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Should We Tolerate Shoplifting?

Implications of adolescent rationalizations regarding stealing.

Key points

  • Secular views of respecting "law and order" have eroded.
  • A philosophy that aims to achieve the greatest amount of good, might permit stealing under certain circumstances.
  • The disincentives for shoplifting have become minimal.
Mike Shots/Shutterstock
Source: Mike Shots/Shutterstock

As part of my counseling work with adolescents, I have established sufficient rapport that many of them share some hidden aspects of their lives. It has been upsetting for me to learn that many of my bright and caring teenage patients report that they have shoplifted on occasion.

Reasons

When I asked for reasons for their behavior, I have been given various answers:

  • “I was young. I didn't know better.”
  • “I wanted the toy, so I took it.”
  • “I wanted to take a bunch of candy so that I could resell it at a profit.”
  • “I was hungry.”
  • “There was not enough food at home.”
  • “I wanted to steal alcohol because I could not buy it legally.”
  • “It’s there for the taking.”
  • “I did it for the thrill of getting away with something.”
  • “The stores have hurt my neighborhood, and I’m getting even.”
  • “I was angry at my mother, so I did something wrong on purpose.”
  • “I felt good when I shared what I shoplifted with my friends.”

Rationale

When I asked whether the teens knew that stealing was wrong, they all said they knew that. When I asked why they stole, even though they knew it was wrong I was given several reasons:

  • “Nobody cares. Stores don’t stop you because the police do not get involved unless you steal something that costs more than $950.”
  • “I heard that the stores are insured, so it doesn’t hurt anyone.”
  • “Most of my friends shoplift, and they encouraged me to do so.”
  • “I’m not hurting anyone by stealing from a large corporation.”
  • “I can get away with it.”
  • “The stores expect it, so it’s no big deal.”
  • “I didn’t think about it.”

Implications

I wondered how we have arrived at a situation in which many teenagers feel justified about engaging in petty theft. I found out that shoplifting has been prevalent for many years and was first reported in the 16th century (Shteir, 2011).

More than half of shoplifters begin their behavior when they are teenagers. Further, the incidence of shoplifting appears to be on the rise. Last year, for example, Walgreens closed five stores in San Francisco because of rampant shoplifting. Recently, citing increasing theft, Wegmans discontinued its self-checkout app through which customers scanned their groceries as they shopped.

It seems to me that recent changes in our society may be contributing to an increase in shoplifting.

  • The influence of parents on their teens may have decreased as more parents are working outside of the home or as there are more single parent households. As a result, parents do not have as much time to teach moral behavior to their children.
  • Because of the increase in on-line purchases, parents have fewer opportunities to supervise and correct their children's behavior while shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.
  • Social media has exerted a lot of influence on kids, including some promotion of anti-social behavior.
  • As fewer people identify with a religious institution, they are not taught that there will be consequences if they commit a wrongdoing (e.g., stealing).
  • Secular views of respecting “law and order” have eroded.
  • I wonder if children are less apt to be taught right from wrong at school because of concerns relating to how different segments of our society view right and wrong differently.
  • As our population has grown, individuals have become more anonymous, and thus have been able to engage more in unrecognized anti-social behavior.
  • As our society has chosen to devote its law enforcement resources to more serious crimes, the disincentive for shoplifting has become minimal.

If we continue our current course, will shoplifting continue to increase until it reaches a level at which even more brick-and-mortar retailers will be unable to survive? Are we moving towards an even greater reliance on internet retailers? Will our relationships as members of this society become even more frayed because of theft?

If we want to change course, what should our society do? Should we be educating our children differently about petty theft?

Maintaining the Current Course

In counseling my patients, we first discuss the immorality of stealing. A classical argument is that stealing is always wrong because it causes economic injury to the victim.

On the other hand, a life philosophy that aims to achieve the greatest amount of overall good, might permit stealing under certain circumstances, such as stealing from a rich person for the purpose of feeding a starving family member (i.e., a Robin Hood approach).

One of my patients pushed the utilitarian approach further by stating, “When I steal something it makes me happy. The corporation that owns the store doesn’t get hurt from my shoplifting. This is why stealing is okay.”

I recognized that this kind of utilitarian thinking may underlie a lot of negative teen behavior including unsafe driving and drug abuse.

I asked what he thought of one version of the Golden Rule: “Don’t do unto others that you do not want them to do unto you.” He responded that if he were rich, he wouldn’t care if someone stole a little from him.

When I asked my patients’ subconscious if they thought stealing was wrong, they all said it was. However, in each case the subconscious said it was up to the patient how to behave. When I asked the patients what they thought about their subconscious beliefs, they responded that shoplifting was not that wrong.

Changing Course

I suggested to another of my patients that one reason for the Golden Rule is to help maintain a civilized society. The patient said this made sense to him. However, I then realized it may be unreasonable to expect people will follow a philosophy just for the good of society.

After all, many people do not make good life choices even when it harms them personally, such as people who eat improperly or who develop a problem with substance abuse.

Thus, I think that if we want to change the course of shoplifting, we might consider reinstituting a significant penalty for petty theft, or have stores employ more staff who will be on the lookout for shoplifters, which may help curb the behavior of the some of the shoplifters.

Of course, there would be a significant amount of social and monetary costs to adoption of either of these approaches. Some retailers may decide against significant shoplifting mitigation because the costs associated with such an effort would exceed the anticipated monetary loss from on-going shoplifting.

Takeaway

At first it was unclear to me whether changing our current approach to shoplifting was worth the costs to society. However, if we maintain the current course of shifting to on-line retailing, the focus of theft will just shift location as evident by the increased reports of delivered package thefts from private homes. My conclusion is that it would be easier to increase surveillance and enforcement in stores rather than in all of our homes.

However, dealing more deliberately with petty theft does not address many of the societal issues that have led to its increased prevalence. I believe that difficult fundamental changes in society are required to address these underlying issues. For example, perhaps we need to expand our social safety nets so that people do not shoplift because they have insufficient food at home.

Copyright Ran D. Anbar

References

Shteir, Rachel (2011). The steal: a cultural history of shoplifting. New York: Penguin Press.

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