Sociopaths, psychopaths, and Sherlock Holmes

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.


  1. pipenta says

    Psychopath is the old term that was replaced by sociopath. When the DSM IV rolled out, it had been changed again to Anti-Social Personality Disorder.

    A sociopath lacks empathy and gives not a shit about social mores, laws, other people’s opinions. They do what they want to do, often with very ugly results. A narcissist thinks they are the center of the universe and will manipulate and harm others to do what they feel needs doing to maintain a world view in which they are at the center. And then you have borderlines.

    Some personality disorders are more severe than others. Many individuals have comorbidities, more than one disorder.

    It’s good to read the various lists of diagnostic behaviors. The behaviors often come in sets and it is helpful, when dealing with afflicted folks, to have an idea of kinds of behaviors they are likely to exhibit down the pike.

    My take on it is, unless you are a professional dealing with their treatment, making a precise determination of a diagnostic disorder is not particularly useful. The names change. The lists of diagnostic behaviors are debated.

    What does help is to understand that certain behaviors are red flags and that there are people walking among us who are totally devoid of empathy. You can’t talk them into changing and prayer won’t change them. They are deaf to any emotions but their own.

  2. raven says

    There is also a continuum.

    You aren’t either a normal person or a psychopath, sociopath, or whatever technical term you want to call it.

    Romney clearly does have many of the characteristics of what a lot of people would call a sociopath.

    He lies constantly and easily, changes his expressed beliefs whenever convenient, and is devoid of empathy to the point where he doesn’t even realize that calling half the US population “moochers” and parasites because they receive government payments is not only insulting.

    It’s also a lie. A lot of those are old people collecting social security and Medicare. Which they spent a lifetime paying into through taxes.

    He also didn’t mention his solution. It seems to involve millions of poor people dying in the streets from disease and starvation. Just like what Jesus advocated often in the NT.

    It will be interesting if he is elected our first Sociopath-In-Chief.

  3. syd says

    I am not a psychologist, but it was my understanding that both sociopath and psychopathy were no longer used, and that the proper diagnosis would be antisozial personality disorder

    After a quick check at Wikipedia it seems that Robert Hare is not just one of the “world’s leading experts on the topic”, but that he might actually be the only one as there don’t seem to that many other proponents of his theory. This doesn’t mean that his ideas should be dismissed right away, but it’s worth pointing out that they are not part of mainstream psychology and probably should be take with a grain of salt

  4. Jared A says

    I read in Erik Larson’s The Devil in The white City that H. H. Holmes was the prototypical serial killer that the term sociopath was invented to describe. I can’t seem to verify this, though.

    He had all of the traits discussed, but what was important, at least at the time, is that he seemed utterly incapable of empathy. It wasn’t that he was letting his self-gratifying urges override his feelings of empathy. It was that he was constitutionally incapable of it. He just couldn’t conceive that other people were the same as him.

  5. Tim says

    As a clinical counselor who has worked in forensics (and even had to good fortune to attend a training by Robert Hare), I am in agreement with Dr. Konnikova – clinically, there is no difference between sociopathy and psychopathy.

    And — as others have pointed out — the current term is Antisocial Personality Disorder.

    Finally, I might suggest that rather than looking at Sherlock Holmes on a psychopathy continuum, I would suggest considering narcissism (modern: Narcissistic Personality Disorder). The behaviors Mano describes also fit many of the narcissists with whom I have worked.

    I’ll withhold my thoughts on Mr. Romney, or another other politico. I think it does a disservice to the mental health arena when diagnostic labels are tossed around in public. (As Holmes is a purely literary character, the ethics are a less tight.)


  6. lorn says

    Nailing down definitions is always fraught with danger. In a day and age with built in and online dictionaries one would think that the use and definition of words would be ossified and set forever.

    But words are tools for communication and the thoughts that need to be communicated are always changing. People being in new words from other cultures and coin words. These get taken up, or not. If other people find the words useful they use them and over time words become more or less fashionable according to the whims of the public.

    I think that the distinction you first draw between sociopath and psychopath has a lot of merit. It works. It provides a useful distinction differentiating a person who is indifferent to others feelings and one who uses that to manipulate others against their own interests. The difference in both degree and intent makes a useful distinction and this coining is useful in describing a difference which would be much harder to express using other words.

    With all due respect to Maria Konnikova the DSM and other technical literature won’t be the final deciding vote of how the two terms will be used, and thus defined, in the future. I think the distinction is useful and apt and support the active use of the terms to describe two distinct, but related traits.

    In this I choose to side with Sherlock. Not because he is presently right but because he should be, and, in time, with a little luck, will be. That would be proof enough of the real genius of the Sherlock character. He is denotatively wrong now, but will be, in time, right. Give it fifty years, the dictionary will catch up.

  7. gshelley says

    Jon Ronson’s book, “The psycopath test” is a pretty interesting look at the concept and industry (among other things). Going by many of the criteria, Romney seems at least borderline, but as Ronson himself notes, once you know what to look for, you start seeing psycopaths everyhwere.

  8. thisisaturingtest says

    I’m in the process of reading that same book (re-reading actually). This, from page 88,

    …Dr Hervey Cleckley described the prototypical psychopath as “a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly…So perfect is is his reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him in a clinical setting can point out in scientific or objective terms why, or how, he is not real.”

    makes me think you could frame a psychopathic condition as s sort of Turing Test that can only be determined by his actions, and not revealed by any other test.

  9. Robofish says

    I’d say that, arguably, almost all successful politicians have at least some sociopathic tendencies. It goes with the territory: I doubt a person could get elected as a Senator or Governor, let alone President, without having a certain callous disregard for the feelings of others. But then, maybe I’m just a cynic that way.

  10. Robofish says

    A couple of obvious points worth remembering:

    – Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, and so should not necessarily be expected to be an accurate reflection of any real life psychological condition. He certainly shouldn’t be used as an example of any of them.

    – That said, there have been many different versions of Sherlock Holmes over the years. I’d say that the recent BBC version is considerably more ‘sociopathic’ than the literary original, even if he doesn’t meet all the requirements.

  11. says

    The problem with terms like “sociopath” is that the diagnosis is not tied to an objectively measurable state. There’s no clear test that allows you to say “this is a sociopath” – there’s just a bunch of vague attributes that can be taken together to apply the label. Which makes it a matter of degree! If sociopathy is a real diagnosis it’s going to be that there are people who are more or less sociopathic. But here’s the trick – is it a spectrum of behaviors, a neurological condition or conditions, or some combination of the above? I look forward to the day when psychology is largely mooted by neuroscience, though I may not live to see it.

    In the case of Romney, it’s possible that his selfishness is simply that he’s a badly brought-up brat.

  12. tykobrian says

    Here’s what Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat has to say about this issue, (

    “It’s funny how people are always wanting to prove me wrong on this one. They say: ‘But he’s not a high-functioning sociopath.’ I never said he was! Sherlock Holmes tells people he is. Why would you listen to him? Nobody can define themselves. That’s what he’d like people to think he is. And that’s it–and I think he probably longs to be one. I think he loiters around prisons for the criminally insane, envying them their emotional detachment. He knows emotion is a problem to him. A man who has decided to suppress all his emotions in order to be better at what he does clearly has an awful lot of emotion. That’s a very simple deduction. It clearly is a problem for him. So, in itself, that is an emotional decision.”

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