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What does Sherlock mean exactly when he says "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a highly functioning sociopath"? What is the meaning of this line ?

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It's pretty evident from the statement. He is saying that he is not crazy but rather a very intelligent human being who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience. –  Bobby Alexander Aug 29 at 7:50
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He is making a joke or the scriptwriters failed: "There is no official definition of the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath, and some say that the terms are largely interchangeable." –  invalid_id Aug 29 at 8:20
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@invalid_id: I dont think Sherlock meant for it to be a joke. There is a line missing from the question. He says "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a highly functioning sociopath. Do your research." Sherlock obviously believes there is a difference. –  Bobby Alexander Aug 29 at 8:41
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There is a stated belief that the word "psychopath" has negative connotations, so for clinical diagnoses the word "sociopath" is preferred. Aside from that, the word "sociopath" and "psychopath" are interchangeable (although some psychologists advocate one over the other). –  Dave M Aug 29 at 14:48
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Stop Calling Sherlock a Sociopath! Thanks, a Psychologist.: "... 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." –  Oliver_C Aug 29 at 22:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

While the medical use of the terms are interchangeable, most people in common language use them differently:

  • psychopath - a berserker who has gone crazy and is running around killing people, smashing stuff etc. Think "psychotic" for the mental image
  • sociopath - someone who really doesn't care about society's norms, such as not killing or hurting other people, and acts only for their own gain

(The "high functioning" part is a red herring, sociopaths function really well and run companies etc. You usually see "High Functioning" paired with Aspergers or Autism, not Sociopath. But whatever.)

Sherlock isn't really a sociopath since he helps people all the time, while pretending he's only doing it because he enjoys the puzzle or the game. In fact in this very episode, his motivation for the act that follows the line,

shooting the bad guy to protect Mrs Watson's secret which is only in the bad guy's head

is to help another person. That said, the line is "in character" since he likes to pretend he doesn't care, and he is able to do things without a qualm that most of us would not do.

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The line is intended to be humorous (for the audience, not as an intentional joke by Sherlock.) I think part of the joke was that "high functioning" part was to imply that he had been actually diagnosed, by either a psychiatrist or himself, as a for real "high functioning sociopath," whereas the person asking the original question was being at least somewhat hyperbolic, and did not expect Sherlock to actually be a diagnosed psychopath or a sociopath. In other words, "high functioning" was not intended by the writers to be a red herring, in my opinion. –  Kai Aug 29 at 17:54
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in other words, a slightly more sophisticated version of "I'm not crazy; my mother had me tested!" –  Kate Gregory Aug 29 at 17:56
    
@Kai I agree if you mean the "highly functioning" part is intended as a tell tail that this is a joke. –  goldilocks Aug 30 at 11:22

Knowing the original stories and many adaptations, I'm 99% sure, that Sherlock is a high functioning Asperger's, he's NOT a sociopath- it's only the BBC series' writer's fantasy.

'Sociopath' and 'psychopath' are the SAME thing, only different areas of medical and psychological research and different countries used different terms.

Quoted from here

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I've always made the distinction that a sociopathy is a lack of empathy. Whereas a psychopath is violent, delusional, no control, etc. However, Google/Wiki doesn't seem to make any distinction. So you may be right. However if you told me I had to go through one of two rooms, one with a psychopath and one with a sociopath, I'm taking option two. –  jmathew Aug 29 at 14:33
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A psychopath is not necessarily delusional. You're confusing a psychopath with a psychotic. –  Dave M Aug 29 at 14:43
    
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think a psychopath is someone who can't control how they act around people, so from another persons point of view, it seems as if they are unstable, when they are really just confused. –  James Lynch Aug 29 at 14:56
    
Ya. This is wrong. The prefixes "socio" and "psycho" imply different things. Sociopaths don't follow societal norms because of environmental factors, whereas psychopaths are affected by hereditary/genetic issues. -1 –  SocioMatt Aug 29 at 15:09
    
Dr Bonn disagrees with you - psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201401/… –  CGCampbell Aug 30 at 20:57

While I have to defer to the many posters who have greater knowledge than I do of how the terms should be used, I think these are the meanings intended, which would make the distinction Sherlock draws make some sense:

A sociopath is someone who lacks empathy. They are aware of their own emotions, but tend to be oblivious to what others show themselves to be feeling, or would obviously (to a non-sociopath) be feeling. (For an example, see "A Study in Scarlet", where Sherlock protests that surely, a woman wouldn't still be upset about a child of hers who died years ago. When he says it, he can deduce immediately from the reactions of the others that what he's said is not only wrong, but grotesquely wrong from the perspective of those who do have empathy - but it's a deduction, not because he suddenly understands the bond between a mother and child.) A sociopath who is "high-functioning", as Sherlock claims to be, is presumably one who can navigate acceptably well through social situations, by using deduction as a substitute for the ability to imagine themselves in another's shoes.

A psychopath, by contrast with a sociopath, doesn't even want to navigate acceptably through social situations - if he says things that are grotesque and horrifying to other people, what does he care? It doesn't make him feel bad, so why would it matter to him? If he has to balance between "this would give me a good chuckle" and "this would leave the other person traumatized, crippled, or even dead" - well, it's a no-brainer, isn't it? It would bring him amusement, and he won't feel anything seeing the other person's pain - heck, maybe he even gets fun from witnessing their pain.

When Sherlock snaps that he is a high-functioning sociopath, not a psychopath, he's doing so in response to the female cop's insinuation that someday he'll switch from solving crimes to committing them. There are many possible explanations for why he might be so annoyed by the suggestion. A strong possibility, however, is that he's irked that she misunderstands his tastes so badly. To suggest that he is a psychopath suggests that he's that easily entertained.

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