February 23, 2024

Extreme beliefs often mistaken for insanity

A team of US researchers have challenged the view that criminals motivated by extreme views are mentally ill.

Insanity can be a legitimate defence in some criminal cases. But a team of US researchers are questioning whether criminals motivated by extreme views are of necessity insane.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatrist and the Law, researchers from the University of Missouri argue that in some cases criminals should be said to have an “extreme overvalued belief” rather than being declared mentally ill.

Focusing specifically on the case of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, the researchers argue that extreme beliefs need not entail psychotic disorder. “… some people without psychotic mental illness feel so strongly about their beliefs that they take extreme actions.”, lead author Tahir Rahman said in an interview. “Our suggested term for criminally violent behavior when psychosis can be ruled out is ‘extreme overvalued belief.’”

The authors of the study draw upon the work of German neuropsychiatrist Carl Wernicke when developing this notion. When trying to develop subtlety in diagnosis of his patients, Wernicke proposed the concept of überwertige Idee (overvalued idea). The idea has lately received increased attention, particularly as a way to describe ideological factors at play in terrorism in the post 9/11 world.

Rahman and his collegues suggest that the term will be of great assistance to foresnic psychiatrists:

“Although forensic psychiatrists may not always agree on a particular individual’s motives, this concept may help to sharpen their differential diagnosis in challenging cases such as Mr. Breivik’s. Forensic psychiatrists should be aware of the powerful and destructive forces that extreme overvalued beliefs can unleash in any culture, subculture, political affiliation, or religion. They also should be aware of the differences in interpreting the diagnostic significance of such beliefs.” 

Extreme beliefs often mistaken for insanity
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
psychological testing