Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in the BBC series Sherlock is much loved by the world, and primarily because he is SUCH A GOOD CHARACTER. Sherlock Holmes is sarcastic. He’s rude. He’s a genius. And he…is seemingly incapable of feeling many feelings.
Which is probably why officer Philip Anderson calls him a “psychopath,” and also probably why quirky villain Moriarty is so obsessed with him.
But according to Sherlock, he is NOT a psychopath, but rather a sociopath. The detective corrects Anderson, saying, “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.”
So… is this true? Is Sherlock actually a “high-functioning sociopath” or is he actually the one who needs to do his research? To answer this psychological question, Business Insider reached out to neuroscientist James Fallon, who in turn collaborated with Sherlock Holmes enthusiast Dr. Michael Felong.
Interestingly enough, “psychopath” wasn’t included in the up-to-date version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The most similar term is “antisocial personality disorder,” which involves a personality issue such as lack of empathy.
When one does examine the word psychopath elsewhere, it turns out that there’s such a thing as primary psychopaths and secondary psychopaths (which is a fancy way of saying “sociopath”). In other words, psychopaths can be split into two groups.
Primary psychopaths often don’t respond to punishment or stress and they typically lack empathy for others. They may be able to comprehend and imitate emotions, but they aren’t actually able to feel them. A primary psychopath tends to acquire such characteristics from several areas: genes, their environment, and their brain connections.
As for a secondary psychopath/sociopath, they can actually feel stress, anxiety, guilt, and even empathy – which makes them different from a primary psychopath. Their environment plays a key role in their upbringing and, unfortunately, severe abuse during their youth can cause them to become this type of psychopath.
Both of the above definitions can, additionally, be split into two sub-groups: distempered psychopaths and charismatic psychopaths. The former tend to become furious in a manner that resembles an epileptic fit. The latter can exploit others to part with anything (including… their lives) through lying and coercion.
With all that info in mind, which do you think Sherlock is?
If you take a look at Doyle’s original character, he is most definitely a primary psychopath – not a “high-functioning sociopath.” He shows no emotion or empathy, and he doesn’t respond to stress. While this may be true, he is also a beloved character (both in real life and in fiction), which puts him in the charismatic psychopath group.
As for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Fallon can understand why the show would want to make him more likable than his book-based counterpart. “[R]eal psychopaths are terrible characters,” states Fallon, to explain why the TV character is more caring than Doyle’s version.
Don’t worry, Sherlock, you beautiful psycho. We still love you.