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Although we may think of sadism in a sexual or criminal context, sadistic tendencies are common in everyday life.
Posted March 10, Reviewed by Matt Huston.
The film series based on the Fifty Shades of Grey novels brought into theaters a vivid depiction of the forms that sadism can take in the bedroom. But there is a more pervasive, and more mundane, type of sadism hiding within the recesses of many individuals' personalities.
Psychologists talk about "the dark triad " in personalityrepresenting a perfect-storm combination of narcissismpsychopathyand Machiavellianism. People high in the dark triad traits callously use people to their own advantage, seeing them as tools to exploit in order to get what they want.
To be sure, enjoying the suffering of others—the hallmark of sadism—can be part of the picture in the dark triad constellation. However, personality psychologists are beginning to believe that a predilection for cruelty stands on its own in understanding why one person would want to harm another. At a hockey game, you may cheer less for your team to score than for members of both teams to engage in a violent clashing of sticks and bodies against the glass.
Action movies involving battles to the death may be your favorite form of entertainment.
A new study indicates how common the tendency may be.
University of British Columbia psychologist Erin Buckels and collaborators decided to investigate the idea that everyday sadists are willing to inflict real, not just vicarious, harm. They also reasoned that people high in this less overt form of sadism might themselves become more aggressive when provoked than other individuals. Further, they believed it possible for sadism to provide a unique prediction of antisocial behavior above and beyond those of the dark triad qualities. To investigate everyday sadism in actual behavior, they needed to come up with a laboratory task that would mimic the kind of casual harm-producing behavior people might perform in their daily life.
Everyday sadists take pleasure in others’ pain
But translating everyday sadism into a lab setting is, understandably, a challenge: You have to invent a task that will not actually hurt people but which has to seem realistic. Buckels and her team zeroed in on bug-killing. The act of killing a bug, they argued, would satisfy a sadistic desire to cause a live creature harm through direct physical contact.
To test their theory, they offered participants a choice of unpleasant tasks in which killing bugs would be one alternative among a set of unpleasant but non-sadistic options. They settled on these three choices plus bug-killing as possible "jobs" a participant could pick—assisting someone else in killing bugs; cleaning dirty toilets; and putting their hand in a bucket of ice water.
They also administered dark triad questionnaires to be able to tease out the separate contributions of sadism from those other three qualities. As expected, the highly sadistic-scoring participants were the most likely to choose the bug-killing task. After completing the task, they also reported enjoying it the most—and, if they had chosen a different task, seemed to regret not having taken on the bug-killing job in the first place.
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In the second laboratory task, the highly sadistic were compared with their less cruelty-oriented counterparts in their willingness, in a button-pushing competitionto attack an opponent who they believed would not attack them back. Over the course of the experiment, participants had the opportunity to blast white noise into the headphones of their opponents for every trial that they won. The situation was rigged, of course—there was no actual opponent. However, the participants were led to believe that their opponent would not attack them back after receiving the ear-disrupting blast.
The question, then, was whether those high in sadism would continue to inflict the aversive stimulus to a non-attacking opponent. As it turned out, not only were the everyday sadists quicker to harm their opponents, but they would also work harder for the opportunity to blast them some more. We have pretty good evidence, then, that people who score high on a questionnaire measure of sadism may also behave in the casual, everyday ways that might be similar to these lab tasks.
That questionnaire measure appears, then, to have reasonably good validity as a way to predict who will kill for the sake of killing bugs, of course, not people and who could inflict harm on an opponent offering an olive branch. In fact, in some cases, the ratings we make of others are even more accurate than those we make of ourselves. With this background, then, here are the 10 questions from the SSIS.
Now, scoring one point for each Yes answer or No on 8compare your scores with those from the participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 65 but were mostly undergraduates.
The more sadistic are particularly likely to endorse the items on the SSIS dealing with fantasy and self-gratification. Returning to the Buckels study, it was people with scores on the SSIS of close to 2 who were most likely to choose the bug-killing option. Agreeing with just two of the items appears to put an individual at risk; four is even more atypical. Buckels, E. Behavioral confirmation of everyday sadism.
Psychological Science, 24 11 O'Meara, A. Psychological Assessment, 23 2 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment. Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph. Fulfillment at Any Age. References Buckels, E. About the Author.
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