Studying Sadism within a Psych Lab

Recent psychological research by EE Buckels et al, takes look into everyday sadism within everyday people who receive pleasure from causing pain towards others. Two studies were conducted where conducted. The first study looked into what response participants would choose when given the following choices: Killing bugs, assisting in killing bugs, performing manual tasks such as cleaning toilets, and finally tolerate pain via placing a hand into cold water. To make the choices much harder to decide, the bugs were also assigned individual names, to make the decision seem more real and intimate.
Prior to being given these choices Buckels asked all 71 participants to fill-out a questionnaire to determine how sadist their personalities were. Those who scored high on the sadist scale were shown to be more likely to be one of the participants who chose to kill the bugs or to assist in killing the creatures. The study found that 53% of the participants were likely to choose one of these options out of 71 total participants. Additional effects were incorporated to make the experiment seem more realistic, such as crunching noises of the bugs outer shells as they were placed through a grinder (Please note that no bugs were actually harmed within this experiment).

Participants were asked to report the levels of pleasure they felt during and after conducting their decision. It was found that those who scored high on sadism reported that they experimented less pleasure after opting to kill the bugs when compared to those who were classed as non-sadists. The researchers looked into these reports more and found that the sadists gained less pleasure than non-sadists when choosing any of the task options at hand, and that the sadists who opted to destroy the bugs reported greater pleasure than the sadists who decided to opt-out of killing the bugs. Researchers concluded the following: “Sadists may use cruelty to compensate for a low baseline level of positive emotion,”

The follow-up study consisting of 71 participants looked into how willing people were to inflict harm to an innocent victim. When taking part in a study they were able to cause pain through submitting a stranger to the blast of a white noise just for fun. The study was disguised as a reaction time challenge game where if they won they were allowed to inflict the white noise onto their opponent. When the opponent won however, the participants were not subjected to the same infliction. It was found that those who scored high on the sadist scale used their chances to inflict pain upon the opponent when able to.

Both studies found that those who scored highly on the sadism scale made it easier for the researchers to predict the behaviour they showed when given the choice between inflicting aggressive behaviour onto another and choosing not to. The research also showed that sadists were the only ones who were likely to complete banal tasked when the outcome allowed them to inflict aggressive behaviour towards someone else.

“Note that in both the studies, Buckels and her team also took measures of the students’ psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Sadism scores predicted choice of the aggressive options in both studies, above and beyond the explanatory power of these so-called Dark Triad traits. Moreover, in the second study, only sadists were willing to complete a boring challenge (crossing out letters in Latin text) purely for the chance to blast their opponents. Psychopaths, narcissists and the rest didn’t go to the trouble. Based on this, Buckels et al said that sadism should be added to the Dark Triad, to make a “Dark Tetrad”.” Quote from BPS Research Digest.
Buckels et al, concluded that the research is only a glimpse into everyday sadism and that it may encourage others to see sadism as something more than a sexual disorder found in criminals.

While the research is an interesting look into everyday sadism I am still doubtful about how it was conducted. First off, we don’t truly know how they determined who was really a sadist, and gaining a glimpse into the questionnaire would help greatly here. Plus also it would be interesting to know if any of these participants identified as a sadist within their personal life. Another thing to consider was the term sadist even used within the questionnaire? Did they look at the sexual arousal side to sadism and the pleasure gained at all, or was the study purely focusing on the aggressive side? Pleasure gained from doing an act in which one finds arousing is different to the pleasure one gains from participating in an aggressive behavior, plus both of these can over lap too. We also have to remember that just like all lab research, we have to remember that it is lab findings and that this may affect some participant’s choices during the study. Finally, the researchers seem to associate sadism as a sexual disorder, rather than something which can be a natural part of an everyday person. Stating that the research is ‘Everyday Sadism,’ and then still associating it as a disorder, feels rather contradictory.

Buckels EE, Jones DN, and Paulhus DL (2013). Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism. Psychological science PMID:

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