Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is It Sadistic Personality or Just Everyday Sadism?

8 signs to watch for, including trolling and a lack of guilt.

Key points

  • Sadistic behavior creates pain in others for the pleasure of the sadist.
  • The "everyday sadist" is a person who takes pleasure in others' pain but flies under the clinical radar.
  • Sadism can be enacted in face-to-face settings or through internet trolling.

Sadists are those people who take pleasure in the pain that other people experience. Whether onlooker or perpetrator, sadistic individuals enjoy seeing others suffer. Sadists take satisfaction in others’ misery, whether it shows up as humiliation or physical pain. Several editions ago, the DSM included a discussion of sadistic personality disorder, but it is no longer found within the current DSM-5.

While sadism produces behaviors that are outside the norms of acceptable social behavior, sadists do not necessarily fit the diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder. Sadists break rules and harm others for their own pleasure; antisocial individuals act outside the rules with an eye on the material gain or pleasure they take in breaking the rules.

Sadism has been a named behavioral concern for over 100 years (Krafft-Ebing, 1898) and it was more recently described as falling within four categories (Millon, 2011):

  1. Spineless sadism. Individuals who are spineless sadists are typified by their insecurity, false bravado, and cowardice. To exert their sadistic actions, they seek out the powerless and those with few defenses to use against their perpetrator. They build up their egos through the pain they inflict on others.
  2. Tyrannical sadism. Those who practice tyrannical sadism are driven by the desire to use and abuse power. They get a high from intimidating, humiliating, or brutalizing others and have no problem using their power in destructive and inhumane ways.
  3. Enforcing sadism. People who are enforcing sadists seek out roles and positions that allow them to enforce punishment on others whom they feel “deserve” it. They covet roles that provide them with legitimate power including law enforcement, management, or even education. They take pleasure in punishing those who break the rules or run afoul of the law or standard organizational practice.
  4. Explosive sadism. Individuals who engage in explosive sadism are highly reactive and their sadistic actions can seem to come out of nowhere. Somewhat like a narcissistic rage, when they are set off, their fury and rage spill over to everyone in their vicinity. Surprisingly, some explosive sadists feel remorse over their blow-ups.

The “Everyday Sadist”

While there is no official clinical diagnosis attached to it, the concept of the everyday sadist has taken hold and has been the topic of increasing amounts of research. The everyday sadist is a person with tendencies towards cruelty accompanied by a willingness to go to efforts to cause suffering to another (Buckels et al., 2013). Everyday sadists may achieve professional success through not just climbing the ladder to success, but stepping on others and kicking them off the ladder on their way up. They make fun of others, humiliate colleagues, set up co-workers for failure, create traps for competitors to fall into, and revel in the misery and failure they leave others to find.

Signs of a Sadist

  • Lack of Empathy. If most of us see a person in pain, our first instinct is to offer comfort or assistance. When a sadist sees someone in pain, they experience pleasure in others’ suffering and may make choices that prolong it.
  • Lack of Guilt. Guilt and remorse are normal reactions to behaviors we engage in but know were wrong. As a rule, sadists do not experience guilt about the hurt they cause or the damage they do. However, in some lab experiments, individuals who would qualify as “everyday sadists” have expressed some remorse over actions they’ve taken in the simulated experience.
  • Cruelty. Sadists like to see people, or other living creatures, suffer and have no qualms about witnessing or causing the suffering. They may cause harm to people or to animals with no remorse.
  • Proactive Aggression. While sadists may enjoy success, they may enjoy causing others to suffer even more. They will revel in the hurt they cause others and may cause hurt for sport, even if there is no greater goal.
  • Malevolent and Hurtful Humor. Sadists enjoy making others the butt of their jokes and their teasing goes further than decorum allows. They will call other people names, assign cruel nicknames, make fun of others, and encourage others to join in the taunting.
  • Excessive Internet Trolling. Sadists use the internet as a weapon to troll others through the use of offensive, aggressive, and disturbing messages. Sadists take pleasure in knowing that their anonymous comments can wreak havoc and cause emotional pain to others.
  • Avid Viewer of Violent or Sadistic Videos. Watching people suffer, even vicariously, engages sadistic individuals and they are fascinated by these images.

While the etiology of sadistic behaviors is not known for sure, the causes are likely to be similar to those that cause other dark traits. Causes that have been suggested include disruptive events during the early period of sexual development, childhood abuse by caregivers or others, exposure to violence, engagement in violence or violent video games which may create an “others’ pain equals personal pleasure” link in the brain, being bullied, extreme deprivation, excessive personal failures, and brain chemistry disruptions.

Unfortunately, there is no easy cure for sadistic tendencies. Individuals who want to address and minimize their sadistic impulses may be successful through a commitment to change and engagement in therapies such as behavioral therapy, dialectic behavioral therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy. The most likely reason that a person would seek therapy for sadistic tendencies would be related to legal issues or a relationship at risk. If you care for someone who shows signs of everyday sadism, encourage them to seek treatment in order to give the relationship the best chance possible it will thrive.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook image: Konstanty/Shutterstock

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today