The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is notoriously rude, egotistical, inconsiderate, and insensitive to the needs and feelings of those around him, even those who are closest such as Dr. Watson. Does that make him a sociopath? Or even a psychopath?
If you had asked me, I might have answered in the affirmative for the former and negative for the latter. This was because, although I had never examined those labels closely, I had the vague idea that a sociopath was someone who was so focused on their own thoughts and needs that they were almost totally oblivious to the effect that their words and actions had on those around them, while a psychopath was more dangerous, someone who was willing to deliberately use others to achieve his or her own ends, even to the extent of harming them.
Commenter Steve seemed to have the same idea that there was distinction between the two terms when he described Mitt Romney thusly:
[Romney] is almost the textbook definition of a sociopath. Especially the pathological lying and the lack of genuine emotions and empathy. You can even see it in his past with the bullying incident. Or the animal cruelty.
Btw, according to some common definitions the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy is that the psychopath is marked by impulsiveness, flamboyancy, aggressiveness and an inability to establish relationships. They tend to live on the fringes of society. Sociopaths on the other hand can be seemingly normal and well integrated. They have good self control and go to great lengths to hide themselves. While their emotions aren’t genuine, they are very good at faking it.
The recent hit TV series Sherlock also reinforced this belief when Holmes snaps back at a police officer who calls him a psychopath saying, “Do your research. Don’t call a person a psychopath when what he really is is a sociopath.”
Is there a big difference between a sociopath and a psychopath? Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and a Holmes aficionado, argues that there is no difference in the way that the two terms are used in the psychology community and that furthermore, Holmes is far from being a sociopath.
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. [My italics]
So the term sociopathy was coined as an umbrella term to draw attention to a specific subset of psychopathy’s symptoms, not as a clinical diagnosis. But what characterizes a psychopath?
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.
She then makes a detailed comparison of Holmes’ character with each of those four groups of traits and concludes:
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.
Well, that’s good to know, since I like Sherlock Holmes.