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Why Do People Steal? Examining the Robin Hood Complex

Interviewing active shoplifters is the most interesting part of my job. For an hour, I speak as seldom as I can. I listen, and I observe. What they have to say is fascinating. Their actions and mannerisms weave together with their words like a code waiting to be cracked. Why do people steal?

The interview starts with me doing most of the talking. I attempt to make them comfortable and fill them in on on what I’d like to know, were I in their position. I speak and I watch carefully as they try to decide whether I’m an authority figure or a guy who just wants to shoot the breeze and hear about their craft. Jokes help. Compliments help even more. I make it clear that this isn’t a confessional. They don’t need to apologize to me, or fear me, or even try to impress me.

I just want them to relax and talk to me like I’m an old friend.

- Digital Partner -

Once they settle in a bit and are convinced that I’m not a cop, I shift the primary speaking role to them. Ten-second questions and prompts are met with two-minute responses. I try to unravel the true meaning behind their words and actions.

Through hundreds of interviews, a common theme emerges.

It’s Us vs. Them

In other words, it’s normal, hardworking, everyday people vs. rich, greedy corporations. In fact, I began to realize that the primary function of calming a shoplifter down during the beginning of an interview was convincing the individual that I wasn’t one of “them.” That I wasn’t part of the corporate machine. That I could understand their plight.

This would usually start with a testing of the water. They would tentatively throw out a comment about the price of what they stole being unfairly high, or that they had a family to feed. I’d respond compassionately, then down the rabbit hole of the underground corporate complex resistance we’d go.

They started this interview out as an apologetic wrongdoer answering to an authority figure. Then, after a few minutes, we were just two guys trying our best to get by in the world.

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Some would take it a step further. Greedy corporations are the real wrongdoers here, right? I stick it to them by taking from them, right? What do you call someone who fights wrongdoing? Who steals from the rich and gives to the poor? Their body language tells the story. From closed and embarrassed, to neutral, to proud. Condemning the condemner with vindication.

Why Do People Steal? Robin Hood? Really?

Let’s break down what just happened. Every decision we make has a decision-making process. I believe we arrived at the end of the interview at a genuinely held belief of how a series of events making up their decision to steal unfolded. The belief goes, as follows, in order of where they believe it appeared in their decision making process:

Decision Process: “Robin Hood Complex” as Motivation

1. I believe corporations are evil, and I’m going to do something about it.
2. I believe shoplifting is the best way to act on my belief.
3. I might as well take products I need or desire
4. *theft occurs*

This process specifies a desire to act on a moral principle as the motivation for their act of theft. Anyone who buys this account of events can stop reading now. For the rest of us, here’s our best guess of what is really going on, formulated through our own scientific studies and a review of existing literature:

- Digital Partner -

Decision Process: “Robin Hood Complex” as an Excuse

1. I need or desire this item.
2. I’m unwilling or unable to pay for it. OR I simply enjoy the thrill of stealing.
3. *theft occurs*
4. *guilt and cognitive dissonance set in*
5. I feel bad about this. How can I make that feeling go away?
6. *seeks defense mechanism; chooses: “Condemn the Condemner/Justify Actions”
7. I believe corporations are evil, and I’m going to do something about it.

What Can We Do?

It can be frustrating or even comical to watch the mental gymnastics someone will go through in order to avoid negative feelings like guilt. However, it’s important to keep in mind that all of us use defense mechanisms to alleviate negative feelings and resolve cognitive dissonance. If we meet an offender’s mindset with a desire to understand it, instead of frustration, we can harness that knowledge and turn the tables on them.

Action 1: Greet Them at the Door.
Employees are innocent, normal people. In the story the offender has fabricated, they’re a righteous person, and righteous people don’t harm the innocent.

Action 2: Focus Signage on Guilt-Based Messages.
Has anyone tried a sign that just says “Please don’t steal from us”? It won’t work on everyone, but some may feel obliged to reward your courtesy. The Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) is currently researching humanizing signage where you talk to the customer directly, joke with them, or even compliment them.

Action 3: Show Them the Victims and Consequences of Shoplifting.
When theft is high, prices go up. Shelves don’t get stocked and items don’t get sold. Stores go out of business. Normal people lose their jobs. This isn’t a victimless crime. Consequence research is ongoing at LPRC.

Action 4: Avoid Overstocking When Possible.
Its human nature to feel worse about taking the last slice of pizza than when there’s plenty to go around. Avoid having too much of the same product out, not only because it’s harder to protect, but because it becomes psychologically easier to justify stealing.

Action 5: Reach Out in Your Community.
Big corporations can do an awful lot of good. Most already are. Advertise what you’re already doing more clearly, and strategize ways to touch these individual’s communities in positive ways.

This post was originally published in 2018 and was updated November 28, 2018.


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