We’ve all heard about psychopaths, serial killers and sociopaths. Those of us who are interested in deviant behaviour know what makes up the Dark Triad. And we could probably reel off more than a few character traits from Hare’s Checklist of Psychopathy. But what about sadism? Where does that rank in the above personality trait lists? Is it even featured? I’m sure you’ve come across someone that’s a bit nasty. You might even describe them as psychopathic. But did they have sadistic tendencies? More to the point, what exactly do we mean by that?
What Are Sadistic Tendencies?
We all get angry from time to time and can lash out at our loved ones. So what is the difference between blowing off some steam and a sadistic person?
Sadists derive pleasure from your pain and discomfort. That’s the main point. It is not enough for them to hurt you. It actually causes them a deep feeling of intense satisfaction. In fact, that is the very reason they hurt you in the first place. So that they can enjoy your suffering.
“The central feature of sadism is deriving pleasure from watching or inflicting physical or psychological harm on others. In the extreme form, a sadist will seek to inflict suffering on another for the psychological gratification derived from such an action.” Wilfried Busse, PhD, a psychotherapist
You could argue that psychopaths and sociopaths must also have sadistic tendencies because they cause so much suffering. But it is not as simple as that. Of course, there are some that will enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on their victims. But, it all depends on their end goal.
Remember, not every psychopath or sociopath is a serial killer. Some are SEOs in large corporations. Others are world leaders or leaders in their field of industry. It is true to say that they might not care about the feelings of people around them. However, they would not deliberately act to cause them harm.
Studies of Tendencies of Sadism in Everyday Behaviour
Before we look at the tendencies of everyday sadism, how can you actually measure it? What constitutes a person’s tendency to be sadistic? Well, some researchers have tried to narrow it down.
In a laboratory, researchers tested whether a person would choose to inflict cruelty. For this study (Buckels, 2013) participants were given the choice of three unpleasant options. They could pick bug-killing (satisfying a sadistic desire) or cleaning toilets or plunging their hands into ice-cold water. The idea was to mimic casual every day sadistic behaviour that people don’t even think about. Bug-killing causes harm through direct contact but is relatively trivial.
In addition, participants completed the Dark Triad questionnaires. Sadists were identified by completing the Dark Triad questionnaire and also through using the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS). The results were conclusive in that those who presented with high scores in sadism were more likely to choose the bug-killing option.
Researchers then tested a person’s willingness to inflict cruelty. Participants identified as highly sadistic were given a choice. They could choose to attack an opponent they knew would not fire back at them. The results were pretty conclusive. Not only did the sadists attack their passive opponents, but they worked quickly and harder for the chance to attack them.
The interesting thing about this study is that a scoring highly on the Dark Triad questionnaire would not predict this outcome. However, someone with sadistic tendencies would.
So, to reiterate, we are talking about sadism as a personality trait, an impulse, a tendency, rather than a disorder. The everyday sadist gets satisfaction from another person’s pain. This can be through causation or even just observing.
So what are these every day sadistic tendencies and how can we spot them?
Everyday Sadist Tendencies
They Enjoy Cruelty in Movies, Sports, Video Games
Does your partner howl with laughter while watching horror films such as Hostel or Saw? Do they go out of their way to shoot or bomb their enemies in video games? Or would they overreact with anger when their team loses at sports? These are all signs of the everyday sadist.
Lack of Empathy
You can’t have empathy for other people and have sadist tendencies. The two just don’t mix.
They Enjoy Brutality
Most people are against any form of brutality. But a person with tendencies towards sadism will always choose the violent path over a benign one.
There are lots of reasons why a person becomes a bully. But for the sadist, seeing someone in constant pain is the over-riding reason.
Gossiping behind someone’s back, particularly someone that is supposed to be your friend undermines their character. The sadist will spread all kinds of nasty lies. But worse of all, the person who is being talked about will have no idea why their friends have suddenly turned against them.
They Agree with Trolling
Trolling is an awful 21st-century phenomenon. Bullies are taking to social media to spread their vile abuse. For the sadist, this is just another way they can feel satisfaction.
You confide a secret that must not, under any circumstances, be repeated. To a sadist this is nectar. They will take great delight in telling your secret. Then they will sit back and watch the devastation unfold.
Cruelty to Animals
This is a red flag predictor in early childhood. It suggests that a child who is cruel to animals will go on to become a psychopath in later adulthood. However, it is also a pretty strong marker for sadism too. Anyone that finds pleasure in animals’ suffering you can be sure has sadist tendencies.
It can be quite worrying to think there is even such a thing as an everyday sadist. So what do you do if you meet one, or suspect you know one? All you can do in this life is to be the best person you can be. By all means, call people out for bad behaviour when you see it. But don’t bother trying to change the everyday sadist. You can’t help them, it is in their dark nature.
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