Fandom has hypothesized about what makes Sherlock so unique in his behaviour: suggestions included Aspergers, autism or psychopathy. I explain why Sherlock does not require a psychiatric diagnosis. His behaviour is by no means unique – there is a very simple explanation.
If you believe the Sherlock does not have any of the aforementioned psychiatric conditions please do skip this section. Otherwise:
Why Sherlock is not a psychopath – read the last half of this post.
Why Sherlock would not be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or autism – read this post.
I have also postulated that Holmes Family belong to the traditional untitled upper class (Holmes Family Fortunes) and that Sherlock and Mycroft went to British public schools (A Good Old Fashioned Education).
There are many different types of Normal!
I would like to point out that had Sherlock been under the age of 18 (and exactly the same) he would be labelled as someone with “behavioural problems” and I think everyone has spotted that he’s out of the ordinary.
Fandom has postulated various explanations for Sherlock’s Sherlockness including: Asperger’s syndrome, autism, anti-social personality disorder, psychopathy etc.
From a psychiatric point of view – Sherlock should not be diagnosed with anything, firstly, because he doesn’t fulfil any of criteria and secondly, because he would not benefit from medical intervention.
One cardinal rule of psychiatry that the general public often fails to grasp is: if a person falls outside the spectrum of normal, it does not automatically mean they fall inside the spectrum for a psychiatric disorder. The other thing psychiatrist are constantly having to fight against is the assumption that just because a person has "emotional problems" they would benefit from a psychiatric diagnosis. It is perfectly normal to feel depressed month or even years after your loved one has died – Queen Victoria mourned Albert for forty years, she didn’t have a psychiatric disorder!The norm is defined by society and is a constantly shifting concept. People behave in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways but this does not automatically make them mentally ill.
In the same way – it is perfectly natural for Sherlock to develop the personality he has as an adult from the childhood experiences he had at boarding school. He does not need to have any psychiatric illnesses in order to become the person he is today.
The Boy who Never Grew Up
To put my finger on the crux of the problem – I think Sherlock suffers from one thing: Sherlock has never emotionally matured.
How many other people have watched Sherlock and thought: he behaves like a child?
If we look closely at his behaviour we can see that his definitely capable of displaying care, empathy and affection towards certain individuals (John, Mrs Hudson). Sherlock empathically can behave like a normal adult and follow society’s rules he just chooses not to. He is contemptuous of authority, arrogant, rude, and delights in shocking others.
The Empathy Gap
I believe Sherlock has a very good idea of just how devastating his comments can be (re: Sally’s knees) this is exactly why he says them. Sherlock revels in the damage he can cause with just a few well chosen sentences – it makes him feel powerful. Sherlock definitely enjoys saying these things. He spends very little time actually emotionally considering the consequences of his actions and does not actively engage in empathy for the person he is about to hurt.
This is not exactly rare behaviour – bullying is much more prevalent in children than it is in adults (not that adults don’t bully each other mercilessly; they simply do so in a more targeted manner). This is because children are still learning how to use empathy. The neuronal pathway for empathy is intrinsic to the human mind but the nuances of how and when it becomes activated are something that all children learn subconciously.
Also as we go through life we gain experience, we understand what it is like to endure pain and suffering which makes us more able to empathise with other people in the same situation. If you’ve never experienced these situations how can you properly empathise?
Sherlock does not lack empathy; he is not incapable of feeling it. However he chooses not to engage his empathy, particularly when it comes between him and self-gratification. This self-centred approach to engaging empathy is commonly seen in children because they cannot control their need for self-gratification.
Self-gratification in the short-term can override feelings of empathy as demonstrated by the experiment whereby six years olds are given the choice between having one sweet and taking two sweets from an actor. The actor would pretend to cry when he/she lost their sweets. There are no prizes for guessing which choice the majority of participants chose. None of the sweet “thieves” chose to give the sweets back either despite seeing the actor cry. Of the participants who didn’t steal sweets the vast majority were girls. There is a theory that boys develop empathy later than girls the evidence for it so far is quite convincing though not entirely conclusive.
Sherlock refuses to care about the victims in TGG because he believes it doesn’t help him achieve gratification i.e. solving the case. Like sweets for six year olds, solving a case gives Sherlock the “kick” he craves. I do not believe at the beginning of season one that Sherlock solves crimes for anything other than self-gratification. He is not particularly bothered how or if the criminals are brought to justice, given his deep contempt for police procedure. He shows no mercy towards Jeff Hope as he lies dying on the floor, even torturing the man so that Sherlock can know right now who Moriarty is. His actions may have hastened Jeff’s death and therefore deprived the victims’ families of justice through legal proceedings or any answers to questions they might have had.
Centre of the Universe
Beyond a lack of empathy, Sherlock is also incredibly self-centred (until TRF). He does not for example consider how taking over the kitchen with his experiments might affect John’s life, or how much hassle shooting bullets into the wall will cause for Mrs Hudson (who has to hired people to re-plaster the whole thing). He walks through life completely disregarding or in some cases enjoying the damage he does to people on an emotional level.
This pattern of self-centred approach to moral behaviour is seen in all children and is a natural part of human development. It takes maturity and life experience to fully appreciate that we are not the centre of the universe and other people’s feelings matter too.
According to Kohlberg's Stages of Moral development, Sherlock is firmly stuck on the pre-conventional stage:
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation (What's in it for me?)(Paying for a benefit)
The first stage is typically seen in early to late childhood and in normal development people should grow of this egocentric approach to morality by their teens, though some people reach the next stage much sooner than that. I think this stage pretty much characterizes Sherlock's overt behaviour at the beginning of the series. Like Sherlock, all children are fully capable of understanding morality, exercising empathy and listening to their conscience - they just chose not to if it gets in the way of their self-gratification.
Sherlock has not moved onto the level 2: the conventional stage, characterised by a true desire to conform to the social norm or be an example of what society defines as "good". At the beginning of the series, Sherlock does not choose to sacrifice his own gratification for the sake of appearing "good" or for the comfort of others. At the end he jumps off a building for the people he cares about and that is a great a illustration of a how Sherlock has emotionally developed throughout the series.
Mycroft on the other hand has successfully progressed to the last stage: post-conventional:
- Social contract orientation
- Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)
By and large, the people Sherlock surrounds himself with tolerate, to an inhuman extent, his immature behaviour. This is not necessarily a good thing. Sherlock has accurately worked out that Lestrade, Mrs Hudson and John won’t do anything drastic to make him change. He basically is not never punished for his behaviour and thus does not act well in order to avoid punishment. Like a spoilt child, Sherlock behaves despicably because he can get away with it.
Do you think that if Lestrade had kicked Sherlock off his team the first time Sherlock had been rude to Sally Donovan the knee comments would even have happened? Lestrade allowed Sherlock to treat his officers with contempt and thus cause an escalation leading to the ugly events we witnessed in ASiP. He never forced Sherlock or Sally to behave professionally.
I believe that something must have gone very wrong for Sherlock's moral and emotional development in his childhood.
The Boarding School Ethos
So why has Sherlock failed to mature? I think it has a lot to do with school.
In A Good old Fashioned Education – I explained that due to Mycroft/Sherlock’s social background they most likely went to boarding school.
Traditionally there two types of boarding school: the preparatory school which takes boarders from 7-13 and the public school which takes boarders from 13-18. This is an archaic system that the state sponsored schools in Britain no longer follow – nearly all boarding schools are private (non-state) schools with very high fees.
Mycroft and Sherlock come from a social class that routinely sends their boys off to boarding school somewhere between the ages of 7-10. The boarding experience at a young age is something parents value and Mycroft’s parents could afford to send their sons away to boarding school early. Boarding teaches children independence, self-esteem, social skills, leadership skills and maturity – at least in theory.
I believe that boarding school suited Mycroft – as the elder brother he had a different set of life experiences to Sherlock when he went off to boarding school. He would have realised that he was not the centre of the universe when Sherlock came along and adapted his world view/coping mechanisms accordingly.
Mycroft, as we can see, is perfectly capable of behaving in a socially acceptable manner. As I have discussed before: Mycroft and Sherlock have very different personalities. They really only share a great deal of intelligence with each other (and many other geniuses around the world). This does not automatically mean Sherlock is a reflection of Mycroft.
For a child such as Mycroft who is already emotionally maturing along the right lines, who is able to let go of his self-centredness, and has the patience to learn the things boarding school teaches - boarding is a brilliant experience. Boarding delivers all that it promises for children such as Mycroft.
Unfortunately Sherlock is not Mycroft. His boarding experience completely knocked his emotional/moral development off course.
Sherlock thrives on attention – this is why he is constantly spewing out his deductions – not because he simply doesn’t have the self-control to hold his tongue. He’s positively brilliant at keeping his conclusions from John during THoB.
Boarding school is not the best environment for a boy who constantly needs attention (and stimulation). The staff ratios in the 21st century are around 1:15 -1:10 which may sound good for a day school but certainly does not provide each child with the individual attention they would otherwise get at home at boarding school. Staff ratios in the 1980s were much worse.
Sherlock is also incredibly impatient. He wants everything now – including attention. The best way to get attention quickly, as any child with half a wit can work out, is to misbehave. This goes someway to explaining why Sherlock’s behaviour can be so awful. He has never aimed like other children to fulfil the social norms and conform – he always wanted to standout and gain given attention.
The problem with boarding school is that you never get to leave the place (until the holidays which are few and far between). You never really get a chance to walk away at the end of a bad day and start afresh tomorrow. The same problems just get churned overnight and resurrected the next morning.
You don’t get the chance to discuss why things go wrong with people on the outside (be it friends, family, pets, ice-cream van driver, random homeless guy on a park bench) and gain perspective. At boarding school, you need to be able to reflect by yourself in order to solve the problem. You need to be able to look at things from many different perspectives and accurately theorise the reactions of other people on your own. This ability to step out of your own perspective is a mark of emotional maturity but it is an ability that some children acquire later than others.
Mycroft, I believe is an introvert who does a great deal of reflecting in his armchair at the Diogenes Club. He is very self-aware as well as aware of his surroundings. Sherlock on the other hand does not self-analyse, his analysis are directly purely at the "outside". Mycroft's personality traits are inherently suited to maturing on one's own at boarding school and also inherently good at doing his job (manipulating others).
I do not think that Sherlock entered boarding school with the same anti-social attitude he has today. I think he did want people to like him (and he still does underneath all the melodrama). Unfortunately he just didn’t have the emotional maturity to pull it off.
His poor behaviour and his intelligence where enough to set him apart permanently. Unfortunately Sherlock didn’t realise that this is a bad thing.
“A school friend, of Sherlock’s?”
I do not need to tell you what young boys (and Sherlock would have most likely gone to an all boys school) do to people who are different.
Sherlock didn’t have any friends at school because he was the human piñata. No-one wants to be friends with a piñata, it almost always ends in tragedy.
Bullying occurs in all schools; the problem with boarding school is that you can’t escape it. Bullying almost always has a long lasting negative impact on the victim. In essence it skews the victim’s world view/coping mechanisms and produces emotional maladjustments.
Sherlock, I believe was bullied mercilessly at school and it really affected his emotional development. His defence mechanism was to set himself apart even more from the “vulgar crowd” and regard relationship with others as unimportant. This is a very common reaction to bullying and not unexpected.
Sherlock has effectively walled off his emotions because he found the emotional impact of bullying very different to cope with. I can't blame him, I've been in that position myself. However Sherlock is much more focused and single-minded than I am. He decided early on that emotions were the cause of his pain, as long as he could eliminate his emotions and emotional attachments he could be "indestructible". His emotional detachment is his armour and his rudeness, arrogance and anti-social behaviour are his weapons.I and many other people have successfully recovered from bullying but that is because after leaving school and our tormentors behind, we have the opportunity to form many deeply positive and meaningful human relationships but it's not an easy process because your self-esteem takes a long time to recover. Sherlock at age 36 has only just got round to restarting his emotional development (by meeting and befriending John).
At boarding school when you refuse to interact positively with other students, you basically refuse to interact with nearly everyone in your community. You cannot go home and gain social experiences with your parents, siblings, neighbours, pets etc. You are effectively excluded from the group course of emotional development – you cannot emotionally develop because you never get the chance to gain the social experiences. If all your interactions with people are negative – you cannot learn to engage empathy, altruism, social contracting etc.Had Sherlock and Mycroft no been sent away to boarding school and actually spent most of their childhood together. Sherlock's emotional development would have progressed much further. Mycroft is much better adjusted than Sherlock and his influence could have made a vital difference in Sherlock's emotional development. However Sherlock didn't get this form of help, which is why he behaves very badly at the beginning of season 1.
Sherlock is firmly stuck in the course of his emotional/moral development and the sad thing is the older he gets the less people seem to think this is the problem. At age 10 he might have been merely a difficult child, at age 36 people are looking to diagnose him with a psychiatric condition.
He does not need medical intervention; he needs counselling and social support from people like John, Mrs Hudson and even Mycroft.
The way to resolve the problem is not medication or a psychiatric diagnosis. It is to re-engage Sherlock in the process of emotional development. He needs to develop long-term meaningful positive relationships with a wide variety of people. He needs to devise methods of coping with the emotions that people are faced with - instead of merely ignoring them.
Side note - Does Sherlock resent his brother?
Well, no more than he would resent anyone trying to interfere with his life. I do not think Sherlock has reserved any particular personal hatred for Mycroft. He’s certainly more vicious towards Sally and Anderson than he ever is to his brother (calling someone fat in private is nothing compared to divulging their sexual practices in the middle of a crime scene in front of all their co-workers). He makes the general nasty remarks he does towards anyone who doesn’t completely please him . He is just as unco-operative with Lestrade as he is with Mycroft. Lestrade has to devise a fake drugs bust to get him to actually behave legally, Mycroft merely dangles a file in front of Sherlock and waits for the inevitable.
The good thing is that Sherlock is emotionally developing throughout the series. He is gaining the different types of emotional/social/life experiences that we all require in order to emotionally mature. He has John to guide him through this journey and at the end of TRF I am incredibly hopeful for Sherlock.