They are out there. They invade our work places, relationships, and neighborhoods. Mean people pop up repeatedly in news reports, social media correspondence, and, unfortunately, political offices. Often, these people are aggressive and ruthless attributes common to sadism but are mean people sadist? In short, some of them are, however, many are not. Sadism is saved for a darker kind of human destructiveness, reserved for the very evil. Perhaps, a closer look at the sadist can provide a deeper understanding of this particular strain of mean people that joyously inflict our world with pain.
What is Sadism?
Rajvi Desai wrote that sadism is “a collection of behaviors in which a person experiences pleasure and enjoyment from (causing) another person physical, psychological or emotional suffering” (2020). Certainly, the sadist should be considered suffering from the worst form of a personality disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association characterizes sadism as “the derivation of pleasure through cruelty and inflicting pain, humiliation, and other forms of suffering on individuals.” A key element of sadism, differentiating sadist from other dark personality types, is the underlying motivation for aggressive and destructive behavior.
While all dark personalities are positively associated with aggression and lacking empathy for their victims, the sadist expresses aggression for sheer enjoyment. Psychopathic individuals are aggressive for instrumental purposes or retaliation; those testing high in narcissism express aggression in reaction to ego threats; and those high in Machiavellian traits are more cautious only expressing aggression when it has high personal payoffs (2019).
Wilfried Busse, PhD, a psychotherapist based in Bethesda, Md. explains, “the central feature of sadism is deriving pleasure from watching or inflicting physical or psychological harm on others,” he adds that “in the extreme form a sadist will seek to inflict suffering on another for the psychological gratification derived from such an action” (Brockway, 2013).
Lucy Foulkes presents sadism as the opposite of empathy. She writes, “yet despite its prevalence and importance, empathy is not the only way we might respond to others’ pain. There exists a twin process, the dark mirror of empathy, called sadism”(2020).
Aggression for Enjoyment
Sadistic aggression is distinct from other forms of aggression. Aggression is a survival mechanism. A critical reaction to protect our survival against predators. Researchers, scientists and authors distinguish healthy aggression from unhealthy forms of aggression.
Erich Fromm and Aggression
Erich Fromm differentiated healthy and unhealthy aggression by designating aggression as either ‘benign’ or as ‘malignant.’
Fromm refers to defensive and reactive aggression as benign aggression. Fromm explains that benign aggression is built into the human and animal brain and “serves the function of defense against threats to vital interests” (1973, Kindle location 3,716). This form of aggression is biologically adaptive.
Fromm describes malignant aggression as the destructive and cruelty that is specific to the human propensity to destroy and crave for absolute control. Fromm explains that malignant aggression is biologically nonadaptive, “destructiveness and cruelty, is not a defense against a threat; it is not phylogenetically programmed; it is characteristic only of man, it is biologically harmful because it is socially disruptive; its main manifestations—killing and cruelty—are pleasureful without needing any other purpose; it is harmful not only to the person who is attacked but also to the attacker” (Kindle location 3,754).
Proactive Versus Reactive Aggression
Reactive Aggression, like Fromm’s ‘benign aggression’ is motivated by an outside threat to a persons physical or mental well being. The fear of loss sparks an aggressive protective reaction.
Reactive aggression is healthy and necessary, however, our expression and mode of response may not always be appropriate. We often see aggression in sports. A player may be angered by an opponents style of play, feel disrespected, and retaliate. This is a reactive aggression. If the retaliation is excessive, the behavior may be destructive to long term goals, such as winning the game or competing in the playoffs.
”Harming innocent targets in the absence of provocation is deemed proactive aggression which can be juxtaposed against reactive aggression that takes the form of retaliation against a perceived provocateurs” (Chester, et al., 2019).
Causing harm to others is one of humankinds’ darker delights. A wealth of new evidence suggests that positive valance affect plays a role in motivating revenge and retaliatory aggressive behavior (2019).
This feedback loop between aggression and positive feelings, when added to biological predispositions, may increase the likelihood of proactive aggression—cruel destructive acts because they promote positive affect.
The Short Sadistic Impulse Scale
Like other personality types, measurement tools are necessary to qualify and study individuals possessing similar traits. Several measurements have been devised to measure sadism. The most common measurement for sadism is the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS). This scale was devised by psychologist Aisling O’Meara, along with Jason Davies and Sean Hammond in 2011.
The 10-point questionnaire reads:
- I enjoy seeing people hurt.
- I would enjoy hurting someone physically, sexually, or emotionally.
- Hurting people would be exciting.
- I have hurt people for my own enjoyment.
- People would enjoy hurting others if they gave it a go.
- I have fantasies that involve hurting people.
- I have hurt people because I could.
- I wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone.
- I have humiliated others to keep them in line.
- Sometimes I get so angry I want to hurt people.
The Dark Triad (or Tetrad)?
Should the dark triad (narcissism, Machiavellian, and psychopathy) add sadism to the collection of dark personality types? Sadism shares many of the dark core traits of evil triad of personality types. All three share a callousness, lacking empathy for others. However, sadism is the only personality type that expresses aggression, willfully hurting others, for its own sake, even risking personal loss for the enjoyment of causing pain to helpless victims.
The sadist considers their personal and momentary enjoyment of more value than the life of others. Perhaps, this trait is exemplified well in a Johnny Cash’s song Folsom Prison Blues song where he sings, “but I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
One of the arguments against adding sadism to the dark triad is that there isn’t an agreed upon measure for identifying the clinical sadist. Many researchers believe that clinical sadism isn’t identified by a unique set of traits. Sadistic traits, they argue, are identical for all people. Those identified with sadism just have qualitative differences in expression of the traits.
Psychology referrers to measuring quantitative differences in traits as dimensional differences rather than actual trait differences.
In some degree, we all possess sadistic traits, falling on a sadistic tendency spectrum. Vast majority of people expressing sadistic traits would be defined as non-clinical or ‘everyday sadist.’ Of course, many of the dark traits of the dark triad are also possessed by everyday people. T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “but the qualities of this shadowy triad don’t only exist in others, they also live in us. We house these demons of dysfunction—most of us successfully moderate their influence” (2019).
Not every sadist is a mass murder or rapist. Much more common is the non-clinical sadist, often referred to as the ‘everyday sadist.’
Aspects personality are not binary. We’re not either a freakish mass murdering sadist or a normal person who doesn’t possess any sadistic traits. Most of us possess many of the same traits but effectively mediate impulses with other goals and by enhancing socially appropriate and interpersonal feeling affects (empathy). While it is convenient to believe we all write on a blank biological slate, creating inner character or evilness, the reality is that biological differences enhance susceptibility to development of these destructive personalities.
“It’s not that you’re either an everyday sadist or you’re not; rather, it’s a trait that exists as a spectrum in the general population” (Foulkes, 2020). Brockway adds, “there is a big difference between the kind of evil sadists we know from history and movies and people with sadistic impulses, who fall into a category of sadism that is considered a personality trait rather than a personality disorder” (2013).
Brockway, Laurie Sue (2013). Everyday Sadists Walk Among Us, Study Says. Everyday Health. Published 9-20-2013. Accessed 5-9-2022.
Chester, D., DeWall, C., & Enjaian, B. (2019). Sadism and Aggressive Behavior: Inflicting Pain to Feel Pleasure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(8), 1252-1268.
Desai, Rajvi (2020). Why Sadism Is Not the Dark, Violent Trait We Think It Is? The Swaddle. Published 2-25-2020. Accessed 5-8-2022
Foulkes, Lucy (2020). Ever taken pleasure in another’s pain? That’s ‘everyday sadism.’ Psyche. Published 6-10-2020. Accessed 5-9-2022
Fromm, Erich (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1st edition.
Johnson, L., Plouffe, R., & Saklofske, D. (2019). Subclinical Sadism and the Dark Triad. Journal of Individual Differences, 40(3), 127-133.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2019) Dark Triad Personalities. Flourishing Life Society. Published5-21-2022. Accessed 5-10-2022
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.