The Profile of a Shoplifter

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There has been a great deal of media attention on the recent rise in supermarket shoplifting, with this form of larceny being made easier by the advent of self-serve checkouts.

ANU criminologist Emmeline Taylor says anonymous surveys suggest that up to one-third of shoppers knowingly manipulated self-serve checkouts. But omitted from the discussion is the profile of the average shoplifter, which is contrary to how many people might picture a traditional thief.

The Statistics

Research suggests that shoplifting is less about fulfilling a person’s needs than an expression of entitlement. In other words, the average shoplifter is not committing the act to feed themselves or their family, but because they feel entitled to a “discount”.

In the context of self-service checkouts in supermarkets, shoppers may feel a sense of entitlement due to what they see as the greed of big business – including unscrupulous actions like ripping off producers and cutting down on staff numbers through the use of self-service machines.

Rachel Shteir, author of ‘The Steal’, believes such views are more prevalent amongst wealthier customers, citing a US study which found that those with incomes of $70,000 a year shoplift 30% more than those earning less than $20,000.

In her book, ‘the Power Paradox: How we gain and lose influence’, Professor Dacher Keltner, cites a surveys of American adults in the early 2000s which found that white people were more likely to shoplift than Latinos and African Americans, and the wealthy were more likely to shoplift than the poor.

The Effect of Wealth

Studies show that merely making someone perceive themselves as wealthy or powerful increases their sense of entitlement, reducing the likelihood that they will behave in an ethical manner.

Professor Keltner argues that the psychological effects of gaining power cause people to take more than their fair share.

In his ‘Cookie Monster Study’, Keltner brought three people into a lab to complete a research task, one of whom was randomly assigned as ‘the leader’. At some point in the experiment, four cookies were brought in to see how these were distributed

In experiments where no leader was assigned, the group usually left the last cookie because no one wanted to take more than the others, or the group discussed splitting it or giving it to the hungriest. When a leader was designated, he or she kept the last cookie in two-third of the cases. What’s more, the leader generally ate more loudly, messily and with their mouths open.

In another experiment, researchers asked 129 students to compare themselves with other students, deliberately altering this comparison by changing whether students were comparing themselves to richer or poorer students. Those made to feel relatively wealthy actually behaved less generously, regardless of their actual socioeconomic class. This came across as participants were offered candy from a jar that they were told would otherwise be given to children in another lab. Those primed to feel rich took more candy than those who were made to feel disadvantaged.

The Link Between Wealth and Power

These studies suggest it is not actual wealth which leads to unethical, dishonest or illegal conduct. It is more likely that perceived, relative wealth is so closely connected to power that, when left unchallenged, it can cause some to feel a sense of entitlement and act improperly.

Indeed, some of the greatest philanthropists are extremely wealthy people. The ‘Giving Pledge’ campaign has seen a number of billionaires commit to donating at least half of their fortunes to charity. Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffet, for example, have pledged 99% of their investments.

Professor Keltner believes philanthropy partly results from the implementation of effective accountability mechanisms.
“We’re not arguing that rich people are bad at all, but that psychological features of wealth have these natural effects,” says researcher Paul Piff in support. “There are simple things you can adjust, which suggest that rich people are fairly sensitive and just need little reminders.”

The combined research suggests that the perception of wealth can lead to a sense of entitlement which, if left unchecked, can lead some people to engage in unethical or illegal conduct, including shoplifting. This suggests that the profile of a shoplifter has less to do with class, gender or race, than with a sense of power.

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Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes is a lawyer with a passion for social justice who advocates criminal law reform, and a member of the content team at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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