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New research shines a light on the garden-variety sadists among us

Fans may enjoy hockey fights as a mild form of vicarious sadism.


There is a reason Don Cherry has made a fortune selling videos of brutal hockey fights instead of triumphant goals. According to Delroy Paulhus, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, we are a nation of sadists – everyday sadists, that is, and not the dancing-with-glee-while-microwaving-kittens variety.

In a study published this month in the journal Psychological Science, Paulhus and colleagues came up with questionnaires and experiments to single out law-abiding people with a tendency to enjoy others' pain. They enlisted 70 students to choose among tasks representing hypothetical jobs, including bug killing (exterminator), toilet cleaning (sanitation worker) and plunging hands into icy water (a worker in cold environments).

The researchers found that students who answered yes to questions such as "I enjoy mocking losers to their face" were more likely to murder a bug using a coffee grinder – and ask for more bugs to crunch. (The grinder was secretly modified so no bugs were actually harmed.) Paulhus, an expert in the dark side of human nature – including narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism – sheds light on the sadists lurking among us.

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What is the psychology of everyday sadism?

The same people who are sadistic very often do have an empathic side, which limits their carrying out the sadistic behaviour. In hockey, for example, when your player is beating up another player, there is a huge surge of pleasure.

But if the other guy goes down and starts twitching, you get a hush in the audience. Then when he holds up his hand to show he's alive, the whole audience cheers.

We think most of the sadism in humans is vicarious, which makes sense because sadistic behaviour in real life is normally followed by severe consequences – you will either be arrested or hit back.

Is sadism more common in men or women?

It seems like across the board, it is males who are more sadistic. We do see it in our female samples, but they seem to prefer verbal sadism, humiliating other people – the "mean girls" type of sadistic behaviour that can really destroy a person and lead to some of the suicides we've seen reported in the news.

Are sadists drawn to specific careers?

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Physical sadists would gravitate toward sports in which you are encouraged to hurt other people. Cage fighting is a good example. The biggest concern is that such people would gravitate toward military and police careers because then [violence] is sanctioned by society and they have lots of opportunities to hurt people. I think screening for sadistic tendencies is important for both these groups.

Could sadism be an adaptive trait in our species, if it helps warriors enjoy their jobs?

All of these traits, if they are part of the human gene pool, have paid off in the past, going back to Vlad the Impaler, who emphasized sadism to make a point. If you showed people on hooks at the border, then you might very well defeat the enemy – or at least keep them away.

Can sadism be treated or cured?

It's very difficult to shut down the dark tendencies in human beings – it's better to acknowledge them, I think. We can appeal to their empathy, and if it's a genetically endowed mechanism that brings pleasure, arrange for safe ways for people to manifest their sadism. We have S&M societies in pretty well every major city.

Doesn't indulging in sadism increase the urge?

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We don't know, but we should probably study that. There was an earlier study using the bug paradigm that showed that giving people the opportunity to kill one bug facilitated their willingness to kill more bugs later.

What's next in sadism research?

We're trying to circumscribe other kinds of sadistic behaviour. One we have in mind is Internet trolls – people who purposely watch the Internet for others who are happy, and try to burst their bubble. Another example might be the stare-down in sports, where after you've defeated someone, you kind of taunt and mock them, rubbing it in. You get a penalty for it in football.

Why does studying sadism turn your crank?

That's hard to say – I'd have to get Sigmund Freud here to analyze my childhood. But our lab has always been concerned with the dark personalities, which to us are more interesting than the shiny, happy people other psychologists study.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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