How Pyromania Works

What is pyromania?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, pyromania is "the uncontrollable impulse to start fires." This definition seems simple enough, but it's often difficult to apply when diagnosing an individual's fire-setting behavior and corresponding psychiatric treatment. There are many reasons that a person might set fires, and the difficulty comes in separating those who truly have an impulse to set fires from those who display criminal behaviors or other psychological disorders. To address this issue, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) has set forth the following criteria for a diagnosis of pyromania:

  1. The individual must have set fires deliberately and purposefully on more than one occasion.
  2. The individual must be tense or exhibit outward emotional behaviors (facial expressions, changes in voice, excitement) before setting fires.
  3. The individual must be interested in, curious about, fascinated with and/or attracted to fires and their situations.
  4. The individual must experience pleasure, tension relief or gratification after setting fires or watching fires and their aftermaths.
  5. Other psychological disorders cannot better account for the individual's fire-setting behavior (manic episodes, antisocial behaviors)
  6. The individual has no other motivations for setting the fire, like:
  • Financial gain (collecting insurance)
  • Expressing social or political ideas
  • Revenge or anger
  • Hiding other criminal activity (concealing a murder or theft)
  • Improving his or her living circumstances
  • Responding to delusions or hallucinations
  • Impaired judgment (dementia, mental retardation, alcohol or drug intoxication)


So, t­o make a diagnosis of pyromania, the psychiatrist must know that the individual has set multiple fires (on multiple occasions), is tense or aroused before setting fires and is released from that tension after the fire. Furthermore, the individual must not exhibit intoxication, criminal motivation or other criminal/psychiatric disorders. When all other reasons have been ruled out, what remains must be pyromania.

So, according to these criteria, did Sarah Wheaton actually have pyromania? Because she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (with a subsequent history of fire-setting behavior), she did not fit the definition of true pyromania. So, by applying the DSM-IV criteria, how common is pyromania?