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Why “Normal” People Intentionally Hurt Others

The surprising spectrum of sadistic behavior.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay
Source: Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

“Oh, I'm sure she didn’t mean that,” we gush, attempting to excuse an unkind remark relayed to us by an acquaintance. “He must be under a lot of pressure,” we rationalize when someone we care about treats us badly. Should we always be so quick and willing to excuse bad behavior, or do some people intentionally seek to hurt others?

The Spectrum of Sadism

We want to believe that all people are good. And ironically, after 23 years as a prosecutor, I have learned that most of them are; but not everyone. A practical question relevant to modern relationships is: How do you tell the difference? How do you separate behavior that is occasionally inappropriate but usually benevolent, from that which is intentionally malevolent?

Laura K. Johnson et al. (2019) investigated the personality trait of subclinical sadism, and its relationship to the existing Dark Triad of personalities.1 Other researchers have opined as to whether sadism should be added to the existing Dark Triad of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, noting that sadism shares some features in common with psychopathy.

Making a conceptual distinction, Johnson et al note that sadism involves not only experiencing enjoyment from hurting others but actually seeking out such opportunities. They distinguish this from the actions of psychopaths, who may engage in aggressive behavior out of boredom or for instrumental gain, instead of the pursuit of intentional cruelty. They note other research has indicated that people high in psychopathic traits are only inclined to hurt others when it is convenient and easy, consistent with their nature as impulsive and thrill-seeking, despite potential long-term consequences.

Johnson et al. do agree that subclinical sadism most closely resembles psychopathy, noting that both dark traits are linked with unprovoked aggression. They further note that psychopathy is strongly related to what other researchers have coined “schadenfreude”—which involves “deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune or suffering, though indirectly.” They also note that both sadists and people with psychopathic tendencies engage in behaviors that are delinquent and antisocial, lack empathy, and suffer from deficient emotional recognition ability.

Yet sadists apparently go further than other dark personalities, actively seeking opportunities to be mean.

Sadists Create Opportunities to be Cruel

Erin E. Buckels et al. (2013)2 evaluated whether what is commonly known as an “everyday form” of sadism should be added to the Dark Triad of personality.

Buckels et al. note that most conceptions of sadism occur in connection with criminal behavior or sexual fetishes, although the truth appears to be that “apparently normal, everyday people” also engage in acts of cruelty. They provide examples as including the popularity of cruelty as expressed in video games, brutal sports, and violent films.

Through two laboratory experiments, Buckels et al. demonstrated that sadistic personality could in fact predict cruel behavior. In their first study, they showed that sadists volunteered to kill bugs more than nonsadists. But before insect exterminators needlessly self-diagnose, consider that in their second study, they tested willingness to hurt an innocent person.

They found that in situations where it was easy to engage in aggression, facets of Dark Triad personalities and sadism predicted unprovoked aggression. However, they found that it was only sadists who were willing to work for the opportunity to harm an innocent victim. In both of their studies, Buckels et al. found that sadism independently predicted behavior reflecting “an appetite for cruelty.” They conclude that their findings support including everyday sadism within a “Dark Tetrad” model of dark personality.

There were several interesting aspects of the research conducted by Buckels et al. in relation to the spectrum of sadistic behavior. They conceded that enjoyment for killing bugs does not necessarily translate into the enjoyment of hurting other people. Yet they found in their second study, that some people will go out of their way to hurt others. In contrast, participants in their study with low sadism scores would rather suffer the pain of ice water than hurt another living entity.

The bottom line seems to be that sadism, although uncommon generally, is more common than we think. Because it exists on a spectrum, we might excuse mean-spirited behavior as a “joke,” when it might signal something more sinister. Accordingly, in choosing friends and romantic partners, we should examine manners as well as the underlying motivation.

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[i] Johnson, Laura K., Rachel A. Plouffe, and Donald H. Saklofske. 2019. “Subclinical Sadism and the Dark Triad: Should There Be a Dark Tetrad?” Journal of Individual Differences 40 (3): 127–33. doi:10.1027/1614-0001/a000284.

[ii] Buckels, Erin E., Daniel N. Jones, and Delroy L. Paulhus. 2013. “Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism.” Psychological Science 24 (11): 2201–9. doi:10.1177/0956797613490749.

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