Everyday Sadists Walk Among Us: Startling Study Findings

Dr. Serenity
April 11, 2023

Sadism in Everyday Life: A Startling New Study

From fairy tale villains to horror movie characters, sadism is often portrayed as something otherworldly. But according to new research, everyday sadists are much closer to home than we might think. Two studies out of Vancouver, British Columbia, have shed light on this dark personality trait. The lead researcher, Erin Buckels, explains that while everyday sadists may lack empathy, they’re not necessarily a danger to society. Rather, it takes a confluence of situational pressures and sadistic personality traits for harmful behavior to occur. Read on to learn more about this shocking study and what it means for all of us.

Do You Take Pleasure in Harming Bugs? You May Have Sadistic Tendencies

As children, many of us have accidentally caused harm to bugs, but there is a difference between unintentional harm and taking pleasure in causing pain. Erin Buckels, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, used a bug-crushing exercise to uncover the existence of everyday sadists in a controlled laboratory environment.

Through this experiment, Buckels identified two defining characteristics of sadists: their cruel behavior and the pleasure they derive from it. The participants were given a list of four tasks to choose from, including killing bugs, helping the experimenter kill bugs, cleaning dirty toilets, or enduring pain from ice water.

For those who chose the bug-crushing task, a bug-crunching machine made distinct crunching sounds, and live pill bugs were placed in cups next to the machine. However, the participants were unaware that there was a barrier preventing the bugs from being dropped into the grinder. Out of the 71 participants, nearly 28 percent chose to kill the bugs.

While this experiment was conducted with bugs, it raises concerns about the potential for sadistic behavior towards animals or other individuals. Identifying these tendencies is crucial for prevention and intervention to ensure the safety and well-being of all living creatures.

Understanding Sadism: Exploring the Central Feature and Criteria

Once classified as a mental illness, sadistic personality disorder is now viewed as more of a lifestyle choice or personality trait. However, sexual sadism disorder is still recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). “This is marked by recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the suffering of others as manifested by fantasies, urges, and behaviors,” explained Wilfried Busse, PhD, a psychotherapist from Bethesda, Maryland. “To meet full criteria for the disorder, an individual also has to act on such urges by inflicting harm on a non-consenting individual or must experience such uncontrollable urges to cause significant social and occupational impairment.”

According to Dr. Busse, 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.

Although most widely known as sexual or criminal behavior, Buckels’ study explored sadism in the “subclinical” range of personality, which is not considered a mental illness. It did not use classic criteria to define sadism, but instead, examined it as it exists in a different context.

“There is clearly a difference between a person who gets pleasure from killing bugs and a person who kills other humans for pleasure,” said Buckels. “That being said, the core experience of sadism is probably pretty similar for both of them. Our research has also revealed both similarities and differences between people who enjoy acting cruelly, or direct sadists, and those who simply enjoy watching cruelty, or vicarious sadists. Regardless of whom the victim is, direct aggression requires a certain amount of callousness and a lack of distress towards the suffering of another living creature.”

How to Identify a Unique Individual

Just as no two snowflakes are alike, every individual has their own set of traits and tendencies. One such trait that has garnered significant attention is sadism. While classic sadism is often associated with sexual or criminal behavior, there are various subtypes of sadism that exist on a spectrum ranging from harmless to harmful.

Differentiating between sadistic personality disorder and sadistic impulses is important, says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a family therapist and author based in Beverly Hills, Calif. Individuals with antisocial personality disorder, like Hitler or murderers who enjoy torturing their victims, are rare. However, many people experience unconscious sadistic impulses. Even the kindest, most loving person can feel a strong impulse of hate when mistreated.

Types of Sadists

  1. Explosive Sadist: This subtype loses control when feeling disappointed, frustrated, or hopeless. They seek revenge for perceived mistreatment and can be unpredictably violent, displaying tantrums and fearsome attacks, especially towards family members.
  2. Tyrannical Sadist: These individuals relish in menacing and brutalizing others, deriving satisfaction from forcing their victims to cower and submit.
  3. Enforcing Sadist: Military sergeants, prison overseers, and other authoritative figures often fall under this subtype. They believe they should be the ones controlling and punishing those who break rules, regulations, or laws.
  4. Spineless Sadist: This subtype is deeply insecure and often acts like cowards. In anticipation of danger, they strike first with hostile fantasies, projecting an image of being unafraid to control their inner feelings. They seek out scapegoats to gang up on, assaulting the exact things within themselves that they want to deny.
  5. Everyday Sadist: This subtype is gaining attention as a subclinical form of sadism that forms part of the “Dark Tetrad” of personality along with subclinical psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. These individuals gain emotional benefit from causing or simply observing others’ suffering. Examples include coworkers who repeatedly humiliate others for their own pleasure.

Identifying the uniqueness of individuals is important, as each individual can display their own range of tendencies and impulses. Understanding the different subtypes of sadists can help one recognize and deal with harmful behavior, while also recognizing that some forms of sadism exist within the spectrum of normal human tendencies.

Exercise Caution Around Everyday Sadists: What You Need to Know

Everyday sadists may not be the most popular people, according to researchers in British Columbia. “A person who has a high score on a sadism personality questionnaire is unlikely to be regarded as a nice and loving person,” said Erin Buckels, one of the study’s authors. “That is not to say that they are always nasty or that they can’t love others; but in general, high scorers tend to be less nice than average.”

But what exactly is an everyday sadist? “In general, the cause or reason someone wants to go the extra effort to hurt another is because someone terribly mistreated them,” said Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a family therapist and author in Beverly Hills, Calif. “That someone is usually their mother, father, or an older sibling. The sadist was a receptacle, or container, for hostility and evil meanness. These toxic feelings become too much for one to bear. They have no choice but to find a weaker victim and spew their venom onto the other.”

Walfish observed that everyday sadists cannot be trusted within their own families or in the workplace. “No one can ever feel safe with them. Therefore, they do not have real relationships. They engage by exploiting, manipulating, and using other people as a means to their own end. The best thing to do is keep reasonable distance from these people. Always be pleasant so you don’t become their target. This does not mean to kiss up. It just means you present yourself as a benign nice guy. Never do business or get close to one of these people. They will always take you down.”

Buckels found that sadists reported a low baseline of positive emotions. “Interestingly, after an act of cruelty, their moods seemed to lighten, suggesting instead that the sadist’s appetite for cruelty derives from some diabolical need. Although speculative, our hypothesis is that sadists have an underlying deficit that is sated through cruelty’s rewards.”

So, it’s important to be cautious around everyday sadists. They may gain emotional benefit from causing or observing others’ suffering, and they may be less nice than average. Keep your distance and always be pleasant, but don’t get too close or do business with them. Stay safe and protect yourself from their harmful behavior.

Author Dr. Serenity

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