Shining a Light on Dark Personalities | Part One: Spotting the Sadist

Miriam King is currently a Lecturer in Psychology in Carlow College, St Patrick’s. Miriam’s research interests include dark personality traits, defence mechanisms, criminal psychology and clinical psychology. This four-part series introduces the reader to the distinct yet overlapping traits of the Dark Tetrad: 1) Spotting the Sadist; 2) Noticing the Narcissist; 3) Meeting the Machiavellian; 4) Pinpointing the Psychopath

The dark traits are associated with negative and destructive behaviours, deficits in affective empathy, callousness, and engagement in behaviour that is ethically, morally, and socially questionable (Chabrol et al., 2015; Moshagen et al., 2018; Pajevic et al., 2018; Paulhus, 2014). The dark traits share “tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness” (Paulhus & Williams, 2002, p. 557).

When an individual is high in one of the dark traits, they tend to be high in them all.

Reader beware: As Nietzsche (1886) warns us “if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” (p. 146).

Spotting the Sadist

What is Sadism?

The term “sadism” originated from Marquis de Sade, a French Nobleman and writer (Donatien-Alphonse-François, Comte de Sade; 1740 – 1814) whose writings depicted cruel sexual acts. He spent approximately 32 years in prisons and asylums for abduction, torture, and sexual assaults.

A sadist can be defined as “a person who humiliates others, shows a longstanding pattern of cruel or demeaning behavior to others, or intentionally inflicts physical, sexual, or psychological pain or suffering on others in order to assert power and dominance or for pleasure and enjoyment” (O’Meara et al., 2011, p. 523).

Individuals high in the trait of sadism experience positive affect – pleasure – when being aggressive, when controlling, and when punishing and humiliating others (Chester et al., 2019; Myers et al., 2006). Sadists actively pursue and enjoy hurting others with a central aim of deriving pleasure from inflicting pain (Buckels et al., 2014; O’Meara et al., 2011). Sadism is not limited to inflicting physical hurt- sadists can also cause psychological and emotional pain. It is not the act of inflicting pain that brings the sadist pleasure, but their victim’s reaction.

Misconceptions and Manifestations

The term “sadism” or “sadistic” may bring to mind sadistic killers such as Dennis Rader (known as Bind Torture Kill/BTK) who took pleasure in torturing his victims. However, sadism exists on a spectrum and can be covert or overt, passive or active.

Sadism is present in the general population and can range from the passive witnessing of another individual’s distress to active engagement in pranks with mild humiliation, to more extreme acts such as animal cruelty (O’Meara & Hammond, 2016). For some sadists, sadistic acts can grow and develop gradually over time, comparable to an addiction process (Baumeister, 1999; Baumeister & Campbell, 1999).

Rather than using instruments of torture to inflict physical pain, some sadists use psychological weapons such as gaslighting and micro-aggressions to inflict psychological and emotional pain. Although psychological and emotional wounds may not be as visible as physical wounds this does not mean that they cause any less pain to the victim.

Sadism is more common in males than females, however, that is not to say that female sadists can be any less dangerous (Pineda et al., 2021; Plouffe et al., 2016). Those high in sadism are willing to hurt innocent others, even if it means having to incur personal costs for the opportunity to inflict harm (Buckels et al., 2013). The goal of a sadist is to watch their victim suffer.

Motivations and Psychological Factors

The need for power is a central drive for sadistic behaviours. The sadistic power-seeker is dissatisfied when they fail to have a strong effect on others, and may respond violently towards threats to their ego, their favourable view of the self (Baumeister, 1999; Baumeister & Campbell, 1999). Sadists may become upset and frustrated if they believe they are being ignored or treated as irrelevant, if they are not impacting people. They may then try to reclaim and exert power by indulging in sadistic acts.

Boredom may contribute to sadistic impulses as the sadist may seek arousal and enjoyment through violent thrills (Baumeister & Campbell, 1999). It has been suggested that by reducing boredom and structuring free time, sadistic impulses may be reduced (Pfattheicher et al., 2020).

There may be a link between parental relationships and the development of sadism. It has been suggested that parental warmth (particularly from the father) could provide a degree of inoculation against the development of sadistic impulses (O’Meara et al., 2011).

The trait of sadism is linked with an over-exaggerated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for others, hostility, antagonism, and impulsivity (Lobbestael et al., 2023). Sadism can have devastating interpersonal and societal consequences (Lobbestael et al., 2023).

References and Further Reading:

Baumeister, R. F. (1999). Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. W.H. Freeman & Co.

Baumeister, R. F., & Campbell, W. K. (1999). The intrinsic appeal of evil: sadism, sensational thrills, and threatened egotism. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 3(3), 210–221.

Buckels, E. E.,  Trapnell, P. D., Delroy L. Paulhus, D. L. (2014) Trolls just want to have fun, Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 97-102,

Chabrol, H., Melioli, T., Van Leeuwen, N., Rodgers, R., & Goutaudier, N. (2015). The Dark Tetrad: Identifying personality profiles in high-school students. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 97–101.

Chester, D. S., DeWall, C. N., & Enjaian, B. (2019). Sadism and Aggressive Behavior: Inflicting Pain to Feel Pleasure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(8), 1252–1268.

Lobbestael, J., Slaoui, G., & Gollwitzer, M. (2023). Sadism and Personality Disorders. Current psychiatry reports, 25(11), 569–576.

Moshagen, M., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2018). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review, 125(5), 656–688.

Myers, W. C., Burket, R. C., & Husted, D. S. (2006). Sadistic personality disorder and comorbid mental illness in adolescent psychiatric inpatients. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 34(1), 61–71.

Nietzsche, F. (1886/1998). Beyond good and evil. Dover Publications.

O’Meara, A., Davies, J., & Hammond, S. (2011). The psychometric properties and utility of the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS). Psychological assessment, 23(2), 523–531.

O’Meara, A., & Hammond, S. (2016). The sadistic impulse and relating to others. In J. Birtchnell, M. Newberry, & A. Kalaitzaki, Relating theory—Clinical and forensic applications (p. 277–291). Palgrave Macmillan.

Pajevic, M., Vukosavljević-Gvozden, T.,  Stevanovic, N., & Neumann, C. (2018). The relationship between the Dark Tetrad and a two-dimensional view of empathy. Personality and Individual Differences. 123. 125-130. 10.1016/j.paid.2017.11.009.

Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Toward a Taxonomy of Dark Personalities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(6), 421–426.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556–563.

Pfattheicher, S., Lazarević, L. B., Westgate, E. C., & Schindler, S. (2020). On the relation of boredom and sadistic aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Pineda, D., Piqueras, J. A., Galán, M., & Martínez-Martínez, A. (2021). Everyday sadism: Psychometric properties of three spanish versions for assessing the construct. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. Advance online publication.

Plouffe, R.,  Saklofske, D., & Smith, M. (2016). The Assessment of Sadistic Personality: Preliminary Psychometric Evidence for a New Measure. Personality and Individual Differences. 104. 10.1016/j.paid.2016.07.043.

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