Sadism

02.10.2020 |

Episode #6 of the course Psychology of evil by Dr. Daniel McGrath

 

Welcome back! In today’s lesson, we are going to look at a recent extension of the Dark Triad called the Dark Tetrad. Some psychologists have suggested that the Dark Triad conceptualization of evil traits overlooks the significance of sadism. The Dark Tetrad is composed of Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and includes the addition of sadism.

For a number of years during the mid-1400s, Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, ruled over the territory of Wallachia, now part of the present-day country of Romania. However, this period could be more accurately described as his reign of terror. In his quest to gain and retain power, Vlad would stop at nothing to achieve his aims. Yet, his methods were so horrific and barbaric that his name would forever be synonymous with cruelty. For instance, in one famous incident, Vlad invited his political opponents to a banquet. Not long after their arrival, Vlad had his men stab them to death and then impale their bodies on spikes. In fact, he preferred the most gruesome methods of murder that were available. He particularly enjoyed impaling his enemies and used a technique that would avoid damaging internal organs so as to keep the victim in excruciating pain over a prolonged length of time. It’s estimated that Vlad was responsible for the deaths of as many as 80,000 men. His reputation for cruelty and sadism served to inspire Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula published in 1897.

Thinking back to our last lesson on psychopathy, you can see some psychopathic traits in Vlad’s behavior. However, psychopathy alone doesn’t quite explain the extent of the pleasure Vlad experienced in the cruelty he inflicted on others. Instead, Vlad wasn’t just a psychopath but also a sadist. Sadism refers to an enduring pattern of behavior in which an individual purposely inflicts cruelty and suffering on other people. This is often manifested in emotional, physical, and sexual violence. Crucially, sadists who commit these acts do so with a sense of excitement and delight, something that occurs even from watching violence being committed by someone else.

The sadistic behavior described above can be extreme; however, there is actually a more common and milder version of sadistic behavior termed “everyday sadism”. This is the form of sadism that is most commonly researched in the context of the Dark Tetrad. It refers to a disposition toward taking pleasure from witnessing violence in everyday life but excludes sexual sadism. Using self-report questionnaires such as the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale created by Aisling O’Meara and colleagues, the degree of everyday sadism can be measured along a dimension with people scoring from low to high on an inclination toward sadism.

How do sadists treat other people? The everyday sadist enjoys seeing violence being inflicted on other people. Perhaps not surprisingly, he/she also takes pleasure in inflicting pain on other people, most often emotional or social harm. For example, they will do things like trying to damage the reputation of another person behind the scenes through gossip or disclosure of damaging information. Everyday sadists can sour your relationships with friends or even opportunities at work. These people are devious in that their role in this behavior often goes undetected.

Furthermore, the Internet, in particular, has provided ample opportunity for sadists to abuse other people anonymously. In a study by Buckels, Trapnell, and Paulhus (2014) published in Personality and Individual Differences, researchers examined associations between personality traits and Internet comments. They found that “Internet trolls”, people who intentionally upset others with their comments online, were more likely to score high on sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Yet, sadism, in particular, was the strongest personality predictor of being an Internet troll. This makes sense, given that the Internet provides sadists with the opportunity to inflict emotional pain from a distance without any real negative consequences for them.

How can you protect yourself from sadists? Similar to the advice for dealing with psychopaths, the best option with everyday sadists is to avoid them when feasible. Of course, family members or co-workers who are sadists can’t always be avoided. In this case, it’s important to keep your distance and set firm boundaries. Also, you need to be mindful as to whether or not they are targeting you specifically. If so, take special precautions to identify any harm they may try to cause you behind the scenes.

In tomorrow’s lesson, we are going to move on from the dispositional perspective of evil and describe the situational perspective. See you then!

 

Recommended book

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy Baumeister

 

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