Dr Sheldon Cooper – Fascinating personality traits.

11 03 2012

Sheldon Cooper is a fictional theoretical physicist on the television programme The Big Bang Theory. His quirky mannerisms have led him to become the programmes breakout character. This means that even though his character was not intended to be the focus of the audience’s attention, he has become the main/ joint main focus of the series. The writers did not foresee this when they began the series, which exemplifies the phenomenon of his popularity. In this week’s blog, I would like to contribute explanations towards Sheldon’s peculiar personality traits, whilst encouraging readers to contribute their own novel ideas.

Sheldon’s inability to empathise suggests a theory of mind deficit, which implies Sheldon’s condition lies on the autistic spectrum. Sheldon’s independence and huge IQ suggests that a diagnosis of Aspergers may be suitable. I decided to contrast his characteristics with the DSM IV criteria of Aspergers Disorder*. However, Sheldon’s ability for nonverbal behaviour seems generally functional. He has developed peer relations appropriate to his developmental level, as he functions independently at work and interacts with ‘friends’. He expresses interests (sci-fi, comic books) and boasts of achievements to other people (intelligence). Therefore, after consideration, I do not believe Asperger’s is an appropriate diagnosis.

After ruling out a specific condition on the autism spectrum, I decided to look at it in a more broad sense. Baron-Cohen (2004) suggests that all humans fit on the autistic spectrum to an extent, and that these are represented by 5 brain types. Extreme type S and type S individuals are the autistic inclined individuals in the population (systematisers). Whilst extreme type E and type E individuals are the converse to this (empathisers). The last brain type is a balance, resulting in type B. Baron-Cohen theorised that an autistic diagnosis is the result of an individual having a hyper-masculine brain. This suggestion explains why autism affects three times more males than females. Systematisers have a drive to analyse, understand, predict, control and construct rule-based systems. This is undoubtedly a feature of Sheldon’s behaviour which is evident in this short clip**. Furthermore, Wheelwright (2006) demonstrated that physical scientists (similar to fictional Sheldon) score significantly higher on autistic spectrum quotient tests than biological scientists, social scientists and those in humanities.

I continued assessing conditions in which a lack of empathy is characteristic to see how applicable they were to Sheldon. Wai (2012) investigated the affective and cognitive empathetic nature of the dark triad of personality. The dark triad represents the most common socially aversive personality traits characterised by an empathy deficit. The dark triad consists of Psychopathy, Narcissism and Machiavellianism. However, it is theorised that these traits too lie on a continuum. Therefore, a functioning member of the public may posses’ similar socially aversive traits, without it being a clinically significant diagnosis. Wai demonstrated that individuals whom scored highly on dark triad tests had dysfunctional affective empathetic systems. However, they possessed fully functional cognitive empathy systems. This demonstrated that individuals with Psychopathic, Narcissistic or Machiavellian traits have little trouble identifying others emotions. However they do have difficulty in feeling directly what another individual is feeling. To use a common analogy, they would not be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. However, they have no problem identifying the type of shoes an individual is wearing. Sheldon’s empathetic system is similar to that of an individual high up on the dark triad personality trait continuum. Sheldon often recognises other’s emotions, even seeking confirmation from them at times, yet his own distaste for human emotions are acknowledged.

Whilst no single diagnosis may be appropriately applied to Sheldon, progress has been made in categorising his personality traits. Wai may argue that Sheldon typifies an individual with dark triad traits. However, Baron-Cohen would probably acknowledge Sheldon’s brain type as a hyper masculine extreme type S.

*http://www.autreat.com/dsm4-aspergers.html

**

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3 responses

14 03 2012
psucf2psych

I think this was a really interesting topic. I have never watched ‘The Big Bang Theory’ so the clip you put on here is pretty much the only one I have seen of Sheldon. It would seem to me he does have traits of Asperger’s, like you have said with the heavy interest in sci-fi and comic books and the fact that he boasts about his intelligence. I think the fact that he has formed peer relationships does not mean that it is an inappropriate diagnosis. Because of his age, it could be that he has somewhat learned how to act in social situations and changed his behaviour to accommodate this, however obviously still has some signs of autistic traits. I don’t really know much about the character, so I can only really go on what you have put in here. But I find the whole theory of mind thing really interesting and maybe it would be worth me starting to watch that programme. :) Interesting topic.

14 03 2012
psucc3

Having an interest in sci – fi doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you (just saying). It’s almost certain that Sheldon doesn’t suffer from just once disorder, well i say disorder. But his character is actually highly functioning human being which is one of the ways we define abnormality. His obsession with routine and cleanliness are surely good things a long with his contracts and room mate agreements make sure every thing is accounted for and look at what he has a achieved a s a theoretical physicist. If any thing it seems that Sheldon lives a very enhanced life if only he was real, Bazinga!

18 04 2012
anthonyshock

An interesting observation I made with this blog is whether we can really make any kind of diagnosis here. This is a television character who was created by a writer. Are we able to diagnose over an observation that is a human construction. If it isn’t a natural occurrence, then is it really right to make deductions, especially since we only know limited information about this characters life, and the information we do have is manipulated strongly for entertainment value. This does lead onto case studies though, doesn’t it? What then makes a case study any different? Perhaps you could say that, because Sheldon was constructed with an entertainment purpose whereas a case study of a person similar to Sheldon is a natural occurrence, they are different. Cook and Leventhal, 2000, suggested from their research that positive symptoms of Aspergers are usually mechanisms that help sufferers adapt and cope with their negative symptoms. You could apply this, by saying that a natural case of aspergers would have a purpose, whereas Sheldon’s is for comic value, which means the symptoms will be manipulated and be wrong proportionally.

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