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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

and let it be known

According to This Psychologist, Sherlock Holmes Isn’t a Sociopath at All

Psychologist Maria Konnikova is peeved with some of the discussion going on around Sherlock. Why? Is it the mystery of the exact events of the season three two finale? Is it the pre-emptive hatred some sectors of the fandom seem to have developed for CBS’s Elementary? Hell, is she just wondering who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing in Star Trek 2?

No, it’s something that makes far more sense given her profession: Konnikova would like us all to stop referring to Holmes as a sociopath. Because according to her very compelling argument, he’s not. 

There is a scene, in the pilot (“A Study in Pink”) of BBC’s Sherlock, in which police minion and continuous thorn-in-Holme’s-side Anderson calls Sherlock a psychopath. Our lead whips around, all spitting retort: “I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning sociopath, do your research!”

The moment is memorable, among Sherlock’s many (oh, many) comebacks, for highlighting what seems to be a key aspect of the introduction of the character. But according to Konnikova, there are a number of falsehoods being perpetrated by the exchange (full text can be found here):

Sherlock Holmes is not a sociopath. He is not even a “high-functioning sociopath,” as the otherwise truly excellent BBC Sherlock has styled him (I take the words straight from Benedict Cumberbatch’s mouth). There. I’ve said it.

First of all, psychopaths and sociopaths are the exact same thing. There is no difference. Whatsoever. Psychopathy is the term used in modern clinical literature, while sociopathy is a term that was coined by G. E. Partridge in 1930 to emphasize the disorder’s social transgressions and that has since fallen out of use. That the two have become so mixed up in popular usage is a shame, and that Sherlock perpetuates the confusion all the more so. And second of all, no actual psychopath-or sociopath, if you (or Holmes) will-would ever admit to his psychopathy.

Konnikova goes on to describe what goes into the diagnosis of sociopaths,  a lot of the things on the list do seem like they apply to our famous detective.

According to Konnikova, however, there are key differences. Speaking to his coldness in particular:

Holmes’s coldness is nothing of the sort [that is found in true psychopaths]. It’s not that he doesn’t experience any emotion. It’s that he has trained himself to not let emotions cloud his judgment-something that he repeats often to Watson. In “The Sign of Four,” recall Holmes’s reaction to Mary Morstan: “I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met.” He does find her charming, then. But that’s not all he says. “But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things,” Holmes continues. Were Sherlock a psychopath, none of those statements would make any sense whatsoever. Not only would he fail to recognize both Mary’s charm and its potential emotional effect, but he wouldn’t be able to draw the distinction he does between cold reason and hot emotion. Holmes’s coldness is learned. It is deliberate. It is a constant self-correction (he notes Mary is charming, then dismisses it; he’s not actually unaffected in the initial moment, only once he acknowledges it does he cast aside his feeling).

What’s more, Holmes’s coldness lacks the related elements of no empathy, no remorse, and failure to take responsibility. For empathy, we need look no further than his reaction to Watson’s wound in “The Three Garridebs,” (“You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!”)-or his desire to let certain criminals walk free, if they are largely guiltless in his own judgment. For remorse, consider his guilt at dragging Watson into trouble when the situation is too much (and his apology for startling him into a faint in “The Empty House.” Witness: “I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.” A sociopath does not apologize). For responsibility, think of the multiple times Holmes admits of error whenever one is made, as, for instance, in the “Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” when he tells Watson, “Should you care to add the case to your annals, my dear Watson, it can only be as an example of that temporary eclipse to which even the best-balanced mind may be exposed.”

And as always, something in a Sherlock-related article makes us go awwww:

But the most compelling evidence is simply this. Sherlock Holmes is not a cold, calculating, self-gratifying machine. He cares for Watson. He cares for Mrs. Hudson. He most certainly has a conscience (and as Hare says, if nothing else, the “hallmark [of a sociopath] is a stunning lack of conscience”). In other words, Holmes has emotions-and attachments-like the rest of us. What he’s better at is controlling them-and only letting them show under very specific circumstances.

So there you have it: The opinion of a professional. You can read her entire essay over at io9, and we highly encourage you to do so.

In a lot of ways, it makes sense that the show’s writers would want to view their Sherlock as a sociopath; it’s one in a long line of shows or films that attempt to harness the complicated mental lives of the psychopathic of the world, often to break away from the clinical definition when stretching the character and the story to fit into what many may find to be a more satisfying emotional arc for the viewer.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with Konnikova’s analysis of the character? Do we have any educated members of the commentariat who’d like to speak up on the matter?

(via io9) (Image via Spoiler TV)

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  • Anonymous

    I like to think that he knew that they were the same thing, and indeed that he is neither, but was points scoring for the sake of it.

  • Molly Muldoon

    I always thought that Sherlock calling himself a sociopath was more of just a shield he put up around himself, to try and convince others of that fact, giving himself one more protection against emotion. If others thought him incapable of it, then they would be less likely to press it. Also, if Moriarty had though him a sociopath, then the events of Reichenbach could have never happened.The writers included that so that they could prove it wrong as the series progressed.

  • Molly Muldoon

    That was me, btw. Embarassing.

  •!/alannabennett AlannaBennett

     I love this theory. It gives me feels.

  • Molly Muldoon

    Dude, Sherlock is all about the feels. 

  • Elisabeth Day

    It’s often been suggested that Sherlock Holmes is an Aspergian autist. To anyone fimiliar with the condition, the evidence really just jumps out at you. 

    For example, autistic people often have trouble expressing emotions, particularly empathy, but, unlike psychopaths, do possess them. Hyper-awareness, which Holmes clearly has, and obsessive behavior toward one interest with little interest for much else (in Holmes’ case, solving mysteries) is also pretty textbook for autism. 

    For more examples, google “Sherlock Holmes autism” and have fun working the millions of results.

  • Ash

    I’m with thursdaynext. I always thought he was just trying to illustrate how much of an imbecile he thinks Anderson is.

  • Ash

    I think you meant the season two finale in ” Is it the mystery of the exact events of the season three finale?” That or I missed something major.

  • Lisa Lacey Liscoumb

     Agreed.  There’s a great fanfiction story (sorry, don’t remember the author or title at the moment) that basically has John confronting him with exactly that – the fact that he calls himself a sociaopath because it gives him an excuse to act the way he does.

  • Christina Newhall

     And then he laughs to himself all night because he knows Anderson went home and spent hours trying to look up the difference between “high-functioning sociopath” and “psychopath.”

  • Emily Skarbowski

    Great article, btw!

  • Emily Skarbowski

    There are a few fanfictions that write Sherlock as being diagnosed (or perhaps mis-diagnosed) as a sociopath when he was younger, to which he uses the diagnosis as an excuse later in life to distance himself from everyone else. I always loved that theory and thought it was very well thought out on the fanfic writers’ parts. Sorry I can’t remember which specific stories they are, but I’m finding it to be a rather common theme (almost fanon, in a way.) I feel like the writers of the show have already subtly addressed the fact that he really isn’t a “high functioning sociopath” by way of the events that took place in Reichenbach. Would a sociopath fake his own death in order to protect his friends? I really don’t think so, and I think we were supposed to realize that by the end of the episode. Personally, I just got lost in the terrible sadness that IS that episode and haven’t really “learned” much other than never to watch it alone again, but…yes, either they will spell it out for us in season three (or later) or we’re just supposed to be smarter than Sherlock in this case and realize that, like John has said, he is the most human being we have ever known.

  • Travis Kyle Fischer

    Well… duh?

    They make it pretty clear that it’s a front. You don’t need a PhD to figure it out, you just need to watch the show.

    Moriarty: I will burn the heart out of you.
    Sherlock: I have been reliably informed that I don’t have one.
    Moriarty: But we both know that’s not quite true.

  • Kay Ratcliff

    Yes. I think it’s more than a shield,though. It’s also that he wants to be separated from emotion; in a way, he wants to be a sociopath in order to be free from the judgement-clouding emotions. It’s very possible that he is finding it difficult to separate who he is and who he wants to be, and his self-diagnosis is actually of the machine he wants to be rather than the man he is.

  • Anonymous

    I think that Holmes was an Asperger’s  patient from the word go…

  • Natasha Stephenson

    The only thing I don’t agree with in her analysis, is that psychopaths would never say the things Holmes says – that he would not find someone charming, or speak about love, etc. A high-functioning psychopath is one that is adept at blending into his environment. You have only to look into the myriad of failed relationships and marriages that are often hallmarks of high-functioning psychopaths to see that they are very capable of expressing emotions they don’t have. In fact, part of a psychopath’s strategy is to “love bomb” their person of interest, sweeping the individual so off their feet that by the time they begin to see the cracks in the mask, they are already very much invested and committed in the relationship. Konnikova mention’s Dr. Robert Hare, one of the preeminent researchers in this field, but she neglects to mention (and I admit, I didn’t read her full article, just the excerpts offered in this article, so apologies if this is better covered in the complete document) some of the other criteria for “diagnosing” a psychopath: superficial charm, manipulation, and shallow affect, which is defined as genuine but fleeting, and usually egocentric, emotion. If you’re interested, Dr. Hare’s psychopathy checklist is not hard to find online, and his book “Without Conscience” is an interesting read, as is Hervey Cleckly’s “The Mask of Sanity.” 

  • Kifre

    While I love that someone finally addressed this, I almost wish that most of the support for her anti-diagnosis were from the series and not the source material.  Moffat’s Sherlock plays with the original material in many ways, including the characterization of Sherlock himself.  While the source material is important, so too is the very purposeful departure from that material that presents a colder, more calculating version of Sherlock.

    That said, I think her conclusion still holds for Moffat’s Sherlock as well as Doyle’s Sherlock.

  • Gabriella Bowman-Gauci

    As I psychology student I agree with her conclusion that Holmes is not a psychopath/sociopath,the depth of his affection for Watson is proof alone of that.However I think defining himself as a sociopath is something to ward off people he doesnt care to explain his nature to and is used to protect himself from others rather than something he really believes.

  • Anonymous

    Really interesting, and totally corrected me on the idea that sociopath and psychopath are different. I hope this article could get to writers Moffet or Gatniss. It could actually be a really great moment for Sherlock to admit to John, or somebody, that when he uses words like that to describe himself, they are really as a crutch. An easy fix to describe himself to people who dont know better, and maybe for him to not feel quite so guilty about being cold.

  • Bill Higgins

    Proving he’s not a psycho by calling himself one while  using a different word, ending the argument, insulting Anderson, and making a joke all all in an exit line. Classic Holmes. Konnikova is completely correct.

  • Anonymous

    Using excerpts from the books to disprove a quote from the show seems a little… disconnected? Particularly when it’s clear to everyone who’s even read the dust jacket of a Conan Doyle Holmes story that the BBC’s Sherlock is not the same man as Conan Doyle wrote about.

  • Shana Ziolko

    As the wife of an Aspergian, I have always seen Sherlock and John’s relationship in that way. Well, at least in the Mark Gatiss world. Watson even remarks to Lestrade that Holmes has Aspergers’ in Hound of Baskerville.
    But esp. the instances when John is coaching Sherlock “a bit not good,” and his own handling of some of the social faux pas that occur, remind me of a natural reaction of the partners and loved ones of Aspergians.

  • Peter Coffin

    He wants them to view him as a sociopath. No sociopath says that, and no writer of Sherlock doesn’t know that.

  • Nazidk12_

    Simple really, he was what Gene Roddenberry and Frank Herbert described respectively as either a: Vulcan or a Mentat. That is a humanoid with intact emotions and conscience etc… but has been conditioned or trained for compartmentalised ‘computation’, I agree with others, he has more a high functioning Aspergers than any type of ‘psychopathy’.

  • Anonymous

    I find it funny how everyone always leaps to the pseudo-psychological explanations first, rather than just going for the elementary one: Moffat’s Sherlock Holmes is a massive asshole. (The original Holmes was a bit of one too, but to a much lesser degree.)

  • BlueFairy

    For those who like their evidence to come via “Word of Writer”, here’s an interview with Steven Moffat in which he confirms that Sherlock is not a sociopath or a psychopath. Rather, “He’s a man who chooses to be the way he is because he thinks it makes him better.” 

  • Totz_the_Plaid

    That’s one possibility, but I like to think that Sherlock ADMIRES their lack of empathy and emotional understanding and wishes he could be a true sociopath as it would (he thinks) make his job easier.

  • brightwanderer

    This! I never felt that Gatiss and Moffat were actually labelling him a sociopath – they go out of their way throughout the series to show that he isn’t. It’s just Sherlock’s excuse – a thing he can say to make people stop expecting more of him.

  • Samantha Wilson

    I have to say I thought it was just a way of putting down Anderson and stopping people from prying into his emotional state. He says these things to a room of trained professionals. Watson has a medical degree and experience so probably will realise soon (and seems to very quickly) that this is nonsense and Lestrade (plus some of the other police) who works serious crimes and homicide so could have actually studied/come into contact with socio-paths/psychopaths. I doubt that Lestrade would actually phone him for help if he beleived Sherlock’s ‘self-diagnosis’ for one minute.

  • Girls Are Geeks

    I’ve known and been close friends with a few people with Aspergers, and this is the best description so far, and both my husband and I thought it when we first started watching.

  • Anonymous

    Aspergians don’t have the emotional acuity Holmes does, though – he can interpret a fleeting facial expression and understand how passion drives people, which people on the spectrum often have difficulty with.  On the other hand, he does seem blissfully (though perhaps selectively?) unaware of how he affects others.  I don’t think he’s actually Aspie.

  • Layne Magic

     You can learn the signs, and read faces like strangely written books. I had to, and it is such a pain. That’s why it follows that when Sherlock is interrogating someone, he picks up on those little hints, but when Molly flirts he doesn’t at all notice.

  • ray thor

    Holmes is one of the most popular characters in radio, movies, books, television, magazines, etc.  In order to define the mind of Sherlock Holmes, you must understand the mind of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was a complex man, considered by some to be eccintric due to his preoccupation with spiritualists. 

    What if Sherlock Holmes really existed?  Was Sir Conan Doyle really Dr. Watson?  He was a medical doctor.  OR, was he both Holmes and Watson; a split
    personality?  My ebook novel,
    BLOODGUILTY, poses that question and answers it.  It is available on the KINDLE bookstore by
    RAYMOND THOR. Click here:

  • Matthew Christian

    Maria Konnikova is wrong. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychopathy and sociopathy are different mental illnesses. Behaviors of psychopaths and sociopaths may overlap, but the goals and motivations for those behaviors differ. A quick web search would have turned up lots of results that show the psychological community overwhelmingly recognized the diseased as different. Why didn’t the author challenge her source?

  • Anonymous

    My best friend is an Aspie, and he’s great at picking up on those things.  He seems like the most intuitive person, but for him, it’s not intuition, it’s calculation.  He knows me well enough that he can tell a ton of things from fleeting facial expressions, etc., but he has to be paying attention.
    My fiancee is also an Aspie, and it took him a while to learn the correct responses to things I would do.  (Me: “A puppy!”  Fiance: “…Aww?”  Me: “That’s the one.”  or   Me: “I love you.”  Him: “Ok.”  Me: “You’re supposed to say, ‘I love you, too.’”  Him: “Every time?” Me: “Yes.”  Him: “But you already know.”)  But he did figure it out.
    I was bothered for a bit by how easily Holmes mimics emotional responses when he cares to (crying at that widow to make her talk in Season 1, for example), but I suppose that’s something that can be learned as well.
    As for the hyper-awareness, I’d definitely label that an Aspie thing.  Sociopaths are cunning, usually quite intelligent, but the stuff Sherlock picks up on would require a hyper-awareness that a sociopath generally just doesn’t have.

  • Anonymous

    I had that issue, too.  My dad’s a high-functioning sociopath, and he talks about his “feelings” all the time.  He cries a lot.  You have to learn to fake them to survive in society, and i think he learned early on what a powerful tool emotion can be.  I like the “genuine but fleeting, and usually egocentric, emotion” – I’m convinced my dad does have real emotions, they’re just messed up.  Anyway, with a sociopath dad and my 2 favorite people in the world being Aspies, I’d peg Sherlock as an Aspie.  The only issue I had with that idea is that Sherlock sometimes fakes emotions (like when he cries at that “widow” in Season 1 to get her to talk), and that’s something an Aspie would struggle with, but a Sociopath could do any day.

  • Herekitty

    True. My issues with this article are not with her psychology credentials but with the way she tries to prove her point. She didn’t really relate the books to the BBC version, instead jumping back and forth. She didn’t contextualize anything, instead just pulling out one-sentence quotes. The whole thing was unconvincing.

  • Anonymous

    Ha!  “But you already know” is such an aspie thing to say.  My awesome husband is one, too, though his doesn’t present exactly that way.

  • Anonymous

     He’s turned it into a game now, giving the wrong response on purpose just to tease me.  Aspies are adorable.  We balance well, because I’m bipolar, but it’s hard to get really worked up with someone who insists on having rational conversations, lol

  • Lauren

    I mean… I agree that he isn’t a sociopath, but I find it weird that a psychologist would say that a psychopath is the same thing as a sociopath when, according to the DSM, they really aren’t. 

    “Research suggests that, “psychopaths are a stable proportion of any population, can be from any segment of society, may constitute a distinct taxonomical class forged by frequency-dependent natural selection, and that the muting of the social emotions is the proximate mechanism that enables psychopaths to pursue their self-centered goals without felling the pangs of guilt. Sociopaths are more the products of adverse environmental experiences that affect autonomic nervous system and neurological development that may lead to physiological responses similar to those of psychopaths. Antisocial personality disorder is a legal/clinical label that may be applied to both psychopaths and sociopaths” (Walsh & Wu, 2008).And that is from Walsh, A., & Wu, H.H. (2008). Differentiating antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and sociopathy: Evolutionary, genetic, neurological, and sociological considerations. Criminal Justice Studies, 2, 135-152. 

  • extraordinary

     Moffet and Gatniss. O.o

  • Natasha Stephenson

    If you read further into that article, it says “Depending on whom you ask psychopathy, sociopathy, and antisocial personality disorder are synonymous terms describing the same constellation of traits, or they are separate concepts with fuzzy boundaries. This paper proposes to show that the weight of evidence favors the distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy…” It’s a research article – it “proposes to show” that their is a difference. Currently the DSM lumps them all together under the umbrella of antisocial personality disorder, and experts haven’t yet decided to agree on just what the differentiation is, if there is any. I’m quite confidant that Konnikova states that they are the same thing, because it appears she is drawing largely from the research of Dr. Robert Hare, who doesnt acknowledge a difference.

  • Natasha Stephenson

    Psychopathy and sociopathy are not included as diagnosis in the DSM IV. They’ve been lumped under the umbrella of antisocial personality disorder. Her source seems to be Dr. Robert Hare, who is considered to be an expert in the field. He does not acknowledge a difference between the two terms.

  • Meri Da

    wether sherlock is a phsycopath or high-functioning socio-path is NOT the point. she missed the real point of the scene. anderson insulted him by calling him a phsyco…..she just said here that ‘high-functioning socio-path” is an older term. SH is originally set in the late 1800′s to early 1900′s. so this was probably a nod to that fact. obviously, sherlock was merely accepting the insult by not letting it bother him…but wants anderson to ‘get it right’ if you’re going to insult me..i prefer more old-fashioned terms. do your research.” nuff said.

  • Lalrinsanga Fanai

    Sherlock Holmes is a high – functioning sociopath . If he isn’t a sociopath why would he say?

  • Lalrinsanga Fanai

    Sherlock Holmes is a high – functioning sociopath . If he isn’t a sociopath why would he say?

  • Rose Jordan

    Hello! Actual Aspie speaking with you here. There’s actually recently been a study that suggests that autistic people as a whole (yes, this includes Aspies) do experience emotion, sometimes in a much more intense way than non-autistic people do. We tend to have difficulty processing certain emotions, especially if they are unexpected (see Sherlock in the pilot/ASIP when he is confused as to why a woman would still grieve her stillborn child). That doesn’t mean we don’t FEEL them. Also, complex emotions can be difficult to read, but very simple ones, the ones that most humans display on their face when being confronted about a crime, as either guilt or innocence are easy to read when you know what you’re looking for, and as we’re seeing Sherlock five years into his working relationship with Lestrade, I don’t see that to be a problem. If he was unable to read the signs at the start, he certainly is able to do so now. Sherlock’s talents are definitely savant skills, and savant skills in themselves account for a very very small percentage of the autistic population.

  • Rivka

    I felt Holmes referring to himself was an example of a self mis-diagnosis. Many Aspies, who don’t know they are Aspies misdiagnose themselves. I don’t think the writers think he is a sociopath-he’s so well done as an Aspie that they had to know what they were doing.

  • Anonymous

    I must admit I’ve never met a lady Aspie, or a child one, so my experience is somewhat limited in that sense. I suppose the hyper-awareness that many Aspies exhibit would make it easier for them to mimic NTs pretty accurately.
    In that example I brought up, now that I’m thinking about it, as soon as the widow says something interesting, he turns it off, which makes sense. My husband kind of does that, too – he has an “explaining face,” as I call it, which is really just his neutral face. When his attention is focused on something (like explaining a concept), he forgets to emote. So Sherlock was conning her until he started focusing on the information she was divulging, then couldn’t’ keep them both up.

  • Anonymous

    There’s not Really a difference, but people Tend to use “psychopath” for people with criminal issues (rapists, serial killers, etc), and “sociopaths” for the ones that fit better into society. It’s a false differentiation, they’re really the same disease.