Sadistic aggression (i.e. harming other people for pleasure) is somewhat of a scientific mystery. While the existence of sadistic behavior has been documented for centuries, scientific evidence for the psychological reasons underlying it has been scarce. So what are the psychological reasons why some people enjoy harming others without any evident gain?
A new study, currently in press at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, aimed at answering this question (Pfattheicher et al., 2020). In the study, the research team from Denmark, Serbia, the U.S., and Germany conducted nine different experiments in 15 groups of volunteers from three countries. They investigated the question of whether boredom might be an important factor in whether or not somebody would show sadistic behavior. While boredom might be perceived as positive by some people, most find it unpleasant as it signals that one’s current activity is not satisfying. The scientists tested the hypothesis that boredom could increase the chance of sadistic behavior in individuals that think it is an appropriate form of behavior.
In the first study, the scientists assessed boredom and a number of personality aspects using online and offline questionnaires in six different groups of volunteers. In all six groups, people who experienced chronic boredom in their daily lives showed more sadistic tendencies than those who were less bored.
In the second study, the team assessed online trolling, a form of sadism on the internet. In this study, a statistically significant association between trolling and boredom was found, showing that bored people are more likely to troll others on the internet.
In the third study, the scientists investigated sadism in the military using an online study design. They found that military service personnel who experienced greater boredom also were more likely to show sadistic behavior toward their fellow soldiers.
In the fourth study, researchers investigated the sadistic behavior of parents toward their children. To this end, data from 300 parents were obtained using an online questionnaire. In general, the parents showed low levels of both boredom and sadism. However, there was still a statistically significant association, with both boredom during daily life and boredom during child care being associated with sadistic tendencies.
In the fifth study, the team investigated whether people who experienced chronic boredom in their daily lives were more likely to experience sadistic fantasies than people who are less bored. The results again were clear: There was a strong association between boredom and sadism. People who experienced greater boredom in their daily lives reported a higher chance of experiencing the fantasy of shooting another human being for fun.
Taken together, these five studies showed strong empirical evidence for an association between boredom and sadistic behavior across multiple different groups and contexts. In the sixth study, researchers used a real-life psychological experiment instead of questionnaires. In this study, participants were assigned randomly to either a boredom group or a control group. In both groups, they had to watch a video for 20 minutes. While the boredom group watched a boring video of a waterfall in which nothing much happened, the control group watched an interesting documentary movie about the Alps. In both conditions, participants had the opportunity to kill living maggots by shredding them in a modified coffee grinder. Unbeknownst to the participants, the maggots were not actually killed. (Participants were told about this only after the experiment had ended.) Participants were told that they could decide whether or not they want to shred some maggots or not. Overall, 89.9% of participants did not shred any maggots, showing that sadistic behavior is rather rare. However, 13 participants actually put one or more maggots into the shredding machine, thinking they were killing them. (In truth, they were not.) Interestingly, only one person from the control condition put a maggot into the coffee grinder, while the remaining 12 who did so came from the boredom conditions. This difference was statistically significant, showing that boredom increased the probability of putting a maggot into the coffee grinder. In contrast to the questionnaire data from studies one to five, this experiment not only showed that there is an association between boredom and sadism, but that boredom can actually cause sadistic behavior.
In study 7, participants were again tested in two groups, one that watched a boring video of a stone and one that watched a more exiting video of two magicians performing tricks. Here, they were not offered to shred maggots but were offered to decrease or increase the payment another volunteer would get to participate in the experiment. Similar to study 6, only a few people showed sadism. More than 92% of participants did not decide to lower the other person’s payment. Most participants (89.1%) actually added money to the other person’s payment. Again, boredom had an effect on sadism: While only 5.1% in the group that watched the interesting video took away money from the other participants, 11% from the group that watched the boring video of a stone did so. Importantly, whether or not someone showed sadism was also affected by their personality. Only in those people who had a predisposition to sadism in their personality did boredom actually lead to sadistic behavior. For people who had no sadistic personality tendencies, boredom had little to no effect.
Studies 8 and 9 were focused on the role of alternatives. In these studies, scientists investigated to what extent having alternatives toward showing sadistic behavior influenced the relation of boredom and sadism. In study 8, the same experimental paradigm as in study 7 was used, but the scientists took away the positive alternative of actually giving the other participant money instead of taking it. Here, 36.1% of the people in the boredom condition showed sadistic behavior, while only 21.7% from the control group did. The team also tested a second control group that did not watch any video at all. In this group, 15.4% showed sadistic behavior.
Study 9 was similar to study 8. Here, one group of participants was assigned to the same experimental paradigm as in study 8. Additionally, the second group of participants was assigned to a so-called third-party punishment game. In this group, participants were told that they had to decide on the punishment for one player in a money distribution game. In this game, one person was given 100% of the money, and the other 0%. The first person then had decided that they took 70% of the money for themselves and gave the other person only 30%. The participants then had to decide whether they wanted to punish the person who distributed the money unfairly to their own advantage by taking away money from them. Thus, participants could destroy someone else’s payment without any effects for themselves. Here, an interesting effect was observed. While most people in the condition that was comparable to study 8 gave money instead of taking it, this was different in the third-party punishment condition. In this condition, only 29.2% of participants did not destroy the other person’s income. This shows that reactive aggression after perceiving unfairness is more likely to occur than non-reactive aggression. Importantly, in both conditions boredom increased the chances of a participant destroying the other person’s payment.
Altogether, the nine experimental paradigms within this study showed that boredom can motivate people to harm others to experience pleasure. This relation seems to be true across several different contexts. However, whether boredom indeed leads to sadistic behavior like killing animals also depends on the personality of the person. Only those people who show an inclination toward sadism in their personality actually do show sadistic behavior when bored. For most people, boredom does not lead to sadistic behavior.
Given the relevance of online trolling, parental aggression, and other types of sadistic behaviors, the findings of this study have important implications. Programs targeted at reducing online bullying or other everyday forms of sadistic aggression could benefit from including measures to reduce boredom in potential aggressors.
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Pfattheicher, S., Lazarevic, L. B., Westgate, E. C., & Schindler, S. (2020). On the relation of boredom and sadistic aggression. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/r67xg