Criminology Arson
Rebekah Doley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0248


The psychology of deliberate firesetting has been relatively under-researched until recently. Challenges have included a range of synonyms (e.g., fire-bug, arsonist, pyromaniac) used to define non-accidental firesetters, reflecting different terminology across medical, legal, and psychological contexts. This has resulted in difficulties in obtaining consistency and momentum across empirical endeavors, resulting in scattered and slow progress in developing our understanding of this behavior. The impact of deliberately lit fire is expressed in tangible costs in the region of billions of dollars in many countries. The intangible cost, in terms of loss of life and livelihood, is less easily quantified but not to be overlooked. Victims of deliberately lit fires express similar psychological reactions as those who have experienced natural disasters or interpersonal violence. The inherently secretive and destructive nature of arson results in unique challenges for investigators in detecting, apprehending, and successfully prosecuting firesetters, resulting in more being known about those who are caught than those who remain undetected firesetters in our communities. The relative lack of empirical research identifying the psychosocial aspects of deliberate firesetting has also impeded the development of evidence-based explanations of firesetting. With a restricted understanding of “why,” progress in establishing risk assessment and treatment models relevant to targeting antecedent, behavioral, and reinforcing factors associated with firesetting in juveniles and adults has been slow.

Defining Arson

A core issue is defining the nature of the behavior. Arson is a legal definition that connotes a crime involving a level of evidential proof to be established before a conviction can be recorded. Deliberate firesetting, in contrast, is a more encompassing term, focused on the behavior of deliberately lighting fires. Barrowcliffe and Gannon 2016 estimates a “hidden” rate of up to 11 percent of undetected firesetters in the general community currently. In a mental health context, deliberate firesetting generally assumes malicious intent or, at least, callous disregard for the safety of others and property or land. This distinction becomes less clear when considering the firesetting behavior of children. Curiosity about fire is considered a normal stage of development in early childhood. Many reports of fires set by children are resulting from children playing with matches and accidentally lighting a fire that quickly gets out of control. Curiosity firesetting is considered best treated through parental supervision to prevent future fire sets, along with appropriate fire education and awareness interventions, often delivered through local volunteering firefighters. Pyromania, in contrast, is a clinical term applied to adults and used to describe a cluster of symptoms relating to an irresistible urge to set fires. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders provides the prevalence and criteria of pyromania. Contrary to popular misconception, pyromania is not an interchangeable term for deliberate firesetting, as Doley 2003 notes. As defined in current psychiatric nomenclature, for a diagnosis of pyromania to be made, there must be a clear pattern of impulsive firesetting behavior that is preceded by a feeling of tension and followed by a sense of relief or pleasure once the act has been completed.

  • American Psychiatric Association. 2014. The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric.

    Provides the prevalence and criteria of a range of mental health disorders, including pyromania.

  • Barrowcliffe, Emma, and Theresa Gannon. 2016. Comparing the psychological characteristics of un-apprehended firesetters and non-firesetters living in the UK. Journal of Psychology, Crime & Law 22.4: 382–404.

    DOI: 10.1080/1068316X.2015.1111365

    This article offers an innovative exploration into undetected firesetting in a UK context. This analysis has yet to be replicated elsewhere; therefore, cross-cultural variations across these findings have not been examined.

  • Doley, Rebekah. 2003. Pyromania: Fact or fiction? British Journal of Criminology 43:797−807.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/43.4.797

    This journal article provides a useful overview of the clinical and investigative issues relevant to labeling all deliberate firesetters as mentally disordered, specifically pyromaniacs.

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