Anders Breivik, Sociopath

In July of 2011, Anders Breivik killed 77 people; some by a car bomb that exploded in Oslo, and the rest he shot dead at a children’s camp on the island of Utoya. This kind of cold-blooded massacre always leaves one wondering if the assailant is/was insane, or not. This is important for at least two reasons; firstly, it opens the debate of whether a mass murderer can be a sane individual, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, how will the court choose to rule over the killings. If the court is convinced that the killer was insane, then they will be sent to a mental health facility, and if sane, the killer will be sent to prison for a long time (or perhaps executed, depending on the country).

According to a recent BBC article, a first psychiatric evaluation found Breivik to be insane, but a more recent one found him to be sane. It is unclear whether political pressure has swayed the judgment (I’m sure majority opinion favors Breivik going to prison), but the most recent judgment will see Breivik go to jail if found guilty (which is inevitable).

I have no idea what the psychiatric evaluations have shown, but it seems to me that Breivik matches Dr. Robert Hare‘s definition of a sociopath, which is as follows: Sociopathy is not a formal psychiatric condition. It refers to patterns of attitudes and behaviors that are considered antisocial and criminal by society at large, but are seen as normal or necessary by the subculture or social environment in which they are developed. Sociopaths may have a well-developed conscience and a normal capacity for empathy, guilt, and loyalty, but their sense of right and wrong is based on the norms and expectations of their subculture or group (definition taken from Snakes in Suits, Harper 2006, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare).

Breivik has commented on numerous occasions that he has done nothing wrong, even though he acknowledges the killings, or as a recent Guardian article explained, “He admitted his responsibility for the 77 deaths yesterday. But he also made clear, both in his conduct and through his lawyers, that he is wholly unrepentant and sees those deaths as a means to a wider political end. He revels in the horrified attention that is focused on him. He is ready to give further offence to liberal values wherever he can, and he intends to add insult to injury by trying Norway’s patience in every way possible.” Breivik clearly has a values system and a sense of right and wrong, it’s just not a values system accepted by society at large.

As Hare pointed out, sociopathy is not a formal psychiatric condition, but there has to be neurological correlates. Those who score highly on the PCL-R are those who have extreme Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), and are called psychopaths. It has been known for years that the brains of those with APD are different from normal people, for example differences have been found in the gray matter of the amygdala, the gray matter of the frontal cortex, the white matter integrity of the uncinate fasciculus (which links the frontal lobe with the amygdala/limbic system), and even in the hippocampus (many of these studies were conducted by Dr. Adrian Raine). To my knowledge these differences are more prevalent in unsuccessful psychopaths than successful psychopaths (the difference being how often the individual is incarcerated). I’m wondering if sociopaths share the elusive neuronal correlates of the successful psychopaths, but I’m yet to see a study on this.

Regardless of any differences, it is important that sociopathy (and psychopathy) remains under the banner of sanity, even though it seems perverse; Breivik clearly knew what he was doing and there has been no mention of Schizophrenia, Kluver Bucy syndrome, or any other disorder that typically results in aggressive behavior.

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