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.