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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyJanuary 18, 2024

Why do rich people shoplift?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Shoplifting is common, and rarely motivated by affordability. A forensic psychologist takes us through the common factors which motivate some shoplifters. 

Pearls were clutched and eyes were rolled when Golriz Ghahraman’s shoplifting allegations surfaced last week. As an MP, Ghahraman earned close to $200,000 a year, making her alleged crimes – stealing designer items worth $15,000 – hard to fathom. She may have walked out without stopping at the till, but the eventual price she paid – a fall from grace and a resignation – was very, very high.

Shoplifting is one of the most common crimes in the world. In New Zealand 92% of retailers know they experience retail crime, mostly shoplifting, and lose over $1 billion a year to it. In the US, one in 11 people admit to having claimed a five-finger discount at least once. In the UK, shoplifting is hitting record highs, particularly among the middle class. It’s a rise that tracks with the cost of living crisis, but many aren’t stealing essentials, they’re choosing luxury items. Not being able to afford stuff doesn’t seem to be a major driving factor for most shoplifters. One study showed only 7% of shoplifters were motivated by economic disadvantage – they planned and didn’t regret their thefts. Rich people have been reported to steal toothpaste, gold-plated hairdryers, designer clothes and corned beef. 

Retail theft by the wealthy is a growing phenomenon that has been dubbed “nonsensical shoplifting”. But just because it’s happening more and has a catchy name doesn’t mean it makes sense. If people with money don’t need to steal, and risk so much with every theft, why do they do it?

Dr Hedwig Eisenbarth, an expert in forensic psychology at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellngton, says there are many  reasons why people  shoplift – and a lot of them aren’t about money. While it’s impossible to understand an offender’s reasoning from the outside, or even sometimes from the inside, Eisenbarth says there are some factors which tend to be common with theft by the wealthy. Below is a non-exhaustive list.

They can’t resist

Shoplifting can be an impulsive behaviour, an unplanned reaction which the person has a reduced ability to control, Eisenbarth says. In an extreme form, this can be kleptomania – a disorder characterised by irresistible urges to steal things that people don’t need and are usually of little value. We might think of stealing as an addiction, similar to alcoholism or problem gambling.

So do shoplifters actually want to steal? “Wanting is a difficult term,” says Eisenbarth. “It sounds like this is something that someone does deliberately and intentionally, and that is different [to] someone who has acted impulsively [and] has not planned it.” Impulsive behaviours, she says, have short term drivers, which override longer-term effects. Which leads us to our next point…

To fill the void

Apparently, shoplifting can be a fun activity that gives a thrill, or a sense of accomplishment or control, kind of like figuring out a puzzle or doing your favourite hobby. When humans do something and it makes us feel good, we tend to do it again, says Eisenbarth. Fun activities also reduce negative feelings – like those, for example, arising from the stress of receiving death threats

In a study of shoplifters in the US, almost a third had pasts characterised by loss and trauma. They were also atypical offenders, in that apart from their shoplifting they were law-abiding and tended to have traditional values. The researchers didn’t want to make claims about subconscious motives, but the prevalence of past loss is notable. Another 18% of participants experienced acute depression, and researchers thought they may have shoplifted to feel something other than, well, depressed.

Winona Ryder was sentenced to three years probation, 480 hours of community service and a hefty fine for shoplifting in 2001.

Wanting to be cool

This is more relevant with young people testing boundaries and feeling social pressures acutely. Sometimes shoplifting can be part of a developmental phase, says Eisenbarth.

It’s normal to them

Not all rich people were always rich. They could have grown up in an environment where shoplifting was a survival mechanism, and therefore normalised, and then continued that pattern of behaviour, says Eisenbarth.


Some research into the effects of wealth, power and privilege have found that the rich tend to steal more than the poor. In one study people were given a jar filled with lollies and told they could have some now, before the jar was given to children. Rich people took more candy for themselves. The researchers hypothesised that, simply put, it could demonstrate that having more resources and freedom leads to a tendency towards selfishness. 

“Some people might think that some rules just don’t apply to them,” says Eisenbarth. It’s a way of moving through the world that leads rich people to commit white collar crimes like fraud, but also applies to shoplifting. There’s some truth to it, money can act like a shield against consequences.

As much as we want to understand shoplifters with neat little headings, Eisenbarth warns against it. We should resist drawing conclusions and making assumptions too quickly, she says. People are complicated and so is psychology – “that’s the beauty of it.”

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