All You Need To Know About 'Everyday' Sadists


All You Need To Know About 'Everyday' Sadists

The film based on the book Fifty Shades of Grey has brought into theaters around the world a vivid depiction of all the forms that sadism can take in our bedroom.

However, there is a more pervasive, and even more mundane, form of sadism which hides within the recesses of many personalities.

Psychologists have talked about "the dark triad" in personalities, representing a perfect combination of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism too. People high in the dark triad characteristics callously use others to their own advantage, seeing them as tools to exploit to get what they want.

To be certain, enjoying the suffering of other people—the hallmark of sadism—is part of the picture in the dark triad constellation. Nevertheless, personality psychologists are starting to believe that a tendency for cruelty stands on its own in realizing why someone would want to harm another person. However, instead of expressing itself in behavior that leads to humiliation, maiming, or death, there’s a form of sadism that comes in more benign, everyday way.

You may even express this everyday sadism without realizing it.

Maybe you enjoy the rush of blasting a video game opponent’s avatars to bits. At a hockey game, you might cheer for members of both teams to engage in a violent fight. Action movies involving battles to the death might be your favorite form of entertainment. In all of those cases, you are taking pleasure from everyday experiences in which the cruelty is vicarious.

Erin Buckels, a psychologist from the University of British Columbia, and collaborators (2013) decided to investigate the concept that 'everyday' sadists are willing to inflict actual, not just vicarious, harm. They also reasoned that individuals high in this less overt form of sadism might become more aggressive when provoked than other people. Furthermore, they believed it's possible for sadism to provide an extraordinary prediction of antisocial behaviors above and beyond these of the dark triad qualities.

To study everyday sadism in actual behavior, they had to come up with a laboratory task which would mimic the kind of casual harm-producing behavior individuals might perform in their daily life. However, translating everyday sadism into a lab setting is, reasonably, a challenge: You need to invent a task that won't actually hurt others, but that has to seem realistic enough. Buckels and her team zeroed in on the act of bug-killing, which, as they argued, could satisfy a sadistic desire to cause harm to a live creature through direct physical contact.

To test that theory, they gave participants a choice of unpleasant tasks in which killing bugs would be an alternative to a set of unpleasant but non-sadistic choices. They settled on those three choices (plus bug-killing) as potential "jobs" an individual could choose—assisting somebody else in killing bugs, cleaning dirty toilets, or putting their hand in a bucket of ice water. (If you are worried, the bug-killing was not real, but it seemed to be since the bugs were seemingly being ground in a machine that loudly crunched them into bits.)

To identify the everyday sadists, Buckels and her colleagues used the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS) developed by Aisling O’Meara, a psychologist from the University of College Cork, and her team (2011). They additionally administered dark triad questionnaires to be able to tease out the separate contributions of sadism from those other three qualities.

As predicted, the highly sadistic-scoring individuals were the most likely to pick the bug-killing task. After completing that task, they also reported enjoying it the most. If they had chosen a different task, they seemed to regret not having picked the bug-killing job.

In the second laboratory task, the sadistic participants were compared with their less sadistic counterparts in their willingness, in a competition, to attack an opponent who they thought wouldn't attack them back. During the experiment, the participants had the chance to blast white noise into their opponents' headphones for each trial that they won. Of course, there was no actual opponent. Nevertheless, the participants were led to think that their opponent wouldn't attack them back once they'd receive the ear-disrupting blast.

The question was whether sadist individuals would continue to attack their non-attacking opponent. As it turned out, not only were they quicker to harm their opponents, but they'd also work harder for the chance to blast them even more. Dark triad qualities, like in the bug-killing experiment, did not predict the result of noise-blasting tendencies; however, sadism did.

Therefore, there's pretty good evidence that those who score high on a questionnaire measure of sadism might also behave in the casual, everyday ways that may be similar to these lab tasks. The questionnaire measure seems to have reasonably good validity as a way that can predict who would kill merely for the sake of killing (bugs, of course, not people) and who would inflict harm on an opponent by offering an olive branch.

Now that you're aware of the SSIS questionnaire, you can take it yourself, or look at each item from the vantage point of an individual you would like to rate. Other personality research demonstrates that ratings of individuals we know on questionnaire measures can provide reasonably reliable insights into those people’s dispositions. In some cases, the ratings we make for other people are even more accurate than those we make for ourselves. That's because it can be hard to admit having certain qualities, which we would prefer to believe we do not have.

With that background, then, here are the ten questions from the SSIS. Each one is rated merely as “describes me/this person” or “doesn't describe me/this person”:

-I like seeing people hurt.

-I'd enjoy hurting somebody physically, sexually, or emotionally.

-Hurting others could be exciting.

-I've hurt people for my own enjoyment.

-People could enjoy hurting other people if they gave it a go.

-I have fantasies that involve hurting people.

-I've hurt people because I could.

-I would not intentionally hurt anybody.

-I've humiliated other people to keep them in line.

-Sometimes I get so angry that I want to hurt people.

Now, scoring one point for every Yes answer, compare your scores with these from the participants, who varied in age from 18 to 65 years old but were mostly undergraduates. Though the scores from participants ranged from 1 to 10, meaning that some participants actually endorsed every item, 96 percent of the sample scored at four or lower. Thus, if you, or the individual you’re rating, scored at five or higher, you or that person might fall within the small minority of those who could be called everyday sadists.

O’Meara and her colleagues examined the relationships among the SSIS and other relevant measures to see whether sadism and empathy were related. The pattern of discoveries led them to conclude that everyday sadists know the impact of their actions on others but do not have a particular concern for how those people feel.

Returning to the Buckels study, it was people with scores on the SSIS of close to 2 who were most likely to choose the bug-killing option. Apparently, it won't take that much to qualify as an everyday sadist. Agreeing with just two of the items appears to put a person at risk; 4 is even more atypical of the average individual.

Perhaps with the popularity of 50 Shades, and whatever copycat films it stimulates, we will all become more willing to look at sadism as a part of the human experience. Luckily, it is only the minority who would ever take their desire to harm others from the realm of fantasy to that of everyday behavior.


Buckels, E. E., Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). Behavioral confirmation of everyday sadism. Psychological Science, 24(11), 2201-2209. doi:10.1177/0956797613490749
O'Meara, A., Davies, J., & Hammond, S. (2011). The psychometric properties and utility of the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS). Psychological Assessment, 23(2), 523-531. doi:10.1037/a0022400
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

Based on: Psychology Today



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Thinking Humanity: All You Need To Know About 'Everyday' Sadists
All You Need To Know About 'Everyday' Sadists
The film based on the book Fifty Shades of Grey has brought into theaters around the world a vivid depiction of all the forms that sadism can take in our bedroom.
Thinking Humanity
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