April 17, 2016

The Psychology of Arson

Each year, about 60,000 bushfires rage across Australia, wreaking environmental devastation and costing lives and economic losses. An estimated half or more are deliberately set.

Considering arson's devastating toll, surprisingly little is known about who sets fires, and why. Intensive efforts to catch and prosecute firesetters have also done little to douse the flames.

It is no surprise that Australia is the epicenter of efforts to fill that gap, with several ongoing research and intervention programs. Now, two forensic psychologists and a mental health nurse have published a book that brings together cutting-edge theory and practical advice grounded in empirical research.

The Psychology of Arson represents the collected knowledge of 30 experts from around the world. Chapter by chapter, it explores the psychosocial factors underlying arson by children and adolescents (who make up a large share of firesetters), by suicidal and homicidal people, by women, by the mentally disordered and cognitively impaired, and by men who set fires for purposes of sexual gratification.

Forensic practitioners will find especially useful the sections on risk assessment, treatment, and management of firesetters, while researchers will benefit from the concluding chapter identifying research gaps and needs in this understudied area. The organization facilitates digestion: Each chapter starts with a clearly written summary of key points, followed by logically organized subheadings and text.

Particularly innovative is the authors’ attempt to go beyond the simplistic theorizing of early research to offer up an evidence-based theoretical model that can inform clinical interventions and even prevention efforts. Their nuanced multi-trajectory theory classifies arson based on four key factors: fire-related scripts, offense-supportive thoughts, emotional regulation issues, and communication problems.

Forensic psychologists Rebekah Doley
 and Theresa Gannon
The editors and lead authors are highly qualified for this project. Rebekah Doley of Bond University in Australia is an internationally recognized authority on firesetting who co-directs the Centre for Forensic and International Risk Management; Theresa Gannon of Kent University in the UK, Director of the Centre of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology, is similarly renowned, with numerous scholarly publications on firesetting. Rounding out the team is a widely published mental health nursing professor, Geoffrey Dickens of Abertay University in Dundee.