Serial killers and sexual deviants aren’t the only people who take pleasure in other people’s pain.
Sadistic personality traits are more common than you’d think — more than half of people show these both in personality questionnaires and in their actions in the lab, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
People who score high on a sadism personality test find pleasure in behaviour that hurts others and will even go to extra lengths to make someone suffer, the researchers found.
“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,” study researcher Erin Buckels, of the University of British Columbia, said in a press release. “These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others’ suffering.”
The researchers wanted to test how common this “everyday sadism” really is.
The researchers used an experiment they devised to test the participants’ sadistic tendencies. The participants were asked to perform between four unpleasant tasks: killing bugs, helping the experimenter kill bugs, cleaning dirty toilets, or enduring pain from ice water. But they got to choose which they did.
Those that picked bug crunching used a bug killing machine to grind them — it made a loud grinding noise in order to maximise unpleasantness. The bugs were even given cute names like “Muffin” and “Ike” to up the sadism factor of grinding them to death.
Those that chose cleaning toilets or ice water did not have to complete those tasks, since the researchers just wanted to know who enjoyed killing bugs. Those who chose to kill bugs scored higher on the sadistic personality test. And more than half — 54% — chose to kill bugs or help kill bugs.
In a second experiment, participants were pitted against an imaginary opponent they were told was in another room. Their objective was to push a button faster than their opponent. If they won, they were able to punish their fake opponent with a white noise blast. They were required to select the decibel level and duration of the blast.
Only those with sadistic personality scores increased the decibel level or duration of the punishments after winning several times. In some trials, the winner could only punish their opponent if they completed a tedious and boring task first. Again, the researchers found that only participants with a sadistic personality would go out of their way to complete the task just for the satisfaction of punishing their opponent.
The researchers conclude that sadistic tendencies are just another dark personality component — turning the “dark triad” of psychopathy, narcissism, and manipulativeness into the “dark tetrad.” Sadism pops up a lot in the world, in lots of forms. The researchers think that everything from online trolling and liking torture movies to domestic abuse and bullying could have roots in this dark personality trait.
“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.”
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