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The 'everyday sadist' could be living next door

You don't have to go to the movies to see someone exhibit extreme criminal behaviour or sexual torture - they may be sitting next to you

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:45am
 

Try this quick word association: Sadist.

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

Actually, you didn't need to come up with representatives of extreme criminal behaviour or sexual torture. You might just as well have considered the colleague two cubicles over. The one who spends his lunch hour splattering the brains of videogame 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 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 pummelling 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 was unsettling, said Scott 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, 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, 53 per cent chose to be bug assassins or assistants, 34 per cent chose toilet-cleaning and 13 per cent 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 anthropomorphise 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, 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 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," Paulhus 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," 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. 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 were more willing to do the extra work for the opportunity to be cruel.

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.

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.

The New York Times

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