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.
    – bobbyalex
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 7:50
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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.
    – bobbyalex
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 8:41
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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
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 22:26
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    Why do I have the feeling that 99% of the answerer here doesn't have the qualifications necessary to answer this question properly. You may have a better answer at Psychology & Neuroscience.
    – Lie Ryan
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 3:20
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    This is absurd. This is just dry humour. It doesn't matter whether there is a difference between these two things or not -- he does not believe he's either one anyway. It's a J O K E. Humour. Part of the humour in dry wit is the implication that it will be mistakenly taken seriously, and it is a little mean in that sense -- the teller does not care whether you take him seriously or not, but that doesn't make him a sociopath, lol. Note in this specific context, it does't matter who takes it seriously or not. People who don't trust him still won't, and people who do still will.
    – goldilocks
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 11:18

6 Answers 6


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.
    – user13530
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 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!" Commented Aug 29, 2014 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
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 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
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 14:33
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    A psychopath is not necessarily delusional. You're confusing a psychopath with a psychotic.
    – Dave M
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 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. Commented Aug 29, 2014 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
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 15:09
  • Dr Bonn disagrees with you - psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201401/…
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 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.


Again, with apologies to the more learned in this field, I think that for Sherlock, the difference is firmly established in human bonds. Sherlock has an adversarial relationship with Mycroft who spent most of their childhood either calling Sherlock stupid or tormenting him with stories of the north wind. Sherlock's childhood love, which again Mycroft taunts him about was for his dog, Redbeard. But at least Sherlock had that. Mycroft, like Moriarty, has no human contacts based on love and affection. As Moriarty proved, Sherlock had at least 3 that even a true psychopath could see: Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade. His error according to Sherlock, was discounting Molly. In season 3, almost from the very beginning Mary is added to the list and John's future child also as seen in his last vow.

For Sherlock, being a highly functioning sociopath is important because it allows him to love and be loved without limiting him to the role of hero. He is and always has been an antihero, as Mycroft said, he has the mind to be a scientist or philosopher, but chose to be a private detective. ..but originally he wanted to be a pirate.


Incorrect. Psychopaths are higher functioning typically than a sociopath and able to keep track of their lies. This is usually because they use the same ones over and over again. Those that change their story do so purposely for amusement and not because they can't keep track. A psychopath lies for a reason even if it's a bad one. A disorganized psychopath will have periods of organization, but a sociopath will always struggle to keep ahead of their lies because they do it constantly. A psychopath usually picks and chooses, priding himself on the fact that he's able to deceive people with the truth. A sociopath feels more anxiety about lying because they're unable to keep track. Their explanations become disorganized once caught, but a psychopath is right on top of that and will turn it around so that the evidence of a lie no longer appears to be evidence. A psychopath OR sociopath can love, but usually don't. A psychopath can turn it on and off, but a sociopath cannot turn actual feelings on or off. They're there or they're not. This has been proven through scientific research and testing on the brains of subjects to prove love centers light up. A psychopath may become despondent at the loss of a pet, but a sociopath feels the loss of attention only and has a temper tantrum if anything. Both behaviors or diagnoses can also be present in the same subject. Psychopaths have also been known to lie to protect another's feelings at times while a sociopath is not that self aware or the effect they have.

So, the line from the series tries to delineate between those that can be saved/productive citizens and those that cannot and simply does so directly. The line is simply not that clear cut.

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    let's assume that all of this is accurate and correct. How does it answer the question about the meaning of Sherlock's line in any way? Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 17:55

It's a lie, for one thing. But the defining line between psychopathy and sociopathy is both of them lack emotions and empathy, but socios recognize they have little to gain by breaking the law and remain mostly morally sound despite not caring, while psychopaths revel in going against societal norms and evoking strong emotions in others like fear and rage, which is why murderers are call psychos.

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