What Drives Sadists' Aggression?
Sadists turn others' suffering into their own satisfaction.
Posted December 27, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Sadism — the tendency to inflict harm on others for the pleasure of the act — was once thought to be purely the domain of serial killers and deranged maniacs. Yet modern research shows that sadistic tendencies exist in everyday people and manifest along a spectrum. A series of studies from my lab that were published in the journal Aggressive Behavior replicated the finding that sadistic tendencies exist in many young adults. Now, what makes the prevalence of sadism especially problematic is something else we found — that sadistic individuals are remarkably vengeful and aggressive.
But why? What drives everyday sadists to perform such hostile acts? In a new series of eight studies from my lab, which were recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we sought to find out.
Across these studies, we recruited over 2,200 college undergraduates and adults across the age spectrum to confirm the link between sadistic tendencies and aggressive behavior. Some participants came into the lab and could blast people with harsh sounds or dole out spicy hot sauce to people who detest such piquant fare. Others completed a study online, in which they could stick pins in a virtual voodoo doll that represented someone they hated, or they could choose the number of gruesome images a person had to watch. In some cases, we just asked them how many physical fights they had ever been in. Across most of these manifestations, sadistic traits were linked to more aggressive behavior.
We also asked participants how they felt when they were being aggressive. As one might expect, sadists reported that they felt pleasure during the aggressive act. This sadistic pleasure appears to be a key mechanism underlying sadists' aggression and suggests that the joy of inflicting harm on others may motivate and reinforce sadistic tendencies.
In two of these studies, we examined the source of sadistic pleasure, expecting to find it in the suffering of others. In one study, we asked participants who stabbed a voodoo doll with their preferred number of pins how much they thought doing so actually hurt their target. The majority of participants indicated that it inflicted some level of real pain. Further, sadists only experienced the pleasure of aggression if they believed that the pins did real harm. In a second study, we had participants blast an opponent with varying levels of harsh noise. In the suffering condition, the participants' victims remarked: "Those noise blasts were unbearable! They were so loud they gave me a migraine!" However, in a non-suffering condition, the victims simply stated that: "Those noise blasts were nothing! Mostly, they were just annoying." In the non-suffering condition, those with higher levels of sadism reported less aggressive pleasure than others. These findings suggest that such pleasure is conditional on the perception that a sadist's victims are truly suffering.
Our team also examined feelings that sadists experienced after the aggressive act, expecting to find a "sadistic afterglow." That wasn't what we found. Sadists actually reported greater negative emotions, such as anger and sadness, after the aggressive act. These findings suggest that sadistic pleasure is not only short-lived (we're talking done in a matter of several minutes), but that it backfires — magnifying aversive feelings instead of positive ones.
Our results were not a side-effect of other traits, such as impulsivity, psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, anger, hostility, poor self-control, or general aggressiveness. Plus, we used multiple measures of sadism, such that our findings are not specific to the idiosyncrasies of a specific questionnaire.
We observed these findings across self-identified men and women. Sadists are often stereotyped as males, but our results tell a more complex story, in which sadistic tendencies exist across the gender spectrum.
Sadists walk among us, and they are prone to being harmful to others. Such sadistic aggression appears to be driven by the pleasure of the act, is contingent on whether their victim is seen to suffer, and ultimately backfires, leaving sadists feeling worse than when they started. These findings suggest concrete avenues through which to test interventions and therapies that rob sadists of the pleasure of aggression. For instance, clinicians might seek to reduce sadists' belief that their victims actually suffer due to their actions — as doing so may undercut the pleasure of the aggressive act. By reducing sadistic pleasure, we may also reduce the pain they inflict on others.
Chester, D. S., Enjaian, B., & DeWall, C. N. (in press). Sadism and aggressive behavior: Inflicting pain to feel pleasure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.