Should the Dark Triad Become the Dark Tetrad?

Is sadism distinguishable from psychopathy?

Posted Oct 11, 2019

Source: Pixabay/Vitabello

Psychopaths (charming, ruthless), narcissists (arrogant, entitled), and Machiavellians (deceptive, calculating) all have a tendency to act cruelly and take advantage of others; therefore, the traits of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism are commonly referred to as the Dark Triad. In an article published in the July-September issue of the quarterly Journal of Individual Differences, Canadian researchers propose the replacement of the Dark Triad with the Dark Tetrad—the main difference being the addition of subclinical sadism.1

Sadism means deriving pleasure from inflicting pain. A sadistic person “humiliates others, shows a longstanding pattern of cruel or demeaning behavior to others, or intentionally inflicts physical, sexual, or psychological pain or suffering on others in order to assert power and dominance or for pleasure and enjoyment.”2  

Sadistic people are low in emotionality, honesty-humility, and agreeableness; that is, they have little empathy, are manipulative, and are hostile and vindictive.1  Previous research has linked being sadistic to the enjoyment of other people’s suffering. The sadistic person does not have to be the cause of the suffering to derive pleasure from it. For instance, he or she may enjoy the suffering of a character in a violent video game or a violent movie.

One argument against replacing the Dark Triad with the Dark Tetrad is that sadism is too similar to psychopathy. The present research examined whether this was truly the case.

The Dark Triad or the Dark Tetrad

The study’s sample included 615 students (143 males) at a large university in Canada. The participants had an average age of 18 years (range of 17-43 years).

Measures included:

  • The Short Dark Triad: Measures Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.
  • The Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies: Assesses verbal, physical, and vicarious sadism.
  • The HEXACO Personality Inventory-Revised: A measure based on the HEXACO model of personality).

Results showed that subclinical sadism correlated significantly but negatively with emotionality, honesty-humility, conscientiousness, and agreeableness.

Parallel analysis of 45 variables—using assessment results from the Short Dark Triad and The Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies—provided support for the extraction of six unique factors. These factors, which explained over 45% of observed variance, are listed below (along with a sample item for each):

  • Psychopathy: “People who mess with me always regret it.”
  • Machiavellianism: “I like to use clever manipulation to get my way.”
  • Narcissism: “Many group activities tend to be dull without me.”
  • Physical sadism: “I enjoy physically hurting people.”
  • Verbal sadism: “I enjoy making jokes at the expense of others.”
  • Vicarious sadism: “I love to watch YouTube clips of people fighting.”

As expected, subclinical sadism was also correlated with the Dark Triad of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and especially psychopathy; this is not surprising, given that these four factors share commonalities. Psychopathy was most strongly linked with physical sadism because both variables are related to dominating and hurting others.

Source: Pixabay/Vitabello

Differences Between Psychopathy and Sadism

So what is the difference between psychopathy and sadism?

Previous research suggests that enjoyment of cruelty is a central aspect of sadism but not psychopathy. The violent behavior commonly associated with psychopathy is more likely to be reactive (reaction to provocation) or instrumental (e.g., to obtain money or gain access to goods). A sadist, however, does cruel things not for reactive or instrumental reasons but because he or she enjoys cruelty itself. So torturing an innocent person becomes its own reward.3

Concluding Thoughts

The current study found sadism to have a weak-to-moderate correlation (r = 0.23–0.68) with the Dark Triad of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism, but to be distinct from them. Indeed, the magnitude of this relationship is comparable to the magnitude of correlations between Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism (r = 0.32–0.54). Therefore, the findings of this investigation support replacing the Dark Triad with the Dark Tetrad—Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism.


1. Johnson, L. K., Plouffe, R. A., & Saklofske, D. H. (2019). Subclinical sadism and the Dark Triad: Should there be a Dark Tetrad? Journal of Individual Differences, 40, 127-133.

2. O’Meara, A., Davies, J., & Hammond, S. (2011). The psychometric properties and utility of the short sadistic impulse scale (SSIS). Psychological Assessment, 23, 523–531.

3. Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Toward a taxonomy of dark personalities. Psychological Science, 23, 421-426.