First »« Starting to catch up

Everyday sadism

So that study on sadism I’ve been meaning to talk about for weeks.

Most of the time, we try to avoid inflicting pain on others — when we do hurt someone, we typically experience guilt, remorse, or other feelings of distress. But for some, cruelty can be pleasurable, even exciting. New research suggests that this kind of everyday sadism is real and more common than we might think.

So does regular interaction on the internet, and it’s very depressing. I mean really depressing. I don’t like realizing that a lot of people like to inflict pain just for the hilarity of it.

To test their hypothesis, they decided to examine everyday sadism under controlled laboratory conditions. They recruited 71 participants to take part in a study on “personality and tolerance for challenging jobs.” Participants were asked to choose among several unpleasant tasks: killing bugs, helping the experimenter kill bugs, cleaning dirty toilets, or enduring pain from ice water.

Participants who chose bug killing were shown the bug-crunching machine: a modified coffee grinder that produced a distinct crunching sound so as to maximize the gruesomeness of the task.

The machine didn’t actually do anything to the pill bugs who were put in it, but the subjects didn’t know that.

Of the 71 participants, 12.7% chose the pain-tolerance task, 33.8% chose the toilet-cleaning task, 26.8% chose to help kill bugs, and 26.8% chose to kill bugs.

Participants who chose bug killing had the highest scores on a scale measuring sadistic impulses, just as the researchers predicted. The more sadistic the participant was, the more likely he or she was to choose bug killing over the other options, even when their scores on Dark Triad measures, fear of bugs, and sensitivity to disgust were taken into account.

Participants with high levels of sadism who chose to kill bugs reported taking significantly greater pleasure in the task than those who chose another task, and their pleasure seemed to correlate with the number of bugs they killed, suggesting that sadistic behavior may hold some sort of reward value for those participants.

That creeps me out. The first day I ever worked at the zoo, as a volunteer, I learned that one of the tasks in the Reptile House (where I was volunteering) was to kill mice for the snakes to eat. It wasn’t my task, but the way the mice were killed freaked me out anyway. Later, when I got an actual job at the zoo, it sometimes was my task. I hated it.

Participants with high levels of sadism who chose to kill bugs reported taking significantly greater pleasure in the task than those who chose another task, and their pleasure seemed to correlate with the number of bugs they killed, suggesting that sadistic behavior may hold some sort of reward value for those participants.

And a second study revealed that, of the participants who rated high on one of the “dark” personality traits, only sadists chose to intensify blasts of white noise directed at an innocent opponent when they realized the opponent wouldn’t fight back. They were also the only ones willing to expend additional time and energy to be able to blast the innocent opponent with the noise.

Together, these results suggest that sadists possess an intrinsic motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others, even at a personal cost — a motivation that is absent from the other dark personality traits.

The researchers hope that these new findings will help to broaden people’s view of sadism as an aspect of personality that manifests in everyday life, helping to dispel the notion that sadism is limited to sexual deviants and criminals.

I’m learning it. But god damn I do not like it.

 

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Any word on the political inclinations of these everyday sadists? – he asked disingenuously.

  2. jagwired says

    It’s even worse when they have political aspirations themselves. That’s a recipe for a ruined country or even a ruined planet.

  3. says

    I’m learning it. But god damn I do not like it.

    You can’t fight what you don’t understand. No illusions, no fantasies. Whatever it is accepting it and moving on from there. If there are social buttons to push, critical alignments of relationships to take advantage of, or other solutions there is no other way of finding them. Just try to remember that whatever we find, it was always here. We just didn’t have it very well defined yet.

    I don’t suppose it would be worth it to organize a direct comparison between research of this nature and the slymepit itself? There may be value in directly comparing an internet community with sociological and psychological research. After all if these “skeptics” had any real respect for science it might even be valuable to get some of them closer to a catharsis.

  4. Dave Ricks says

    From The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck, 1978, pp. 113-114: 

    Laymen tend to associate sadism and masochism with purely sexual activity, thinking of them as the sexual enjoyment derived from inflicting or receiving physical pain. Actually, true sexual sadomasochism is a relatively uncommon form of psychopathology. Much, much more common, and ultimately more serious, is the phenomenon of social sadomasochism, in which people unconsciously desire to hurt and be hurt by each other through their nonsexual interpersonal relations.

    I would temper that quote by replacing one judgmental sentence (“Actually, true sexual sadomasochism is a relatively uncommon form of psychopathology.”) with a more simply descriptive sentence (“Actually, true sexual sadomasochism is relatively uncommon.”).  Either way, his point stands, there is a common and therefore serious problem of people unconsciously desiring to hurt and be hurt in their nonsexual social transactions.

    I do my best to observe this constantly and modulate my behavior accordingly.  It’s not a verse in the Tao Te Ching but it should be.

  5. says

    The very idea of physically harming someone in anything other than the most dire act of self-defence is deeply disturbing to me. I empathise too readily. I’ve done acts of violence, in my self-defence, so I’m not just speculating here. Even thinking about those times, I find the things I did nauseating.

    The only people I have a hard time empathising with are those who display no shred of empathy themselves. I can’t imagine what it would be like to completely fail to care about what is happening to people around me.

    So I guess I’m probably pretty low on the whole sadism scale.

  6. says

    Also, I’m really sorry you’ve had these sadists focus on you, OB. It’s brutal and undeserved and gross and inhuman. Dunno how you are on the concept of the internet hug, but I offer those, if wanted.

  7. maudell says

    I am questioning the first study’s assumptions… Not sure if killing bugs can be extrapolated to sadism with mammals/human beings. For example, I am the biggest wimp when it comes to preparing live seafood. I *love* crab, and it’s plentiful here. I just can’t buy it, because I feel bad for the crab (it’s not rational). I bought live shrimp once, and they became my pet shrimps instead of dinner. But then I eat meat, so I am aware that this is only a ‘feel good’ impulse. I would also hate to feed mice to reptiles.
    However, I don’t feel the same about fruit flies and aphids. When I see aphids invading my garden, I get a sort of OCD reaction, and I must kill them all. I get very applied in my task, and I’m pretty sure my sadistic impulses are off the roof. Same with fruit fly invasions in my home. My brain switches to killing mode.
    It’s possible that I am a sadistic asshole and I don’t realize it. Hurting other human beings or animals is definitely not fun for me.
    But bugs? I’m unconvinced.

  8. left0ver1under says

    For those who never saw them (re: jagwired’s comment), back in the early 2000s there were quite a few news items about George Bush’s sociopathy. His acts in college ranged from passive aggressive behaviour to cheap shots on the rugby field (e.g. eye gouging, sucker punches). Another item mentioned a childhood friend of Bush describing how the two would kill frogs and other animals with firecrackers. Examples of his callous disregard for human life as Texas governor and unelected pResident are too numerous to document.

    http://www.salon.com/2004/09/16/tsurumi/

    http://www.topplebush.com/humor/bushsuckerpunch.gif

    Just curious: What was the reason the zoo and Reptile House gave for killing rodents beforehand? Was it to prevent the rodents fighting back and injuring or infecting the snakes during feeding? My family had pet cats over the years that caught and killed mice. I found it much easier to stomach watching “nature take its course” than doing it myself (killing chickens for the family dinner).

  9. Amy Clare says

    @7 maudell: I think there’s a psychological difference between killing insects that are invading your living space or garden, and killing them when they pose no threat. I’ve killed aphids that are choking my veggie plants, but I wouldn’t walk into a lab and macerate them just for funsies. The experiment in the OP sounds like it’s measuring people’s tendency to do the latter.

    It is certainly depressing to read about, but I’m not surprised. I’m convinced that my school bully enjoyed inflicting harm on me and this just strengthens that thought.

  10. medivh says

    @Maudell, #7 and Amy #9: While Amy’s pointed out an important difference, I think another one is that satisfaction with killing the bugs was measured, and rose in accordance to how many bugs were “killed”. I’d guess that Maudell’s satisfaction would be with maintaining the plants and not with killing bugs; that if Maudell was asked to kill bugs independently of anything, that satisfaction would be low.

    I’d like to see how, if number of bugs “killed” were controlled, satisfaction with killing bugs varied versus the dark personality trait scores mentioned. I suspect, personally, there would be a fairly large correlation.

  11. leni says

    Maudelle, they aren’t talking about pest control. They are talking about choosing to kill things when you don’t have to and deriving pleasure from it.

    Participants with high levels of sadism who chose to kill bugs reported taking significantly greater pleasure in the task than those who chose another task, and their pleasure seemed to correlate with the number of bugs they killed, suggesting that sadistic behavior may hold some sort of reward value for those participants.

  12. leni says

    So does regular interaction on the internet, and it’s very depressing. I mean really depressing. I don’t like realizing that a lot of people like to inflict pain just for the hilarity of it.

    There may be a lot of them, but there’s more of us. A lot more of us. Let them think this is an apocalypse and we are the zombies. That’s probably what they already think so you might as well take advantage of it :)

    Aside from appealing to their vanity or self preservation, those people are largely unreachable. There’s no point getting depressed about them.

    Save your energy, good or bad, for the people who are reachable.

  13. Gordon Willis says

    Why choose the bug-killing task in the first place? It’s one thing to try to stop your floorboards being eaten and another to choose to kill creatures that have been specially provided only for mass-slaughter. Why not clean the toilets instead? Plenty of bugs to usefully kill there, more than likely.

    Ophelia, I agree with leni and CaitieCat. Assume that virtual hugs are instantly available.

  14. stevebowen says

    Just curious: What was the reason the zoo and Reptile House gave for killing rodents beforehand? Was it to prevent the rodents fighting back and injuring or infecting the snakes during feeding?

    I keep snakes and feed pre-killed rodents (bought frozen) for exactly this reason. I have been told by others that live rodents display extreme anxiety when introduced to a snake’s vivarium, so probably that would be even more cruel to the prey.

  15. Pen says

    I know when my daughter was very small and a particular other kid bullied her at school we were told he was just too young to understand that he was causing suffering. This is a very common explanation but I never really bought it. He didn’t go round hitting rocks, or wall, or cushions or any other inanimate object. Not even ones that squeaked and wailed. He directed all his attentions to humans. If he didn’t understand that their squeaks and wails represented something he was seeking to cause, then why?

    On a social level we understand that this is true when we say stuff like ‘don’t give them the pleasure’…’don’t feed the trolls’, it lets them know they scored a hit, like the crunching sounds made by that coffee grinder. Particularly, if you must feed them, don’t let them know whether they scored a hit or not.

  16. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to call people who hurt other people- or kill insects- for pleasure without sexual enjoyment “sadists”. The author T. H. White- himself a sadist- discussed sadism in some of his letters . Ordinary cruelty- “motiveless malignity”, psychopathy or whatever other term you use- seems to be much more common and dangerous. Going by White, true sadists are often reluctant in their feelings and when they engage in sadomasochistic sexual activity seem to have elaborate and complicated protective rituals- “safe words” etc.- to limit themselves, whereas ordinary general cruel people seem to know no limits but what they can get away with.

  17. says

    And left0ver1under @8 – the reason was so as not to freak out the public. Zoos don’t put live goats and sheep in the lions’ or tigers’ enclosures either.

    On the other hand as far as I remember the off-exhibit animals got killed mice & rats too, so apparently that wasn’t the only reason.

  18. octopod says

    sc_* @ #18: I see your point, but I don’t think that only applies to sexual sadists. In fact, I know someone who feels the kind of nonsexual pleasure-from-cruelty we’re discussing here, while simultaneously finding it ethically unpalatable. As a consequence he works pretty hard to not allow himself to experience it under conditions where it would be unethical, which is most of them.

  19. anat says

    To Ophelia @#20 I was told by a zookeeper that at least some of the large cats must be fed killed prey in order to be able to be content in their enclosure. If they kill prey they instinctively move to a different area to seek prey there, so the area required to contain them would be the size of their natural territory in the wild (could be as big as half the city), whereas as long as they eat pre-killed meat they stay put.

  20. leni says

    I forgot about this thread and it’s pretty old but sc:

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to call people who hurt other people- or kill insects- for pleasure without sexual enjoyment “sadists”.

    Sexual pleasure is only one kind of pleasure and there are many ways to hurt people. Though apparently there is some overlap:

    DSM-III-R Criteria for Sadistic Personality Disorder[edit]

    A) A pervasive pattern of cruel, demeaning and aggressive behavior, beginning by early adulthood, as indicated by the repeated occurrence of at least four of the following:

    * Has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him or her)
    * Humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others
    * Has treated or disciplined someone under his or her control unusually harshly (e.g., a child, student, prisoner, or patient)
    * Is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals)
    * Has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal)
    * Gets other people to do what he or she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror)
    * Restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has close relationship (e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teenage daughter to attend social functions)
    *Is fascinated by violence, weapons, martial arts, injury, or torture

    B) The behavior in A has not been directed toward only one person (e.g., spouse, one child) and has not been solely for the purpose of sexual arousal (as in sexual sadism).[11]

    (emphasis and bullets mine)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>