What is the relationship between crime and behavioral addictions?

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Behavioral addictions involve the compulsive repetition of negative behaviors independent of the ingestion of drugs and alcohol. While far less prevalent than substance abuse addictions, behavioral addictions, when they involve criminal acts, can be equally destructive to the addict, the addicts’ family, and society in general. Several particular facets of behavioral addiction commonly result in criminal activity; they include gambling addiction, sex addiction, kleptomania, and pyromania. However, not all behavioral addictions are attributable to criminal behavior.
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Behavioral addictions are closely related to maladapted impulse-control abilities as defined by the repeated failure or inability to resist harmful behavior or impulsive actions. Behavioral addictions involve a variety of both common behaviors and peculiar activities.

Many behavioral addicts become hooked on activities that other persons engage in only occasionally, such as shopping, sexual activity, eating, or gambling. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy in 2015, nearly 12 million Americans suffer from sexual addiction. Additionally, research published in the American Journal on Addictions in 2015 showed that an estimated 6 to 7 percent of Americans may shop compulsively, while Scientific American reported in 2013 that 2 million Americans were addicted to gambling and up to 20 million Americans had problematic gambling habits. Behavioral addictions to food, shopping, technological devices, exercise, and appearance are conventionally only harmful to the addicts themselves. Several addictions, however, result in criminal activity.

Criminal Behavior and Compulsive Gambling

Compulsive gambling is a behavioral addiction that manifests itself as an obsession with placing financial wagers for the possibility, however scant, of a profitable return. Gambling addiction spans the entire gamut of games of chance, from sports betting and card games to billiards, casino gaming, and lotteries. Legalized gambling has been one of the fastest growing industries in the United States for several decades, while illegal wagering has maintained a cultural presence so large for so long that law enforcement agencies can only contain it rather than try to prevent it.

Conventionally, compulsive gamblers resort to criminal behavior only after all other avenues of potential income are no longer available. This behavior includes the sale of personal property, the sale of property of friends and family, or petty theft from spouses and family.

Aside from engaging in such illicit acts as petty and grand theft, compulsive gamblers, according to researchers, also engage in a variety of other criminal activities. These activities range from fabricating auto accident claims to health insurance fraud, arson, and making false claims about thefts, fires, and property damage. Data indicate that compulsive gambling also can lead to involvement in drug trafficking, assault, and prostitution. Many parallels can be made between gambling addicts and substance addicts, because each addiction lends itself to the erratic tendencies, poor judgment, and violent behavior that often can result in criminal activity.

Gambling disorder is listed as a substance-related and addictive disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), published in 2013. The listing reflects growing evidence that gambling disorder is similar to substance use disorders in terms of its effects on the brain’s reward system.

Criminal Behavior and Sex Addiction

Research indicates that as much as 6 percent of all adults in the United States have some form of sex addiction. Sex addiction can range from the constant desire for sexual activity or stimulation to an inability to control sexual urges, behaviors, and thoughts.

Sex addiction enters the realm of criminal behavior when it involves the improper coercion, exploitation, or duress of other persons. It also involves forcing others to act out sexual behaviors in a public forum without discretion or respect for societal norms.

Not all sex addicts partake in criminal activities or are addicted to perverse sexual behaviors, but some sex addicts are involved in criminal behaviors including sexual assault and rape, prostitution, incest, pedophilia, harassment, voyeurism, and exhibitionism. Like many other behavioral and substance addictions, sex addiction may be related to the effect of dopamine on the brain.


Kleptomania, or compulsive stealing, is by definition an addiction to a criminal behavior. While petty thieves and shoplifters customarily steal for want of items they cannot afford or steal for profit, kleptomaniacs impulsively steal from all locations and for any reason; they steal for the sake of stealing. According to 2007 statistics from researchers at Stanford University, nearly 1.2 million Americans have this behavioral addiction.

The cause of kleptomania is unknown and widely debated among both medical and sociological professionals. While some experts believe it is related to the release of dopamine during the act of theft, others believe it also may be a behavior symptomatic of other underlying psychological or social development problems. The DSM-5 lists kleptomania as one of several disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders.


Pyromania is an extremely rare but potentially lethal behavioral addiction involving the compulsive starting of fires. According to a study in the British Journal of Criminology, pyromaniacs account for only about 1 to 4 percent of all arsonists in the United States each year. In 2011 the Oxford Handbook of Impulse Control Disorders reported that the US population had a lifetime prevalence of 1 percent for fire setting. Unlike arsonists, who ignite fires for personal or financial gain or as an act of assault, pyromaniacs achieve euphoria from creating fire as a destructive force. Pyromaniacs also take pleasure in surveying the damage left behind from fires.

Much like kleptomania, pyromania is believed to be rooted in underlying psychological trauma or impaired social development of some kind. This trauma often includes a childhood history of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse. Experts believe that pyromania may be caused by an aggression rooted in childhood abuse and by poorly developed problem-solving skills and cognitive maladjustment. The DSM-5 lists pyromania as one of several disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders.

Strategies for Treatment

Although persons with behavioral addictions have several similarities with persons with substance abuse addictions, there remains a great deal of debate on whether behavioral addictions can be classified as addictive behavior. A wide sociological and scientific gap exists between the concepts of addiction and impulse control disorders.

Research indicates that the neurological patterns between substance abusers and behavioral addicts have many similarities, but not enough is known about these neurological functions to present a clear delineation between the two. It is perhaps because of these similarities that the treatment strategy for behavioral addictions closely mirrors that of substance abuse recovery.

Treatment for gambling, sex, shopping, and other compulsive behaviors often involves cognitive therapy to attempt to highlight the underlying psychological factors that lead a person to act on such impulses. This connection has been further established by the effective use of substance abuse treatments such as group therapy and by the use of antidepressant medications in persons with impulse control disorders.

Individualized therapy coupled with immersion in support groups also has shown to be beneficial for impulse control addicts. Like their substance abuse counterparts, behavioral addiction support groups strive to deconstruct the common repetitive cycle of isolation and shame inherent in addictive behavioral patterns. These programs also focus on the development of new coping skills with which to combat the anxieties that may lead to compulsive behaviors.

Much of the debate lies in the neurological function in the brain of pleasure-inducing chemicals such as beta-endorphins and serotonin. Scientific research has shown that persons on medications that boost production of such chemicals are more likely to develop addictive behavioral patterns.

A major disruption to the development of early screening, treatment, and prevention of impulse control behaviors is the lack of agreement in determining what behaviors constitute the diagnosis of addiction and where behavioral addictions land on this spectrum. Another source of disruption is determining the relationship between these disorders and criminal behavior.


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Grant, Jon E. Impulse Control Disorders: A Clinician’s Guide to Understanding and Treating Behavioral Addictions. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.

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