Thursday, 26 September 2013

A laboratory study of "everyday sadism"

No bugs or humans were hurt in the course of this research but the participants didn't know that at the time. Psychologist Erin Buckels and her colleagues tricked their volunteers for the purpose of investigating "everyday sadism" - the tendency for many "apparently normal, everyday people" to derive pleasure from inflicting pain on others.

Seventy-one students thought they were taking part in a study of personality and tolerance of challenging jobs. As such, they had to choose between killing bugs, helping kill bugs, cleaning toilets or enduring pain by placing their hand in iced water.

Buckels' team found that students who scored higher on a sadism questionnaire (e.g. do you agree "Hurting people is exciting?") were more likely to be among the 53 per cent who chose the bug killer or killer's assistant option. This involved placing Muffin, Ike and Tootsie (yes, the bugs had names) into a machine and grinding them to death, or watching someone else do the same. Sound effects gave the impression the bugs' exoskeletons were crunching like nut shells. In truth Muffin and co escaped via an emergency slide, but the students didn't realise this until later.

To the researchers' surprise, the high scorers on sadism actually reported less pleasure after the killing than the non-sadists. Closer examination provided some explanation. Sadists reported lower pleasure across all the challenges, not just the killing. And those sadists that did the killing reported more pleasure than those who didn't. "Sadists may use cruelty to compensate for a low baseline level of positive emotion," the researchers said.

Would you blast a stranger with loud white noise, just for the fun of it? Seventy-one student participants in a follow-up study had this very opportunity. They thought they were competing at a reaction time challenge with an opponent located in another room (in truth the whole thing was computerised). Each round they won, the students had a chance to blast their opponent. The "opponent" always refrained from such aggression on the rounds he won, and yet high scorers on sadism seized their chances to blaze his eardrums.

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".

"Our findings provide a glimpse into sadism in everyday life," the researchers concluded. "We hope this research will persuade readers to construe sadism as something more than a sexual disorder to be studied in hardened criminals."

Buckels EE, Jones DN, and Paulhus DL (2013). Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism. Psychological science PMID: 24022650

--Further reading--
This is not the first psychology study to involve the apparent killing of bugs. Check out "How killing begets more killing".

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Surely the questionnaire that asks about sadism has a priming effect. Those who feel that sadism is an interesting personality factor are more likely to put it down. From that point, there's going to be a drive to be consistent. There could be people on the fence about sadism who say they are because they think it's attractive or fun. They'll then strive to show this by their actions and by their pleasure ratings. I'm not saying this whole experiemtn is an artefact of this effect but I'm sure it could have had a small influence.

Anonymous said...

Having been a "guinea pig" in a few such studies, I can assure you that the questions put to people in the study were done in such a way to mask what the researchers were really wanting to find out. In short, they did not ask them directly "How sadistic are you?" or at any time use such explicit and open language. Instead, researchers designed an experiment with a series of tasks that they believed would elicit a certain range of responses from participants without the participants knowing that was the real thing they were being studied for. Researchers are allowed to conceal and keep hidden what they are really trying to find out so long as they do not do physical harm to you by depriving you of knowledge concerning the study you are participating in.

Anonymous said...

I've also participated in such studies, and my actions were shaped by the knowledge that psychologists routinely deceive subjects. Until and unless psychologists create a norm against subject deception (as experimental economists have done), they are never going to properly control the conditions of the experiment or get reliable results in general.

Anonymous said...

"Sadists may use cruelty to compensate for a low baseline level of positive emotion," the researchers said.

This is an interesting hypothesis. Is the correlation causal? Does better temporary mood or happiness predict lower sadism ratings? Does lower temporary mood predict higher sadism ratings in otherwise less sadistic individuals?

What about the relationship between sadism and functional aggression? Emotional dissatisfaction could be an instinctive heuristic to improve an individual's poor situation through social dominance or physical resource acquisition (e.g. hunting). This seems like the type of function where it is adaptive to have less compassion and maybe derive pleasure from aggression.

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