Sadists are Not Just Child Sexual Abusers and Serial Killers

Everyday Sadists Among Us

~by Jan Hoffman

“Try this quick word association:


And you respond… Hannibal Lecter? The Marquis de Sade?

Actually, you didn’t need to come up with representatives of extreme criminal behavior or sexual torture. You might just as well have considered the colleague two cubicles over. The one who spends lunch hour splattering the brains of video game characters.

Those who enjoy inflicting at least moderate pain on others, directly or vicariously, mingle with us daily. Think mean girls, taunting a classmate to commit suicide. Or the professor who grills a squirming, clueless student, lips curled in a small, savage smile.

Delroy L. Paulhus, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, calls such people “everyday sadists.”

“They exist on a spectrum,” he said. “It could be at a hockey game and your guy is pummeling the opponent into hamburger and people are standing up having orgasms, to taking revenge on those you think deserve it, to schadenfreude.”

But acknowledging that sadists regularly cross our paths is unsettling, said Scott O. Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University, who studies personality disorders. “We prefer to think, ‘There’s sadists, and then there’s the rest of us.’ ”

There is little research on sadism, because of the ethical and moral dilemmas posed by laboratory experiments. Recruiting participants poses other hurdles.

In a study published this month in the journal Psychological Science, Dr. Paulhus and his associates developed a questionnaire and experiments to identify ordinary people with a tendency to revel in others’ suffering.

In the study’s first experiment, to learn if everyday sadism correlated with the questionnaire, researchers recruited 71 psychology students, ostensibly to understand “personality and tolerance for challenging jobs.”

The students chose among tasks that stood for jobs: killing bugs (exterminator); helping the exterminator (exterminator’s assistant); cleaning toilets (sanitation worker); or enduring pain from ice water (a worker in cold environments). Among the participants, nearly 53 percent chose to be bug assassins or assistants, 34 percent chose toilet-cleaning and 13 percent pain tolerance. Gender was evenly distributed among those choosing various tasks.

Students who chose to be bug-killers were presented with three cups, each holding a live pill bug. To anthropomorphize the bugs, each was given a name: Muffin, Ike, or Tootsie. Bug-killers had to drop a bug into a modified coffee grinder, force the top down, and grind the bug up.

(Note to cringing readers: a secret barrier spared the tiny troika. Though the machines emitted crunching sounds, the researchers said, “no bugs were harmed in the experiment.”)

During the execution of the assignment, some bug-killers quit after one or two. But some asked for more bugs.

On a questionnaire rating their emotional reaction to their “jobs,” the bug-killers who ground up all three had the highest scores describing significantly greater pleasure than did those who didn’t finish or who chose to assist. The study’s second experiment looked at the lengths to which a sadist would go to hurt an innocent victim.

In 2002, Dr. Paulhus and colleagues had proposed a cluster of traits they called the Dark Triad: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. The traits are present in many people not currently in jail or in therapy.

“It’s a taxonomy of personalities whom others rate as being obnoxious, people you deal with on an everyday basis,” Dr. Paulus said. He has been investigating if everyday sadism should be added to the cluster — a Dark Tetrad.

“Psychopaths want to get things from people and don’t care about hurting them to do so,” he said. “Yet sadists look for opportunities to hurt people, and prolong it for their own pleasure.”

Studies also indicate that sadists will choose to hurt people without provocation, even if the act takes time and effort — the only reward being the pleasure of inflicting cruelty. Dr. Paulhus wanted to see whether a questionnaire could predict which participants would make a sadistic choice.

Again, 71 psychology students rated statements from the Dark Triad scale, as well as new ones like, “I enjoy mocking losers to their face,” “I enjoy hurting people,” and “In car racing, it’s the accidents I enjoy most.”

The participants competed in a computer game, supposedly against an opponent in another room. Only the winner could blast the loser with a white-noise sound, rated 0 to 10. The “opponent” always chose zero, so that the winner’s choice was not based on the need to retaliate.

But half the group had to postpone the blasting — first, they had to complete a boring, letter-counting chore in nonsensical text. Only when they finished could they blast away.

Those participants with the highest sadism scores on the questionnaire were more willing to do the extra work for the opportunity to be cruel. Narcissists and Machiavellians were less likely to do so.

Dr. Paulhus feels that his study helps establish that everyday sadism has distinct attributes.

He noted, however, that when the hockey fans’ battered opponent is carried out on a stretcher and waves his hand to show he’s alive, “the fans applaud. So they have an empathic side as well.” Everyday sadists, he said, are not the sum of their cruel streaks.

Dr. Lilienfeld agrees such people certainly abound. But demonstrating the pervasiveness of low-level cruelty, he said, leaves unanswered a question that has long haunted researchers. “We don’t still know why some people are chronically mean,” he said.”

Would I consider my parents to be sadists? Maybe.  If “taking pleasure in the pain of others” is a large part of being a sadist, then yes.

The other day I was driving a back road and purposely avoided hitting a little chipmunk running in front of my car (as I always do). As the little creature scurried across the road to the other side, a woman in a car going in the opposite direction sped up as if to deliberately hit the little guy. The look on her face was pretty scary –as if she enjoyed trying to kill it. Thankfully, she missed it and the chipmunk was safe.

I think sadists are all around us, in all walks of life.


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13 Responses to Sadists are Not Just Child Sexual Abusers and Serial Killers

  1. Jess says:

    Sadistic is also when a woman kills helpless animals In front of her children and purposely sexually abuses those kids and causes them intense sexual pain. And then laughs about it.

  2. bb says:

    Hi Colleen! Are you sure you didn’t imagine this woman speeding up to kill the little chipmunk? I am almost certain that you did. I think that your hatred of your mother and sis colors the way you see the world. On another note, I am so glad our area did not get flooded!! Stay Safe! I’ll see you on the trails:)

    • Alethea says:

      Hi Coward!

      You don’t know me, and therefore, don’t know my heart. I hate no one…not even you.

      But I do find you to be a coward and a hypocrite. If you are so perfect and enlightened, then you would not hide your identity from me. People who want to keep secrets and who are a lie to themselves, and who are ashamed of themselves, hide behind anonymous names like “BB” and “Opus.”

      If you want to see me on the trails, then you ought to expose your identity so I can say hello.

      Have a beautiful day!

  3. Little Nel says:

    When I think of “Sadist” I think about a man who subjected young people to sexual violence, torture, and death because he was part of the “ruling class” and had immunity from prosecution. He also left no witnesses as he silenced them by death then disposed of the bodies.

    This was a man who entertained himself by inflicting suffering, bondage, and murder, coupled with sexual feelings. The ultimate control freak that had no peers, or boundaries, or feelings of compassion for his victims.

    I often wonder if this man also used pharmaceuticals or alcohol to numb his conscious so he would not feel compassion for his victims when he first began his carnage. Was it “enchantment” with drugs that first tempted him to follow his “fantasies” of cruelty and trap him a downward spiral of depravity and killing for enjoyment?

    Did he feel entitled to do what he did because it was the only thing that gave him a respite from his demons? Had he become unable to perform sexually in a normal way, so he blamed his victims for it and “punished” them so he could sooth his ego and prove to himself that others were to blame for his defects?

    Whatever his motive, he was prolific at his obsession.

    • Alethea says:

      LN, I think people who are that evil are operating under extreme influences and don’t need alcohol or drugs to carry out their torture, and would do the acts regardless of chemical or alcoholic substances. I think people who are on drugs and alcohol when they sexually abuse a child, often are people who would not have done it if they did not get the nerve (or dumb their conscious) by using the substance.

      • Gail Jones says:

        LN, I think people who are that evil are operating under extreme influences and don’t need alcohol or drugs to carry out their torture, and would do the acts regardless of chemical or alcoholic substances.
        /Yep the person who sexually assaulted me was not under the influence of any drugs at all. The only thing he was under the influence of… was “evil influences”. These sadists must get some help from somewhere…since they are “at most” spineless cowards.

    • Stacy says:

      King Henry VIII came to mind. :/

  4. Jane says:

    I have a neighbor that lets her tiny dogs out everyday at around noon.
    Another neighbor was returning to work from her lunch break, and the dogs were in front of her vehicle. She didn’t slow down very much at all to allow the dogs to get out of the way. I feared she would hit them. I hate watching people be so insensitive and uncaring. Dogs have feelings too.

    • Alethea says:

      Dear Jane, I witness dogs running in the street quite frequently, and not only do the drivers not slow down, they don’t stop to check the tags, to call the owner, to rescue the dogs by getting them safe and finding their owners. I am nearly always the only person who does stop and tend to the dogs.

      However, dog owners who just let their dogs run loose in a place where the dogs can get hit, are no better than the people who don’t slow down. Your neighbor might not be a sadist, but is negligent and taking a risk by allowing the dogs to roam unsupervised where a car can hit them. If I were you, I would gently and lovingly point this out to them.


      • Jane says:

        Your neighbor might not be a sadist, but is negligent and taking a risk by allowing the dogs to roam unsupervised where a car can hit them. If I were you, I would gently and lovingly point this out to them.
        ><Exactly what I was thinking…I would never "ever" allow my dogs to roam like she does. I don't know what her mindset is! Dogs are just like children in many respects and they can't handle that kind of freedom or keep themselves safe. I am not as bold as you are regarding point out her negligence. I think my spouse would do it in a heartbeat though.
        It is beautiful and loving that you rescue dogs and help them. I helped a large boxer dog that was lost in my neighborhood. I couldn't find his owner…so I found him a new home. It was a beautiful dog! Take Care. 🙂

        • Alethea says:

          Yay! Thank you Jane…That Boxer loves you for what you did.

          • Jane says:

            Thanks for saying that Alethea. The Boxer dog looked “pretty happy” when they took him home in their large SUV. The family had five children and a large backyard and lots of love. They had recently lost their “beloved boxer puppy” to a home invasion. They were so happy to get this boxer dog; It made their day and mine! Truly, Jane.

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