Sadism may be more common than we think, according to a pair of UBC studies published in the journal Psychological Science this September.
The findings suggest that sadism – deriving pleasure from another person’s suffering – is not just a sexual disorder found in hardened criminals. Some people derive pleasure from cruelty in everyday situations and are even willing to make an extra effort to cause harm to someone else.
“Some find it hard to reconcile sadism with the concept of ‘normal’ psychological functioning, but our findings show that sadistic tendencies among otherwise well‑adjusted people must be acknowledged,” says Erin Buckels, the lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at UBC. “These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others’ suffering.”
In one study, participants were asked to perform one of four tasks: killing bugs, helping a researcher kill bugs, cleaning dirty toilets, or enduring pain from ice water. As predicted, participants who chose to kill bugs had the highest scores on a scale measuring sadistic impulses. Their pleasure also seemed to correlate with the number of bugs they killed.
A second study compared sadism to other “dark” personality traits – psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, also known as the “Dark Triad.” It revealed that only sadists chose to intensify the suffering of an innocent opponent when they realized the opponent wouldn’t fight back. They were also the only ones willing to expend additional time and energy to cause suffering to an innocent opponent.
The findings could inform research and policy on domestic abuse, bullying, animal cruelty, and cases of military and police brutality.
“It is such situations that sadistic individuals may exploit for personal pleasure,” says Buckels.