The Functional Consistency of Proximal Dynamic Risk Factors across Co-Occurring Behavioural Problems: Do Juvenile Arsonists and General Offenders Differ?

  • Danielle Perks

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The thesis comprised four studies examining the fundamental risk factors associated with deliberate firesetting risk, the dynamic proximal psychological and behavioural processes precipitating juvenile firesetting and general offending, and the functional relationships between deliberate firesetting and broader antisocial behavioural problems.

First, a meta-analysis amalgamated existing empirical studies comparing deliberate firesetters and non-firesetters to determine the strongest correlates of juvenile firesetting. A search of electronic databases identified 39 independent samples from 30 studies (N=22,292) conducted between 1985 and 2015. Significant effects were found for deliberate firesetting behaviour and 80 per cent (%) of the variables explored. Fire-specific variables yielded the strongest association, followed by behavioural, environmental, and psychopathology risk factors. Protective factors were significantly and negatively associated with deliberate firesetting behaviour. Overall, juvenile firesetters exhibited more risk across multiple domains in comparison to juveniles without a history of firesetting. This meta-analysis is the first to compare juvenile firesetters with non-firesetters.

The second study employed a qualitative methodology to explore the offence chains and proximal psychological processes of a matched sample of juvenile firesetters and general offenders. A forensic sample of N=70 (n=35 firesetters and n=35 non-firesetters) was recruited from community services (n=32) and detention centres (n=38). A comprehensive framework of juvenile offender function was determined, irrespective of firesetting status. Four overarching functions were found to explain juvenile offending: antisocial cognition/influence, emotional dysregulation, revenge/retribution, power and control. Underlying these four primary functions were various sub-themes and implicit cognitive scripts illustrating the presence of heterogeneity within a function. Juveniles were found to present with multiple scripts across different functions. A closer examination of firesetting behaviour in isolation revealed deliberate firesetters hold one or more of six offence-specific scripts precipitating deliberate firesetting. This is the first study to explore the cognitive scripts specific to juvenile firesetting, providing a plausible explanation for how juvenile firesetting and non-firesetting offenders differ.

The third study drew upon the qualitative findings from study two and provided the foundation for a quantitative comparative analysis of the offence chains between: (1) juvenile arson and non-arson offenders; and (2) deliberate firesetting and co-occurring behavioural concerns. Arson offenders were statistically significantly more antisocial than controls in their behavioural function and modus operandi, with non-arson offenders found to be more emotionally dysregulated. Overall, arson offenders were found to be more unpredictable and delinquent in their functioning, and have fewer protective factors than non-arson offenders. revealed functional consistency among groups of offenders.

The final study was an evaluation of functional consistency across time. A four-way comparison of participant’s index offences and additional problematic behaviours across two-time points yielded partial evidence for functional consistency across a mean time-period of 6.48 months (N=24). However, the predictive accuracy was low over a mean time-lapse of 25.80 months. The environment of behavioural occurrence (i.e., community or detention) was determined to have a significant effect on the functional consistency of offence characteristics; a change in environment over time resulted in lower functional consistency. The findings of the final study were not robust enough to conclude absolute offence paralleling behaviour among juvenile offenders across time.

Overall the studies illustrate the importance of the dynamic psychological process of juvenile offenders and that fire-specific cognitive scripts exist for juvenile firesetters, plausibly differentiating them from their non-firesetting counterparts. The findings have implications for the assessment and risk management of both juvenile firesetters and general offenders.
Date of Award16 Feb 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorBruce Watt (Supervisor) & Katarina Fritzon (Supervisor)

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