I’d like to get something off my chest. It’s been bugging me for a very, very long time. 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.
When Cumberbatch calls himself a sociopath, he is responding to a taunt from a police officer: Psychopath! “Do your research,” his Holmes urges. “Don’t call a person a psychopath when what he really is is a sociopath.”
I love the series. I love Cumberbatch. I really do. And while I understand completely how effective the exchange is—how snappy it sounds, how intelligent and witty it makes Holmes seem—it makes me cringe. 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.
According to Robert Hare, creator of the standard diagnostic tool for psychopathic personality disorder and one of the world’s leading experts on the topic, psychopathy is characterized by four major factors, or groups of traits: the interpersonal, the affective, the lifestyle, and the antisocial. Into the first bucket fall such traits as glibness and superficiality, grandiosity, pathological deception, and manipulative cunning; into the second, characteristics like lack of guilt or remorse, shallow affect, lack of empathy, and a failure to accept responsibility for actions; the third, proneness to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, and a lack of long-term goals coupled with impulsivity; and the fourth, poor control of behavior, childhood problems, breaking of parole (or other conditional release), and criminal versatility. Oh, and there are two other traits that don’t fall into any category but are important nonetheless: sexual promiscuity and numerous short-term relationships.
So how does Holmes stack up against this picture? And why has he been termed psychopathic so often—and so uncontestedly? The answer to the second question, I’d venture to guess, has something to do with the detective’s apparent coldness and his calculating nature, coupled with his vast intellect. So before we begin to tackle the other issues, let’s address those.
First, coldness. Indeed, that seems to mesh with “shallow affect, lack of empathy.” But Holmes’s coldness is not the coldness of a psychopath. There are several fundamental differences. First, the psychopath is cold because he is incapable of being otherwise—hence, the element of lacking guilt or remorse. A psychopath doesn’t experience feelings the same way we do. The things that excite us, trouble us, make us happy do virtually nothing for him. In fact, psychopaths are often used in studies of emotion for that precise reason. We can compare their reactions to non-psychopathic reactions (both behaviorally and neurally) to learn more about how and why emotion affects us—and why the sociopath is as he is.
Holmes’s coldness is nothing of the sort. 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.”
So much for affect. And what of intelligence, that other contributing factor? That one is easy. Simply put, intelligence has nothing whatsoever to do with sociopathy. That, too, is a common myth. As Hare puts it, “Some psychopaths are bright, others less so.” And numerous studies have shown that the correlation between standard measures of intelligence and levels of psychopathy are, at best, incredibly small. That settles that.
How about those other dimensions of the psychopathic individual? On the interpersonal dimension, we can dismiss pathological deception out of hand. As for glibness and superficiality, that, too, is not something we associate with Holmes. Holmes may be quite witty and often ironic, but he is neither shallow nor insincere. And manipulatively cunning? Holmes is clever, to be sure, but he does not deceive for personal gratification—or purely for the expense of others. To do so would be, well, psychopathic.
Moving on to lifestyle, it becomes clear that Holmes drifts even further from the psychopathic picture. Of the listed qualities, the only one that could apply is proneness to boredom. We know that when Holmes is not on a case, he is likely to seek stimulation in other, somewhat less healthy pursuits. But surely that alone is not enough to make a psychopath. (You have to score at least 30 points on Hare’s scale to qualify.)
For, alone it would be. We’ve already dealt with the affect dimension—and as for the final two, they are so far from the Sherlock Holmes persona that they hardly bear mention. Flagrant violation of societal rules, like poor behavioral control, delinquency, and parole violations? We don’t know much about Holmes’s childhood, true, but he has no such ungovernable impulses as an adult. He can be accused of indoor firearm use, but not much more. As for sexual promiscuity and numerous short-term relationships? That honor is far more likely to go to the good Dr. Watson, the self-proclaimed conqueror of females over many nations and three separate continents.
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 let me say it one more time, just to get it out of my system: Sherlock Holmes is not any kind of sociopath. Not even close.
There. I feel better now.
Maria Konnikova is a psychologist and writer living in New York City. Her first book, Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes, will be published by Viking/Penguin in January 2013. She is currently completing her first novel.