Ficitonal MBTI – Sherlock Holmes (INTP)

In the world of fictional typology, Sherlock Holmes is typically cited either as the perfect example of an INTP or as a notoriously difficult charter to type. Some writers say this difficulty is because the character displays aspects of several different types (including INTJ and ISTP) due to the writers’ ignorance of Myers-Briggs theory.

While this may be partly true, I think we can pin-down a single best-fit type for most portrayals of Sherlock Holmes in film and television (I’m not covering the original stories in this post). Rather than showing several different personality types, the different portrayals of Sherlock Holmes show how much variation there can be within a single personality type.Ficitonal MBTI - Sherlock Holmes (INTP) | marissabaker.wordpress.com

INTP Traits

The personality type that fits most film and movie portrayals of Sherlock best is INTP. The function stack for this type is this:

  1. Introverted Thinking (Ti)
  2. Extroverted Intuition (Ne)
  3. Introverted Sensing (Si)
  4. Extroverted Feeling (Fe)

This means that Sherlock first approaches the world with a judging attitude that is focused inward and relies on impersonal analysis. Ti prefers to internalize observations and work with abstract ideas. It “values facts chiefly as illustrative proofs of the idea,” and rejects things that seem irrelevant (Myers, Gifts Differing, p.78). This would explain why BBC’s Sherlock didn’t bother to remember that the earth goes around the sun.

What does that matter? So we go ’round the sun. If we went ’round the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear it wouldn’t make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without that my brain rots.” — Episode 3, The Great Game

With his secondary function, Sherlock interacts with the outer world using an extroverted perceiving function, in this case intuition. For a good analysis of why Sherlock is an INTP instead of an ISTP (which would use Se instead of Ne), check out MBTI: Sherlock Holmes- INTP. One quote I really like from this post connects Sherlock’s perceiving function with his signature “Holmesian deduction.”

In fact, abductive reasoning seems to be almost describing Extraverted Intuition- seeing the possibilities and coming to a single result at the time. Ni handles the long-range stuff, but Ne gives you what you want at the moment. And Holmes doesn’t seem to be taking in his surroundings as much as he is observing his surroundings and making well educated guesses as to what happened.”

Having Introverted Sensing as third in his function stack means that Sherlock still has access to sensing. It’s not the easiest function for him to use, but it explains why he notices sensing details that might escape other intuitive types. This is one reason I don’t think he is an INTJ — like INFJs they use sensing as their inferior function, and rarely have conscious access to it. An INTJ would have feeling as their third function, while an INTP’s feeling is the hardest for them to access and understand.

Type Variation – Stereotypical

Let’s talk about Basil of Bakerstreet from Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective for a moment. On Disney typing charts, I often see him listed as an INTJ. He’s no more INTJ than any other Sherlock, though. That honor belongs to Professor Moriarty, one of the greatest examples of INTJ villain in fiction (and probably Sherlock’s brother Mycroft as well).

Basil is probably the most straight-forward portrayal of Sherlock that I’ll talk about today, and he’s a great example of how Ti and Ne work together. In scenes where Basil is working on a problem, he verbalizes his intuitive leaps while most of his thinking takes place inside his head. That’s why it’s hard for Dawson to follow his line of thinking, just as it has been for different Watsons (who are typically ISFJs) throughout Sherlock’s history. It’s “elementary” to Sherlock, but he doesn’t explain his thinking out-loud so it doesn’t seem obvious or easy to anyone else. What we see is the intuitive side, which isn’t conventionally logical.

The scene where he escapes from Rattigan’s trap is typical of a defeated, deflated INTP. His Fe takes over, and he verbalizes his emotions while losing hope. What pulls him out is the intuitive leap, prompted by Dawson’s comment that they set the trap off now, which gives him an idea for how to escape. He doesn’t explain this idea, though — the bulk of the planning is introverted. We get glimpses of his Ti working as he mumbles calculation, but the only thing he purposefully shares are the instructions that Dawson needs to follow.

Type Variation – More Extroverted

Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock is more comfortable with his extroverted function than other Sherlocks, possibly because the actor is an extrovert (maybe an ENTP?). Even this portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is not an extrovert, though. It’s the rare extrovert who will go two weeks without leaving his apartment, even when depressed and on drugs (as Sherlock apparently is early in the first film). What makes me certain that he’s an INTP rather than an ENTP, though, are the scenes where he appears in a public place.

In this scene, waiting in the restaurant for John to arrive with Mary, Sherlock is overwhelmed by the number of people and external sensory input. Instead of being comfortable in the outer world, he is stressed by it. He can pretend to be comfortable in a social setting, which he does for a while in the restaurant, but eventually his stress reaction comes out and he’s even more rude than usual while trying to show off his skills of deduction and drive a wedge between Mary and Watson.

As inferior Extroverted Feeling becomes more prominent in the demeanor of the Introverted Thinking type, it comes out in the form of logic being emphasized to an extreme, hypersensitivity to relationships, and emotionalism.” — Naomi Quenk, Was That Really Me? p. 128

He acts similarly overwhelmed and distracted by the crowd when he is boxing. Later in the film, when he’s in a prison yard, Holmes entertains the other inmates to protect himself but can’t wait to escape their company. He is more comfortable with extroverting than other versions of Sherlock Holmes, but it is not his preferred state.

Type Variation – Not A Sociopath

The main reason BBC’s Sherlock doesn’t look exactly like an INTP is because he displays traits of several different mental conditions. According to an article written by four psychiatrists, BBC’s Sherlock displays traits of autism spectrum, “schizoid personality disorder, social anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia etc.” I got this quote from an article Sherlock describes himself as a “high functioning sociopath,” but that’s not the most accurate description. Personally, I find arguments that he has Asperger’s Syndrome highly compelling, especially since that’s how Watson diagnoses him in this clip:

However, the four psychiatrists I mentioned think “autism would not be the most appropriate diagnosis – schizoid personality disorder would be more fitting to the behaviour he displays.” Whichever diagnosis you go with, though, it is clear the Sherlock portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch is not simply an INTP. This type is, however, still the core of his personality. As these psychiatrists say, he “displays a whole host of uniquely memorable behaviours that are not autistic or even psychiatric in origin. These behaviours are a result of Sherlock being Sherlock.”

That’s probably the best way to put it — the most defining characteristic of Sherlock Holmes is that he is Sherlock Holmes. INTPs are so rare that Sherlock seems unique, especially since he is a sort of super-human INTP who has mastered such a wide range of skills that you’d be hard pressed to find the equivalent in real-life. David Keirsey says that INTPs number close to 1% of the population, and considers them even rarer than INFJs (though I haven’t found anyone else who agrees with him). Either way, Sherlock is a very famous example of a very misunderstood type.

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15 thoughts on “Ficitonal MBTI – Sherlock Holmes (INTP)

  1. I like your summation, that “the most defining characteristic of Sherlock Holmes is that he is Sherlock Holmes.” I agree!

    Actually, I was delighted to read this post, since I love Sherlock Holmes dearly, but the real reason I visited your blog was to tell you how much I enjoyed your article about Robin Hood in Femnista. I’m kind of focusing my reading life on Robin Hood a bit this year, having vowed to read at least 6 different things that involve him. Your article has made me decide that the next one I’ll read will be the Pyle classic, because (gasp!) I’ve never read it before. Thanks!

    Oh, and Disney’s animated Robin Hood remains my favorite movie version, and my favorite animated movie. It does not get old! I introduced my three kids to it recently, and I’m so delighted that they love it too — one of them even says they want a Robin Hood birthday party!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks — I’m so glad you enjoyed both articles!

      That sounds like a great reading goal. What are some of the other Robin Hood books on your list, and do you have any recommendations for ones you’ve already read? I’m always on the look-out for another good re-telling 🙂

      A Robin Hood birthday party sounds perfect. You’re right — that film just doesn’t get old. I still walk about the house sometimes singing “A pox on the phony king of England!”

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      • Well, I started out with a retelling called “Outlaw” by Angus Donald, which really disappointed me because it had a lot of content I objected to. I couldn’t finish it. So next up will be Pyle’s, and then probably the Henry Gilbert, which is what I grew up with and love a lot. I also want to read Paul Creswick’s version, and Roger Lancelyn Green’s, and a YA retelling called “Rowan Hood” that is about Robin Hood having a daughter. Beyond that — we’ll see!

        I used to sing the “Not in Nottingham” song to my babies as a lullaby. Depressing song, but very soothing, lol.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The INTP is one of my favorite types, along with the ENTP so I was happy to discover that Sherlock is one, although he does exhibit a few traits of INTJ and ISTP as well. But that’s more how he’s written than anything else.

    As for RDJ’s Holmes, he seems like an extrovert to me, although one that struggles with depression, which is no wonder considering all the weird drugs and concoctions he tries. Most of the time RDJ’s roles turn out to be ENTPs probably because that’s who he is. I’d say that’s a very good guess. His Holmes just doesn’t struggle in his interactions. He’s bizarre, definitely, but he interacts with strangers without any issues. His tendency to lock himself up is defined more by his moping over Watson’s leaving than any introverted tendencies. He’s just wallowing, the silly man. A very un-Holmeslike attitude to take over an emotional attachment. *eye roll*

    Great analysis, though. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I will say, though, that canon Holmes is not an INTP but an ISTP. So far I don’t think any of the film adaptations have gotten that right. He’s always an INTJ or an INTP, leaving out the warmth and friendliness that the original Holmes exhibited on a regular basis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read enough of the original Sherlock Holmes stories to feel comfortable typing him in the books, so I tried to stick mostly with the film and TV adaptations. I’ve read compelling analysis of him as both as an INTP and an ISTP, but I do remember him being more warm and friendly in the books.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Book Sherlock actually describes Ni cognition as his process of deduction, almost more perfectly than Jung describes Ni — observing the evidence through physically interacting with his environment (Se), then mentally processing back to discern how it happened and forward simultaneously to predict a singular outcome (Ni).

      Film variations on Sherlock range between ESTP (possibly RDJ) to INTP (Basil Rathbone) and INTJ (Elementary). The BBC Sherlock is the weirdest one, since he’s using multiple functions at the same time. He seems to use Ni a lot, but he’s too irrational, emotionally explosive, and attention-seeking to be an INTJ. He’s … complicated. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice little write up. =)

    Different incarnations of Sherlock are interesting and use different functions, but I always enjoy the INTP variations.

    I’m not convinced the BBC Sherlock is an Aspie, though — he touches on some of the symptoms (whichever are good at making him a jerk) but his overall behavior is nothing like how they act. Sheldon Cooper, though … dead on. He’s like … my brother (an Aspie) incarnate.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I love Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the famous detective and I agree with you that he’s an INTP. I would argue he’s somewhere on the Autism Spectrum (Aspergers or he just as small quirks that might not be enough to classify him according to the DSM). I watched RDJ’s potrayal of Sherlock after finishing the first three seasons of Sherlock BBC, but found it harder to get into his portrayal. Since RDJ is an extrovert, as you mentioned, it makes sense that might alter his imagine of Sherlock.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Don’t mind me, but I differ on BBC’s Sherlock, seeing him instead as an INTJ. It’s easy to look at his behavior and say INTP, but at the same time, he doesn’t really exhibit many traits that run in accordance with Ti dominants. Sherlock is far too task oriented to be anything but a Te user.

    I find that most xNTPs don’t actually ascribe to Sherlock’s “knowledge is only important insofar as it is useful” approach because this is more of a Te-user trait. Te, especially when coupled with Ni, tends to filter out the unnecessary to make room for prioritization.

    Ti and Ne together usually like to collect more, less specified information and get the most energy from theorizing rather than from actively solving problems the way BBC’s Sherlock does.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Sherlock is one of those characters that we MBTI enthusiasts can debate endlessly, and since BBC’s version seems to display traits of both INTJ and INTP it just makes things more confusing. I personally think he comes down more on the INTP side, though. I suppose we’ll just agree to disagree 🙂

      On the topic of INTJ or INTP, I recently came across an article on Personality Hacker about ways to tell the two types apart. Thought it was an interesting read. You might enjoy it: http://www.personalityhacker.com/intp-vs-intj/

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