Pyromania is a mental illness characterized by impulsivity, and arson occurs when someone intentionally sets a fire with the understanding that others could be harmed.

Pyromania and arson are both associated with fire-setting, and people may use these terms interchangeably. However, the two conditions are not the same:

  • What is pyromania? The key difference between pyromania and arson is that pyromania is a mental illness. In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) includes pyromania disorder.
  • What is arson? In contrast to pyromania, arson is not a mental illness but rather a serious crime. It occurs when someone intentionally sets someone’s property on fire with malicious intent. Each state makes its own laws regarding arson. In some states, arson is automatically a felony. In others, it can be either a felony or misdemeanor depending on factors surrounding the crime.

Criteria for Pyromania vs. Arson

Pyromania and arson differ clearly in the criteria that define them. The DSM-5 provides pyromania diagnostic criteria, describing that people with pyromania have intentionally set a fire more than once and have felt tension or emotional arousal prior to the fire-setting. A person with pyromania also demonstrates a fascination with fire and derives some sort of pleasure from setting or watching fires. To meet criteria for pyromania, a person cannot set fires for monetary gain or engage in fire-setting as a part of a crime or display of sociological deviance.

Arson, however, meets the exact criteria that disqualify a person from a pyromania diagnosis. To begin with, arson is a crime and a display of sociological deviance. Arson can also occur when a person sets property on fire in order to collect insurance money, which represents setting fires for monetary gain. According to legal experts, a person who commits arson is creating some sort of damage, and they set the fire with the intent of causing this damage.

Causes of Pyromaniac and Arsonist Behaviors

With both pyromania and arson, there are underlying causes that contribute to this abnormal behavior. The causes of fire-setting are typically psychological, environmental, or genetic.

Motivations for Fire-Setting Behavior

Studies on pyromania psychology indicate that many people with pyromania will set fires to relieve built-up tension. They feel a compulsion to set fires and are fascinated with doing so. Additionally, they are motivated to set fires because it causes them to experience an emotional rush. Fire-setting can therefore become a method of coping with boredom or feelings of inadequacy.

People who commit arson, however, may have different motives. For example, they may wish to gain monetary rewards, which is why some people will commit arson to their own property in order to collect insurance money. Research with females who commit arson shows that they tend to target the property of people who are close to them, which suggests that they may be seeking revenge.

It is also possible that issues related to mental health and substance use can motivate a person to commit arson. There is evidence that those who engage in arson are more likely to suffer from these issues. Schizophrenia and alcohol misuse are common among people who commit arson, and it is possible that being under the influence of alcohol may prompt an act of arson.

Environmental Causes

Environmental factors can contribute to both pyromania and arson. In the case of pyromania, conflict and stress are factors within the environment that can lead to fire-setting behavior. For example, a child pyromaniac may set fires in order to cope with stress or conflict in the home, such as violence, abuse or poverty. With arson, environmental factors that influence fire-setting can include social isolation, lack of education and unemployment. Females who are sexually abused may also be more likely to commit arson.

Genetic Causes

There is also some belief that fire-setting behavior can be genetic. For instance, pyromania falls under the category of impulse control disorders, which are partly attributable to genetics. In addition, there are genes that are associated with impulsivity. These genes can alter the activity of brain chemicals like dopamine, which is linked to pleasure and reward.

Differences in Handling Pyromania and Arson

With pyromania being labeled as a mental illness and arson as a crime, there may be differences in treatment between the two. Pyromania treatment should involve psychological therapy, and a specific form called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be especially useful for treating pyromania.

In CBT, people learn to alter their negative thinking patterns and replace them with healthier, more effective ways of thinking. Altering these patterns can change behavior and help people to develop more effective coping skills. Medications like antidepressants and antipsychotics may also be useful for treating pyromania. Research shows that up to 90% of people with pyromania also have another condition, such as a mood disorder or an addiction.  Because of this, pyromania treatment may require that a person receives dual treatment to address other underlying issues.

Arson is a crime, so the handling of this condition may involve a prison sentence. The type of sentence for arson typically depends upon the severity of the crime. It can range from a fine for less serious misdemeanor arson cases to a lengthy prison sentence for severe cases where people could have been harmed.

While arson typically carries a criminal sentence, this does not mean that treatment is unnecessary for those who commit arson. As previously noted, people who engage in arson are likely to live with other conditions, such as schizophrenia or alcohol use disorders. Because of this, it may be necessary to treat underlying conditions. Arsonists may also require social skills training, and they could benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy.

If you or a loved one is living with a substance use disorder and also engaging in fire-setting behaviors, there is treatment available. The Recovery Village offers comprehensive treatment services to treat both addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions, such as pyromania and schizophrenia. Contact us today to begin the journey toward recovery.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Johnson, Scott; Netherton, Elisabeth. “Fire setting and the impulse-control disorder of pyromania.” The American Journal of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal, April 19, 2017. Accessed October 4, 2019.

Gillespie, Jessica. “Arson charges and penalties.” NOLO, 2019. Accessed October 4, 2019.

Burton, Paul; et al. “Firesetting, arson, pyromania, and the f[…]ental health expert.” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, September 1, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2019.

Bevilacqua, Laura; Goldman, David. “Genetics of impulsive behavior.” Philosophical Transactions B, April 5, 2013. Accessed October 5, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.