What is it?
Kleptomania is a psychiatric disorder, in which the affected can’t control their impulse to steal things for no apparent reason. The typical process starts with intrusive thoughts, and leads to the release of pressure when the theft is completed.
Kleptomania is often associated with other psychiatric problems. The affected often suffer, in addition, from great levels of guilt and stress.
While the disorder is often left undiagnosed, it has been estimated that around 0.6% of US citizens suffer from it. It often appears in early adulthood and is more common in women than in men. Around 5% of all shoplifting is estimated to be caused by kleptomania.
What causes it?
Kleptomania has been studied relatively little, and any comprehensive theory of its causes doesn’t exist. The strong compulsiveness suggests, however, that its mechanisms are related to those seen in obsessive-compulsory disorder (read my post on OCD here).
What happens during it?
The cognitive-behavioral approach to kleptomania is perhaps the most persuasive one. Our brains have sophisticated systems that compare the anticipated reward or punishment for a certain action to the actual reward or punishment, and modify themselves as a result. These systems help us decide what actions are worth taking. When someone steals for the first time, they are likely to, at least on some level, expect punishment. When the punishment doesn’t arrive, these systems change a little bit so that the person feels there is a slightly smaller chance of punishment and a slightly bigger chance of reward associated with stealing. When this happens for a sufficiently large number of times, the brain pathways become very strong and may start gaining power over the individual.
Some biological models suggest that kleptomania occurs when the activity of some neurotransmitters is poorly regulated in the brain. The job of the neurotransmitters is to transmit signals between neurons. By modifying the levels of some transmitters, researchers have been able to reduce the urge to steal and make the rush after stealing smaller.
Some psychoanalytic models assert that the kleptomaniac is trying to unconsciously compensate for a previous or anticipated loss. The stolen object is here thought to be a symbolic representation for something that can compensate for a concrete loss.
How can it be treated?
While there are many effective strategies of treating kleptomania through psychotherapy, most of them involve associating stealing with negative feelings to reinforce the natural, balancing fear of punishment. Medication, such as the antidepressant SSRI, are sometimes used, although any comprehensive studies on the usefulness of these kind of interventions haven’t been conducted.
Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kleptomania, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535651/, http://www.addictionhope.com/mood-disorder/kleptomania/, http://www.brainphysics.com/kleptomania.php, http://www.minddisorders.com/Kau-Nu/Kleptomania.html, https://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/kleptomania