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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 disturbances.

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
FBI Academy
Madison Building, Room 209
Quantico, VA 22135

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