Sadists are often aggressive but only enjoy the feeling if it causes their victim emotional pain, psychologists have shown in a study.
The paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin indicated sadists enjoy the moment of aggression no matter whether their victim provoked the response. But researchers were shocked to find the sadists felt worse after acting out, when the authors of the paper predicted the opposite result.
Dr. David Chester, lead author of the study and assistant professor in psychology at the Virginia Commonwealth University, told Newsweek the study “sheds a much-needed light on a poorly understood phenomenon: Sadistic aggression, that likely plays a critical role in real-world violent acts such as school shootings and terrorist attacks.”
Sadism is characterized by purposefully causing harm to another individual to seek pleasure from their resulting pain, the authors wrote. In the past, it was regarded as a diagnosable condition largely limited to serial killers and psychopaths, Chester explained. But nowadays psychologists regard is as a so-called “dark” personality trait that we all experience on a spectrum.
“These forms of normal sadism can still have painful consequences for our attempts to create and maintain a harmonious society,” argued Chester.
The team arrived at their findings by studying 2,200 people who took part in eight studies. In the first study, 162 undergraduate students were asked to complete anagrams. Unknown to the participants, the tests were purposefully difficult or impossible, and the researchers continually interrupted them and chided their performance before cutting the test short in order to secretly irritate them. The second study involving 169 undergraduates tested sadism in participants using the hot sauce paradigm. This measures how much hot sauce a participant would knowingly give someone who doesn’t like spicy food.
In the third study, 126 undergraduate students completed an online version of the Cyberball
paradigm used to measure negative emotions, where participants believe they are playing a ball-tossing game with an opponent. In reality, the game is controlled by the researchers. The team then asked the volunteers to choose a disturbing image to show their opponent: Such as of a homicide crime scene or decomposing animal carcasses.
The 211 undergraduate participants of the fourth study had their sadism tested in a series of experiments, including by blasting other participants with noise; reading negative essay feedback to one another; and being invited to push sharp pins into a human-like doll of their evaluator.
A fifth study documented feelings of negative and positive emotions after aggression in 156 adults recruited online, who completed an online questionnaire following the essay task used in the fourth study. For study six, 238 undergraduates were asked to write about a meaningful event, and were then invited to imagine someone who they felt anger towards while sticking pins in a doll representing them.
In the penultimate study, 388 students were rejected or socially accepted, and asked to use a voodoo-style doll to vent their aggression. The final study saw 207 undergraduates replicate the noise exercise of study four, and were given feedback on how much their opponent suffered.
After each study, the participants were asked about their emotional states.
Chester explained the paper “is the first to systematically and comprehensively establish the link between sadistic traits and aggressive behavior, both inside and outside the laboratory context.”
What’s more, it indicates this relationship is not caused by other traits like general aggressiveness, impulsivity, or poor self-control. In other words, sadists seem to be motivated by the pleasure they derive from inflicting pain alone.
“Our paper also examines the affective states, or feelings, that accompany such sadistic aggression—finding that sadists enjoy aggression during the act, but afterwards they feel worse than they started.” said Chester. “Our study also shows that sadists’ pleasure of aggression is contingent on their perception that their victim truly suffered because of their aggressive act.
“Finally, the study shows that sadistic aggression is largely insensitive to the type of target it is directed towards (an innocent victim versus an insulting provocateur). They seem to be willing to inflict harm upon whoever is in front of them, so to speak.”
The paper’s results were limited, however, by the fact it drew on a pool of undergraduate students and online respondents who weren’t “representative of violent individuals, nor do they capture the remarkable complexity and diversity of the human species,” said Chester.
And voodoo doll tests don’t accurately reflect a person’s proclivity for real-world violence, he said.
Still, the research could be used to help those who struggle with sadistic traits, by creating treatments that replace the pleasure they derive from pain and reminding them aggressive acts may make them feel negative emotions despite the initial boost.
Chester invited the general public to examine their own aggressive tendencies, and ask whether the associated emotions are positive (satisfaction, revenge or pleasure) or negative (anger and pain).
“If they are motivated by positive feelings, they are crossing the line into sadistic aggression and should be careful, as sadistic acts are reinforcing and can promote a larger pattern of aggressive behavior in an individual,” warned Chester.
“Our findings point to a larger phenomenon in aggression research, which has conventionally focused on how negative feelings such as pain and frustration may motivate aggression. However, our results suggest that positive feelings play a large role in motivating aggression and that this investigative angle shouldn’t be neglected when it comes to understanding human violence.”