Persistent shoplifting is generally regarded as a petty crime of teenage troublemakers rather than a psychological disorder detailed in the DSM-IV-TR. However, kleptomania is a recognized mental illness in which a person repeatedly acts on his or her impulses to steal items that are neither needed nor unaffordable in order to experience gratification or relief of tension. Kleptomania is found in individuals of all genders, socioeconomic statuses, and ages, including 71-year-old Julia Grodinsky of London, England who was convicted of stealing ornamental crystals worth over £4,000 in October 2011. A community order, 18-month supervision period, and warning that custodial sentencing may follow any recidivism would appear to be a reasonable punishment given the nature of the crime and the woman’s elderly status; however, the fact that Grodinsky has 63 previous shoplifting convictions dating back almost 60 years makes the chairman’s reprimand seem somewhat ridiculous. In fact, new findings from neuroscientists at the University of California Berkeley indicate that Grodinsky’s compulsive behaviors will likely continue because impulse control disorders, such as kleptomania, are partially due to an addicted brain that prevents individuals from making good decisions, as opposed to a deficit of character.
Although pilfering goods is not usually the first behavior that comes to mind when thinking of 12-Step programs, kleptomania is as much a biological addiction as narcotics abuse, alcoholism, and gambling. In October 2011, Jonathan Wallis and colleagues published findings identifying locations in the brain where decision-making malfunctions in addicted individuals. Specifically, results suggest that addicts and people with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain do not experience different patterns of neural activity based on the value, or “stakes”, of a decision, whereas in normal individuals, important and trivial decisions are differentially regulated. Furthermore, addicts may have a malfunctioning anterior cingulate cortex, and therefore lack the ability to develop expectations based on outcomes, leading to continued poor choices. In light of these neurological deficiencies, more attention should be paid to the concept of actus reus, or voluntary nature of kleptomaniacs’ criminal behaviors. They likely experience the same elements of addiction as alcoholics or drug abusers, which diminishes criminal responsibility and places a greater emphasis on treatment over punishment in legal proceedings, an especially worthwhile endeavor given the high rates of recidivism.
Can kleptomaniacs’ impulses be subdued? Research by Jon Grant and colleagues has shown that the opioid antagonist naltrexone significantly reduces stealing urges and behaviors compared to a placebo treatment. Naltrexone blocks the pleasurable effects of endogenous opiates released in the brain during stealing, removing the enjoyment, and thus the impetus, from shoplifting. Perhaps the abnormalities identified in the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortices of addicted brains will steer future research toward development of drugs targeting this decision-making circuitry. Lastly, understanding that kleptomaniacs’ behavior is primarily driven by neurological limitations on decision making and reward systems contributes to a forward thinking legal system, as offering anti-addiction medication in lieu of or as a supplement to punitive actions could help reduce the frequency of chronic shoplifters’ criminal activities.