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Why Sadism Is Not the Dark, Violent Trait We Think It Is

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Feb 25, 2020

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Image Credit: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Ever see someone get visibly flustered because of something you said and derive a sick kind of pleasure from their pain? Or ever fantasize about wanting to bang someone’s head against a wall in a fit of rage? Both of these impulses — although depicting a range of harm — can fit under the sadism spectrum, defined as a collection of behaviors in which a person experiences pleasure and enjoyment from (causing) another person physical, psychological or emotional suffering. Yes, it’s sick — but also kind of normal.

Be it a friend with a propensity to be an emotional bully, a gamer with an affinity for violent video games, or internet trolls who derive pleasure from hating on a social media user — these are “everyday sadists,” University of British Columbia psychology professor, Delroy L. Paulhus, tells the New York Times.

Paulhus is one of the primary scientists in the field studying sadism as part of a series of “misanthropic” traits in human beings that enable them to hurt those around them, called the “Dark Tetrad.” These include narcissism (characterized as having higher than normal levels of admiration for oneself), Machiavellianism (characterized by tendencies to manipulate, deceive and exploit others to achieve one’s own goals), psychopathy (characterized by a lack of empathy) and sadism. But, sadism has many traits that overlap with other elements of the dark tetrad, such as a lack of empathy that enables the person with sadistic tendencies to hurt another, or to consider their own amusement of more value than the hurt or humiliation they may cause someone else. So, how does one identify their uniquely sadistic traits, outside of other dark and cruel tendencies they might have?


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Scientists have devised several handy questions, the answers to which can be ranked on a range, that determine the extent of an individual’s sadism. The most common is the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS) devised by University of College Cork psychologist Aisling O’Meara and team in 2011. The 10-point questionnaire reads:

  1. I enjoy seeing people hurt.
  2. I would enjoy hurting someone physically, sexually, or emotionally.
  3. Hurting people would be exciting.
  4. I have hurt people for my own enjoyment.
  5. People would enjoy hurting others if they gave it a go.
  6. I have fantasies that involve hurting people.
  7. I have hurt people because I could.
  8. I wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone.
  9. I have humiliated others to keep them in line.
  10. Sometimes I get so angry I want to hurt people.

Depending on how an individual rates themselves on these questions, they can be diagnosed with Sadistic Personality Disorder (SDP), as coined by the American Psychiatric Association in an effort to separate sadism from other traits. It’s characterized by “an individual’s pattern of cruel, harsh, aggressive, intimidating, humiliating, and demeaning behavior,” and is an area of personality science that still needs further investigation.

Sadistic aggression and inclination are, to date, poorly understood phenomena, with scientists regularly having their preconceived biases regarding sadists reversed through scientific study. For example, a 2018 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that while people with sadistic personality traits might enjoy hurting people, ultimately they report feeling worse after committing the act of aggression. The finding is connected to how aggression affects the brain — initially the aggressive individual finds acting on the sensation pleasurable, but eventually the act detracts from mood, according to lead author and Virginia Commonwealth University professor David Chester.

One way to have the sadist realize the negative association associated with inflicting aggression sooner is to “break the link” between inflicting pain and deriving pleasure from it, according to Chester. Another way is to have clinicians convince sadists their acts are not harming their victims as much as they think, which “may undercut the pleasure of the aggressive act,” Chester writes for Psychology Today. “By reducing sadistic pleasure, we may also reduce the pain they inflict on others.”

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Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.

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