SciBar: Catching Fire

Toward a Better Understanding of Arson, with Faye Horsley.

Words by Euan Preston, edited by Calum Kirk

The influence of fire on our ancient ancestors was profound.

Fire gave us the ability to cook, providing nutritional benefits which over time may have led to an increase in brain size and intelligence. It provided heat and light, giving protection from both predators and the elements. This allowed early humans to sleep better, perhaps enabling them to experience REM sleep for the first time, a type of sleep associated with brain development, learning and memory. Acquiring the ability to set fires improved our ancestor’s chances of survival and over generations made them smarter. As a result, harnessing fire is associated with a step-change in human evolutionary history.

Our species’ ability to tame fire could therefore be seen as one of the most important skills ever developed, shaping the course of human destiny ever since it was discovered many hundreds of thousands of years ago. Our very existence is bound up with the ability to create and administer fire.

Though we may be unaware of it, we remain deeply reliant upon and connected with fire, even when the technologies of daily life obscure the connection. Psychologically, fire retains a strong social and cultural significance for us. For example, the lighting of a church candle in memory of a loved one, bonfires and rockets on Guy Fawkes or an open fire at Christmas. The phenomenon of fire elicits feelings of magic, mystery and intrigue in us all.

But perhaps one of the strongest associations many of us have with fire is its ability to destroy, injure and kill. From an early age, we’re taught to fear and avoid it. Yet for some, the allure of fire is unavoidable.

The term we most commonly associate with the criminal misuse of fire is arson. The legal system sub-divides arson into three types: Simple Arson, Reckless Arson and Arson with Intent. These legal categories, however, do not necessarily capture the psychology underpinning different forms of arson. Within the psychological academic literature, a number of sub-divisions have been offered, which account for the different motivations and psychological characteristics of arsonists or ‘fire setters’ as they are sometimes referred to. Characteristics which have attracted research attention include self-esteem, poor communication skills, and mental health conditions.

Arson is just one form of fire use. In order to fully understand the causes of and potential solutions to the criminal misuse of fire, we need to understand fire use in a broader context, says Faye Horsley, Forensic Psychologist and guest speaker at our November SciBar.

The existing scientific literature on fire use is limited. Studies have looked only at damaging and reckless forms of fire use (i.e. arson/fire setting) and are based on those who have been convicted for criminal acts involving fire. This narrows our understanding of fire use, not only because the conviction rate for fire related crimes is comparatively low, but also because it excludes people who may experience an elevated curiosity toward fire, but who do not possess the risk factors that lead to offending. To address this, researchers in forensic psychology, such as Faye Horsley and others based elsewhere have begun conducting community-based research involving a broader range of participants, rather than only those who have been convicted. Additionally, Faye Horsley has conducted research which aims to establish and explore a spectrum of fire use that includes law-abiding use. Faye’s research involved 24 participants, half of whom had received convictions for fire-use and half who had not. Through interviews and subsequent analysis, Faye was able to identify three core emotional themes experienced by the group that related to fire: Immediate Gratification, Self-concept and Psychological Wellbeing.

Overall, there were many commonalities across the group as a whole. However, strong distinctions were apparent in the Psychological Wellbeing theme between the two participant sub-groups. Among the law-abiding group, setting a fire, perhaps a hearth or bonfire, reportedly aroused feelings of reassurance and security, as well as a sense of pride, perhaps a remnant of the historical role of fire in family and social settings. In contrast, among the convicted participants, being ‘labelled’ as an arsonist or fire setter by one’s peers had a negative impact on overall psychological health. Many participants explained that in the prison ‘hierarchy’, the arsonist ranks low. According to participants in this study, arson is considered among the worst labels a person can be given and carries with it stigma. This is due to associations with suspect predilections and the potential for fire-setting to have devastating unintended consequences such as death.

Faye discussed her views on ‘what works’ in reducing arson. She believes that early intervention may yield some success through educating young people about fire. This is already done across the UK, but Faye believes some improvements could be made.

However, when treating those already convicted, how easy is it to retrain the mind of a person whose behaviour has already been reinforced? Not easy at all, Faye acknowledged, but her research, along with recent empirical work elsewhere, is shining the first rays of candlelight into this once dark corner of criminal behaviour.

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