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Impulse Control Disorders - Pyromania

Updated on July 26, 2017

The fifth type of impulse control disorder is pyromania. Pyromania or pathological fire setting is characterized by various types of fire setting behavior that can be observed both during childhood and adolescence. It develops as a result of the complex interaction between individuals and other social and environment related factors.

Pyromania is more common among adolescents than it is with adults which tends to suggest that there is a possibility that those with pyromania may grow out of it.

It is a growing problem among teenagers in the United States and it is a major cause for concern because it puts millions of dollars’ worth of property at risk.

Pyromania is frequently associated with disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and anxiety.

It has been associated with abnormalities of impulsivity, social estrangement, cognitive flexibility, and executive function. Pyromania is a complex disorder involving multiple domains of cognition, behavior and personality.

Studies in Germany have shown that there may be a link between pyromania and the excessive consumption of alcohol. Adults who suffer from pyromania are more likely to start a fire under the influence of alcohol than otherwise. With teenagers, however, alcohol does not appear to be a factor.

In most instances pyromania sufferers usually experience a sense of relieve once the fire has been started. There may be some tension prior to committing the act of starting the fire and that may gradually build up to the point where the person suffering from pyromania is unable to resist the impulse to start a fire. There is no particular pattern as to where the fires are started and it is more often than not random.

Pyromania sufferers do not set fire for personal gain or are not motivated by financial rewards as opposed to arsonists. Arson is sometimes defined as the malicious burning of another's house or property, or in some statutes, the burning of one's own house or property for monetary gain say for example insurance payouts. Just for the record, over 62,000 arsons are committed annually in the United States which results in almost $1 billion in losses per year.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program defines arson as any willful or malicious burning or attempting to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, a public building, a motor vehicle, an aircraft or the personal property of another.

The element of intention is critical in determining arson. In total, there are four elements that form the crucial ingredients to arson – the lighting of the fire, intention or willfulness, malice and property.

By establishing if the above core elements are present in a fire, we can determine if the fire is a result of arson or otherwise.

Pyromania sufferers are not only interested in setting fires but are also interested in all aspects of fire setting or anything related to fire i.e. there in an un-explainable fascination for fire and all things related to fire that is above and beyond that of a normal person. Some even return to the scene of the fire to watch the fire department put the fire out.

Like other impulse control disorders pyromania is most likely caused by a chemical imbalance possibly serotonin related followed by a release of dopamine a neurochemical that results in pleasurable feelings or a sense of happiness.

Now, just to give us an idea of the type of damage someone who suffers from pyromania can do or cause, in March 1995, an Arletta man was described as a “classic pyro” after he had started almost 350 fires and caused damages in excess of 4 million dollars.

Authorities targeted the man as a serial arsonist and that was followed by a manhunt that lasted 3 years. It was later revealed that he wasn’t part of an “arson for profit scheme” at all.

The law on pyromania isn’t dissimilar to the law on kleptomania and often both impulse control disorders are cited in the company of the other.

A person suffering from pyromania may pass the irresistible impulse test i.e. he or she may be able to establish that the disease existed to so high a degree, that at the time of committing the act, it overwhelmed the reason, conscience, and judgment of the accused and he or she acted from an irresistible and in-controllable impulse but he or she will most likely fail the cognitive test for insanity in that the defendants actions were not the result of a severe mental disease or defect and that the defendant was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his or her actions.

Often with impulse control disorders, it is not that the defendant or the accused does not know that his or her actions are wrong. To the contrary they do in many instances understand the legal implications of their actions but are unable to prevent themselves from committing the act anyway.

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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