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Explain Fire Setting Behaviour Psychology Essay

Individuals are subject to fire setting behaviour for various reasons from the fascination and sensation of starting a fire, to the monetary returns and destruction it can cause. Pyromania, a distinct type of fire setting behaviour, according to the ICD-10 is a ‘habit and impulse disorder’ (World Health Organisation, 1992). A pyromaniac is defined by three essential components: Repeated fire-setting without obvious motive, an intense interest in watching fires burn, feeling tense prior to starting a fire and experiencing intense excitement afterwards. Fire Setting Behaviour is often linked with various mental disorders such as personality disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, alcohol use disorder and intellectual disability. It is believed statistically 10% of those who are subject to fire setting behaviour have some form of mental disorder (Howitt 2009) and 17% develop a mental disorder subsequent to the event (Almond, Duggan, Shine and Canter, 2005).

There have been various theories developed to explain why fire setting behaviour occurs (Doley and Watt, 2012). There are single factor theories, theories which suggest the behaviour is a bi-product of single factors and multi factor theories which suggest fire setting behaviour may result from a combination of factors. The single factor theories attribute fire setting behaviour to more biological explanations (Neuropsychological Theory) and social explanations (Social Learning Theory). The multi factor theories, such as Functional Analysis Theory (Jackson, Hope and Glass, 1987) consider aspects such as individual specific factors and environmental conditions. The Dynamic Behaviour Theory (Fineman, 1995), another multi factor theory of fire setting behaviour, focuses on historical psychosocial influences which are shaped through social learning.

To consider the underlying psychological reasoning for fire setting behaviour, is essential in developing a greater understanding and providing in depth knowledge as to the reasons why individuals are driven to start fires. Investigating the various theories applied to fire setting behaviour may also provide an indication as to the necessary treatment required to adapt and control this behaviour. The essay intends to provide a critical evaluation of selected single-factor and multi-factor theories that have been applied to fire setting behaviour in order to distinguish their usefulness in aiding understanding. Only certain theories are being selected to allow for more in depth critical evaluation.

Single factor theories rely upon a solitary factor to be the cause of fire setting behaviour. These single factor theories consist of the Neuropsychological Theory (N.T) and the Social Learning Theory (S.L.T). The N.T relies upon biological reasoning to explain fire setting behaviour. Within the N.T there are various factors that must be considered from the neurotransmitters within the brain to brain abnormalities and brain injuries. In regards to the impulsive nature of fire setting, neurotransmission defects have been found to be commonly associated with such behaviour. Research by Virkkunen, Nuutila, Goodwin and Linnoila (1987) and Virkkunen, DeJong, Bartko, Goodwin and Linnoila (1989) suggested that high abnormalities in neurotransmission can account for prolonged impulsive behaviours in fire setting individuals. Another biochemical abnormality that can affect an individual’s behaviour is glucose metabolism, in that; blood sugar disturbances may play a causal role in an individual’s fire setting behaviour (Roy, Virkkunen, Guthrie and Linnoila 1986). These biochemical abnormalities are therefore suggested to have a direct effect on an individual’s impulsive behaviours, one of which could be fire setting. Various brain abnormalities, such as poor frontal lobe function (Calev, 1995) and posterior abnormalities (Meinhard, Oozeer and Cameron, 1988) have also been known to have links with fire setting behaviour. However, such abnormalities are not well studied due to small samples, so are often examined through individual case studies, such as Heidrich, Schmidtke, Lesch, Hofmann and Becker (1996) who found cerebral abnormality to have an impact upon emotional and behavioural function which, in this case, resulted in fire setting behaviour. The final aspect to consider within the N.T is brain injuries. It is suggested by many that an individual who has sustained a brain injury is potentially subject to a change in behaviour. Puri, Baxter and Cordess (1995) exposed a small link between arsonists and brain injury, suggesting that certain behaviours, i.e. fire setting, could possibly be a result of damage to the neurological pathways and synapses in the brain. Puri et al (1995) found that 28% of arsonists referred to a forensic psychiatric service had a history of brain injury.

It can be said the N.T possesses a certain level of empirical adequacy because the theory provides a basic biological explanation which is easily understandable and supported by reliable empirical evidence, such as Virkunnen et al (1987). As well as empirical adequacy, the N.T also appears to hold a moderate level of external consistency because it appears to support other reliable theories which have gained a degree of acceptance in relation to impulsive behaviours and brain activity. Gannon and Pina (2010) suggest the neuropsychological explanations, which enhance the professionals understanding also provide grounding for potential rehabilitation and clinical intervention dependent upon circumstance, thus therefore suggesting a moderate level of fertility. The fertility of the theory is also evidential as there is a clear opportunity for potential future research into structural brain impairment and impulsive fire setting (Gannon and Pina, 2010). Although the current theory is correspondent with other theories and is supported by vast empirical evidence, it can be criticised for focusing too heavily on biological explanations and ignoring other perspectives such as psychology and sociology, thus resulting in a lack of unifying power as it simply focuses on one aspect to be the cause of such behaviours (Gannon and Pina, 2010). This lack of consideration for other perspectives in any sort of theory can be seen to be bad practice and lead to a poorly structured intervention plan in relation to the behaviour (Ward, Polaschek and Beech, 2006). Due to a heavy focus being placed upon the biological explanations of fire setting behaviour, it also appears to distinctly lack a level of depth in any other theoretical explanations, such as social reasons (Hooker 1987; Newton-Smith 2002).

The S.L.T, on the other hand, focuses on social reasons and is based upon the principle that behaviour is socially learnt through interaction and imitation of others (Bandura 1976). Vreeland and Levin (1980) argue that fire setting behaviours are consistently reinforced through the sensory excitement associated with fire. Vreeland and Levin (1980) also suggest heroism can play an integral part in fire setting behaviour. Another way fire setting behaviour is reinforced is through direct experience and vicarious learning, the idea that behaviour is learnt through observing the reinforcing and punishing consequences of that behaviour for other people (Beech and Davies, 2012). Hollin (2013) suggests models play an essential part in the acquisition of behaviour and some of these models may make fire seem an attractive prospect. Vreeland and Levin (1980) suggest some models may possess typical traits associated with the act of fire setting, such as aggression, poor coping skills, and lack of assertiveness. This could lead to an individual who has vicariously learnt these negative traits, to be subject to fire setting behaviour themselves in order to gain positive environmental control. It is also believed those individuals who are more exposed to fire setting, especially throughout their influential years, are increasingly more likely to engage in fire setting behaviours in the future (Macht & Mack, 1968; Wolford 1972).

The S.L.T, in relation to fire setting behaviour appears to possess vast empirical adequacy due to supporting studies examining the developmental experiences of fire setters. This emphasises the theoretical grounding of the S.L.T in that behaviour is learnt through interaction. Presence of empirical adequacy allows for the suggestion that the S.L.T also possesses good external consistency because the current theory supports, and is consistent, with other social theories, which are generally accepted to be reliable and suggest that behaviour is acquired through societal observation and imitation. It also fulfils an important role in identifying the developmental factors that are central in the decision making process to partake in fire setting behaviours when an opportunity occurs (Heimer 1997). Due to the presence of good external consistency, it is evidential that it also has strong unifying power because the theory is able to draw upon a wide range of empirical evidence such as, Kolko & Kazdin (1986) which suggests that fire setting behaviour is learnt. Not only does the current theory draw upon a wide range of evidence but it also considers other social theoretical perspectives in relation to learnt behaviour, such as Miller and Dollard’s (1941) notion of vicarious learning. Although the S.L.T is able to draw upon vast empirical evidence to support the theory, and is able to account for various factors such as expression of anger or fascination in relation to fire setting behaviour, it is unclear what ‘combination of factors culminates to facilitate various other types of fire setting’, thus leading to poor explanatory depth (Gannon and Pina, 2010). When a single factor theory possesses poor explanatory depth, it leads to the development of a clinical tool that can be seen to be very characteristic specific, i.e. only applicable to certain facets of the theory, thus resulting in a limited level of fertility (Gannon and Pina, 2010).

Fire setting behaviour may be better explained through the combination of numerous factors. One such theory is the Functional Analysis Theory (F.A.T); it is one of the earliest multi factor explanations of fire setting and was devised by Jackson et al (1987). The theory suggests fire setting behaviour is a direct result of an interaction of antecedents and consequences of actions, i.e. a combination of previous experiences and the positive or negative reinforcement associated with such behaviour (Gannon, Ó Ciardha, Doley and Alleyne, 2012). The underlying explanations of this theory stem from that of the S.L.T in combination with clinical experience of working with fire setters. It is believed there are 5 main factors that are described as the antecedents to intentional fire setting. These are: psychosocial disadvantage, life dissatisfaction/self loathing, social ineffectiveness, previous individual experience of fire and internal/external triggers (Jackson et al 1987). It is these factors which can trigger fire setting, yet it is how the individual’s actions are reinforced that plays an important role in maintaining such behaviour. For example, Jackson et al (1987) suggests children, who are socially ineffective, i.e. struggle to make friends and have poor social skills, may believe fire setting could provide them with peer acceptance and increased attention. This positive reinforcement could lead to an association between fire setting and positive consequences meaning further fire setting behaviour would then be more likely to occur (Gannon et al, 2012). In contrast, Jackon et al (1987) also suggested that negative reinforcement may be of equal importance in maintaining fire setting behaviour. For example punishments and rejection have the potential to cause antisocial conduct, including fire setting behaviour.

Upon critical evaluation of the F.A.T, it is evident that there is vast empirical support for the core assumptions which provide the foundations for the theory (Gannon and Pina, 2010). This suggests the theoretical perspective is in accordance with other generally accepted theories, meaning there is strong external consistency. The concept of external consistency is further supported because the F.A.T is based upon the well established principles of the conditioning theory (Gannon et al, 2012). The current theory also has strong unifying power because it is able to bring together various individual findings and hypotheses and combine them into a manageable concept (Abra, 1998). An example of the unifying power present within the current theory is the combination of the S.L.T and the conditioning theory (Gannon et al, 2012). As mentioned, many of the core assumptions are empirically supported, which suggests strong empirical adequacy but the empirical adequacy of the entire theory has not been explicitly established meaning although sections of the theory are seen to be empirically adequate, the theory as a whole lacks an acceptable level of empirical adequacy (Gannon and Pina, 2010). Along with a lapse in empirical adequacy, the theory also appears to lack strong explanatory depth because although it provides a complex multifactor framework explaining many factors and the interrelations between these factors, the more ‘proximal aspects’ of fire setting appear to be unclear, suggesting the explanatory depth may not be as deep rooted (Gannon and Pina, 2010). Although the theory lacks in empirical adequacy and explanatory depth, it can be seen to possess a level of fertility, because it provides direction in terms of clinical interventions and guiding treatment for fire setting behaviour (Gannon et al, 2012).

Another multi factor explanation of fire setting comes from the Dynamic-Behaviour Theory (D.B.T) (Fineman 1980, 1995). This theory has some similarity to Jackson et al’s (1987) F.A.T in that fire setting behaviour is viewed as a result of past psychosocial experiences. However, Fineman (1985) views fire setting as a result of immensely complex and unique interactions between various components. The fire setting behaviour occurs when ‘historical factors that predispose individuals to behave antisocially are combined with previous and existing environmental reinforcement contingencies and instantaneous environmental reinforcement contingencies that promote fire setting behaviour’ (Gannon et al, 2012). Fineman (1985) believes that the combination of these three components is the core to fire setting behaviour although it is suggested that the instantaneous environmental reinforcement contingencies should be examined and separated into a range of variables. Fineman (1985) continues to suggest that these instantaneous events are a product of Impulsivity triggers, the goals of fire setting, the cognitions and affective states possessed prior to, accompanying and post fire setting and the fire setting reinforcers possessed by the individual, both internal, such as satisfaction and external, such as financial reward. Fineman (1985) further suggested a clinician would need to fully evaluate each component during interventions due to the complex and unique interactions between the factors when fire setting behaviour occurs.

A major strength of the D.B.T is the level of external consistency the theory possesses. It is suggested that the conditioning values that form the foundation of which the D.B.T is based upon is well supported within current clinical psychology (Gannon et al, 2012). Not only is the theory well supported, but it can also be considered to hold vast explanatory depth, because it produces reasoning through the use of psychological variables as to why fire setting behaviour is developed and maintained within society (Gannon and Pina, 2010). Due to the theory having vast supporting evidence and good explanatory depth, the theory is able to provide clinicians with a framework to guide and conduct assessments, thus meaning there is a strong level of fertility (Ward and Siegert, 2002). Another strength the theory is able to rely upon is the unifying power it holds. Explanations are able to draw upon a wide range of the empirical evidence and combine it with other relevant evidence, such as the already mentioned conditioning principles with current theoretical knowledge associated with fire setting behaviour. The main weakness of the current theory is the lack of empirical adequacy as a whole. Gannon et al (2012) suggest that although a large amount of the universal suppositions are well recognized within current psychology, the theory as an entire remains untested thus suggesting a lack of empirical adequacy as a unified whole.

Many of the single factor and multi factor theories appear to contradict one another as to the cause of fire setting behaviour. As seen through the critical evaluation of each theory, all of them have potential strengths and weaknesses. Gannon et al (2012) suggest a reoccurring problem throughout previous perspectives is the theories did not explain all of the potential risk factors in relation to fire-setting behaviour nor did they explain how fire-setting behaviour may be controlled or stopped. The conflict between the theories has enabled the development of a new model known as The Multi-Trajectory Theory of Adult Firesetting (M-TTAF) developed by Gannon et al (2012). The current theory resembles an adaptation and development to the model developed by Ward and Siegert (2002) based upon sexual offending. Whereas previous theories have focused on a single factor or a couple of factors, the MTTAF appears to implement most factors from the previous theories within its structure to provide an explanation for fire setting behaviour.

The M-TTAF is split into 2 tiers. Tier 1 suggests individuals are subject to various psychological vulnerabilities such as; inappropriate fire interest, offense-supportive cognitions, Self/emotional regulation issues and Communication problems due to various developmental factors. The key factors and proximal factors leading to these vulnerabilities consist of: developmental factors (environmental influences), biological factors (brain structure), cultural factors (societal beliefs and attitudes), social learning factors (previous experiences and social reinforcements) and contextual factors (life events and other triggers). Gannon et al (2012) suggest an interaction between these various factors is the underlying reasoning and explanation as to why fire setting behaviour is present within society. Tier 2 of the M-TTAF is designed to help clinicians distinguish between different types of arsonist (Gannon et al 2012) and provides further reasons as to why an individual may be subject to fire setting behaviour. These trajectories consist of: Antisocial behaviour, Grievance, fire interest and a need for recognition. Gannon et al (2012) suggest an interaction between the psychological vulnerabilities provides an explanation as to the cause of these risk factors as well as the previous risk factors in relation to fire setting behaviour.

The M-TTAF has vast strengths throughout its theoretical perspective. It can be said the M-TTAF has vast empirical support from current research into factors such as; communication problems (Rice and Chaplin, 1979) and low self esteem (Smith and Short, 1995) in relation to fire setting, suggesting an acceptable level of empirical adequacy, even though the unified theory is yet to be empirically tested. In terms of external consistency, the M-TTAF appears to possess vast similarities with accompanying theories related to fire setting behaviour, such as the SLT, the condition theory and Jackson et al’s (1987) F.A.T. Due to the M-TTAF drawing upon various different perspectives and connecting all previous theories into fire setting behaviour as a unified whole, it can be said the M-TTAF provides an overall framework, suggesting a good level of unifying power (Gannon et al, 2012). Having a single framework consisting of the unified theories allows for a high level of fertility because it not only, provides a greater understanding as to the potential psychological vulnerabilities and various risk factors associated fire setting behaviour, but it also has the potential to drive future research and clinical interventions. Finally, Gannon et al (2012) suggest the level of explanatory depth provided throughout the theory is representative to the level of detail in the current literature. Overall, the current theory is an empirically supported, well explained and somewhat fertile theory of fire setting behaviour.

In Summary, it is evidential that fire setting behaviour is a substantial issue within society and there are various different approaches than an individual can utilise in order to explain the reasoning for fire setting behaviour. Some theories focus the responsibility onto a single factor, such as social factors (S.L.T) and Biological factors (N.T) whereas other theories broaden the scope for explanations suggesting the behaviour may be a result of numerous factors; F.A.T and D.B.T. Critical evaluation of these theories has demonstrated they all have strengths and weaknesses (Hooker 1987; Newton-Smith 2002). Although there is no singular theory that can truly explain the nature of fire setting due to its complexity, the M-TTAF is currently the most appropriate theory for explaining fire setting behaviour, because not only does it have vast strengths, but it also provides a more detailed account of the triggers, psychological factors, and potential risk factors in relation to fire setting behaviour that is absent from previous theories.

Word Count: 3294

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