The Personality Type of Sherlock Holmes

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Ever since personality typing went mainstream, fans have fought over the personality types of famous literary characters – most notably, Sherlock Holmes. It usually winds up as a debate between INTP and INTJ, but neither one fits the canon Holmes. I recently addressed this on my tumblr, but will expound on it here.

The original Sherlock Holmes is a very warm, balanced, friendly, and well-behaved ISTP, and here’s why:

He uses introverted intuition and extroverted sensing, not extroverted intuition and introverted sensing.

The INTP’s third function is introverted sensing; working as a lower function, it remembers not facts but general impressions. Its second function (extroverted intuition) bounces off its third function, creating a multitude of likely scenarios, a dozen different possibilities based off one piece of evidence. The INTP’s mind internalizes an idea, processes it, then continues adding additional information; it seeks not to narrow down the process, but to expand on it, taking us from point A to point G in rapid succession. We can solve a problem, but damned if we know how we did it, or how to explain to you how we found the solution: we just know.

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Contrast that with the canon Sherlock Holmes, who follows a very linear mental process, excluding excess information and narrowing it down to the cause of the crime and the eventual result – introverted intuition. He builds primarily off of observing minute details in his surroundings and using established facts to support his hypothesis, which is an obvious use of extroverted sensing. (“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear!” – A Scandal in Bohemia) Holmes is using a combination of Se-Ni. He even describes introverted intuition multiple times in explaining to Watson how his mind works:

“In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backward. That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practice it much.” – A Study in Scarlet

Sherlock Holmes closed his eyes and placed his elbows upon the arms of his chair, with his fingertips together. “The ideal reasoner,” he remarked, “would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it.” – The Five Orange Pips

“… few people, however, who if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.” – A Study in Scarlet

That is introverted intuition: the ability to observe a situation and reason backwards to its cause and forward to the outcome.

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Holmes prefers to wait and gather factual information before starting to form a hypothesis; he insists on basing his theories on tangible realities, which indicates a preference for Sensing as one of his top two functions. Sensors are more grounded and based in the moment where Intuitives focus on the future and generate possibilities. The former wants the facts first, the latter can deal with the facts later.

He uses introverted thinking rather than extroverted thinking. He prides himself on his analytical skills and ability to reason differently from his peers in law enforcement. Furthermore, he concludes that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This statement is blatant introverted thinking; it looks inside the mind to draw a conclusion, with or without external evidence. Ti accepts that a lack of evidence can be evidence in and of itself, where Te is driven to base its logic in the outside world, through provable realities.

Holmes withholds information and explanations until after he has formed conclusions; he withdraws to his corner and pile of pillows with a pipe and thinks in absolute silence until he reasons out the crime in his head (again, introverted thinking). He then shares the solution rather than the thought process, until prompted (Ti solves, then shares; Te reasons aloud as it solves).

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He shows extroverted feeling in his detached but warm approach to others, his talent for manipulation and disguise, and his hyper-active behavior. As a function that gathers energy from external sources and needs to express itself outwardly, Fe uses adaptation, mimicry and movement to blend in to an environment and put people at ease. Holmes is forever pacing and exclaiming with excitement (except when he lacks mental stimulation, then he’s lethargic). Holmes shuns his emotions because they block clear reasoning (the pitfall and benefit of a lesser function) but nevertheless still has it – enough to charm others when he needs to (The Master Blackmailer), and in needing affirmation from Watson. (He is, undeniably, a show-off.)

He hates only one criminal in the entire canon, not for any personal reason but because of his cruelty toward society at large for the purpose of self-gratification (The Master Blackmailer). On that case, Holmes allows the murderer of the blackmailer to escape because he feels she is undeserving of punishment and her crime is vindicated; he disobeys the law, because he decides to act within the spirit of it (protection) rather than the letter of it (wrong is wrong, and should be punished equally). He allows his Fe-driven compassion to dictate his moral behavior. He also references a willingness to kill to avenge his friends (“If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive” – The Adventure of the Three Garridebs).

Lastly, Sherlock Holmes is vastly different from his older brother — he is energetic, driven, relentlessly focused while on a case (the third function of introverted intuition — the ability to cast aside external distractions and obsess on one thing), and somewhat frustrated by his brother’s laziness.

“He has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points.” – The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

Mycroft is able to solve crimes without needing to see external evidence or has no interest in proving his theories. He enjoys the mental exercise but once he’s solved the problem, he loses interest in seeing the case through to its completion. The INTP in the canon is Mycroft, not Holmes.

36 Replies to “The Personality Type of Sherlock Holmes”

    1. I actually think Stephen Hawking is an ENTP — his entire life is devoted to finding a “theory of everything” which is incredibly Ti; and he reverses, contradicts, and challenges his own findings and theories constantly, without preference for a singular way of thinking (Ne vs Ni), but you are correct, Sherlock is a sensor. 😉

      1. I agree with you about Hawking. I’d never been so conviced he was INTJ, but never gave this a lot of thought. I just used his example to show the difference between Sensors a Intuitives.

        Tks for your feedback.

  1. All your conclusions on Sherlock’s MBTI are reinforced by the three episodes of the last season, the fourth. I love the description he gives to intuition (“from the prick of my thumbs” or “The world is woven from billions of lives, every strand crossing every other. What we call premonition is just movement of the web. If you could attenuate to every strand of quivering data, the future would be entirely calculable, as inevitable as mathematics.” ) on The Six Thatchers episode, and how he works on it in “The Lying Detective”.

    Only a ST with a good development of Ni could understand Intuition or Premonition this way.

    What i loved the most in Abominable Bride and the 4º Season is exactly the development of the intuition as a powerfull tool to access the inferior function (feeling)

    1. Yep.

      Sherlock’s entire series journey is coming to grips with inferior Fe, figuring out and using it in a healthy manner, and becoming a “good man” (this is especially shown in the finale, with his treatment of Molly, his ability to emotionally reach his sister, and his refusal to kill either John or Mycroft). His intuition is strong (mostly because he’s written as a super-human) but also in service to his sensory awareness and impulsiveness; he makes the mistakes of a lower Ni, in that he fixates so much on a singular conclusion (sometimes wrong) he fails to perceive the bigger picture.

      Mycroft’s inability to sense Euros’ destructive potential (lower intuition also, on his part) caused the mess — he’s an ST also (ESTJ).

      1. When i saw the last part of The six Thatchers when he is with a psychologist, i told my friends” what a dumb psychologist”! To access a powerfull mind like his, you don’t ask to “open yourself completly to me”. If he knows how to do it, he won’t need a psychologist.

        IAN McKellen’s Mr. Holmes gives the right way to make a man like him acess his feelings: through the brain! Turn his inner quest into a case, and let him work on it… And that was how he made it, in the fourth season. And that’s why it was so brilliant.

  2. I definitely agree that Sherlock prefers Ti (dominant) and Fe (inferior). Those two aren’t too difficult to observe in him no matter who the character is (book, tv, movie, etc).

    Obviously, the question is whether Sherlock prefers Se-Ni or Ne-Si. Since he’s fictional, arguments can be made for either one. I tend to think he is INTP (just like your argument for ISTP working the stacks down, someone who uses one’s functions properly would also work the stacks down from Ne to Si rather than Si to Ne as you’ve explained here; the goal is to expand then narrow down for both ISTP and INTP, but from different observation points), because the skills he uses to work are specific details that most people do not think to point out, and that yells Ne-Si to me, but that’s only because I think he seems to prefer INTP more than ISTP.

    I only comment here because I wanted to clarify some of the assumptions you’ve made on observations. Both INTP and ISTP can develop excellent observation skills due to their inferior Fe and desire to understand people. My question is, is that Se or Ne?

    INTP can become great observers if their Si has proven to them the need to do so. In fact, I argue that because they’re naturally not aware of their environment quite like an ISTP, they would be inclined to especially focus on certain details based on a library of skills (Si) they’ve obtained in their lifetime (aka observe).

    Furthermore, the way I observe Ni in people don’t seem to quite work like that. Just as Si in INTP is general impressions, Ni in ISTP is general likelihood. You’re making the assumption that ISTP is utilizing Ni like Ni-dom, while not making the same assumption about INTP. ISTP types also prefer to continue to think about alternative possibilities and theories but in a Ni way, meaning they’re just as likely to not ever come to conclusion as INTP.

    So what I am trying to say is that what you’ve used to discredit INTP is more… simply an extension of the Ti-Fe interaction. But that’s only my opinion. I don’t think ISTP is dumber than INTP, or that ISTP cannot be excellent Sherlocks, but merely, that this is just really more on the line of Sherlock being IxTP than ISTP necessarily… okay. Bye.

    1. As an ENFP, I am familiar with the intricacies/difficulties of Ne-intuitive thinking, which makes me favor ISTP for Sherlock, but thanks for you sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  3. I think he’s an INTP with strong S traits.

    I can’t agree with you on the Ti explanation. Im an INTP, and i verbalise thouhts all the time, depending on my angle. I may be using someone as a sounding board, or arguing for problemsolving purposes (or just for some good fun). But I can’t verbalise all of my thoughts, because there are far too many. Plus, sometimes I’m so deep in thought, I don’t want to speak to anyone, because they’re messing up my thought “flow.” But if I’m explaining how I figured something out, I will go straight into a babble of chain reactions going backward, forward, or in different dirctuons until Ive gotten it out. Typically I go back and fourth, because I try to deviate from what is natural, which is to go backwards. But that’s sometimes confusing for others and then they get lost, so I try to go forward and end up…you know. Also, INTPs can be quite polite. I know many who are very polite. We just have a bit of a directness about us. Also, he’s very monotone. Typical INTP. But like you said, ine could make a case for an S tyoe, as well. Maybe it’s because he’s so intelligent that he’s more well rounded with the S and N.

    1. I also thought he was an INTP with S developed, but then I got to the conclusion that it is an INTJ with Se very trained. It is objective, selective – only learn what is important to work and it will use in the future – arrogant and view the complete picture with concentrated ideas and directed to the path certeito, which, in my opinion, is more Ni than Ne.

      https://mbtifiction.com/…/11/09/why-sherlock-isnt-an-intp/

  4. I think you’re mistaking about the reason he wants to go to the crime scene, and many other things. and as a start, I’d like to say, that the reason is because he likes to show off, he likes to play the scene, as sociopaths do.

    1. I’m talking canon Holmes. I assume you’re talking Sherlock?

      Sherlock appears to me to be simply a slightly more sociopathic incarnation of the original character, who still uses all the same functions as the original. Though, that he’s written by an ENTP muddles the waters a bit.

  5. I did a short course on leadership that encouraged knowing personalities of people you work with to maximize productivity in the most harmonious manner ever. Part of it involved doing several MBTI exercises, I tried to assess SH and my observation I thought he was ISTJ. I went to Google to validate my observation, and came across this. Why P and not J? I couldn’t find the explanation in your article. Thanks!

    1. ISTJs and ISTPs use different cognitive functions, so it is MUCH MORE than just a “P/J” difference.

      ISTJs use Introverted Sensing, Extroverted Thinking, Introverted Feeling, and Extroverted Intuition. The first — Si — relies on prior gained knowledge and information. It is mild mannered and falls into systematic behavior (routines). It is an abstract perceiving function, since it sees the world through a filter of “what do I know about it?” That then channels into Te, which is organization of external reality — getting things done, accomplishing things, making plans, basing conclusions off of facts. Fi kicks in with a high moral honor code that rarely shows emotion on the surface. And Ne, which is the bane of the ISXJs, nags “well, what if you’re wrong? what if it is THIS way instead of THIS way?” It introduces indecision.

      ISTPs use Introverted Thinking, Extroverted Sensing, Introverted Intuition, and Extroverted Feeling. Ti is about assuming the logic of the situation; presuming what is logical instead of relying on factual information. IE, a statement like, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” That’s Ti statement: eliminate the impossible, and what remains is true. Te would say, “Prove it is true.” Se is about outer sensory awareness; detached intense observation of the intimate details of one’s surroundings. This information feeds into Ni, which determines ONE likely outcome by working backward to the cause and forward to the conclusion (which is how Introverted Intuition is defined), and then pursuing that certainty. Finally, Fe makes Sherlock affable, animated, and emotionally projecting at times.

      In short, ISTJs are like Stannis Baratheon and ISTPs are more like Indiana Jones. One likes rules and former experience; the other goes nuts without something hands-on to do.

  6. Okay, so, I was reading about all the types out of curiosity after having taken my own test, and since Sherlock Holmes (in canon) is my favorite fictional character, I was trying to figure out which one fit him. I was oscillating between INTP and INTJ, but then I got to the description of ISTP and it overwhelmingly struck me as Holmes. So of course I went around to see what other people has made of the question, and you were the first person to share my conclusion and illustrate the reasoning behind it so well. Which is awesome, so thank you for doing this little article, and enlightening the world as to the original Holmes’s true personality.

    -doffs deerstalker- -with some difficulty because how do you doff a deerstalker jeez-

    1. INTJ is closer than INTP in my opinion, although everyone assumes INTP. He clearly uses sensory information first and then determines a clear course of action that both understands how the thing happened and what led to it. He analyzes, shows social graces, and displays Ti-Fe. INTJ is also strongly argued a lot, but he is not disconnected from reality and struggling to get out of his own head in the way that most INTJs are.

      (I sometimes think he’s INTJ, but I know several and one of them has flatly stated that there is absolutely no way he is an INTJ.)

  7. Hello Charity,

    What does it mean for an INTJ or an ENTP to “reason backward” in contrast to INTP and ENTJ? I have some difficulties to understand how N and T work together in this case.

    1. Ni always leaps forward to the solution, then unconsciously works backward to discern the path taken to reach the conclusion. It’s an automatic process.

      NTPs can’t naturally do it. They continually build outward, connecting disconnected pieces of information to form a larger worldview.

      1. “Ni always leaps forward to the solution, then unconsciously works backward to discern the path taken to reach the conclusion. It’s an automatic process.”

        >And they use Te for that? unconsciously?

        “NTPs can’t naturally do it. They continually build outward, connecting disconnected pieces of information to form a larger worldview. ”

        >Then what is the difference between Ti-Ne and Ne-Ti?

        1. No, Ni does that by itself. Any type that uses Ni can do it — NJs, and SPs. Ni-Te is used for strategy (Ni) and then implementation of a logical plan that impacts the reality of the world around them (Te). Ni is very straightforward and focused; it takes in lots of information, but narrows it down to a plan of action when utilized with Te.

          Ne-Ti is concentrated on forming connections and juggling multiple ideas at once, then filtering them all through independent logic. Unlike Te, Ti doesn’t stem off of provable facts; instead, it is concerned with understanding the ideas Ne is exploring.

          Te says “how can I use this?”
          Ti says “how does this work?”

          1. Interesting. I thought Ni was just a perception function and it was just having « flashes » of information coming from the subconscious. I did not know it meant also unconsciously thinking backward to “discern the path taken to reach that conclusion”. When Sherlock Holmes finds out who is the murderer and why, he does not use his T and it is a complete subconscious inductive process? He just gathers pieces of information with his Se and suddenly has an insight and knows why because he has already inferred the process leading to that conclusion? (I repeat that point to be sure I well understood what you meant. I know you are more knowledgeable than I am).

          2. ISTPs use Ti as their top function, which means Sherlock is logically analyzing his environment, gathering physical awareness of its clues with his Se, and reaching conclusions with his Ni.

            Of course, someone could argue (and have) that he analyzes his environment first with Ti, then uses Ne to piece together random pieces of information and generate ideas concerning who the murderer is, accessing his database of information through Si (INTP). This is more his process on the TV show Sherlock, but the actual books support more of a Ni-Se/Se-Ni process.

          3. Thank you for those explanations, it is very charitable of you, Charity…(easy one, I know)

            You talk about Sherlock from the TV show and it was my next question (you really read my mind. *Spooky*):

            Could it be that the Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is extraverted rather than introverted? Could he be an ESTP for instance? I see Se and Ti in him and I agree the original Sherlock Holmes is probably ISTP, but I was wondering if he could have Se dom in this version or if it is absolutely off?

          4. I don’t know. I think he uses too much intuition to have it be his least-used function. ESTPs are more about immediate action/gratification, with very little attention paid to the consequences of their actions / minimal trust in their intuitive leaps.

            Some make an excellent argument for the BBC Sherlock as an INTP, particularly as relates to his behavior in the HOUND episode (taking unrelated pieces of information and connecting them to the case, to form a much larger picture). I don’t know — to me, Sherlock seems to be a hybrid between STP/NTP there. You can actually use evidence from the series to prove both types.

          5. Oh, I watched this episode! Yes, we could also build a case for an INTP. I do not know if you learnt all that by yourself, but there would be people out there interested in attending an MBTI training from you! It would be interesting. Have a nice day. Sam

          6. I’m flattered. =)

            Learning this stuff is complicated. I’m STILL trying to figure out how to simplify it in terms that the common person can understand. Even so, I still run into problems identifying Ne and Ni at times. The others? Not so much. Easy. But intuition can be hard to figure out, because they are so much alike, in so many ways.

    1. Yeah, figured this out today while watching Twin Peaks. Dale Cooper, now there’s a detective who is likely either INTP or INTJ. Dale Cooper uses hunches and gut feelings rather than hard evidence and deduction, the latter being the sensing man’s game.

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