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It's a love affair, a way to compensate for loss, pierce despair, feel good and treat oneself to a thrill.

Happiness from shopping during the height of summer discount season?

Uh, no. It's a different kind of retail therapy: the joy – the succour – of the five-finger discount.

That's what some people call shoplifting and, contrary to what you may think, it's never just about taking something because you can slip it easily into your pocket and avoid detection. (Or think you can avoid detection, I should say.)

"Most people start out saying they don't know why they shoplifted. Everything was fine in their lives, they say. And then as the conversation unfolds, they start telling you these emotional stories about how their grandparents had just died or they had lost a lot of money," Rachel Shteir, author of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, explains in an interview. While promoting her recently published book, she participated in several call-in radio shows that were "extraordinary, running the gamut from people talking about their shoplifting of yore as children or adolescents, and kids in college wanting to confess, and a few who are incurable and who were calling in for help."

In its 2010 study, the Global Retail Theft Barometer, which surveys 42 countries around the world, reported that $45.4-billion (U.S.) of "shrinkage" – the terms used for loss of money between production of goods and point of sale – was attributable to shoplifting. That's 42.4 per cent of the total. Next in line came employee theft at $ 37.8-billion or 35 per cent. In Canada, retail crime accounts for $3.6-billion (Canadian) worth of goods disappearing from stores every year, according to a 2007 study from the Retail Council of Canada, the latest year for which statistics are available. In the United States, the cost of shoplifted loss to retailers is $11-billion (U.S.). It is quoted both in Canada and the United States that approximately 9 per cent of the total population have shoplifted.

Why there's a "silent epidemic" is a complicated question. "It's a new area of investigation," Ms. Shteir says, adding that she spent seven years researching her book, which does more to document the cultural phenomenon than provide conclusive analysis.

What she did find is an often-unconscious connection to mental health. It's a form of self-nourishment. "People felt that some wrong had been done to them: an economic wrong, a social wrong, an emotional wrong, a life wrong. They may not have consciously schemed, but somehow they felt they were compensating for that loss by shoplifting. They would feel, 'Something has been taken away from me and therefore I'm going to take this concrete thing as payment.' It's a very human thing, I think, very primal. People attempt to redress wrongs."

Maybe you felt you deserved a freebie at the expense of some retailer because the world seems too harsh, cruel and competitive. Maybe it was because your parents just got divorced and you needed to fill the void. Or maybe you wanted to be part of that have-everything scene you read about in tabloids and see on TV, that glittery world where men and women have beautiful things, seemingly unencumbered by despair or lack of opportunity, and you figured you should have what they have even if you couldn't pay for it.

Or maybe you're like Alice, a shoplifting housewife, quoted in The Steal, who felt "euphoric and tingly. I was exhilarated … satisfied in a way in a way I had not been for years."

Others in the book talk about how they felt getting ready to shoplift. The heart quickens. The face flushes. "They knew that shoplifting would release excitement, and they craved the release … the shoplifters were swept up in a dance of pleasure and agony," Ms. Shteir writes.

If it sounds like sex – or compensation for a lack of it – consider that neuroscience shows that shoplifting causes dopamine to be released in the brain's pleasure centre. Sex, food, risk-taking – all those things can raise it. "Shoplifting is clearly a risk-taking behaviour," Ms. Shteir says. "And some people are driven to take those risks. It does make them happy."

Before readers frame shoplifting as primarily a women's affliction, abetted by the hyper-consumerist society of too many lovely, shiny things they feel compelled to have, just like the longing for thinness and good hair, think again. Studies show that since 1980, men have been catching up with the number of women who shoplift. Women outnumber men in kleptomania, a more serious form of compulsive stealing defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Ms. Shteir say, "but there are three recent studies that show men are now equal to women in shoplifting, if not more."

Differences in what men and women tend to steal from retailers added to the author's other notion about the happiness that shoplifting affords. "People shoplift to be transformed in some way … to make themselves into some idealized sense of themselves," she says. One study in England showed that men who indulge in the five-finger discount tend to take electronics, televisions and power tools whereas women steal things that will enhance their home, help feed their children or improve their appearance. "That made perfect sense to me," says Ms. Shteir, who was inspired to write the book when news of Winona Ryder's shoplifting went public in 2001. "Women have this relationship with retail that's about dreaming to be more than we are." (Ms. Ryder blamed it on painkillers she had been prescribed for a broken arm.)

Other gender differences: Men tended to resell the stuff they take. They were looking for a way to increase their income, in other words. Women, meanwhile, kept the loot to make themselves feel better.

There's even such a phase in cultural history when shoplifting was seen as revolutionary, cool and a way to get high, thanks to Abbie Hoffman's 1971 manifesto, Steal this Book. It was an expression of righteous morality set against bourgeois America's materialism.

Should you subconsciously (or not) decide to act out your psychological impulses at the store nearest you, just don't expect to get much sympathy from the clerk who claps a hand on your shoulder as you make a hopefully nonchalant-looking beeline for the exit and asks to look in your knapsack or your toddler's stroller.

They're not your therapist.

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