Why do some people get kleptomania

Kleptomania - Causes, Symptoms, and Therapy

Kleptomania describes an addiction to stealing - more precisely, stealing things that those affected do not need and that have no financial value either. Kleptomaniacs commonly shoplifting. As a rule, they could buy the stolen items without any problems, and they often give away the stolen goods or throw them away afterwards.

Kleptomaniacs are aroused before theft and feel satisfied when successful. Stealing is not used to express anger or revenge, and it is not a response to mental confusion - kleptomaniacs are not in the manic phase of bipolar people, and they typically do not suffer from dissocial disorder.

Sometimes those affected hoard or return the stolen objects. Kleptomaniacs do not stand up when immediate arrest is the likely result - for example under the eyes of a police officer - but they usually do not plan their raids or explore the terrain in order to keep the risk low. You act alone.

The story of stealing addiction

A French book about mental disorders from 1838 mentioned kleptomania - as a monomania, that was the term for individual mental disorders at the time, for example sex addiction (nymphomania) or murder addiction (homicidal monomania).

These categories are now considered obsolete. Kleptomania is now considered to be a disorder of impulse control like pyromania, the addiction to lighting a fire, gambling addiction or tricotilomania, the addiction to pulling your hair out.

The disorder has been known in medicine and justice for centuries. The Swiss doctor Andre Matthey wrote about klope.anie to mark thieves who impulsively stole things of no value. French doctors Jean Etienne Esquirol and C.C. Marc later changed the word to kleptomania and characterized the behavior as an irresistible urge to steal.

They diagnosed kleptomaniacs as people who were “forced to steal”, that is, as mentally ill - and not, as was common in the 19th century, as morally depraved. Only women were considered to be affected, and many doctors suspected that the disease at the end of the 19th century was caused by diseases of the uterus or premenstrual stress.

Impulse control disorders almost always also have social causes. The cases of kleptomania among women known at the time were therefore probably due to the oppression of women in the patriarchy of the time - like the hysteria that was rampant in Freud's time.

Bourgeois women lived in a corset of constraints on how a “real woman” should behave - society denied them intellectual development and equal rights in their job. Stealing, i.e. doing something that is forbidden, can be interpreted as desperate resistance to external control.

In any case, the diagnosis remained unclear until the second half of the last century. In 1980 kleptomania was officially recognized as impaired impulse control and this vague definition remained until 2000. However, extensive studies have followed in the last 15 years to narrow down the disorder as a regular psychiatric diagnosis.

Kleptomania causes

To this day it is unclear how kleptomania develops. Some scientists think kleptomania is part of an alcohol or drug addiction. In fact, many alcohol and drug addicts repeatedly come under the police's focus for theft.

However, we have to make a sharp distinction between drug-related crime and pathological stealing. An alcoholic who steals whiskey bottles in the supermarket to satisfy his addiction is not kleptomaniac: A hallmark of kleptomania is that the stolen things are of no value to those affected; even a heroin user who breaks into a garden shed, steals the returnable bottles in order to exchange them because he needs money for the next shot, has a rational reason to steal.

Also, substance addicts cannot be called kleptomaniac when they are intoxicated: If they are not in control of their senses and do not know what they are doing, they are more like psychotics who also take things that do not belong to them without wanting to steal.

For the disruption, however, the uncontrolled but conscious impulse to steal is decisive.

However, it is difficult to draw a line. For example, does an affected person take courage to go on a thief tour and then steal useless things? The exact separation between the individual disorders is hardly possible, because kleptomaniacs almost always suffer from other psychiatric disorders as well: Borderliners, for example, are often kleptomaniacs in the clinical sense.

Depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse are common among people with kleptomania.

Less than 5% of all identified shoplifters are kleptomaniacs, and the disorder is more common among women than among men. However, men are unlikely to be diagnosed with the disorder - women who steal are more likely to receive psychiatric care than men, who usually end up in prison.

There is no social group that is typical of the disorder. The median age when kleptomaniacs become suspicious is 35, but some people report that the compulsion to steal began in them when they were 5 years old.


Signs of kleptomania are often misunderstood as normal theft, but some characteristics clearly distinguish the disorder from it.

The bottom line is that kleptomaniacs steal things they don't need. Second, they have a massive urge to steal; stealing relieves them of feelings of stress and anxiety. The act is similar to the mood of a drug addict: the urge becomes stronger and stronger, when the act is done, you feel relieved. But soon she is plagued by nervousness and fear again, and the desire to steal becomes overwhelming.

Kleptomaniacs differ from dissocials in that they are ashamed of what they did. That too is typical. A kleptomaniac is a notorious thief who makes a living, for example, with stolen smartphones. They feel guilty and fearful about what they did, much like an alcoholic who does not dare to pick up the phone because he feared that someone would judge him for his drunk acts. The fear increases, the stress increases, and the kleptomaniac has to steal again to reduce the stress: the vicious circle is closed.

The lack of motives and goals is typical. Those affected do not have a special shop in mind in which they want to steal. They steal trivial things like lipsticks and don't even use them.

Kleptomaniacs don't steal either to gain status or as a test of courage. That differentiates them, for example, from teenagers who steal useless things in the shopping center in order to stand there as daredevils in front of the clique.

Stealing addicts do not make hype about their actions, and they do not consciously test out risks: They steal when they are under stress, but can control themselves to the point where they go to another shop "on withdrawal" if the chance is caught become too big.

They do not attract attention in public for their unusual behavior. You are neither violent nor manic.

Regular stealing is also a hallmark: whenever they are under stress, they take action. Despite their guilty feelings, they keep repeating the stealing over and over for a quick kick.

Familiar switches

There is little research into possible genetic causes of kleptomania. The only historical study that examined the family histories of those affected showed a high number of alcoholics among the close relatives, as well as mood swings to a pathological extent.

The diagnosis

If symptoms are present, the doctor will do a physical exam and a medical history. There are no tests to detect kleptomania, but tests can show possible physical causes - such as a head injury or a brain disorder.

The doctor usually refers the person concerned to a psychiatrist or psychologist; both have interview techniques and test procedures to identify impaired impulse control.

Mental problems

Kleptomania is often associated with other mental health problems. Those affected regularly suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, somewhat less often from eating disorders - especially bulemia. Personality disorders are also common comorbidities. The common thread is that people with symptoms of kleptomania need help - not just for the disorder, but for others as well.

Most people with this disorder will not seek help on their own, however; they often do not receive psychiatric treatment until after they have been tried for their thefts or when they seek psychotherapy for comorbidities such as an anxiety disorder.

Those affected are in a dangerous and lonely situation until they are caught. Often they break down mentally when they are on trial or when they are ashamed because their family and friends have discovered what they are doing - the mental breakdown is often the initial spark to accept help.

Kleptomania treatment

Those affected mostly distrust those who offer them help - but such help is indispensable. As with any addiction, those affected can rarely get out of the vicious circle alone. Without treatment, the sick sometimes steal for a lifetime.

Treatment usually includes medication and psychotherapy, and sometimes support groups. There is no standard therapy for this disorder, and researchers are still trying to find out what works best.

Antidepressants used in kleptomania are fluoxetines such as Prozac, paroxetines such as Paxil and fluvoxamine. However, some scientists believe that these antidepressants actually make the symptoms worse.

Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapies have been widely used for decades. However, their effects are difficult to grasp because there are no controlled studies. Case studies suggest that some patients with these psychotherapies coped with their disorder while others made no progress.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has largely replaced traditional psychotherapies in treatment. It relies on those affected to learn to change their behavior. In the case of kleptomania, this means in concrete terms: If the stress becomes overwhelming, you should reveal yourself to others and ask for help, as well as adopt other strategies to reduce stress - from autogenic training to yoga, to cycling or strength training.

The first step is to vividly imagine the consequences of being caught stealing, and in aversion therapy to hold your breath until it hurts when the person concerned has the situation in front of them.

Another strategy is systematic desensitization. The patient increases himself specifically to a stressful state and relaxes himself through muscle exercises. In this way he learns to keep the situation under control in an emergency.

There are still no controlled studies on cognitive behavioral therapy, but experience with it promises to actively bring kleptomania under control. However, there are too few clinical psychologists specially trained for this disorder, and as yet there are no publications to serve as a manual. (Somayeh Khaleseh Ranjbar, translated by Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text complies with the requirements of specialist medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical professionals.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
  • Berger, Mathias: Mental Illnesses: Clinic and Therapy, Urban & Fischer Verlag / Elsevier GmbH, 6th edition, 2018
  • Mayo Clinic: Kleptomania (accessed: August 16, 2019), mayoclinic.org
  • Professional associations and specialist societies for psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychosomatics, neurology and neurology from Germany and Switzerland: What is addiction / an addiction disease? (Accessed: August 16, 2019), neurologen-und-psychiater-im-netz.org
  • American Psychiatric Association: What Are Disruptive, Impulse-Control and Conduct Disorders? (Accessed: August 16, 2019), psychiatry.org
  • Pro Psychotherapie e.V .: F63 - Abnormal habits and impulse control disorders (accessed: August 16, 2019), therapie.de
  • American Addiction Centers: Impulse Control Disorders and Substance Abuse (accessed: August 16, 2019), americanaddictioncenters.org

Important NOTE:
This article is for general guidance only and is not intended to be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. He can not substitute a visit at the doctor.

ICD codes for this disease: F63ICD codes are internationally recognized codes for medical diagnoses. They can be found, for example, in doctor's letters or on certificates of incapacity for work.