Can You Spot a Sadist?

How to perceive the darkness below the surface.

Posted Nov 01, 2020

For most people, hearing the word “sadist” conjures up portrayals of sinister characters or villains from horror movies and books, recognizable through a visibly frightening appearance and despicable behavior. But this stereotype may cause you to miss dangerous, sadistic wolves in sheep’s clothing in your own life. 

You certainly hope you don’t know such callous, heartless people. But you might, because they walk among us. They can be in our neighborhoods, schools, and workforce. We may meet them in the classroom, the boardroom, or over Zoom. Many of them seem very nice, even charming at first, before you get to know them. And because of the danger that lies beneath the surface, your best defense is your ability to recognize their true colors and negative emotional proclivities sooner rather than later. 

How do you spot a sadist? By knowing what to look for. Although many people lose their temper on occasion or become disrespectful or unkind in response to frustration or provocation, sadists actually enjoy such conflict. Here's how to detect the darkness.  

The Dark Tetrad 

Many people have heard of the Dark Triad constellation of personalities: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Recent research has suggested a potential fourth: sadism.  

Laura K. Johnson et al. (2019) explored subclinical sadism and its relationship to the existing Dark Triad of personalities.[i] Recognizing the Dark Triad as a constellation of the three notoriously antisocial personality traits—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—they acknowledge that researchers have introduced the “Dark Tetrad” to include subclinical sadism. Although recognizing that some researchers suggest there is significant overlap between psychopathy and sadism, they set out to examine the relationship of the dark traits.

In their research, conducted using 615 university students, Johnson et al. found that sadism is properly included within the Dark Tetrad as a unique construct, although it does in some ways overlap conceptually with psychopathy.

Defining terms, Johnson et al. adopted definitions of Machiavellianism as an interpersonal style that is exploitative, holds a cynical view of humanity, and believes that the “ends justify the means,” narcissism as including feelings of superiority and entitlement, accompanied by self-enhancing behaviors, and psychopathy as including characteristics of impulsivity, shallow affect, physical aggression, and risk-taking

Sadism, however, is a bit different. Johnson et al. note that in particular, subclinical sadism, which is sometimes referred to as “everyday sadism,” implicates the “dispositional tendency to engage in cruel, demeaning, or antagonistic behaviors for pleasure or subjugation.” They note that sadists actually experience pleasure in witnessing or causing or acts of cruelty, noting that the rewarding aspect of such observation or behavior is the suffering of others—which for a sadist, is a reward in itself.

But before we consider such people to be far-removed from the general population, Johnson et al. recognize that sadism exists on a continuum, meaning that sadistic traits are present within the “normal” population as well as clinically, and within the criminal element.

For Sadists, Motive Matters

Regarding status as dark personalities, Johnson et al. note that narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism display common features, including “the embodiment of an emotionally cold, callous, and dishonest character.” But they distinguish the sadistic motivation for cruelty and aggression, noting that while all four traits are linked with aggression, people who are high in sadistic tendencies engage in violent behavior for “sheer enjoyment,” while psychopaths employ violence instrumentally or when provoked, narcissists may become aggressive when reacting to ego threats, and Machiavellianists may only resort to aggression when it will result in significant benefit to them.

Shining the Spotlight on Dark Personalities

Recognizing the features of dark personalities is easier when we know what to look for. Spotting ulterior motives, signs of exploitation and manipulation, antagonistic tendencies and other toxic traits is easier when we are intentional about pursuing healthy relationships of trust, compassion, and respect. Because proverbial sunshine is a good personality disinfectant, being able to detect dark personalities among strangers and acquaintances allows us to avoid potentially dangerous relationship development, to prevent letting such individuals into our lives.

Facebook image: Klemzy/Shutterstock


[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.