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Dissecting Sheldon Cooper

How "The Big Bang Theory" plays with the stereotype of the mad genius.

There's no denying that I have feelings for you that can't be explained in any other way. I briefly considered that I had a brain parasite, but that seems even more far-fetched. The only conclusion was love.

—Sheldon Cooper, "The Big Bang Theory"

If you've seen even a single episode of the hit sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," then you're familiar with Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Played to perfection by Jim Parsons, the tall, brilliant Sheldon has always seemed bizarre (and that's saying something, considering the other characters on the show).

Even fellow genius Leonard once described his friend and roommate as being "one lab accident away from becoming a supervillain." When faced with frequent speculations about his mental stability, Sheldon typically responds with, "My mother had me tested"—though his seemingly autistic personality, asexuality, and general weirdness does little to reassure his friends.

In may ways, Sheldon fits in with the general stereotype of the eccentric genius so often seen in other popular television shows and movies. Examples include Dr. Gregory House (star of the medical show of the same name), the OCD-racked Adrian Monk, and Dr. Emmet Brown of "Back to the Future" fame.

The popularity of these characters seems to tie in with our own fascination with creative types who are often seen as "paying the price" for their genius with assorted mental quirks that separate them from the rest of us. But what does this fascination with characters like Sheldon Cooper, or the popularity of shows like "The Big Bang Theory," say about our own attitudes about creativity and mental illness?

A new article published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture provides a psychological profile of Sheldon Cooper as well as what shows like "The Big Bang Theory" say about creative individuals. Written by Christine N. Winston of Women's Christian College in Chennai, India, the article examines what we know about creativity and explores how true-to-life many of Sheldon's quirks really are.

She begins by discussing the four kinds of creativity first identified by James C. Kaufman and Ron Beghetto:

  • "Mini-c" or experiential creativity: This is the creativity that occurs as part of the process of learning and developing new concepts. Kaufman and Beghetto describe it as the novel and personally meaningful interpretation of experiences, actions, and events. As we construct personal knowledge and gain understanding, we also find ourselves growing and changing as our awareness of the world around us shifts. This is a form of creative potential that is often neglected in grade school and high school students but which can make children more prone to make the jump to other types of creativity.
  • "Little-c" or everyday creativity: This is the creativity that everyone engages in on a day-to-day basis. Not everyone is going to be an Einstein or a Picasso, but we are are all capable of coming up with new and innovative ideas or experiences. Though little-c creative acts may not transform the world, they can be important to us or the people around us.
  • "Pro-c" or professional creativity: This is the kind of creativity shown by people who have gained expertise and skills through time and effort, allowing them to make real contributions to their field of interest. Professional musicians, writers, performers, and scientists all personify professional creativity.
  • "Big-c" or eminent creativity: When you consider people making revolutionary or immortal contributions to arts or sciences, you are thinking of big-c creativity. Beethoven, Michelangelo, Darwin, Newton, and Dickens are all examples of big-c creativity and how it can transform the world.

In the case of Sheldon Cooper and the kind of genius he displays on television, he can be considered to cover all four categories. Along with being a senior theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology whose work on string theory is considered revolutionary, he also shows numerous examples of mini-c and little-c creativity as well.

Sheldon loves playing with toy trains, attends Comic-Con in costume, and even dreams up innovative recipes for his friends. Other unique hobbies he seems to excel at include Tuvan throat-singing, playing the theremin, and inventing his own board game "Fun With Physics." On one occasion when he lost his job, he mastered weaving and learned how to create luminous fish through genetic engineering. Then there is his regular podcast, "Fun with Flags." He can even use little-c and mini-c experiences to highlight his pro-c and big-c contributions (and vice-versa) reflecting how many creative geniuses can combine different kinds of creativity.

Along with his unique understanding of the world around him, Sheldon has a wide range of quirky personality characteristics that make him seem eccentric but not mentally ill (his mother had him tested, after all). Contrary to common belief, eccentric individuals are often happier and more well-adjusted than "normal" people, since they feel much freer to break away from society's norms.

This actually ties in with existing research showing a U-shaped relationship between creativity and mental illness. Not only does being creative help protect against serious emotional problems, but being eccentric can actually fuel creative urges—the way they do in Sheldon's case.

Among Sheldon's eccentric characteristics discussed by Christine Winston in her article are:

  • His regressive behaviors, including his tendency to be a "child in a man's body"; his need to be cared for by a mother figure whenever he is ill or afraid; and his tendency to throw temper tantrums whenever he doesn't get his own way. In fact, another character on the show, Bernadette, credits her experience working with children for her ability to manage Sheldon's stubbornness.
  • His egocentrism, including his contempt for any opinion apart from his own and his tendency to talk down to people he regards as his intellectual inferiors (in other words, just about everybody he meets). He often imposes on the people around him for things he requires, including someone to drive him places, and seems to have a genuine inability to recognize that they have other things to do.
  • His narcissism, which makes him regard himself as infallible whenever he expresses an opinion or is stating what he regards as fact. He also tends to regard himself as a superior breed of human, even to the point of considering having a child with his genius girlfriend Amy in order to create a race of benign overlords for humanity.
  • His social dysfunction, including his solitary lifestyle, inability to recognize social cues, and difficulty recognizing emotions, in himself or others.
  • His obsessive-compulsive tendencies, including his inability to accept change in his life, his multiple phobias (towards germs, birds, etc.), and his hypochondria.

While Sheldon is a fictional character, the way he is portrayed on the show seems to fit in with many popular stereotypes about eccentric geniuses. Big-c creativity tends to be fairly rare (estimated to occur in one in a million people) and the prevailing view often seems to be that there is a "price" to pay for this kind of genius. Whether it comes in the form of mental illness (such as John Nash of "A Beautiful Mind" fame), or the emotional turmoil often seen in famous musicians, artists, and writers, geniuses are typically seen as being different from you or me.

And, surprisingly enough, there is research to bear this out. Mathematicians and physicists seem unusually prone to autism spectrum disorders (at least sub-clinically) and, like Sheldon, can often display symptoms such as the need for sameness, lack of interest in social interactions, and inability to read social cues.

So do shows like "The Big Bang Theory" help reinforce stereotypes about extremely creative people? While the idea of the "mad genius" was around long before television (think of Victor Frankenstein, for example), psychologists such as Abraham Maslow argue that extremely creative people tend to be much healthier than average because they are often able to resist cultural ideas about "normal" behaviour. Though Sheldon is probably a little too quirky to match Maslow's description of self-actualized people, he generally seems much happier and less troubled than the people around hm.

So why has the stereotype of the eccentric genius become so popular? One possibility raised by Judith Schlesinger suggests that believing in a link between genius and madness helps eliminate any feelings of envy we might have. As she points out, "If we cannot share their talent, at least we don’t have their problems." Then again, we may also be inspired by stories of eccentric individuals who are "true to themselves" and are willing to risk public disapproval, at least some of the time.

When the creators of "The Big Bang Theory" were asked if Sheldon's behavior was patterned after high-level autism, they responded that they just considered his behavior to be "Sheldony." Whatever you choose to believe about genius and madness, Sheldon remains the breakout character of the show and has inspired any number of popular memes surrounding his antics. There is even a wikiHow page titled "How to Act Like Sheldon Cooper," and he is widely seen as being the most authentic character on the show.

As Christine Winston concludes in her article, "Media’s portrayal of creative individuals, such as Dr. Sheldon Cooper, as 'non-normal' can either reinforce the pervasive stereotype of the eccentric genius or challenge prevailing notions of normality." The lessons we take away from shows like "The Big Bang Theory" may well say more about our own ideas about what is normal than anything else.