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Ornstein, A. Gropper, C. Bogner, J.Z. (1983). Shoplifting: An Expression of Revenge and Restitution. Ann. Psychoanal., 11:311-331.

(1983). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 11:311-331

Shoplifting: An Expression of Revenge and Restitution

Anna Ornstein, M.D., Cheryl Gropper, M.S.W. and Janice Z. Bogner, M.S.W.


What does a person really feel when he or she says, in reference to shoplifting, that “if someone had a machine gun pointed toward me, I would have still taken it?” How can the therapist empathically comprehend the state of mind in which the item being stolen has no apparent importance to the person but the act of stealing has a driven, desperate quality?

Since shoplifting, referred to as “petty theft,” is considered a minor crime, shoplifters, especially first offenders, are among those who are frequently referred to a court psychiatric clinic for diagnosis and treatment. If one views all criminal behavior as pathological, the offenders who are being referred to a psychiatric clinic have to be considered less, rather than more, “ill” than those who commit more serious crimes but are not referred to such a facility.

Because of its prevalence in the population at large, the question would have to be asked whether shoplifting should be considered an expression of psychopathology at all? Stealing, especially from large impersonal institutions, is extremely common. The line by which such behavior can be distinguished from the “average” or expectable” as pathological is rather fuzzy. When does cheating on income-tax returns become stealing from the federal government? Department-store displays constitute a continued temptation for a segment of our population who, in the midst of plenty, go without their minimal material needs being met.

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