Everyday Sadism
September 12, 2013

Sadism In Everyday People – It’s More Common Than You Think

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Anyone who has experienced cruelty at the hands of another person has probably had trouble wrapping their minds around how someone else can act in a sadistic manner.

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science may provide insight into sadistic behavior by making a connection between inflicting pain and experiencing pleasure in some individuals.

"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," said study researcher Erin Buckels of the University of British Columbia in Canada.

"These people aren't necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others' suffering."

To test their theory that sadism is a distinct part of a normal personality, the study researchers decided to look at everyday sadism in a controlled laboratory setting. Under the guise of participating in a study on "personality and tolerance for challenging jobs," volunteers were asked to select one of several unpleasant tasks: killing bugs, assisting an experimenter with killing bugs, cleaning dirty toilets, or suffering pain from icy water.

Out of the 71 participants, almost 13 percent chose the pain-tolerance task, 34 percent opted for the toilet-cleaning task, 27 percent decided to help kill bugs and 27 percent said they wanted to directly kill bugs.

Those who decided to kill bugs were shown a coffee grinder that was modified into a bug-crunching machine. The device generated a distinct crunching sound so as to maximize the gruesomeness of the job. However, participants didn't know that the bugs they were dropping into the machine to be killed were actually being saved by a barrier that prevented the bugs from being ground up. No bugs were intentionally harmed in the experiment.

‘Bug-killing’ participants were found to have scored the highest on a scale measuring sadistic impulses, as the researchers predicted. The more sadistic the participant was, the more likely they were to choose the bug killing task, the study found. The bug-killers also reported taking considerably greater pleasure in the job than those who chose something else. Their level of pleasure appeared to be associated with how many bugs they killed, an indication that sadistic behavior may hold some sort of reward value for those volunteers, the study researcher said.

A second study indicated that, compared to participants who scored high on other "dark" traits like narcissism or psychopathy, only sadists decided to intensify bursts of white noise directed at an innocent opponent when they found out that the opponent wouldn't fight back. The ‘sadistic’ participants were also the only ones who spent additional time and energy to perform the noise blast.

The study researchers said they hope their findings will expose sadism as a part of personality that appears in everyday life and dispel the notion that sadism is only found in sexual deviants and criminals. They added that their study could inform research and policy on domestic abuse, bullying, animal abuse and cases of military and police brutality.

"It is such situations that sadistic individuals may exploit for personal pleasure," Buckels said. "Denying the dark side of personality will not help when managing people in these contexts."