Psychology of arson

While walking around the neighbourhood one morning a few weeks ago, I met an elderly lady and as the conversation got going I asked her opinion on the state of house fires in Barbados when compared to when she was a girl.

Her response only served to confirm my suspicions and here is what she has to say in a nutshell. Firstly, she was born around 1936, which as you all know was around the time of social unrest throughout the Caribbean and in many ways a watershed for societal changes. She confirmed that most of the housing stock was made of timber and that in almost every household there was a fire hearth which was located in a semi-detached shed or outdoors where the cinders were almost always kept aglow.

She recalled that her grandmother would get up early on mornings and would get small brambles to stoke the cinders while blowing into it to get the breakfast of corn porridge cooking for them. She added that in spite of this, she has never witnessed as many house fires as now, and that she believes that something was wrong.

I must add here that given the recent comments in the media by officials the problem is of some concern to right thinking citizens and without saying it, I believe that most are worried that we may have an arsonist in our midst. The article this week is about the psychology of arson.

As usual, I have done some research on the matter and have found some valuable information on this site Firstly, the writer (Kocsis, 2002) has defined arson as a crime of deliberately setting fire to property. He/she went on to suggest that arson is very costly to all communities involved and I may add especially, here in Barbados where the cost of building is astronomical and unemployment is at its utmost given the current economic climate.

Therefore to lose a home at this time is a tremendous setback to home owners especially, those who are close to retirement. Chances are they will never be able to rebuild without outside assistance and the psychological damage to their sense of self cannot be described.

To most Barbadians, the ownership of a home is the one goal that must be attained throughout a lifetime and we are very proud of this achievement. Given this situation, one can only imagine the effect arson would have on our social environment. This then begs the question, who and why would someone choose to burn another person’s property.

In response to this, research by the Australian Institute of Criminology has suggested several possibilities these include:

1. Profit — where one thinks that they will gain more from the proceeds of the insurance claim than from the profit of the business.

2. Vandalism — this is usually performed by groups of unemployed youths who are of the misguided opinion that it is fun to destroy another person’s property as a means of venting their frustration. Some may even be under the misguided notion that destroying property is the perfect revenge for some behaviour real or imagined which they perceive the home owner has performed. There are some suggestions that some criminals may mistakenly believe that some home owners may have informed the police about their activities.

3. Criminal Concealment — in this case the arson may be used to cover evidence that may otherwise assist in their apprehension. For instance the perpetrators may burn a car or boat or a building in an effort to remove evidence that would implicate them in some manner.

4. Political objectives — one cannot rule out the extreme and violent protests that some political activists participate in order to achieve some form of recognition from their target for real or imagined wrong doing.

5. Jealousy — other researchers (Rider, 1980) are of the view that jealousy motivated by adult males may cause them to set fires when they feel insult to their vanity or critique to their personality. The interesting thing is that such arsonist may wait for several months or even years before deciding to act or take revenge. In some cases, the arsonist may not be targeting anyone in particular but may have a grudge against society as a whole.

6. Finally, there are the psychopathological factors which of course encompass personality disorders, mood disorders and some other forms of mental illnesses. For instance, individuals who suffer from schizophrenia would be unable to comprehend the real nature of their environment. As a result, he/she may think that by burning a home/building would in some way assist people to rid themselves of problems.

They may believe that by burning a house they are getting rid of the “evil eye” that is continually monitoring their performance or that plans to cause them harm, when in reality such a situation is non-existent.

In the case of mood disorders and other forms of mental illnesses, although they may have a proclivity for lighting fires their reduced cognitive ability may make them unable to discern the consequences of their actions.

Although these motives are widely documented, one must realise that fire itself forms a fascination to the human psyche. For instance, several children have played with matches and at times the results have been devastating. This does not mean that these children are suffering some psychological impairment.

Research has shown that up to 60 per cent of clinically normal children have shown an interest in fire. Indeed, some entertainment acts have included the use of fire as a theme. Locally, we have entertainers who have included fire eating as a form of entertainment while members of the audience watch on in bewilderment at this feat.

In addition, Shea (2002) has suggested that fire ignites excitement in children as well adults. I am sure that several of us can remember not so long ago the saying that Bajans “run to fires and run from rain”. However like everything else, knowledge and education can change one’s way of thinking.

Like the research suggests, when children have acquired the knowledge and maturity needed they develop a healthy respect for the devastating effects of fires.

So how can we be sure that there is not an arsonist in our midst? According to the experts arson, if not researched and investigated thoroughly, it can be difficult to prove. This is because it is motivated my several factors.

Therefore, it is important that policy makers make certain that fire prevention officers have the resources needed to complete meticulous investigations that would enhance forensic research after a fire. Such resources could lead to the collection of necessary evidence if such exists. Without these resources, we will always be speculating about this and that while running around like “chickens without heads”.

In closing, we should heed the warning of Gunderson (1974) who posited that arson is related to “events such as failure to enforce external controls such as rules and regulation or allowing illegal behaviour to go unpunished”. He believes that when we lose sight of boundaries, it could lead to a heightened sense of chaos and mania that could trigger the offence of arson as well as other criminal activity.

Until next time…

* Daren Greaves is a Psychology and Management Consultant

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