Rider, Anthony Olen. The Firesetter, A Psychological Profile. Federal
Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice. Reprinted from the
June, July, and August 1980 issues of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
Abstract: This article presents the results of a psychological
study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Clinical research
associates firesetting with repressed hostility, aggressive and destructive
tendencies, and pathological revenge. Juvenile firesetting has been linked
to adult violent, criminal behavior. Investigators can benefit from knowledge
of the psychological aspects of firesetting. The psychology of firesetting
will help focus the investigation and identify possible suspects.
There are five problematic areas in the study of arson. It is very difficult
to study arson because very few arsonists have been apprehended. The legal
system only convicts a small percentage of those arsonists because of lack
of evidence. Many arsonists also plead their cases down to misdemeanors.
These circumstances dramatically affect statistics regarding arson. Previous
research does not offer help to investigators because a detailed, systematic,
psychological study has not been completed. Most research comes from biased
populations and incomplete data.
This study examines motive from different angles. Unconscious and conscious
motive is explained from a psychological viewpoint. Some arsonists are unaware
of their true motivations to set fires. The article also differentiates
between motivational and motiveless firesetting. A firesetter who lacks
motive has traditionally been referred to as a pyromaniac. Most pyromaniacs
lack conscious motivation, but are fully aware of the act they are committing.
Motivation is also classified as pathological and non-pathological. Some
researchers have claimed that all firesetting is pathological. Other research
suggests that some motivation for arson comes from rational thought. Arson
for profit and crime concealment are examples of supposed rational decision
making. The irrational firesetter will have signs of emotional or mental
The article also examines the characteristics of the typical pyromaniac
and the typical arsonist. A profile of each is provided.
For more information, contact:
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Madison Building, Room 209
Quantico, VA 22135