June 1, 2010 — -- Late for appointments? Rude to your wife? Maybe the security guards should ask you to check your bags on the way into a store.
Some personalities are more prone to shoplifting than others, finds a study published in the June issue of the British academic journal Personality and Individual Differences. Its authors conclude that men who are "unpleasant and antisocial" or "disorganized and unreliable" are more likely to shoplift than anyone else.
"There's this sterotype of elderly women stealing tins of salmon, but that's not what we found," says Vincent Egan, a psychology professor at the University of Leicester who co-authored the study. "My results suggest dishonest consumer behavior is narrowly associated with how unpleasant and disorganized you are."
All the subjects identified in the study as shoplifters were men. Outgoing youths were also more prone to steal, maybe because they don't fully understand the consequences of their actions and may get "carried away by the moment," says Egan.
This is not the first time that a psychologist has attempted to understand the roots of shoplifting.
Eric Hollander, a professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, says shoplifters typically fall into two distinct groups.
On the one hand, there are kleptomaniacs with a full-blown addiction that makes it impossible for them to suppress their urge to steal, and then gives them a psychological and physiological rush while they do it. In this way, kleptomaniacs suffer symptoms similar to alchohol and sex addicts, says Hollander. Kleptomaniacs don't necessarily steal because they want to own a particular item; they are more interested in the experience of stealing.
On the other hand are shoplifters who are motivated largely by the desire to acquire an item without having to pay for it. They fall into the "antisocial" category and are likely to exhibit the symptoms that Egan describes in his paper.
"There's a direct benefit for themselves that might have negative consequences for others," says Hollander. "They want something, so they take it, regardless of other people's considerations."
Shoplifting Costs Retailers Billions
Shoplifting is often portrayed as a victimless crime, but Egan points out that retailers lose billions of dollars each year this way, losses that eventually get passed on to consumers.
Shoplifters in the U.S. stole $12.7 billion in 2008, making up 35 percent of all retail losses which also include employee theft and administrative error, according a National Retail Security Survey. Richard Hollinger, a crimonology professor at the University of Florida who conducts the survey, says theft has increased in the economic downturn because stores have been forced to cut back on security spending.
Of course, disagreeable and unreliable men aren't solely responsible for $12.7 billion of shoplifting. Many shoplifters belong to organized crime rings, stealing iPods, Tyenol and designer jeans for sale in the black market, according to the National Retail Federation.
These losses result in higher prices for consumers, who end up bearing the burden of a store's higher security and insurance costs.
Because of these huge economic costs, the motives of shoplifting are often studied carefully by psychologists and crimonologists.
"It's a big public health problem," says Hollander. "People steal such large amounts of merchandise that it affects the economy."