Is theft a sickness?

I’m not talking about the people who steal milk or baby food to feed their family. Or people who are intent on reselling whatever for money. The people I’m talking about (and these are things that I have seen, and helped catch a few) are things like this:

A 60+ woman who stole about $10 of hair care product while what she paid for was over $100.

People with prior offenses who are risking a much stiffer penalty.

People who meticulously plan (by either padding a cart or coming in at the same time every week) and make off with less than $10 in goods.

My feelings are that some people just need to steal. It could be for the rush, because it often is not because they don’t have the money. I ask this because sometimes it is just sickening to see some of the people who get caught.

Well, of course there’s kleptomania.

You may also be on to something with that adrenaline rush theory. I often stole packs of gum and slim jims from the local 7-11 when I was in 7th grade. It was a little phase I went through and I haven’t stolen anything since. It was quite a rush, though. Strange feelings in the pit of my stomach, repeated furtive glances at the cashier, heart beating at the speed of sound…

Some people just love to take risks. I guess the only difference between skydiving and carjacking is what lies within your conscience.

Possibly for some cases.

Leaving aside the moral dimension and attitudes to risk, it is rational to steal if (crudely speaking) Pr(getting caught)x(value of penalty)< value of stuff.

In “penalty”, one would have to include loss of reputation.

If some thieves steal when the equation is grossly the other way, then they might have a problem with self-control. If immediate rewards always seem to swamp long-term payoffs, then a person may behave inconsistently over time and find themselves committing stupid crimes like the ones described.

Part of the reason “never steal” is a good rule to follow is that it takes this problem of temptation out of the picture. Most people are not smart enough or sufficiently in control of their judgement to successfully run with “steal if you can get away with it”.


I’m not a psychologist, so mine is not an “expert” opinion, but I don’t think theft is a “sickness”. I suppose it’s possible that it could be a SYMPTOM of a mental illness, but by itself, it’s just theft. Lack of moral fiber, if you will.

In fact, this subject sort of hits on something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, which is: we in this country have taken to “medicalizing” our immoralities (or failures or weaknesses, or whatever you want to call them, if you feel the need to be PC and avoid “Christian” connotations). So now, when we go out and gamble our family’s life savings away, it’s a “disease”. Or having sex with everything in sight isn’t promiscuity or an absence of moral fiber, it’s an “illness”. And people are actually CLAIMING DISABILITY for these very things! Amazing, and utterly despicable.

Honesty is a learned behavior. Selfishness is intrinsic.

I have a two year old. ('Nuff said.)

Intriguing post Beakeroni.

Are you saying that honesty is merely a more sophisticated selfish strategy?

I was relieved to see that you said honesty was learned not conditioned. :wink:

My guess is that conditional cooperation is also innate (I’d cite Axelrod and Hamilton here) and that the learning that children do is about the appropriate circumstances to employ cooperative behaviour.

(Unsuccessful) crooks either failed to learn or cannot overcome temptation.


Is theft a sickness? Yes, known by the name of Humanity.

Why do you think possession is nine tenths of the law?

Because we all want more.

Same as 5 gerbils fighting over the 6th teat. It’s natural to want more.

Property is theft, someone said, and it seems true enough, so sign me up as a thief since I’ve got property.

And how do we come by it?
Who didn’t get pennies from Mom?
They look like toys, with pictures on them.
When you find some more on her nightstand, why wouldn’t you take them?

The only one who didn’t was Nixon the Quaker, and we all know how that story turned out.

Lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. There are real compulsive/obsessive behavoirs like kleptomania and sexual compulsion. Because real mental illnesses exist doesn’t mean that one can be liberal with their definitions and rationalize their casual law-breaking with the old insane defense. Because some people do this doesn’t mean that all people who claim to be Klepto aren’t. They are and they could use real help instead of assuming they’re making excuses.

I don’t see anything wrong with exploring mental illness and appropriatly labeling the symptoms. Its just like calling chronic depression the blues and complaing on how they’re “medicalizing” simple bad moods and demanding Prozac pulled of the shelf. Or maybe what you consider to be moral behavoir goes against human nature and a shift in how we judge each other will be the best preventative medicine for mental illness. I’ve always thought modern society is still too damn puritanical for my tastes.

That reminds me, I have to go take my bran supplements now.

When I was in my early twenties, and unemployed, I went on a year-long shoplifting binge. My motive was, well, revenge. I stole from businesses, primarily bookstores, where I had applied for jobs and was promised interviews. I would either call or physically go into the store to follow up on my application and find that the job had been filled, without the manager even having taken a look at my qualifications for the job. These stores seemed to have permanent “help wanted” signes posted in their doorways. In retrospect, I think they were not necessarily hiring at any given time, but just wanted to have a supply of current applications on file in case someone quit or was fired and they needed someone on short notice. Sometimes I would go and fill out an app every couple of months at the same places. Always, the position would be filled by some vacant-eyed high school aged twit who barely knew how to press the buttons on a cash register. Eventually, I became disgusted and angry. I felt that I was at least owed an interview, which I never got. I thought I was owed something by these stores, so I helped myself to books, decks of Tarot cards, whatever was small enough to stuff into my coat pocket. I was always well groomed, and as well dressed as an unemployed twenty-three year old could be (I did have a few nice outfits that I wore when I was job hunting). I didn’t look like the “profile” of the typical shoplifter, so I was never suspected and never caught. Eventually, I did get a job as a “survey technician” with a market research firm- a job which required slightly more intelligence as a sales clerk in a bookstore, and with that, my shoplifting days were over.

I don’t think theft is an illness. I think it is, by and large, an expression of anger against the business being stolen from.

In a bygone era, criminals were assumed to be mentally and physically defective. A great deal of phisiological and psychological data was gathered by the Victorians in support of this thesis. They believed you could tell a criminal by the circumference of his head, the shape of his brow. The will to act out criminal behavior was considered a form of madness.

Sometime in the 30’s a new theory arose with works like Sutherland’s The Professional Thief – crime as a rational choice. It was radical at the time to say, but some people began to suggest that it wasn’t madness that drove people to steal, it was the rational evaluation of rewards and risks. Later came talk about `crime as work,’ in which criminal activity was framed in the sense of any other professional discipline.

But the idea that crime is a form of insanity has never quite died out. Willie Sutton supposedly said, when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is.” What’s so funny about this response is our understanding that he is making fun of the attempts to psychologize his behavior.

Yet, now that psychologists have claimed authority to speak on every aspect of human life, to the point where even happiness will soon be classified as a disorder of some type that requires medication, criminal behavior is once more being treated as insanity, though with more emphasis on care and treatment than on judgement. Our culture is still haunted by such pseudo-sciences as birth-order theory and graphology, which claim to explain or predict criminal behavior, and in any case try to reduce criminal behavior to some kind of categorical mental condition. Even Shover, who did good work in the field of Crime as Work back when it took off in the seventies, now writes about trying to understand why criminals can’t bring themselves to go straight.

 I don't see selfishness and honesty as being mutally exclusive.