Many years ago, on a family vacation trip to the Grand Canyon, we had to pass through a forest that had just been opened a day after a horrendous forest fire.
It was the most frightening sight I had ever seen in my life. It looked like a picture of hell.
The air was thick and smoky gray. Small groups of identity-less men continued to put out and control defined batches of fire. I felt small and powerless; nature felt powerful, destructive and without mercy or reason.
There are people who set fires on purpose, but they don’t feel what I felt that hot summer day. They feel pleasure and power.
What does psychology know about those who deliberately set fires?
In 2004, the American Psychological Association published an article about fire-setters. While some are cognitively impaired or severely disturbed, we will focus on those who do so for criminal, delinquent reasons and those who do so with support from their sociocultural group.
Psychology, as a discipline, has long been fascinated with those who set fires.
Freud saw the motivation to set fires as a desire to gain power over nature.
The psychiatric diagnosis of “pyromania” suggests an impulse out of one’s control, with tension and emotional arousal before the act and pleasure and gratification afterwards.
A series of psychological publications in the 1970s noted that three behaviors seemed to occur in those individuals destined to become violent adults. They are: persistent enuresis (bedwetting), repeated fire-setting and extreme cruelty to animals.
The psychological theories of human behavior of that period suggested that the fire-setter was trying to gain some control over his inner, turbulent, disorganized self.
I suggest another perspective. There is no inner conflict. That’s the problem with these fire-setters who are sociopaths or encouraged by their social group.
It is the existence of inner conflict that inhibits you and me from certain actions that society finds offensive, illegal or morally wrong.
It is the existence of inner conflict that inhibits you and me from certain actions that society finds offensive, illegal or morally wrong. These fire-setters have no inner inhibitions.
If you are a young, heartless delinquent or a seasoned criminal sociopath, you do not have empathy towards others, nor do you care about societal norms or the rights of others. You enjoy setting fires. The lack of an inner conscience causes a lack of inner conflict, which leads to a lack of inner inhibition, which leads to acts of harm towards others, such as setting a fire.
Where do inhibitions come from? From your parents, from those who socialize you.
How are the families of fire-setters different? These families have been described as of low economic status, poor education and unskilled employment. The family size is large; its economic health improvised; and its parenting style neglectful.
Fire-setting causes great harm. People lose millions of dollars of property; national forest areas are lost to future generations, while the ecology of a forest is destroyed. Hundreds of lives each year are lost to such fires per the U.S. Fire Administration. Even more telling is the fact that almost 85 of every 100 lives lost is a child.
Male fire-setters outnumber their female counterparts six to one.
The reality of child victims is important for in some young fire-setters, the reason for such behavior can be curiosity or a cry for help, instead of the anti-social, destructive reasons. Because of this, parents need to be very concerned about any instance of fire-setting by their child. Male fire-setters outnumber their female counterparts six to one.
By the time that child is a teenager, fire-setting behavior can have multiple reasons (excitement, power, destruction and revenge) and be difficult to eradicate. Consultation with your family physician, pediatrician, mental health center or child psychologist should occur as early as possible.
Philip Kronk, M.S., Ph.D. is a child and adult Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist. Dr. Kronk has a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a post-doctorate degree in Clinical Psychopharmacology.
This article appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel on 20 November 2016