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Study: Extreme beliefs often mistaken for insanity in criminal cases

Although people often assume mass murderers and terrorists are insane, University of Missouri researchers say some of their acts are the product of "extreme overvalued beliefs."

By Stephen Feller
Study: Extreme beliefs often mistaken for insanity in criminal cases
A man stands in front of a memorial in San Bernardino, Calif., on December 17, 2015 after a husband and wife killed 14 people at the Inland Regional Center. While many assume they were insane, researchers at the University of Missouri suggest they, and many killers like them, are sane and acting on "extreme overvalued beliefs." Photo by Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

COLUMBIA, Mo., May 23 (UPI) -- When violent tragedies like mass shootings and suicide bombings happen, people look for an explanation that often results in an assumption the person is insane -- which is wrong, according to psychology researchers at the University of Missouri.

The researchers analyzed the case of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in two attacks in Norway in 2011, finding a propensity to develop overly intense beliefs allows sane people to justify awful acts.

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Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in jail for a car bombing and mass shooting at a youth camp, while claiming to be a "Knights Templar" and "savior of Christianity" with the goal of saving Europe from multiculturalism. Although a psychiatric team initially diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia, a second team judged him to have narcissistic personality disorder.

The researchers suggest sane people who develop systems of belief allowing them to commit atrocious acts requires a specific term, and they recommend "extreme overvalued belief" to properly refer to a psychiatric diagnosis relevant to criminal court cases.

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"In courts of law, there are not clearly defined, standard methods of diagnosing insanity for legal purposes," Dr. Tahir Rahman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri, said in a press release. "This new term will help forensic psychiatrists properly identify the motive for the defendant's criminal behavior when sanity is questioned."

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For the study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, the researchers analzyed Breivik's rigidly held extreme religious beliefs to differentiate between criminals with actual mental disorders and those who are aware of their actions and their motivations.

Breivik did not have grossly disorganized behavior, hallucinations, psychological history or cognitive impairment typical of a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. The media also reported on a mass distributed email hours before his attacks in which he was "defending his behavior and clearly relished being the center of what he believed was a political opportunity to further his agenda."

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This distinction, the researchers say, makes a difference in how terrorism and mass murder suspects are treated and prosecuted, while potentially offering an opportunity to intervene and prevent some tragic events from happening.

"Certain psychological factors may make people more vulnerable to developing dominating and amplified beliefs," Rahman said. "However, amplification of beliefs about issues such as immigration, religion, abortion or politics also may occur through the internet, group dynamics or obedience to charismatic authority figures. We already warn our youth about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and smoking. We need to add the risk of developing extreme overvalued beliefs to that list as we work toward reducing the violence often associated with them."

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