There are several personality types that are more likely to harm another than the average person would. Sadists possess an intrinsic motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others, even when this comes at a personal cost. This is because for sadistic personalities, cruelty is pleasurable, generally exciting, and can be sexually stimulating.
In a recent study, Buckels and colleagues examined examples of everyday sadism as part of what they refer to as the “Dark Tetrad,” sadism plus the original members of the “Dark Triad”—psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. These personalities have some overlap and are characterized by callous manipulation, self-centeredness, disagreeableness, and exploitation. In their research, the team sought to determine whether everyday sadism could be captured in the laboratory, as well as whether measures of sadistic personality would predict these behaviors beyond already established measures of the Dark Triad. Among the findings were that sadistic personalities were the most likely members of the Dark Tetrad to select the task involving killing from an array of unpleasant tasks. Those sadists who killed more bugs derived greater pleasure from the act than those who killed fewer bugs.
In a second, related study, those high in sadism, psychopathy, and/or narcissism, as well as those low in empathy and perspective-taking, were willing to aggress against an innocent person when aggression was easy. Only sadists increased the intensity of their attack once they realized the person would not fight back, however. Furthermore, sadists, unlike the other "dark personalities," were the only ones willing to expend additional time and energy (in this case, first completing a boring task) in order to have the opportunity to hurt an innocent person.
Previous research has found that although psychopaths have no qualms about hurting others, they are more likely to do so when it serves a specific purpose. Narcissists are less likely to aggress upon another unless their ego is threatened. Machiavellians will usually aggress upon others only if there are sufficient perceived benefits and the risk to themselves is acceptably low.
Sadists (and Other Members of the Dark Tetrad) in Everyday Life
Most of us will encounter an "everyday sadist"—someone who actively seeks to cause us emotional pain. Given the potential for overlap among sadism, narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, for the purposes of the below we will refer to anyone who purposefully causes emotional harm as an everyday sadist, or ES. The actions of an ES can range from the petty to the severe.
Common examples of everyday sadism include:
- Intentionally repeating secrets that the ES promised to keep private
- Portraying someone in a false or unflattering light in an effort to damage their reputation
- Working to bring about someone’s being fired or otherwise jeopardize their job in the absence of cause
- Seeking to ruin another person's relationship
- Theft of property—physical, financial, or intellectual
- Deliberately marginalizing a coworker, classmate, or family member, or student
- Cyber or other bullying
ESs can be very skillful at orchestrating such situations, and often set them up so that it is difficult to prove that they are culpable (they will never take responsibility or feel remorse for harming another, regardless). Because of their ability to charm others, ESs may be popular, professionally successful or socially influential, and thus, others may be either unaware or unable to acknowledge the deliberate and harmful nature of their actions.
As described above, the ES may seek to harm another because they believe it benefits them in some way, because they feel threatened or envious, if they perceive the target as weak and/or unlikely to retaliate, or simply because hurting another is pleasurable. In some cases, the reason for the attack may be difficult for the victim to discern. Although we may like to think of ESs as strangers, the ES may very well be someone you know and consider yourself close to, such as a family member, friend, partner, or colleague.
Some Everyday Scenarios
“Mike” experienced considerable self-consciousness and anxiety when he lost his job and was having a hard time finding another one. Mike sought support by talking to his brother “Jerry,” but asked Jerry not to tell anyone else. Jerry agreed. Several weeks later, Jerry invited Mike to what he described as a “casual barbeque” at his house. Mike was uncomfortably surprised when he arrived at what turned out to be a party to celebrate Jerry’s recent promotion. He was further stunned and self-conscious when several of the other guests offered their condolences to Mike on the loss of his job.
When Mike later raised the issue with Jerry, Jerry denied revealing Mike’s secret and said he had “no idea” Mike would feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. Mike remembered felt guilty for assuming the worst about Jerry, but still had a difficult time sitting with his anger and resentment. Although Mike wanted to accept Jerry’s excuse, he realized that throughout their relationship, he and Jerry had engaged in a dance where Jerry attempted to draw Mike in, “unintentionally” hurt him, and always denied responsibility.
“Janice” had been friends with “Kelly” since grade school. As teens, Janice told Kelly that she liked “Jim.” Soon after this disclosure, Kelly began dating him. Although Janice remembered having felt betrayed, foolish, and profoundly hurt, she reluctantly accepted Kelly’s explanation that she and Jim were “meant for each other.” Kelly’s passion for Jim quickly dwindled when Janice began dating someone else, however, and Kelly soon dropped a heartbroken Jim only to flirt with Janice’s new boyfriend. Attempts to discuss similar situations with Kelly over the years invariably led to denials and profuse declarations of her loyalty to Janice. When Janice would attempt to create distance from her, Kelly worked hard to draw Janice back in. Janice usually wound up forgiving Kelly, until, years later, Janice walked in on her husband having an affair—with Kelly—in Janice’s bed. Remarkably, Janice recalled wondering what she could have done to make her husband prefer Kelly over her.
ESs can make you doubt your sanity and question whether you are entitled to be angry. In the study referenced earlier, members of the Dark Tetrad were more willing than the average person to inflict harm in the complete absence of provocation. Sadists in particular increased the intensity of their attack once they realized that the innocent person would not fight back.
What Can You Do?
- Pay attention to your feelings. Members of the Dark Tetrad are supremely skilled at inducing self-doubt, shock, shame, anger, and feeling betrayed—as well as guilt for having these feelings about the offender. If your interactions with the someone in your life are characterized by the above, you may very well be dealing with someone who fits into one of the DT categories.
- Acknowledge and release any hope of changing, “healing,” or “reforming” the ES or other “dark personality.” It won’t work, and will only convey another “weakness” to someone who is essentially exploitative, callous, and will delight in your continued suffering or humiliation. Relatedly, let go of any hope that the ES will acknowledge wrongdoing or be remorseful. It's not in their nature.
- Examine whether you may be a “prime target.” ESs are uncannily able to discern when someone is likely to tolerate, ignore, deny, rationalize, or even take responsibility for the ES’s malicious behavior for whatever reason. If you tend to attract ESs in your life either at work or in social relationships, ask yourself why you have tolerated this kind of treatment thus far. Write down the costs and benefits of remaining in relationships with people who treat you poorly. Seek support from those who have a track record of respecting your boundaries and treating you well.
- Decide what healthy limits will look like for you—or what kind of boundary you will need to establish in order to feel emotionally or otherwise safe with the ES, if this is someone you will continue to deal with in some way (e.g., if the ES is a boss, sibling, parent or in-law). Setting healthy boundaries may include limiting the frequency and/or duration of encounters with the ES, being selective about what you reveal to him/her, or cutting off contact altogether for either a period of time or indefinitely. Initially, the ES will likely resist your efforts to change your relationship, but if you are consistent with maintaining the new boundaries, eventually they will have to look for their “supply” elsewhere.
- When in doubt, seek professional help. Many people have a difficult time wrapping their minds around the idea of someone they know taking delight in their misery, particularly if the ES is someone close to them. It’s just not how most people are wired, and the rest of us tend to assume others will operate according to the same social rules and personal values we honor. A common response is to resolve any cognitive dissonance between what you observe and what is comfortable to believe by denying the problem. A professional can help you perform the necessary “reality check” and develop a plan to protect yourself.
Everyone has caused emotional hurt in some way at some point, whether out of ignorance, in the heat of an argument, or when having felt threatened. Key components in everyday sadism, however, are the intention to harm, pleasure in causing another's distress, a lack or remorse, and failure to take responsibility. The above tips can help you spot others who are intentionally harmful and take steps to protect yourself.
For further reading:
Buckels, E. E., Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). Behavioral confirmation of everyday sadism. Psychological Science, 24(11), 2201-2209.
Furham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The dark triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(3), 199-216.