Thursday, 20 March 2014

Kleptomania: An Exploration of a Modern Phenomenon

by Holly Govey

 “Thou shalt not steal”

Albeit one of the most well known of the Ten Commandments, as well as an undisputed rule of humanity, stealing is an intrinsic part of our society today.
Unfortunately I doubt whether many among us are able to candidly deny having committed an act of theft in our lives, whether sneaking an unguarded crisp from a friend, “borrowing” money from parents’ wallets or simply copying a piece of homework. However, most people would argue that such offences do not merit significant punishment and that as far as ”real” thefts are concerned, they would never dream of taking something that they didn’t own simply for material gain.
The fact remains, however, that stealing has become a ubiquitous yet surreptitious enemy within our civilisation. This sly adversary feeds on the weak, targeting those who succumb to what Buddhists refer to as the “three poisons of life: greed, hatred and ignorance”, stimulating an impulse to fill the great “void” in their lives. This sounds sceptical to me. If everyone stole a mug every time they wanted a cup of tea, Costa would go out of business and a world without Costa would not be worth living, regardless of the sharp moral decline in society.

Worryingly, this antagonist seems to have tunnelled its way into daily life as, according to the Daily Telegraph, everyday shoppers admit to stealing on average £15 a month through self service tills. Furthermore, many of these ordinary criminals attempt to rationalize their behaviour by blaming a lack of surveillance, claiming that such thefts are “easy to get away with” and that shop theft is a “victimless crime”. However, such protestations cannot remove the fact that, whether accidental or intentional, taking items from shops without paying is internally damaging to society and that these costs are passed onto the store and even the other shoppers themselves.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that some people resort to stealing out of necessity, such as taking food when on the brink of starvation, and such cases may be understood, if not justified. Motives for stealing, however, are not limited merely to environmental factors and personal situations but can be accredited in some cases to internal, psychological impulses caused as a result of a behavioural disorder known as kleptomania.
This disorder is often characterized by a failure to resist the impulse to steal trivial items that are not needed for personal use or monetary value. Many individuals experience tension before stealing, which is gratified by the act of theft, to be replaced by feelings of guilt, embarrassment, anxiety and remorse. As a result, Kleptomaniacs may hoard the stolen items, give them away, dispose of them or clandestinely return them. Although the causes of this disorder are somewhat unknown, psychoanalytic theories link compulsive stealing to childhood trauma and neglectful or abusive parents, and suggest that stealing may symbolize repossessing the losses of childhood. It is often regarded as a form of addictive behaviour and has been shown to be associated with other behavioural and substance use disorders as well as being linked with traumatic brain injuries.

However this disorder touches only a small percentage of the general population, with the prevalence of kleptomania approximated at 0.6 percent; therefore, the preponderance of thefts must be attributed to other more complex causes. By analysing some of the incentives for which people steal (although not exclusively) I have attempted to shed some light on the reasons for which thefts occur.

Ultimately the likelihood of theft originates in an individual’s extent of moral control, whether internal or external. Those with internal control make moral choices by referring to a set of moral standards that they've taken in and made part of their personalities. If you think stealing is wrong you'll turn in a wallet regardless of whether you'd get caught or be disapproved of by others. With external control, however, other people, including friends, the police, and family control how you behave, and if you can "get away with it," you might resort to taking that wallet. Some people can't help stealing. However, I hope that when presented with an opportunity to choose between taking something and handing it in, the majority of us would listen to our conscience and do the right thing. Finally, victims of theft should learn to forgive in order to, not forget, but triumph over their perpetrator, as in the words of Shakespeare:
“The robbed man that smiles steals something from the thief.”


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