Kleptomania is a recurrent urge to steal, that is motivated by more of an emotional need to steal, rather than a financial one. This is to say that those with kleptomania who steal do not steal because they need the items they take; in fact, the items they steal often do not even have much value. Kleptomania is instead a kind of impulse control disorder wherein the person afflicted with the condition has little or no self-control. To explore this concept, consider the following kleptomania definition.

Definition of Kleptomania


  1. An irresistible and recurring urge to steal that is based on an emotional need, rather than a financial one.


1820-1830        From the Greek kléptēs [thief]) + -mania

What is Kleptomania

Kleptomania is a kind of impulse control disorder that causes a person who is afflicted with the condition to steal items that they don’t need in order to satisfy an emotional urge. For example, kleptomania causes people to steal items that may not even have much value. They steal because they have difficulty resisting the temptation to engage in potentially dangerous behavior. There is no cure for kleptomania, but medication and psychotherapy may be used to help control one’s impulse to compulsively steal.

Interestingly, kleptomania tends to be more common among females, and it usually begins at an early age. People who suffer from personality disorders that lead to kleptomania also tend to develop those conditions early in life. Kleptomania is a difficult condition to diagnose, and so clinicians are advised to be careful in issuing such a diagnosis, in connection with the potential legal implications of the person’s actions.

Kleptomania vs. Shoplifting Addiction

Shoplifting is the act of stealing items from a store or other place of business. It is a serious problem in the United States, costing shopkeepers millions of dollars each year. The term covers everything from simply leaving the store with an item that hasn’t been paid for, to changing price tags to pay a lower price for an item. Shoplifting is most commonly engaged in to obtain merchandise the shoplifter wants or needs, or for the purpose of selling or trading them for cash. This is a common method of obtaining money to pay for drugs.

There is a disorder known as shoplifting addiction which, at first glance, kleptomania and shoplifting addiction may seem like they are the same thing, but there are actually some important differences between the two behaviors. For one thing, shoplifting creates a feeling of anxiety in the shoplifter before-hand, suggesting that shoplifting is more often planned, while kleptomania is spontaneous. Additionally, those who shoplift are often looking to “make things right” as the result of a bad experience, and it may often be done out of anger.

Those who are addicted to shoplifting are constantly thinking about it and feeling anxious about it. They feel a constant pressure to shoplift, which causes them more distress than pleasure, though they experience a brief sense of relief after the act. Shoplifting provides a way for these people to express anxiety and/or anger they may be feeling.

Kleptomaniacs do not plan to steal things, but experience an overwhelming urge to steal something in the moment. They do not steal out of need for the item, or the financial gain the item might bring. These people often feel a great deal of anxiety or guilt over having stolen something.

Signs and Symptoms of Kleptomania

People who suffer from kleptomania typically exhibit a particular set of symptoms, The signs and symptoms of kleptomania include:

  • An inability to resist the temptation to steal items they don’t need
  • An increased feeling of tension, anxiety, or excitement while plotting the theft
  • A feeling of euphoria or relief while stealing
  • Feelings of guilt, remorse, shame, or fear of being arrested after the theft has occurred

Those who suffer from the signs and symptoms of kleptomania typically have a spontaneous urge to steal. They do not plan for the theft, and they steal without seeking help from anyone else. They usually steal for the thrill of it, only to immediately regret their behavior afterwards. For example, kleptomania causes people to steal from public places, like department stores or supermarkets, or they may even steal from friends, acquaintances, or even family members at their homes, or while attending a gathering.

Someone suffering from kleptomania commonly has enough money to buy whatever he is stealing, and the item may have little or no value to him. He will then often stash the stolen item away, never to be used. He may decide to return the item at a later date, give it away to a family member or a friend, or even donate it.

Those suffering from kleptomania may want to seek medical advice in order to help them stop. However, it is often difficult for someone with the signs and symptoms of kleptomania to seek treatment because he may be afraid of being arrested or otherwise caught for his crimes. However, mental health providers typically do not report these kinds of petty thefts to the authorities, maintaining patient confidentiality throughout treatment.

Because kleptomania is connected to strong impulsive and compulsive qualities, it can be classified as an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder along the lines of pyromania, compulsive buying, and pathological gambling.

Traits of kleptomania also have a lot in common with traits attributed to drug addiction. For example, kleptomania and drug addiction are similar in that:

  • The person feels a strong need or desire to engage in the bad behavior
  • The person experiences a weakened sense of self-control over the bad behavior
  • There is a “high” that those who participate in the bad behavior feel from committing the crime
  • Despite the threat of a punishment, the person will continue to participate in bad behavior

Kleptomania and the Law

Kleptomania cannot be considered a legal defense to stealing – not even an insanity defense. Individuals are held responsible for their actions unless it can be clearly proven that they completely lack a sense self-control. Those who successfully plead insanity may be ordered to attend a course of treatment in lieu of jail time, many would rather spend time in a mental institution than in prison. This is particularly true because the sentence is usually less time for a mental institution than a prison sentence.

However, it is easy to either misdiagnose or over-diagnose kleptomania because the majority of the traits associated with the condition are difficult to test. This is because these traits are generally self-reported. It is difficult to measure how a person feels at any point in time, and it is also difficult to measure whether or not pre-planning was involved before an incident took place. Also, because patients are typically very secretive about their condition, they themselves may not be aware of just why they committed the crime. It may have been impulsive, or they may just be covering up their motives.

Also, because kleptomania is often associated with a personality disorder or depression, then these conditions may be the root cause of kleptomania. This means that kleptomania may not be its own condition, but the result of another condition the person is suffering from. Kleptomaniacs also have high rates of substance abuse, as well as mood or anxiety disorders.

Kleptomania Example Involving a Celebrity

Perhaps the most famous case of kleptomania in Hollywood involved actress Winona Ryder back in 2001. Ryder was accused of stealing over $5,000 worth of clothes and accessories from the Saks Fifth Avenue department store. Ryder agreed to pay for the stolen merchandise, which she also surrendered back to the store, while she was detained in the Saks security offices. This was before she was even read her rights and arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department.

The Los Angeles District Attorney at the time, Stephen Cooley, filed four felony charges against Ryder, and organized a team of eight prosecutors. Negotiations for a plea bargain were in the works, but they fell through in the summer of 2002. The prosecution was not ready to give Ryder a no contest plea, which is the ability of a defendant to say that she neither admits nor denies the charges against her. A no contest plea serves as an alternative to a guilty or not guilty plea, and while it is not a plea of guilty, it functions similarly to one.

During the trial, Ryder was accused of using several types of drugs, including oxycodone and Vicodin, without having valid prescriptions for them. Ryder was ultimately convicted on charges of grand theft, shoplifting, and vandalism, but she was acquitted of burglary, which was the third felony she was charged with. In December of 2002, she was sentenced to three years’ probation, nearly 500 hours of community service, and ordered to pay about $10,000 in restitution to Saks Fifth Avenue and fines. She was also ordered to attend psychological and drug counseling.

Ryder later discussed the incident with Interview magazine, noting that it happened during a period in her life in which she was clinically depressed. She also blamed her doctor for prescribing to her heavy painkillers that clouded her judgment.

While Ryder was convicted of shoplifting, it can be argued that she was instead guilty of kleptomania, as she did not have a financial need for the items that she stole. Because she admitted that she was suffering from depression at the time, then this could have been a case wherein her condition was considered more the result of a mental illness than a premeditated crime.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Insanity Defense – A legal defense in a criminal case which argues that the defendant is not responsible for his actions due to his suffering from a psychiatric disease at the time of the incident.
  • Sentence – The final act of a court case wherein the punishment for the crime is delivered.
  • Theft – The act of stealing.