Kleptomania: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is kleptomania and how does it manifest itself? What are its causes and treatments? Keep reading to discover the answers.
Kleptomania: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 30 April, 2023

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), kleptomania is the tendency toward pathological theft that consists of a disorder in which one repeatedly fails to resist the impulses to steal objects that aren’t acquired for personal use or for the monetary gain that they entail.

It’s a rare onset disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), its prevalence in the general population is 0.3 to 0.6%. At the same time, between 4 and 24% of people arrested for shoplifting and department stores suffer from kleptomania.

However, it can be underdiagnosed, as few people go to therapy out of shame and many others are arrested. What else do we know about the disorder? How does it manifest itself? Why does it appear? And how can it be treated? Find out!

What is kleptomania?

Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder characterized by a recurring inability to resist the urge to steal objects that the person doesn’t need or that have no value. In other words, it’s like an addiction to the act of stealing.

It’s a rare disorder, but it can become serious if it isn’t treated, as it causes emotional distress to the person who suffers from it and to their loved ones. In addition, it can also lead to legal consequences. At the same time, many people who suffer from kleptomania carry the burden of their problem in secret.

Impulse control disorder

In the DSM-5, kleptomania is considered a “destructive, impulse-control, and conduct disorder,” along with adolescent-onset conduct disorder. When we talk about an impulse control disorder, we’re referring to self-control, whether emotional or behavioral.

Therefore, the person with kleptomania feels an irrepressible impulse to steal or great difficulty in resisting that temptation. The actions of these disorders are often excessive or harmful, either to oneself or to others.

A young man with kleptomania shoplifts.
Up to more than 20% of those arrested for shoplifting have this disorder.

A variant of OCD?

Some experts have suggested a link between kleptomania and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as the anxiety felt by these people is relieved by the act of stealing, just as the compulsions of OCD would be. Therefore, the theft would act as a negative reinforcement, by reducing or eliminating that unpleasant or anxious feeling.

It has even been suggested that kleptomania could be a variant of OCD and that it could be classified as an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder. However, this hypothesis hasn’t yet been proven, and it’s currently considered a destructive impulse control and conduct disorder in the DSM-5.

Symptoms of kleptomania

What are the symptoms of kleptomania? In general, the following appear:

Impulse robbery

The main characteristic of kleptomaniacs that differentiates them from regular shoplifters or shoplifters is that they don’t steal for personal gain. In fact, most of what they steal is worthless. In this way, kleptomaniacs do it because they feel an irrepressible impulse.

Spontaneous episodes

Thefts occur spontaneously. That is, they’re not usually premeditated or planned. In addition, the person carries them out alone, without help or collaboration from others.

Theft in public places

People who suffer from kleptomania usually steal in public places, such as stores or supermarkets. There are even those who may steal from the doctor’s office, the dentist, and even from friends or acquaintances.

Low-value items

Items stolen by kleptomaniacs are usually of little value and aren’t needed by the person. That is, they don’t steal for pleasure or necessity or to earn money, but because they feel they can’t avoid it.


There are two types of concealment in kleptomania. On the one hand, stolen items are hidden and are never used. On the other, as we said before, the person tends to hide their problem out of fear or shame.

As a curious fact, many kleptomaniacs even give away the objects they steal to friends or relatives. They can also secretly return them to where they were stolen from.

Pulse oscillation

The impulse to steal can be more or less intense at one time or another or disappear for seasons. In other words, the irrepressible impulse evolves over time, and spikes in the disorder may appear that could be linked to the mood or personal situation of the person with kleptomania.

Causes of kleptomania

Why does kleptomania appear? According to the Mayo Clinic, kleptomania usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood, although it can start later (starting in late or middle adulthood). Approximately two-thirds of people with this disorder are women. The associated risk factors are of different types:

  • Family history: Having a first-degree relative with kleptomania (a mother or sibling), as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, an alcohol or other substance use disorder, may increase the risk of kleptomania.
  • Having another mental illness: People with kleptomania often have another underlying mental illness (bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, eating disorder, etc).
  • Suffering a head injury: Having damage to the frontal lobe and therefore an affected capacity for behavioral inhibition has been related to its appearance.
  • Neurochemical alterations: At the dopaminergic, serotonergic, and endogenous opioid levels.
  • Brain structures involved: A possible involvement of the nucleus accumbens has also been suggested, as this structure is related to other addictions.

Other possible causes: Personality and mood

On the other hand, there may be a biological predisposition or one learned from parental models. In personality structures of the paranoid, schizoid, and borderline spectrum, a higher risk of kleptomania has also been found.

Very impulsive people are also at greater risk of manifesting it, as well as those with little tolerance for delayed gratification, with a high sensitivity to rewards, and with an anxious tendency. Having a mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder or depression, could also be linked.

Kleptomania Treatment

Kleptomania is a disorder that requires treatment, especially if it interferes with the individual’s life. A combined approach that includes psychological and pharmacological intervention is ideal.

Psychological therapy

At the psychological level, systematic desensitization (SD) is often used. Through it, the patient is exposed to anxiety-producing situations with the aim of facing them without carrying out inappropriate behaviors. All this with the help of relaxation techniques that promote a state of calm that’s incompatible with anxiety.

It also seeks to promote the learning of alternative behaviors to theft. Another psychological option is exposure with response prevention, a therapy that’s also used in disorders in which impulse control is impaired.

Psychoeducation is also useful, especially so that the subject understands what’s happening to them and others can help them (it’s offered to family and friends of the patient). Finally, acceptance and commitment therapy is considered an effective alternative.

A women putting jeans into her purse.
The treatment of kleptomania must combine psychological and pharmacological approaches.

Drug therapy

At the pharmacological level, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants have been shown to be effective for kleptomania, at least to help alleviate symptoms together with psychological therapy. SSRIs are also used in cases of OCD, especially fluoxetine and fluvoxamine.

The drugs mentioned would be the ones of choice, although mood stabilizers, anticonvulsants, or even drugs for alcoholism, such as naltrexone, are also used. However, if we suffer from kleptomania or know someone who suffers from it, it’s best to go to a specialized professional who can help us.

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