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Did Anders Breivik Train Himself to be a Sociopath?

August 24, 2012

Today Anders Breivik smirked as he was declared sane by a Norwegian court. But clearly he was not mentally normal – what could explain his extraordinary behaviour?

Breivik was probably the best expert on his own mental state – he was a man who may have trained himself quite consciously to be a sociopath and an entire year locked away in his bedroom playing violent video games was part of his training.

Breivik said in court that he trained himself to extinguish normal human emotions. He said that he was a “nice person, sympathetic” who was “quite normal up until 2006 when I started training”.

He also denied that he was racist, insisting he was fighting against anti-European racism carried out by “the Norwegian media and the Marxist elites”. He said: “I am not a racist. I am an anti-racist.” Indeed, the Turkish-named owner of the local bar near the farm where Breivik constructed his bomb said that Breivik was friendly to him in a way that some locals were not.

Breivik said he had chosen not to empathise with the those whose lives he had ruined as a self-preservation technique. He compared his preparation with that of soldiers going to war. Asked how he was able to talk about the atrocities in such an impassive manner, Breivik said he had learned to rely on “technical, de-emotionalised language” — “if I was going to use normalised language it would not have been possible” to go through police interviews and the trial.

Should we then consider taking Breivik as the best expert on his own psychological state and to consider seriously the possibility that he is to some extent that he has induced in himself a sort of ‘acquired sociopathy’.

Sociopathy is not a mental illness and I do not believe that Breivik is mentally ill. Sociopathy involves among other things a callous disregard for the feelings of others. Breivik’s astonishingly callous behaviour in his killing spree, and his awful coldness in the courtroom are indeed shocking, but this armour of self-control has chinks in it, for instance:

I have heard that some Labour youth said I was laughing. I never laughed or smiled when I was there. It was horrible ‘

 “If you are going to be capable of executing such a bloody and horrendous operation, you need to work on your mind, your psyche, for years. We have seen from military traditions you cannot send an unprepared person into war.”


or these reports from the court:

Breivik is now talking about Utøya – he has warned it will be “horrendous”, suggests people leave the room’; 

Breivik tells psychiatrists that his meditation dulls all emotions – “from happiness to sorrow, despair, hopelessness, anxiety, fear”

Breivik did not have a history of criminal behaviour as would be common for many sociopaths: there are no reports that I know of delinquency as a child or adolescent. The most salient characteristic seems to be that he was a solitary child.

But for the year before the mass killing, he locked himself in his bedroom in his mother’s house and did nothing except play violent video games including World of Warcraft, eat and sleep –  for an entire year.

Even very short exposure to such violent video games has been shown to have effects on the brain, in the form of ‘desensitizing’ the brain to violent or cruel images such that the emotional and physiological reactions are dulled and that in some cases even pleasure can be triggered by previously horrifying images[i]. Exposure to such games not only dulls emotional responding, an effect which lasts long after the actual video has stopped [ii],  it also increases the probability of actual violent behaviour. The scientific evidence for this is strong. [iii]

Furthermore, such violent video games are  sometimes used in the training of soldiers, probably with this precise ‘desensitization’ aim in mind. But of course, we cannot explain away Breivik’s volience by video game exposure, albeit that this may have been an important part of his ‘training’. After all, all societies have depended on men being able to deploy violence on other people. In well-run armies, the rules of engagement and good discipline usually prevent awful killing sprees such as that perpetrated by Breivik, but there are many examples in history of mass killings by soldiers, such as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, which was carried out by ordinary soldiers.

Another example of the ‘normality’ of murder can be seen in Reserve Police Battalion 101, one of a number of such units from Hamburg in Nazi Germany, consisting of respectable civilians – many middle-aged and middle-class –  who were sent to the newly occupied areas of eastern Europe in 1940. These ostensibly respectable men, who had not been brutalised by military combat, who were under no duress and could have requested transfer from such operations without fear of sanction or criticism at any time, participated energetically in the systematic mass executions of civilians. Very few refused to take part or asked to be given other duties. Any moral compunctions they may have had – one did later report that young children refusing to leave their mothers and having to be shot together with them was a little disturbing – were inhibited, denied or rationalised, as I show in my book The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain[iv].

There were hundreds of thousands of such men doing this throughout Eastern Europe during the second world war – ordinary men who loved their families and had close friendships round the ‘staamtisch’ of their cosy local pubs. Sociopaths? – Not at all, because most had good working histories, long-standing relationships and many other features of normality which are incompatible with the diagnosis of sociopathy. If they became sociopaths, it was a context-specific sociopathy, an acquired disorder like a temporary infection that allowed them to behave with insouciant bestiality.

Breivik’s awful half-smiling, murdering, coolness may be  an outcrop of feeling himself legitimised in the way that soldiers of any army do. But his is a warped self-legitimisation, backed up by a plethora of pernicious racist websites and organisations. Breivik certainly has an abnormal personality, and clearly is a narcissist. But we should take seriously what he himself says about his behaviour and today’s court decision agrees with Breivik’s self-assessment rather than the conclusion of insanity reached by the first assessing psychiatrists.

Breivik says, in effect, that he trained himself to be a sociopath. He spent several thousand hours over a  year  alone immersed in playing the most violent of killing games. He describes how he has trained himself to inhibit emotions and that he was a normal person before. I think I believe him.

Twitter – @ihrobertson


[i] Psychological Science September 2001 vol. 12 no. 5 353-359

[ii] Social Psychological and Personality Science January 2011 vol. 2 no. 1 29-32

[iv] Robertson, I (2012) The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain. London: Bloomsbury.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2012 11:12 am

    Fascinating stuff Ian. The news reporting this morning and your commentary above have given me food for thought. I had dismissed him as being insane beforehand, but now I find myself thinking about this whole area of how people can be trained to kill. I always remember a book called War, written by Gwynne Dyer where he quoted a US Army report (Men Against Fire, 1947) that said only 15% of US soldiers fired their weapons in anger in WW2. So the US Army went about ‘fixing that’ for future wars and radically changed the way they trained recruits. The phrase ‘dehumanisation’ is what I’ve kept in my head but it’s probably not the correct (or appropriate?) psychological term. Scary stuff that people can be trained to do this type of stuff.

  2. August 24, 2012 1:55 pm

    Unfortunately, there are hordes of people playing computer games like WoW around the clock but Breivik seems pretty unique in his behavior.

    • August 24, 2012 2:43 pm

      Agreed: violent video games did not cause his behaviour, but he may have used them as part of his deliberate training to desensitize his emotions to the consequences of his violence.

      • August 24, 2012 3:32 pm

        Yes, it’s possible. Even Ted Bundy seems to have had difficulty killing a woman who started talking about her kids. They may need to put their minds to it, much like any normal person would prepare mentally for a challenging task.

      • August 24, 2012 3:42 pm

        It’s a gruesome thought – thank you.

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