Get Our Email Newsletter

Guilt is One of the Major Consequences of Shoplifting

Cops and robbers. Good guys and bad guys. The dichotomy in the loss prevention world seems simple enough: bad people doing illegal things and good people trying to stop them. While the complexities of what makes a person good or bad are too extensive to debate here, one commonly assumed prerequisite for being “bad” may rob us of a potential opportunity. [Look for below signifying actionable interventions based on the insights that follow.]

Guilt: One of the Harshest Consequences of Shoplifting

On its surface, shoplifters, robbers, burglars, and in-store troublemakers seem to have no remorse for their actions. They brazenly walk onto your property with a premeditated plan to break the law and victimize your organization.

In fact, many of them will profess in great detail how little remorse they feel after apprehension. Hardened criminals don’t get any street cred for feeling guilty, after all.

- Digital Partner -

While there are famous cases of psychopathic individuals committing crimes, the majority of criminals have a conscience that’s functioning just fine. Without deploying careful defense mechanisms, the cognitive dissonance caused by their guilt would eat them alive.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. It can be observed clearly in situations where you’ve done something regrettable. Part of you tells you that what you did was wrong, and you feel guilty, an already uncomfortable state.

As a reaction to the guilt, part of you tries to make the case for why your actions were justified. Now you’re experiencing guilt and cognitive dissonance, two extremely uncomfortable states, driving you to repeat your justification to yourself and others until you feel comfortable calling it truth and relieving your guilt and dissonance. This process is done using a few common mental defense mechanisms.

Guilt-Alleviating Defense Mechanisms

Denial: “I did not do that bad thing.” Unfortunately, this one is so far from the truth that it’s difficult to fully adopt.

Repression: “I’m not going to think about the bad thing I did.” This is only effective if reminders aren’t in place.

LP Solutions
  • Here is one opportunity to undermine this defense mechanism in retail: By putting event reminders such as signage in place.

Projection: “I’m not the bad person in this scenario; X is.” This is an immediate reaction to feeling immoral and seeking a target on whom to project. Once chosen, rationalization is often used to flesh out a compelling story for another party being responsible.

Rationalization: This is far and away the most common defense mechanism that we encounter at the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) during our offender interviews. A few common themes of rationalization emerge:

  • Necessity:
    • I didn’t have the money and needed this item (or the proceeds).
    • I have kids/wife/dependent to feed.
    • This is a necessity and shouldn’t be so expensive. It’s the retailer/manufacturer/government’s fault.
  • Victim Blaming:
    • Impact Reduction: X retailer makes billions; stealing a few things isn’t hurting anyone.
      • To counter this, turn the focus to local store associates who are put in danger and financially affected by this behavior. Perhaps make the “Manager on Duty” or “Employee of the Month” display more noticeable to remind offenders of these human faces.
      • Store greeters have been identified by several of our offenders as a guilt-based deterrent. (“I feel like I’m stealing from him/her.”)
    • Asking for It: They just leave products out there, begging people to take it.
      • To counter, introduce signage and make an effort to remind offenders that a loss prevention team is on duty and dedicated to protecting the store.
    • Demonization: X retailer is greedy/bad for environment/ran Mom and Pop out of business.
      • Campaign to customers to feel like a friendly and likable brand. Highlight how your organization gives back to the community.

Reaction Formation: “I’m feeling guilty, so when confronted I’m going to exhibit the polar opposite of guilt: complete, emotionless non-remorse, to counter it, and hopefully start to actually feel how I’m pretending to feel.”

  • We’ve all encountered apprehended criminals doing the “tough-guy” routine. It’s important to remember that this is a façade put on to alleviate extreme guilt. Paradoxically, someone in this state is perhaps more vulnerable to intervention than someone apologizing for their actions due to the mechanism of making amends (in other words, apologizing may feel as though it undoes the action and repays any debt owed).

Parting Thoughts

While there are certainly a lot of “bad people” out there, there are far fewer who don’t experience severe guilt from their indiscretions. If we can understand how that guilt affects their thoughts and behavior, then we can harness that knowledge to put reminders, messages, and interventions in place that make the emotional consequences of shoplifting too unpleasant of an experience to be worthwhile.

- Digital Partner -


Loss Prevention Research Council


This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated January 2, 2019. 

Loss Prevention Magazine updates delivered to your inbox

Get the free daily newsletter read by thousands of loss prevention professionals, security, and retail management from the store level to the c-suite.

What's New

Digital Partners

Become a Digital Partner

Violence in the Workplace

Download this 34-page special report from Loss Prevention Magazine about types and frequency of violent incidents, impacts on employees and customers, effectiveness of tools and training, and much more.


View All | Sponsor a Webinar


View All | Submit a Whitepaper

LP Solutions

View All | Submit Your Content

Loss Prevention Media Logo

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

The trusted newsletter for loss prevention professionals, security and retail management. Get the latest news, best practices, technology updates, management tips, career opportunities and more.

No, thank you.

View our privacy policy.