‘Everyday Sadists’: They walk among us
Sadism, like most other things, is on a continuum. It isn’t just Hannibal Lecter or the Marquis de Sade. They (like the psychopaths) walk among us. You know them. You may even be one. How, for example, do you feel about pill bugs?
When my daughter was young, she adored pill bugs. She would pick them up, watch them curl into a ball and found them endlessly fascinating. Apparently, when we grow up, many of us would prefer grinding them up in a coffee grinder and tossing them into a trash can. What’s that, you say? Grinding them up in a coffee grinder? I thought the same thing and I certainly hope it was a dedicated coffee grinder since I don’t want pill bug particles in my coffee either. But, I digress.
If you think for just a bit, you will be able to identify those you know who enjoy hurting others–either directly or through manipulation. Think of mean people. They may have a (thin) veneer of sociability but take every opportunity to cut down others, revel in their own superiority, or share “highly confidential” and mean-spirited gossip about someone else with you. These are the “everyday sadists”. And they are prevalent enough that the researchers think perhaps the “dark triad” of personality characteristics found in narcissists, psychopaths & those high in Machiavellianism, should be rechristened the “dark tetrad” to incorporate the characteristic of everyday sadism.
As you might imagine, it is very challenging to measure the individual enjoyment of sadism due to ethical limitations on researchers. To make matters even worse, these researchers wanted to link everyday sadism with “an appetite for killing”. (This is apparently what you think about in 2013 in order to get tenure.) So here’s what the researchers did.
They recruited undergrads for an experiment on “personality and challenging jobs”. Then they gave the undergrads four “challenging jobs” to choose from: killing bugs (an exterminator), helping the exterminator (exterminator’s assistant), cleaning toilets (a janitor), or enduring pain from ice water (workers in cold environments). As you might imagine, more than half (53%) chose to be bug killers or bug killer helpers while 34% chose to clean toilets and 13% (seriously?) chose pain tolerance. There were no gender differences in who chose which “challenging job”. Showing their own everyday sadism, the researchers explained how they constructed the exterminator job to convert it from pest control to a sadistic exercise: “To maximize gruesomeness, we designed a killing machine that produced a distinct crunching sound. To anthropomorphize the victims, we gave them endearing names.” (FYI, the bugs were named Muffin, Ike and Tootsie and you should know that there was a modification made to the coffee grinder so that Muffin, Ike and Tootsie were not really harmed despite the crunching sound participants heard as they put the lid on and “forced down the cover and ground the bugs up, starting with Muffin”.)
Researchers had participants complete four different measures: the Dark Triad Scale, the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (see page 76 of this master’s thesis for questions on this scale), and the Disgust Sensitivity Scale (look under Section III to download a copy of this scale) which is not nearly as disturbing as the first two measures–it’s just gross, with the first question asking whether you would be willing to eat monkey meat “under some circumstances”. (It gets worse from there but science must move forward. Someone has to figure out how to write questions that result in visceral reactions of disgust.)
So. After completion of the questionnaires, researchers found the following:
Higher scores on the Sadistic Impulse Scale were associated with a greater preference for bug killing when presented with the four “challenging jobs” at the beginning of the experiment. Sadists chose bug killing over “the unquestionably disgusting toilet-cleaning option”.
Higher scores on the Sadistic Impulse Scale resulted in a greater appreciation for “the visceral experience of personally killing the bugs”. Further, sadists who killed the bugs themselves (the exterminators) reported more post-task pleasure than did sadists who had not chosen the exterminator job. The researchers conclude that “sadists obtain pleasure from cruel behaviors”.
Participants who killed all three bugs (some quit after one or two) expressed greater pleasure post-task than did those who killed only one or two.
Of course, this wasn’t enough to sate these researchers. They conducted a second experiment where the participant could choose to harm an innocent other without provocation. In this experiment, the researchers used yet another measure: the Varieties of Sadistic Tendencies measure [along with other measures]. The experiment involved playing a computer game with an unseen opponent and having the choice (after a winning game) to either blast their opponent or not blast, with a “white noise blast” ranging from 0 to 90-dB with a maximum of 5 seconds duration. (The opponent, unseen and in reality, nonexistent, always chose not to blast the research participant.)
As the experimental game progressed, each participant was given six opportunities to use the white noise blast on their (non-existent) opponent. This time, the researchers found the following:
“Sadists, psychopaths, narcissists, and those low in empathy… aggressed against an innocent person when aggression was easy.”
“Of those with dark personalities, however, only sadists increased the intensity of their attack once they realized the innocent person would not fight back.”
Of all the participants, only sadists were willing to work at a deliberately tedious task to earn the right to blast their opponent. The researchers interpret this as resulting from the sadist’s enjoyment of “inflicting suffering on the weak that they will agress even at a personal cost”.
It’s the sort of article that makes you cringe while reading it (and it would have made my then preschool daughter sob with distress over the brutality shown to the glorious pill bug). On the other hand, depending on your predilections, the researchers predict some of us will enjoy these descriptions and even find them titillating. (You know who you are and you clicked on all those links to see the actual questions posed to the participants.) One aspect of this dimension that stood out is that as parents who have watched children at play, there are developmental phases in which, as with the pill bugs, the discovery of the power to control or influence the world around them, even when it causes pain or destruction, is exciting. But, generally, it is a phase grown through, whereas sadists appear to have arrested in this phase, and actually expanded it to a a grossly abnormal level. As the authors say, “sadism is something more than a sexual disorder to be studied in hardened criminals”. It is, instead, a pleasure-driven form of aggression.
From a litigation advocacy perspective, this study offers a way to help jurors think of “that nice defendant wearing glasses” as someone very capable of sadistic behavior. If you don’t have to be a Hannibal Lecter and such behavior is very common–while it may be unsettling to your jurors to realize how common everyday sadism is, it can also help you to break through the juror’s defensive idea that “he seems like a real nice guy”.
Buckels EE, Jones DN, & Paulhus DL (2013). Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism. Psychological Science PMID: 24022650