Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Shoplifting motivation

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Shoplifting motivation:
Why do shoplifters steal?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Shoplifting

Focus questions:

  1. What is shoplifting? How often does it happen?
  2. What is motivation?
  3. What effect does self-efficacy (competence), social learning (through peer influence and role modelling) and deterrence (e.g. punishment) have on criminal behaviour?
  4. What motivates people to steal? Are there biological, psychological or social reasons behind this?
  5. What can society do to assist with the reduction of shoplifting?

What is shoplifting?[edit | edit source]

Shoplifting (see Figure 1) is defined as the theft of items from a retail store with no intention of paying for them (Krasnovsky & Lane, 1998). A shoplifter is an informal term used to define a person found guilty of the theft of items. In a literature review undertaken by Krasnovsky and Lane (1998), shoplifting is discussed as a crime committed regularly and acknowledges an increase in prevalence causing significant harm to society. Recidivism is the repetition of criminal behaviour following intervention/punishment of prior behaviour, for example, crime committed following time in prison (Cottle, Lee & Heilbrun, 2001). Several studies on shoplifting behaviour have been undertaken since the 1980s, each attempting to determine the motivational factors behind the behaviour. These studies have identified different types of shoplifters, however, their interpretations differ slightly. The following table depicts types of shoplifters identified by Moore (1984).

Table 1. Types of Shoplifters

Type of shoplifter Frequency of shoplifting Motivation Emotional response when caught Recidivism
Impulse Once or twice. Social influences. Very embarrassed and overwhelmed with guilt. Unlikely.
Occasional 3-10 times in previous year. Lack of money - primary, peer pressure - secondary. Emotional reaction to thoughts of punishment. Unlikely due to shock.
Episodic Ritualistic behaviour. Satisfy needs triggered by stress. Emotional and psychological issues (likely to have diagnosis). Psychotherapy may reduce shoplifting.
Amateur Regularly (often weekly). Social influences - peer pressure, forming an identity. Denial present, manipulative to avoid punishment. Difficult to cease, change in attitude needs assistance.
Semi-professional Regularly - part of lifestyle Monetary benefit of re-selling items. Believe they deserve compensation due to being disrespected in the community. Uses shoplifting as an emotional outlet. No guilt feelings. Likely, punishment (prison) may be only deterrent.

The types of shoplifters identified by Moore (1984) will be used throughout this chapter to explain the various motives behind a person's decision to shoplift. This model will allow for in depth discussion about the biological, psychological and social motivational factors associated with shoplifting.

How often do people shoplift?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Juveniles

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) reported that although shoplifting may be committed frequently by juveniles, there is a low conviction rate (Richards, 2009). Krasnovsky and Lane (1998) reported an estimated 60% of all shoppers have shoplifted at some point in their life. They stated that between 30 and 40% of shoplifting crimes were committed by juveniles and are likely to be repeat offenders. Griffin (1984) (as cited by Krasnovsky & Lane, 1998) estimated between 2 and 5% of shoplifters are apprehended. This is concerning, as it suggests that the majority of shoplifters will not be dealt with by the criminal justice system, and therefore not have access to intervention programs (e.g., restorative justice, psychological therapy).

This chapter will put the spotlight on juveniles (see Figure 2) allowing readers to understand what motivates them to shoplift, which in turn may assist us in deterring juvenile's who commit (or are likely to commit) these offences and prevent recidivism. Cottle et al. (2001) stated that biological, psychological and social factors need to be considered in order to predict the recidivism of juveniles. A case study (Sam) will be used to consider these factors which will allow readers to understand the varying aspects of the motivation behind shoplifting behaviour.

Case study[edit | edit source]


Imagine this... You are the father of 13 year old Sam. You receive a phone call from the local police station. The officer informs you that Sam has been arrested for shoplifting at the local shopping centre. He explains that Sam is not going to be charged because this is his first offence. You begin to think about what motivated Sam to commit this offence. Did someone tell him to do it? Was he under the influence of alcohol or an illicit substance? Did he not have the money to purchase what he stole?''

These questions will be explored through reviewing motivational theories as well as the factors associated with criminal behaviour. Follow the pink boxes to consider each of the factors that may have led to Sam's decision to shoplift.

Theories of motivation[edit | edit source]

What is motivation?[edit | edit source]

Motivation can be described as the energy, intensity and direction behind the behaviour of a person (Reeve, 2009). Motivational theories of self-efficacy, planned behaviour and deterrence are discussed to provide insight and understanding of the motives behind a person's decision to shoplift.

Self-efficacy theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Albert Bandura

Do shoplifters want to continue to improve their stealing skills if they get away with it? These questions may be answered by the theory of self-efficacy. Bandura (1977) (see Figure 3) stated that once a person believes they can perform a task or action adequately they increase their self-efficacy and therefore put in more effort to complete the task/action even when faced with difficulty. High self-efficacy is felt when a person truly believes they can achieve whatever they are faced with because of prior achievement. Bandura (1977) stated that, should a person be unable to achieve competence in performing a task/action, they are less likely to perform that task/action again.

Building self-efficacy involves observation, which Bandura (1977) described as vicarious experience. This encompasses learning behaviours through observing other people demonstrating mastery of skills that lead to achievement. Observation of friends and family may increase a person's motivation to also perform the task to 'fit in' with their family or friendship group. Observation can provide confidence in success because they think 'I could do that' (Bandura, 1977).

Various factors foster an increase in self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977). Successful completion/achievement and verbal persuasion (either self-talk or peer support) increases self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977). Furthermore, a calm physiological state will likely improve task competence. Conversely, if you are anxious it may appear as though the task is outside your ability and self-efficacy is not realised (Bandura, 1977).


Sam observed his friends shoplift the day before. They managed to steal a t-shirt and didn't get caught. This increased Sam's willingness to shoplift because he thought "if they got away with it, so will I". Sam was arrested after shoplifting for the first time. This prevented him from increasing his self-efficacy, leading to the inability to become competent in his shoplifting skills. The police officer's decision to arrest Sam may prevent him from shoplifting in the future because he feels he is unable to shoplift without being caught. Sam also understands that he was 'let off' the first time (no conviction), but next time he may not be as lucky.

Theory of planned behaviour[edit | edit source]

The theory of planned behaviour was developed by Ajzen (1991) following Fishbein's development of the theory of reasoned action. This theory can be explained using the following diagram (see Figure 4):

Figure 4. Theory of planned behaviour

This theory acts as an extension to the theory of self-efficacy. This theory discusses the importance of a person developing behavioural beliefs, social expectations, and control beliefs about behaviours and having them accepted by others they trust (e.g., family/friends). These outline appropriate behaviours which then influence a person's choice to engage in behaviours consistent with these beliefs (Ajzen, 1991). Ajzen (1991) discusses the importance of the person's perceived behaviour control, (a term similar to self-efficacy) and the person's perception of their ability to perform a behaviour. This theory suggests that if the attitude towards the behaviour is positive and meets the expectations and beliefs formed, the greater the perceived behavioural control, thus impacting on the strength of the person's intention to perform the behaviour (Ajzen, 1991; Tonglet, 2001).

Tonglet (2001) conducted a study on shoplifting using the theory of planned behaviour to assess the intentions of people with pro-shoplifting beliefs and attitudes. The findings suggested pro-shoplifting attitudes were based on the belief that getting caught and receiving punishment for shoplifting was low risk and therefore the risk outweighed the possible punishment (Tonglet, 2001). Pro-shoplifters also believed their behaviour had minimal effect on the economic status of society which justified their intentions to shoplift. This study demonstrated that planning has effects on a person's intentions to commit offences and attitudes can allow a person to justify their criminal behaviour.


Sam and his friends did not have any money to purchase t-shirts from the surf shop so they agreed to steal them. Sam justified his shoplifting behaviour by acknowledging the expectations and beliefs he and his friends had constructed prior to deciding to shoplift. Through Sam's justification, his perceived behaviour control was strengthened, and he felt confident in his ability to steal the items. If one of Sam's friends disagreed with the expectations and beliefs that 'shoplifting is okay', Sam's perceived behaviour control may have been weakened, he may have chosen not to shoplift[grammar?].

Deterrence theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Prison as punishment - is this a deterrent?

Does the thought of further punishment (see Figure 5) deter people from stealing? According to Kraut (1976), deterrence theory is based on the idea that being apprehended will have a negative effect on the person, reducing the likelihood of recidivism. Kraut (1976) applied deterrence theory to a sample of students to assess whether deterrence (and chances of apprehension) had an effect on their willingness to shoplift. A total of 1500 questionnaires were completed anonymously by university students. They were asked about their shoplifting behaviour and their motivations behind this (Kraut, 1976). The results revealed that students who shoplifted the most believed the risk of being apprehended was low, and the belief that the consequence/punishment received would be minimal.

Kraut's (1976) study found that students who admitted to shoplifting and had been apprehended for these offences in the past, stated they were less likely to shoplift again and believed next time, they would receive more severe punishment. This finding supports deterrence theory, because it suggests that if people believe they will be apprehended and receive significant consequences, they are less likely to engage in the behaviour in the future. Despite these findings, Kraut (1976) noted that some shoplifters re-offended an average of five times following apprehension, however significant time had lapsed between apprehension and re-offending.

This study suggests that deterrence can assist in reducing shoplifting, but if the deterrence is not maintained, recidivism may occur because the shock of apprehension reduces in strength. This leads to the assumption that if deterrence were to be effective in preventing individuals re-offending, the criminal justice system and retail outlets need to be vigilant in the way they handle shoplifting.


None of Sam's friends had been caught shoplifting by police or retail outlets. Sam was the first from his group of friends to be arrested. It was not until this occurred that Sam truly understood the consequences. Sam's arrest may serve as a deterrent for himself and his friends when considering shoplifting in the future. According to Kraut (1976), the strength of the deterrent will only remain if the punishment continues to increase in severity (if caught repeatedly) or if Sam and his friends observe similar consequences being dealt to other juveniles convicted of shoplifting.

What motivates people to steal?[edit | edit source]

There may be many reasons why a person chooses to shoplift. Are they young, suffer from depression, easily influenced by peers and come from a low socio-economic background? Any of these factors may be a motive for shoplifting, but each type of shoplifter may have varying motivations. The biological, psychological and social factors associated with the motivation to steal are discussed.

Biological factors[edit | edit source]

Does age or gender influence shoplifting? Are young people more likely to shoplift? If people start shoplifting at a younger age are they more likely to continue doing so into adulthood?

Age[edit | edit source]

Statistics from Krasnovksy and Lane (1998) suggest that age is important to consider, given that 30 to 40% of shoplifters are juveniles. During the period of 1989 to 1998 offences committed by juveniles increased substantially compared with offences committed by adults (Cottle et al., 2001). Cottle et al. (2001) stated that if a person commits their first offence at a young age, the offences will tend to continue to increase in severity and criminal behaviour will form part of their lifestyle. Despite the focus of research on juveniles, we all know that adults shoplift, for example, Winona Ryder (actress), mature age, rich, successful, yet was caught shoplifting. There is a distinct lack of research on such individuals therefore making it difficult to assess whether age really is an important consideration.

Gender[edit | edit source]

The gender of the offender is also relevant, and research suggests that being male tends to be a strong predictor of criminal behaviour. However, the number of offences committed by females is increasing (Cottle et al. 2001; Richards, 2009). Despite this, Krasnovsky and Lane (1998) reported that females account for significantly more instances of shoplifting than males, but this could be due to females often shopping more frequently than males. The AIC reported that male indigenous juveniles were involved in the highest proportion of criminal activity (Richards, 2009). Kraut (1976) found that males admitted to shoplifting in the past more than females and tended to be in their adolescence when committing the offences.

The research on biological factors associated with shoplifting is clearly mixed, making it difficult to assume that age and gender predicts the likelihood of a person committing theft. Other factors must be considered in order to understand the motivations behind shoplifting behaviour.


Sam is 13 and male. These biological factors could not be used as the sole reason behind his decision to shoplift.

Psychological factors[edit | edit source]

The mental health of a shoplifter must be considered when understanding the motives behind their behaviour. There are several aspects of mental health and personality that appear to be linked with shoplifting. Research suggests a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, depression and kleptomania are common for people who shoplift (Krasnovsky & Lane, 1998; Smith-Osborne, 2005; Tonglet, 2002; Nyffeler & Regard, 2001; Cottle et al., 2001).

Mental health and types of shoplifters[edit | edit source]

Research conducted by Moore (1984) suggests the following:

  • Impulse – shoplifting is motivated by psychological or social stress, for example, instances of depression/anxiety or feeling abandoned, lack of attachment with family.
  • Occasional – shoplifting behaviour is carried out due to a lack of impulse control and chronic behaviours. These shoplifters may be displaying symptoms of kleptomania where they have an impulsion to steal.
  • Episodic – similar to the impulse shoplifter, shoplifting is motivated by psychological or social stress.
  • Amateur – these shoplifters display delinquent and rebellious behaviours and may be subject to social pressure to shoplift.
  • Semi-professional – similar to the occasional shoplifter, they have developed chronic shoplifting behaviour and may suffer from an impulse control disorder.

Moore (1984) also found that emotional and mental issues in convicted shoplifters was equally distributed between males and females. Krasnovsky and Lane (1998) reported that although Moore's research was thorough in this area, other research shows differences in the findings. The majority of shoplifters are able to adjust their behaviour, allowing them to choose not to shoplift, while the minority suffer from impulsive, non-rational, psychotic and episodic behaviours, often involving delusions (Krasnovsky & Lane, 1998).

Depression[edit | edit source]

In a study of 106 first offence shoplifters, Lamontagne, Boyer, Hetu, and Lacerte-Lamontagne (2000) found that most were diagnosed with depression, unemployed and from a low socio-economic background. Yates (1986) also found evidence of depression in a study of 101 shoplifters, suggesting that low self-esteem, passive behaviour, social isolation and a depressed state are common among a large proportion of shoplifters. Do shoplifters choose to shoplift during times of stress/loss? Do they shoplift to feel happier? According to this research, it is possible that the answer is 'yes'. How do you feel when you purchase something for yourself? Happy? If shoplifters do not have the money to purchase an item, they may choose to steal to obtain that happy feeling, thus boosting their mood.

Kleptomania[edit | edit source]

Kleptomania is defined as an impulse control disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM V). The diagnostic criteria for kleptomania quoted by Krasnovsky and Lane (1998):

  • Recurrent failure to resist impulses to steal objects not needed for personal use or for their monetary value.
  • Increasing sense of tension immediately before committing the theft.
  • Pleasure or relief at the time of committing the theft.
  • The stealing is not committed to express anger or vengeance and is not in response to a delusion or a hallucination.
  • The stealing is not due to Conduct Disorder, a Manic episode, or Antisocial Personality Disorder." (p. 223)

Goldman (1991) (as cited by Krasnovsky & Lane, 1998) stated that people diagnosed with kleptomania "frequently experienced tumultuous and unusually stressful childhoods, and symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, marital turmoil, social isolation, and lack of self-esteem were common in adulthood" (p. 224). Shoplifters diagnosed with kleptomania would fall into Moore (1984) criteria of an occasional or semi-professional shoplifter. Treatment for kleptomania would need to be undertaken to reduce and eventually cease the shoplifting.


Sam would be classified as an amateur shoplifter according to Moore (1984). Sam has not been diagnosed with a mental illness, however prior to committing the offence, he had been feeling socially isolated and slightly depressed. Sam has been struggling to make new friends since stating at a new school. Sam met Max who was one of the boys Sam witnessed shoplifting and encouraged Sam to shoplift.

Social factors[edit | edit source]

Several studies discuss a variety of social factors which may lead to a person's decision to shoplift. Aspects associated with peer influence, moral values, attachment issues with family and illicit substance use are discussed in an attempt to understand the vast number of motivators that could be attributed to shoplifting.

Peers[edit | edit source]

Do your friends influence your behaviour (positively or negatively)? Are you more inclined to do something if you witness others doing it? Cox, Cox, Anderson, and Moschis (1993) found that social influences were extremely strong among adolescent shoplifters, particularly peer influence. Cox et al. (1993) stated that juveniles frequently "adopt" (Cox et al., 1993, p. 236) their friends' defiant behaviour. Kraut (1976) supports this finding, with students in his study admitting that family or friends approved of their shoplifting behaviour. This suggests they were able to justify their behaviour. Kraut (1976) also found that students who frequently shoplifted had more friends that shoplifted.

A juvenile's decision to mimic their friend's behaviour as opposed to their parents, may be due to their stage in development. They are actively attempting to create their own identity by reflecting on their successes and failures, all of which are observed by peers. This is discussed in depth by Eric Erikson in his theory of identity formation (see identity formation).

The research suggests that peer influence is a significant factor when considering the motives behind shoplifting. This cannot be ignored when attempting to understand an individual's motivations.

Family[edit | edit source]

Parents act as role models for their children, they assist with developing positive and negative behaviours (Reeve, 2009) [grammar?]. The "emotional bond" (Cox et al., 1993, p.237) between a parent and child was found to be very important as it ensures a parents' expectations and boundaries are set and followed. This research also suggests that if a strong attachment with the parents is achieved, it will influence attachments of a similar nature with peers, and encourage positive relationships (Hirschi, 1969, as cited by Cox et al., 1993).

Social rules based on moral values/attitudes through family influences need to be considered (Tonglet, 2002). It is important to understand whether family attitudes are pro- or anti-shoplifting and if this behaviour is encouraged. Hirschi (1969), as cited by Cox et al. (1993), found that parents are often the first people in a child's life to outline rules, therefore the child is more likely to behave in a way that is accepted by their parents rather than conform to social expectations. Therefore, parental influence on shoplifting behaviour is significant. The findings suggest that children with little to no attachment with their parents are more likely to shoplift than those with a strong attachment (Cox et al., 1993).

Substance use[edit | edit source]

Are people that use drugs more likely to shoplift? Krasnovsky and Lane (1998) suggest that people using illicit substances were involved in criminal behaviour more than those that do not. The type of substance must also be considered, Inciardi (1980) (as cited by Krasnovsky & Lane, 1998) found people using 'harder drugs' (for example, heroin) were less likely to be involved in more serious offences due to the cognitive difficulties they face whilst under the influence. This suggests shoplifters (a less serious offence) use hard substances. This finding is controversial due to research indicating a significant amount of shoplifting is committed by juveniles. Further research in this area needs to be undertaken to ascertain what the effect substance use has on the motivation behind shoplifting.

You could assume that if a person uses substances, they may need to shoplift in order to support their habit/addiction. However, it is clear that other factors within the person's life must be considered. Motivation to shoplift cannot be relied solely on substance use[grammar?], other factors such as mental health/psychological stress also play a significant role for those who use substances and are involved in criminal behaviour (Krasnovsky & Lane, 1998).

Socio-economic status[edit | edit source]

People shoplifting because they do not have money is an easy assumption, but is that always the case? Krasnovksy and Lane (1998) stated that many studies reveal a link between low socio-economic status and shoplifting. The findings of several studies suggest that low income is a motive to shoplift because these people do not have the funds to purchase the items they require to survive (Krasnovsky & Lane, 1998). It should be noted that not all shoplifters are low income earners. Evidence states that there are other factors associated with their criminal behaviour. Socio-economic status cannot be assumed to be the sole motivator behind the decision to shoplift.


Sam's peers played a significant role in relation to his decision to shoplift. Sam observed his friends shoplift on the previous day and was pressured by his friends to do the same. Sam has a strong attachment with his parents, despite this he chose to ignore the social rules he learnt from his parents and decided to shoplift. It seems as though Sam's desire to please his friends and be accepted into this group overruled the values he had grown up with. Social influences appear to be the basis of the motivation behind Sam's behaviour and demonstrate the power of peer influence when looking at what motivates juveniles to shoplift.

What can society do to assist with the reduction of shoplifting?[edit | edit source]


What could help ensure Sam will not shoplift again?

Society as a whole has a responsibility to protect the community. Government agencies can discourage shoplifting through formal punishment, however, parents, peers, education programs and other influential services also need to actively discourage the behaviour. The following services/people can assist with the reduction of shoplifting in the following ways:

  • Police - use of the diversionary programs accessing support from alcohol and drug services, restorative justice and other community support services.
  • Juvenile justice services - targeting risks of re-offending through education, monitoring of, and discouraging illicit substance use, using cognitive behavioural therapy programs to address offending thinking, assisting with employment, treatment for health issues, involving the family and encouraging social involvement through recreational programs.
  • Family - parents to inspire positive attitudes through discouraging criminal behaviour, developing values within the household that support social expectations, acting as a positive role model and building a strong attachment with their children.
  • Peers - peer groups need to encourage others to engage in appropriate behaviour and discourage anti-social/pro-criminal behaviours, for example, shoplifting.
  • Education - schools need to break down the barriers allowing children to feel comfortable with complying with social expectations/rules. Teachers need to identify when children are engaging in criminal behaviour in an attempt to 'fit in' and take necessary action. They also need to be positive role models to ensure a consistent message regarding appropriate behaviour and attitudes is carried and maintained.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 What is the type of shoplifter that sells items stolen?


2 According to Kraut (1976), is punishment a deterrent for shoplifters?


3 What were Sam's primary motives behind his shoplifting?


4 What are some of the symptoms of kleptomania? (Tick all that apply)

Increasing sense of tension immediately before committing the theft
Pleasure or relief at the time of committing the theft
Feelings of guilt following theft
Theft is committed to express anger
Delusions or hallucinations

5 Can people assume that low income earners shoplift?


6 How can parents reduce the chances of their children shoplifting?

Be positive role models
Develop a strong attachment
Tell them to 'go along with the crowd'
Have strong values (anti-shoplifting)

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.

Cottle, C. C., Lee, R. J., & Heilbrun, K. (2001). The prediction of criminal recidivism in juveniles: a meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 28(3), 367-394.

Cox, A. D., Cox, D., Anderson, R. D. & Moschis, G. P. (1993). Social influences on adolescent shoplifting - theory, evidence, and implications for the retail industry. Journal of Retailing, 69(2), 234-246.

Krasnovsky, T. & Lane, R. C. (1998). Shoplifting: a review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 3(3), 219-235.

Kraut, R. E. (1976). Deterrent and definitional influences on shoplifting. Social Problems, 23, 358-368.

Lamontagne, Y., Boyer, R., Hetu, C., & Lacerte-Lamontagne, C. (2000). Anxiety, significant losses, depression and irrational beliefs in first-offence shoplifters. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 45(1), 63-66.

Moore, R. H. (1984). Shoplifting in Middle America: patterns and motivational correlates, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 28(1), 53-64. doi: 10.1177/0306624X8402800107

Nyeffler, T. & Regard, M. (2001). Kleptomania in a patient with a right frontolimbic lesion. Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology & Behavioral Neurology, 14(1), 73-76.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Richards, K. (2009). Juveniles' contact with the criminal justice system in Australia: AIC monitoring reports 07. Australian Government, Australian Institute of Criminology. Retrieved from

Smith-Osborne, A. (2005). Comparative theoretical perspectives on a social problem: psychopathology and middle-class teen female shoplifters. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 2(3-4), 73-84. doi: 10.1300/J394v02n03_05

Tonglet, M. (2001). Consumer misbehaviour: an exploratory study of shoplifting. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 1(4), 336-354.

Yates, E. (1986). The influence of psycho-social factors on non-sensical shoplifting. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 30(3), 203-211. doi: 10.1177/0306624X8603000304

External links[edit | edit source]