In BBC’s ‘Sherlock’, Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as a ‘high functioning sociopath’ who considers himself married to his work and despises working with others. After John Watson returns from war and needs a roommate, the two meet each other and decide to room together. Once Sherlock asks John to accompany him on a case, they become partners: Sherlock is the consulting detective and John is the blogger of the cases. Throughout their many adventures together, Sherlock seems to have growing emotions for not only John but others surrounding him. Does Sherlock have a sociopathic disorder, or does he just have a personality disorder?
Firstly, in order to make assumptions as to whether Sherlock is a sociopath or not, a proper understanding of what characteristics a sociopath has is needed. Sociopathy is often referred to as antisocial personality disorder, which is a “personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregarding and violating the rights of others” (Hockenbury & Nolan, 2019). In other words, this personality disorder includes a persistent behavior that includes discounting other people’s feelings when it comes to their own personal gain or motives. Peterson (2015) found that this disorder is often associated with a lack of remorse, lying for personal gain, poor anger management, disregard for the safety of others or self, manipulation, and difficulty with making connections with those around them.
Keeping the definition of sociopathy in mind, Sherlock from ‘Sherlock’ exhibits some characteristics of antisocial personality disorder. In the third episode of the first season, ‘The Great Game’, Sherlock and John encounter Sherlock’s new enemy, Jim Moriarty. Moriarty has given Sherlock a case that includes tying innocent people up with bombs, giving Sherlock a specific amount of time to solve each case within the set time. If Sherlock fails to solve the case in time, the innocent person and those within the vicinity will be blown up. While John is mainly focused on attempting to find the victims, Sherlock shows disinterest in whether the victims die, only showing interest in if he solved the case correctly. This correlates directly with the characteristic of having no remorse for others and only caring about personal motivations.
In the second episode of the second season, ‘Hounds of Baskerville’, Sherlock and John travel to a military institution, Baskerville, to investigate the hush-hush experiments going on. There is a rumor of a gigantic hound that escaped from the confines of the institution and is spreading fear through the small town. In this episode, Sherlock is exposed to a gas that makes him have visual hallucinations of the gigantic hound, causing an emotion he claims to have never had before – doubt. To find out what chemical caused the hallucination, he poisons John with the chemical he believed to cause the hallucinations and proceeds to create an environment that would spike John’s fear. Once again, Sherlock is exhibiting tell-tale signs of having antisocial personality disorder symptoms by putting John into serious and dangerous situations that could lead to lasting trauma for the sake of the investigation.
The last example of Sherlock’s symptoms exhibiting sociopathy or antisocial personality disorder comes from the third episode of the second season. In ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, Sherlock comes to face Moriarty head-on. This episode is a great example of the fine line Sherlock walks between being sociopathic and not being sociopathic. He exhibits sociopathic behavior by not telling his partner and friend, John Watson, of his plans. His plans include faking his own suicide by ‘jumping’ off St. Bart’s hospital while John is watching. For obvious reasons, John is traumatized by the ‘death’ of his best friend and is forced to attend therapy. Sherlock observes that John is suffering, but does not announce that he is in fact still alive, instead, he flees to remote corners of the world for two years to take down Moriarty’s network completely.
However, in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, Sherlock creates this elaborate plan due to Moriarty setting up snipers with their guns pointed toward everyone Sherlock cared about: Greg Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and John Watson. Moriarty tells Sherlock that if he fails to kill himself, the snipers will shoot to kill them. Thus, Sherlock creates a plan that will make it seem like he committed suicide, saving his friends. This goes against the characteristics of what a sociopath would typically do. Sherlock could have decided to not bother and just let those people get shot, but he had since created relationships with those people and genuinely cared about their well-being.
The show never goes into detail about whether Sherlock was diagnosed by someone who is qualified or if it was a self-diagnosed situation. Whichever it was, it is shown that Sherlock has excellent functionality. I believe that it helps him divorce himself from emotions and allows him to focus solely on the cases that need to be solved.
As for the impact that a portrayal of a sociopathic disorder, I believe it shines a light on a disorder that many people don’t really know about. There are many stigmas surrounding anti-personality disorders, and many people mistake a sociopath for a psychopath. With such a smart and charismatic character as Sherlock, I believe that his being a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ puts people more at ease when hearing the term ‘sociopath’. Before watching the show, I admittedly knew very little about the differences between a sociopath and a psychopath. Sherlock is one of my favorite fictional characters ever, and to see a portrayal of a sociopath in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ really sparked the flame that got me interested in learning more about personality disorders and other forms of psychology.
In conclusion, I believe that Sherlock exhibits sociopathic and antisocial personality disorder tendencies, but could not be diagnosed as having those disorders. The show uses strong characteristics of the disorder with the first introduction of Sherlock and throughout most of the first two seasons. As the episodes progress, Sherlock is seen as beginning to care more and more about those around them, especially building a strong friendship with John Watson. I believe that the show uses this as a way to build on Sherlock’s character and to show the progression of his morals.
- Hockenbury, S.E. & Nolan, S.A. (2019). Discovering Psychology. New York, NY. Worth Publishers.
- Peterson, T. (2015). Sociopath Definition: Extremely Antisocial, No Conscience, Accessed on October 21, 2019, at https://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders
- Gatiss, M. (2010). Sherlock. Cardiff, Wales, UK. BBC.