He’s not the kind of man you want at your dinner table.
By anyone’s definition, these are truly horrific acts by someone who exhibits the absolute worst of humanity. It’s hard to fathom, but even harder to understand is just how cool, calm and reasoned Breivik has appeared to be during his trial in Oslo.
He talks rationally and calmly, fully aware of what he’s done; thinking clearly about his answers and providing a full and frank disclosure of what happened. All without any apparent remorse, regret or sorrow.
His actions are clearly abhorrent, but there are some interesting insights into how thought affects behaviour that I want to share with you.
1. It starts with an intention.
Breivik started with an idea. A thought. “Multiculturism is wrong.”
You might not agree with that thought and I’m no criminal psychologist, but it seems as though that thought became so resonant with him that it evolved into a desire to do something about it. It turned into an intention. Where Breivik differs from you or I is the route that he decided to take based on that intention, but you can be damn sure that this mattered to him, and that his intention to change things is what drove him.
What’s driving you? And what route are you taking?
2. You can train your mind however you want.
In his testimony Breivik states that he took a year-long sabbatical between the summers of 2006 and 2007 to start his training – “You have to chose tactics and strategies to dehumanise… the enemy… those who I see as legitimate targets. If I hadn’t done that… I wouldn’t have managed to do it.”
This was a period when he played World of Warcraft for up to 16 hours a day, a “hobby” that most likely afforded him the opportunity to practice the dehumanisation of a crowd. He followed this up with more specific training in preparation for his attacks, using a holographic aiming device with the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and studying in detail the successes and failures of al-Qaeda.
Alongside his “training”, you can bet that he also spent time practicing his belief system; both embedding and reinforcing the connections and patterns in his brain that make it possible to automate thinking and therefore behaviour.
What have you trained yourself to do?
3. Your brain wants you to be right.
“These are gruesome acts, barbaric acts,” Breivik said in court, showing that he’s most definitely aware of the nature of his actions while simultaneously showing no remorse.
This is something of a puzzler for people. Breivik and his defence team maintain that he’s sane, while psychologists continue to debate that. To you and me, the killing of 8 people in a car bomb and the shooting of 69 innocent teenagers could never be rationalised or defended, but in order to assimilate what he was preparing for and what he “successfully” carried out into a “sane” mind, Breivik created and implemented a higher cause context for his actions.
He insists that prior to 2006 he was “a very nice person, very caring about those around me,” and so in order to carry out such a “barbaric act” he had to find a way to be in the right. He did this by creating a picture where he was saving his country and delivering a vital message to the rest of Europe, and he insists it was “goodness, not evil” that had prompted him to act so that he could prevent a “major civil war“.
Breivik shaped his thinking to the extent where his views were not only right, but needed by the world.
Are you convinced you’re in the “right”? What are you trading for being right (or being seen to be right)?
4. Emotions can provide important feedback.
Breivik continues to talk impassively about the atrocities he freely admits to, and when asked how that’s possible he explains how he had learned to rely on “technical, de-emotionalised language” and admitted that “if I was going to use normalised language it would not have been possible” to talk about the details of what happened on July 22nd.
Comparing his preparation with that of soldiers going to war, he deliberately decoupled emotion from how he thought about his actions. His brain would still have been giving him strong emotional signals telling him to stop, but he’d learned to spot them as just mental events and disregard them in favour of his pre-embedded thinking.
While sometimes your emotions can be fired as a fear response aimed to simply keep you safely away from risk and the drama of screwing up, other times your emotions can be fired when your behaviour is flying in the face of your values – those things that are woven deeply through your brain; those things that matter most to you.
By depcoupling that feedback he removed the greys that emotional feedback provides and was able to look at things in a polarised, black and white way.
Where are you not listening to yourself?
5. There’s always the voice of doubt.
Before shooting his first victims, Breivik said he had “100 voices” in his head telling him not to do it. Right after that brief moment of hesitation, he told the court that he pulled the trigger, shot two people in the head and moved on.
A grotesque example for sure, but it shows that no matter how committed and empassioned you are there can always be the voice of doubt; that voice that tells you not to. Breivik demonstrated that it’s possible to act in the face of extraordinary doubt and fear.
The decision he made in the face of those “100 voices” was the wrong one, so it seems there’s something to be learned about when to listen to this voice and when not to.