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Are You Dating an Emotional Sadist?

Spotting the red flags of sadistic personality

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay
Source: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Undesirable behavior within relationships has many causes—from the situational to the clinical. As you are just beginning a relationship, however, rose-colored glasses may filter red flags, resulting in a tendency to excuse or explain away negative behavior. True, many people behave badly on occasion, including displaying signs of selfishness, insensitivity, and egocentricity. But research indicates there is a certain type of dark personality that may behave badly for a more nefarious reason: enjoyment. Meet the sadistic personality.

The Sinister Element of Sadism

When you think of sadism, you might think about the notorious Marquis de Sade or similar characters renowned for advocating or engaging in sexual cruelty or the type of punishing behavior reminiscent of his namesake. But sadism is more than inflicting physical pain; it is taking pleasure in hurting others in any way. Research explains.

Delroy L. Paulhus et al. (2020) examined the ways in which sadism interacted with or overlapped with the personality dynamics of the Dark Triad.[i] They explain that the “Dark Triad” refers to the constellation of three “socially offensive personality variables,” namely: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. They note that although each has parallels to actual clinical conditions, they also turn up and display substantial variance in samples of non-clinical populations.

Paulhus et al. note that some researchers have suggested we broaden inclusion in the “cadré of callous exploiters.” Among the variety of categories suggested, ranging from antagonists to status-driven risk-takers, to the morally disengaged, they note that the sadistic personality has garnered the most support.

Paulhus et al. note the inclusion of subclinical sadism to create a Dark Tetrad is theoretically justified in two important ways. First, sadism meets the criterion of callousness or impaired empathy. The second way, however, is even more disconcerting. They note that sadism includes a component not included within the other categories of Dark Triad personalities: taking intrinsic pleasure in hurting others.

Spotting Social Sadism

As sadists form relationships, they likely put their best foot forward, showcasing positive traits. But as you get to know them better, research indicates there are in fact red flags that might suggest sadistic tendencies.

Paulhus et al. note that measures used to predict “everyday sadism” include Internet trolling or bullying, cyberstalking, enjoying violent video games, weapon fascination, toxic leadership, and taking revenge. They describe sadism’s “distinctive ingredient” as the reward value, satisfied through either participating in or viewing, cruelty.

How are sadists different from psychopaths? Paulhus et al. note that where psychopaths are indifferent to the suffering of others, sadists actually find it appealing. As an example, they note that while psychopaths may “exploit cruelty for its instrumental value,” sadists actually enjoy its intrinsic value.

As a practical matter, an emotionally positive response to the distress or pain of others should be a huge red flag within relationships. Yet often precisely because such a counterintuitive reaction is hard to understand, it is often something people attempt to minimize or explain away. If that is the case, consider that according to research, there may be additional red flags.

Sadistic Tendencies and Violent Stimuli

Janko Međedović (2017) analyzed sadism through the lens of emotional response to violent stimuli.[ii] Noting that the personality traits of psychopathy and sadism share both emotional deficits as well as a propensity towards violence, he notes that sadism is premised upon additional aberrations in terms of affect: “pleasant emotional responses to hurting others or witnessing others in pain.”

Analyzing subjects’ emotional responses when viewing both violent and peaceful images, his results showed sadism was predicted by increased positive emotions associated with violent stimuli, and negative emotions prompted by peaceful stimuli. Međedović found this to be the case even when controlling for the variance of psychopathy. In a second study, he found sadism was predicted by a lower amount of negative associations to violent stimuli, together with callous affect—a psychopathic trait.

Undesirability Without Diagnosis: Moving On

Obviously, we cannot diagnose people as sadists because they seem to enjoy interpersonal conflict or love violent movies. In reality, however, any negative traits should serve as red flags, and toxic behavior itself, regardless of our ability to categorize it clinically, is a relational warning sign. By extricating ourselves from negative relationships sooner rather than later, we free up our time to meet good people—the vast majority of whom take pleasure in making others happy.

Facebook image: VAndreas/Shutterstock


[i] Paulhus, Delroy L., Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, and Daniel N. Jones. 2020. “Screening for Dark Personalities: The Short Dark Tetrad (SD4).” European Journal of Psychological Assessment, July. doi:10.1027/1015-5759/a000602.

[ii] Međedović, Janko. 2017. “Aberrations in Emotional Processing of Violence-Dependent Stimuli Are the Core Features of Sadism.” Motivation and Emotion 41 (2): 273–83. doi:10.1007/s11031-016-9596-0.

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