disorders supports the idea that kleptomania results from a chemical imbalance of serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are responsible for controlling mood and impulsive behavior.

Brain imaging scans have also revealed that some people with kleptomania have varying amounts of neural tissue (Grant, 2006b). Sometimes people develop it due to brain damage from an injury or a neurological condition. 

Signs of kleptomania

You might be wondering how to tell the difference between a kleptomaniac vs. a garden variety shoplifter. 

People with kleptomania steal things that aren’t for personal use or gain. Symptoms of kleptomania include throwing stolen items in the trash, hoarding, giving stolen things away, or returning items to the original owner.

Kleptomaniacs have problems with impulse control and feel strong urges to steal. They find pleasure in the act of shoplifting rather than from the item itself. If you or someone you know is seeking help for kleptomania, documenting how you felt before and during a theft can be helpful (Grant, 2006c).

Is there treatment for kleptomania?

Kleptomania is pretty rare, affecting less than 1% of the general population. Unfortunately, there’s not much research regarding the condition and no standardized treatment for it (Fariba, 2021).

Psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are the most common treatments for kleptomania. Mental health professionals use aversion therapy or sensitization techniques, so the patient associates stealing with negative consequences and thoughts (Grant 2006a). 

There’s no medication indicated for kleptomania, but a medication called naltrexone can reduce symptoms associated with it. It’s usually for alcohol and substance use disorders but shows promise for treating impulse control problems (Grant, 2009). 

Antidepressants and mood-stabilizing medications may also be prescribed, but the results have been inconsistent. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), such as escitalopram (brand name Lexapro; see Important Safety Information) and fluoxetine (brand name Prozac; see Important Safety Information) increase levels of serotonin.

Some kleptomaniacs benefit from SSRIs, but others do not. There are also times when kleptomania has been a side effect of SSRIs (Grant 2006a).

Treatment of kleptomania varies depending on the cause and any other mental health disorders present. Being transparent with a healthcare provider will help them make the correct diagnosis and get you on the best path for treatment.

References

  1. Grant, J. E. (2006). Understanding and treating kleptomania: new models and new treatments. The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 43(2), 81–87. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16910369/
  2. Grant, J. E., Correia, S., & Brennan-Krohn, T. (2006). White matter integrity in kleptomania: a pilot study. Psychiatry Research, 147(2-3), 233–237. DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2006.03.003. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16956753/
  3. Grant, J. E., Kim, S. W., & McCabe, J. S. (2006). A Structured Clinical Interview for Kleptomania (SCI-K): preliminary validity and reliability testing. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 15(2), 83–94. DOI: 10.1002/mpr.24. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19722289/
  4. 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, 65(7), 600–606. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.11.022. Retrieved from http://www.naltrexone.com/[email protected]
  5. Fariba, K., & Gokarakonda, S. B. (2020). Impulse Control Disorders. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved May 29, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32965950/
  6. Shugaiv, E., Kıyat-Atamer, A., Tüzün, E., Kürtüncü, M., Baral-Kulaksızoğlu, I., & Akman Demir, G. (2013). Kleptomania in patients with neuro-Behçet’s disease. Medical Principles and Practice, 22(6), 550–554. DOI: 10.1159/000351798. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23920112/
  7. Talih, F. R. (2011). Kleptomania and potential exacerbating factors: a review and case report. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(10), 35–39. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22132369/