When far right fanatic Anders Behring Breivik decided to protest what he calls the “Islamic colonization” of Norway by going on a bombing and shooting rampage last year, killing 77 people, many of them teenagers attending a youth summer camp, he says that he didn’t expect to survive his carefully planned attack. But, he did. Now, after having confessed to the killings, he is trying to use his trial as a platform to publicize his ultra-nationalist views and his fight against multi-culturalism. To that end, he read a prepared statement in court, telling the world about his dream of a “resistance movement” of Europeans “who don’t want our ethnic rights taken away.” Somewhat curiously, though, he also took pain to forcefully reject what he anticipated would be prosecution efforts to portray him as an “antisocial psychopath.”

Just to be clear, I am not saying that he is a psychopath; that is a determination that can only be made by a trained mental health professional with access to Breivik’s personal history and the opportunity to interview him. But, I do find it interesting that this man, who has no problem admitting that he killed 77 people, is determined not to be called a psychopath.

Part of his thinking may be based on confusion between psychopathy and psychosis. They are not the same thing. Psychosis is a psychiatric condition in which the person is out of touch with reality. A person who is psychotic might experience hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that aren’t there, sometimes hallucinations of smells, tastes or being touched) or delusions (there are many types, but all are basically false beliefs firmly held even in the face of evidence to the contrary); there are varieties of psychotic disorder, including schizophrenia and delusional disorder. It’s easy to see why Breivik would not want to be diagnosed as psychotic. He wants to convince the world that his actions were necessary. In his view, what he did was perfectly rational — he has said that he would do it again if he had the chance. And, Breivik has refused to plead insanity; his lawyer says that it is very important to Breivik that he be seen as sane since he fears that his message will have no effect if people think he is insane.

Psychopathy, on the other hand, involves a major abnormality in how people interact with the world around them, characterized by a lack of empathy for the feelings of others, a willingness to engage in illegal and immoral anti-social behaviors for selfish gains, and extreme egocentricity. According to observers, Breivik gave a “cold-blooded” account in court of how he calmly and methodically executed 69 people at the youth camp; it’s difficult to imagine a more ruthless way to violate the law and prevailing social norms.

Importantly, at least from Breivik’s perspective, psychopaths have no difficulty perceiving reality; they know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it – and they are almost always doing it for their own perceived benefit. Psychopaths are also at increased risk of engaging in instrumental aggression (sometimes referred to as proactive or predatory aggression), which is planned, controlled, purposeful and used for a particular aim – for example, to obtain drugs or power or, to raise awareness of one’s ideology and bring attention to a “movement.” This isn’t aggression or violence that arises from an emotional reaction such as anger or jealousy; instead, it’s the calculated use of violence as a tool. So far as I know, Breivik hasn’t expressed any anger at any particular attendee at the camp, much less at the group as a whole. In fact, he has said that if his bombing earlier that day in Oslo had been successful and he had brought a whole building down and killed more than 8 people, he would not have even needed to go the youth camp.

So, as Breivik tries to convince the court that what he did was "right", the rest of us should realize that his actions are at least consistent in many ways with the behaviors of a psychopath.

[An interesting aside: if found sane – remember, he’s already confessed to the murders - Breivik could be sentenced to a prison for a maximum of 21 years, or an alternate arrangement that would keep him locked up as long as he is considered a menace to society. Considering the magnitude of the crimes, many Americans likely find even the possibility of a sentence of only 21 years shocking in and of itself.]

About the Authors

Ronald Schouten, M.D., J.D.

Ronald Schouten, M.D., J.D., is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Law & Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Jim Silver

Jim Silver, J.D., is a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.

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