Hello and welcome to the Big Five podcast from Northumbria psychology department. My name is Dr. Genavee Brown and I'll be your guide into the minds of psychology students, alumni and researchers at Northumbria University. I'm a lecturer and a social psychology researcher in the psychology department. Each week on this podcast I'll speak to a guest who is either a student, alumni or researcher in the Northumbria psychology department. By asking them five big questions, we'll learn about their time studying psychology, and hopefully learn some big facts about human behavior and experience. Today I have the pleasure of speaking to Faye Horsley. Hello, Faye.
So just to start with, could you tell us a bit about why you got interested in your research topic? And what are some of the theories behind the things that you study?
Absolutely, yes. So my research topic is, broadly speaking, arson and fire setting. But it's it's a bit more specific than that, which I guess I'll go on to speak to later. So I'm a practitioner, forensic psychologist by background. So I worked for many years in prison and secure hospital settings. And really, that was where my interest first developed in studying the psychology of why people set fires because I worked with arsonists, convicted arsonists say in prison settings. And what I discovered early on was that they are I put, in my view, a particularly fascinating subgroup of people who commit crimes. And they are particularly complex psychologically, when compared to, for example, violent offenders or sexual offenders. And I discovered as I started to read around the literature that actually they're an understudied subgroup, we don't know, psychologically as much about them, as we do. Some other groups of offenders, for example, the ones I just mentioned, violent or sexually violent offenders. And so really, that was the beginning of my interest. And from there, I decided to do a PhD in the in the area.
Excellent. Thank you very much. I guess my next question is when you are, so you said you came from a clinical setting. So when you're in those clinical settings, how exactly do you do research and look into these arsonists kind of psychology? And what kind of methodology do you use now that you're in more of a university setting to study these questions?
Yeah, really good questions. And what I would say, generally speaking in forensic psychology, which is I guess, my sub discipline, is, it's, it's, it wouldn't surprise you see, here, it's difficult to study clinical populations, because of course, places like prisons don't particularly aren't particularly comfortable with lots of researchers going in left, right and center doing research with their populations, you know, it's a vulnerable population. And there has to be, of course, ethically a very, very good reason to study them. That being said, considering the arson and firesetting literature, actually, prison and hospital populations have are the ones that have been studied most, so far. And that's, of course, really important, because we need to understand why people are setting fires, and, you know, arriving with prison sentences or hospital sections. However, what I kind of discovered, again, early on from the review of a review of the literature is actually people in prison and hospital are only a very small subgroup of all of the people who are setting fires. Because Austin has a very low apprehension rate. So what that means in practice is that actually, most people who are setting fires to things that they shouldn't be setting fire to, are still in the community. They're not in prison, and they're not in hospital, because they've never been caught, essentially. And so the research that exists, the majority of the research that exists so far, is arguably and I would argue, argue, not necessarily representative of all of the people who are lighted fires. And so over, certainly over the kind of the last 10 years, there's been an increased amount of research being done in the community using sort of community samples, self report samples, so essentially asking people have you ever set fire to anything you shouldn't have done? Obviously, usually, it's an anonymous survey type design. And I think that that's much more representative TATIVE and that's what we're seeing an increase amount of in the psychological literature. And so to answer the second part of your question, that's really the methodological, the broad methodological approach that I use in my research. So, so far, I've done community based research, both quantitative studies in terms of online surveys. And also I'm particularly interested in qualitative research. And really, there's a lack of that in the firesetting literature. It's very
interesting. So my next question was always what's the most interesting or surprising thing about the research that you've done so far? But I'm also curious, do you know what kind of percentage of the population sets fires and and how many people are actually engaging in that behavior that aren't convicted of it?
Yeah, the million dollar question, how many people are actually doing this? So there hasn't been much research, I say that there's been a gradual increase in this community based research, it's still relatively sparse, considering. So there hasn't been that many sort of surveys if you like, but there has been some research a program of research by some academics at Kent University. So they are really and have been over the last 10 years kind of leading the way in the fire setting. Research Professor Theresa Gannon and many of her colleagues at Kent University and Gannon and Emma Barra cliff and other Dr. Emma Barra cliff, another researcher in the area conducted three sort of community based studies. And within that they cited self report rates of fire setting. And I believe that the rate they cited was around 13%, one 3%. But of course, you've got to consider all sorts of methodological issues relating to you know, how likely are people to actually self report if they set fires? What would the what was the question, they were actually asked, of course, how were they operationalizing fire setting, and that can vary from study to study. So I did a bit of work with a couple of undergraduate students at my previous institution, Newcastle University, and we did a similar study, we asked members of the public to self report, but we operate operationalized fire setting slightly differently. And actually, we found this is an unpublished study at this point, we found a much higher self report rate of 30 Odd three 0%. And I think that just demonstrates, I guess that how much it's self reported rates can vary depending on I guess exactly what question you're asking. So the simple answer to your question would be I don't really know, we don't really know. But I think there needs to be more research. And actually, I think, a standardized way of kind of asking the question would be would be good, so that we can really get more of a grasp of what's going on and how the extent of the problem, I suppose the most exciting for me, and certainly interesting. Discovery, again, came pretty early on, for me as a PhD student reviewing the existing literature. And that was that we know a fair bit in forensic psychology about why people set fires, and who sets fires, albeit with the methodological caveats, which I've already mentioned, is most of the research being done in prison, etc. What we don't know anything about or virtually nothing about from a psychological point of view is more broadly, why people engage in fire use and what I mean by that, so I've kind of coined the term fire use to mean any interaction with fire, not necessarily just misuse. So for example, why people light candles in their home, why people attend bonfires why people might use fire for spiritual or religious reasons. We know basically nothing about that. And that to me was very surprising because my and this really is the premise of my my research currently, is I suppose the argument that how can we really understand why people misuse fire, ie why they become convicted arsonists, for instance, without having an appreciation of the relationship that we as humans have with fire more broadly, and that involves also why we use fire For perfectly prosocial, adaptive reasons. So it really surprised me when I looked at the psychological literature that we know basically nothing about that
that's so interesting. Someone personally, who loves candles and loves a good bonfire, it makes you wonder are you know, I thought that was just kind of normal behavior? Are there people who aren't so interested in fire? And, you know, do you have your research led to any kind of findings that might suggest why certain people are drawn to fire? Is it the social component? Is it just some kind of like thrill they get out of it? What kind of things have you found relating to that?
Yeah, so I could talk all day on this. And I suppose what you've what you've hit on, there is a really, really important question. And I think certainly, perhaps what you what you were alluding to in that question is, okay, so why does some people engage perfectly adaptively with fires like yourself, if you like candles at home, but they don't go on to misuse fire, whereas other people do go on to misuse fire? And because we know very little about the former group, so the people who use it adaptively? We can't really answer that question yet. So so we can't answer. Why is it that some people can engage with fire in a healthy way for their entire life without progressing to misusing it, whereas other people do misuse it? And I think that is a really important question. And that's one that we're unable to answer yet. And I suppose that's one of the directions of my research. I certainly can't give you an answer to that yet. But what I can give you an answer to is some of the some of the things I found so far, through exploring with people. But people who are in prison for arson, but also importantly, people who aren't so people like you and me, who live in the community who might like to light a fire at home on a weekend. And what I found, I suppose importantly, is that there's some common themes actually, in I've done a lot of qualitative research. So far, there's some common themes in the way that those two groups of people are talking about fire. So for example, people talk about the physiological stimulation of being around fire. So for example, and adrenaline rush and feeling alive, but they also talk about the relaxing quality of fire, the way it can calm and the way it can soothe and the way it can. Some participants in my research even spoke about it in kind of, they personified fire, they spoke about it as having human characteristics. And, for instance, the way it can keep them company if they're in in house on their own, and they light a candle and it makes them feel less alone. So and I guess what's interesting is that there are some common themes across people who are using it adaptively. And people who are using it maladaptive ly, for instance, another another theme is, is they would talk about fires, ability to boost one's self esteem. So if, for instance, you feel that you've set a good fire, because kind of setting fire to things is not I've discovered vicariously as easy as it would sound. And so a lot of participants spoke about, well, if I effectively build a fire, and I set fire to it, and it continues to burn, then that gives me a kind of a real sense of self esteem. And it makes me feel good about myself. And again, that was a common theme across people, irrespective of kind of what they're setting fire to. And, you know, whether that's adaptive or not. So really, that just, I suppose highlights the importance of that question you asked at the beginning, you know, is there a difference between people who use it adaptively and less adaptively? And so there are some common themes, but I I am keen to continue to explore, you know, what are the differences? Why are some people compelled to set fire to things that they shouldn't?
Yeah, I find that very interesting that there's these common things between people who who do it improperly and properly. Also find it super interesting that fire gets personified because in some ways it does, it seems like a living thing, you have to feed it, you have to kind of like shield it from the elements. You have to take kind of take care of it to get it to keep burning, which was quite interesting. And also thought a lot of people, maybe not a lot of people, but there are cases of people who get convicted for arson, who didn't necessarily mean to kind of set a fire in a way that was maladaptive. So I'm thinking like, you know, in the States, people's camp, fires get out of hand and they start a forest fire and then they get convicted of arson, so I can see how it'd be injured. just going to kind of study that link that you know, someone who's using it adaptively could accidentally damage the environment with it. Yeah, that's, that's great. That's fascinating. I guess my next question will be, where do you hope to go from here with your studies? And what kind of things are you going to look at next?
Well, as you will know, as a researcher, yourself Genavee, sometimes the problem we have is reining ourselves in reining in our interests, because there's 1,000,001 places I'd like to go next. So it's about prioritizing, I guess, what I could do is speak to briefly the research that I'm doing right now, currently. So what I'm particularly interested in is the concept of fire use, as I referred to before, rather than just fire setting, ie maladaptive lighting. So to look more broadly, at how we as humans view fire, and how we understand it, and the type of attitudes and beliefs that we hold about it, and also importantly, where those beliefs and attitudes come from. So a piece of research I'm doing at the moment is a qualitative study. And I'm actually interviewing adults who have regular contact with young people, ie parents, teachers, Scout leaders, Brownie leaders, etc. And I'm asking them about how they communicate to young people about fire. Because I guess, the working hypothesis, the working theory, is that, you know, we're psychologists, we know that a lot of how we behave is, you know, a function of kind of upbringing and how we were taught and how we were communicated to you at a young age. And there's been no research of that nature, in specifically in fire you. So I'm keen to understand what sort of messages young people are picking up both directly and indirectly about fire, and whether or not that might impact on how they then kind of go on to use it. So I'm also going to follow that up with a quantitative survey based study. But at the moment, I'm exploring those fire messages, as I call them, qualitative
in the United States, we have a cartoon character named Smokey the Bear. I don't know if you've ever heard of Smokey the Bear. And his message is only you can prevent forest fires. And so as a kid, like I got some training around safely using fire in kind of natural settings, but also in the home. And I wondered if there was anything like that, since you're interested in how children learn about fire here in the UK?
So that's really interesting. I'd never heard of Smokey the Bear. So thank you for introducing me to him, I'll go and check him out. And that is really one of the areas I'm really interested in. So what are we currently doing with with young people in this country? And what, if anything, could we be doing more of less of or better at, and again, there's been very little research, which looks at the national picture, one of my friends and colleagues, Joanna Foster, has done some research, the only piece of research actually, which surveyed every fire and rescue service in the country, asking them what they're actually doing with young people in terms of fire safety, and fire education and intervention, Joanna Foster also does a lot of her own intervention work with, with young fire setters. And so we don't really know much about the national picture. And I think we need a better understanding of what's currently being done. And I think one of the things we should be better at is standardizing that. So making sure that it's kind of the same type of delivery and the same type of messages across the country. I'm not sure that's necessarily happening at the moment. I think certainly from what I'm finding from my research current research so far is that there's quite a lot of variation in sort of how parents are talking to young people about fire. But and I think what you alluded to in your question, actually is really, really key is that there's probably cultural differences and societal differences and demographic differences in terms of how children are learning about fire. And, and I think actually, there's a lot that we could learn from other countries, for instance, looking at countries which don't have so much of an arson problem and asking the same question, right. What are young people here learning about fire and other only differences to how we're teaching our young people about fire? And I guess one of the lovely things about this area is my opinion is that it's all brand new. So these questions haven't really been asked and they certainly haven't been answered. So it I suppose a bit of a blank canvas for me as a researcher in terms of where, where I want to go with this. And I think there's been a bit of research in New Zealand. So a colleague of mine, Nicola, Tyler, has done a bit of research with some of her students looking at kind of fire learning in New Zealand. And that's really interesting, but there's really been nothing in this country. And so I think we need to do more. And then I think there's a lot of scope for that kind of cross cultural examination of whether there's any differences.
Yes. Another interesting future line of research for Yeah, so my final question is, what kind of impact do you think this work? Could have? will have? Yeah, what are some of the real world applications of the things that you have found so far in this research?
Yes. So I guess the under lying rationale to the research that I'm doing is, I think we need to be giving more attention to early intervention strategies. So I talk about in the book I've recently published, give it a little plug, right? Why not? I talk a lot about the human what I call the human fire relationship. Okay. I think that, I suppose my argument is that by the time people are in prison, for instance, for arson, they may well have formed what I call a, an unhealthy relationship with fire. And I guess by that point, and I suppose I'll just pose this to your listeners to have a think about by that point, how easy is it to undo an unhealthy relationship wouldn't sit as formed, you could argue the same with anything, you know, we see how difficult it is for people who formed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or drugs, you know, what battles they have in kind of undoing, quote, unquote, that relationship? So I guess my art my my rationale really is, is it it? Wouldn't it make more sense for us to be investing resources into early intervention to help young people form a healthy relationship with fire from the outset, rather than trying to undo an unhealthy relationship by the time they're adults, and they're in prison. So that's really the what I hope will be the impact of some of the work that I'm doing now is to understand how we're communicating with young people about fire early on, and perhaps, if necessary, and I think there may be some, some tweaks that we could do in terms of how we message, the sort of messages, we're sending young people. And so I hope the impact will be around shaping and maybe some reshaping of early intervention programs. And I'm doing some with research with the fire service to local fire and rescue services in the Northeast currently. And we're talking about all sorts of directions we could go in, including perhaps piloting some new ideas on based on my research with young people, and in terms of their fire safety education programs.
Wow, that sounds very interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of that research goes and what we can learn from it. If our listeners want to read your book, or stay in touch with you online or keep up with your research. Could you tell us a bit more about your book and and where they might be able to find that? And maybe any social media that you're on that where they can follow your research?
Yes, of course. So I'm on LinkedIn, and they can follow kind of updates on publications, etc. on there. I would love your listeners to, to have a look at my book. It's called arson, we conceptualized the human fire relationship. And it's published with Routledge. And what I would say about my book is, I suppose I would say this or tonight, it's my book. But what I would hope that that readers will will notice is that it's really the first psychological text, certainly from a forensic psychological perspective, to look more broadly at the human fire relationship. So why we as humans interact with fire, and how that can sometimes go wrong. I, you know, can lead to arson and vice setting and what I've tried to do and what I'm, I think proud of with the book is, is I've tried to produce a something that's interdisciplinary, so as well as kind of drawing on forensic psychology, which is I guess my my discipline, I draw on criminology, socio sociological principles, and also very importantly, anthropology and evolutionary anthropology because I think it's that's crucial if we are to understand how over millions of years, we as a species have come to use fire, and in fact, how reliant we are on fire, and always have been. And so I would hope that that's something that I guess sets my book apart from some of the existing texts in forensic psychology because I take a much more broad perspective on fire.
Wow, that sounds fascinating. I'm gonna have to go get a coffee. Thank you again fee for joining us today. For our last episode of Season One of the big five podcast, listeners will be on hiatus for a little summer break until September of this year, so please rejoin us when season two starts. If you'd like to learn more about Northumbria psychology, you can check out our psychology department blog at Northumbria psy.com. You can also follow us on Twitter at Northumbria Psy. If you want you can follow me on Twitter at Brown Genavee To stay updated on upcoming episodes. And if you'd like to be interviewed on the podcast or know someone who would please email me at Genavee email@example.com Finally, if you like the podcast, make sure to subscribe to our podcast on your listening app and give us a review and rating. I hope you've learned something on this voyage into the mind. Take care until next time