“Everyday Sadists Take Pleasure In Others’ Pain”

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.

Two studies led by psychological scientist Erin Buckels of the University of British Columbia revealed that people who score high on a measure of sadism seem to derive pleasure from behaviors that hurt others, and are even willing to expend extra effort to make someone else suffer.

The new findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Some find it hard to reconcile sadism with the concept of ‘normal’ psychological functioning, but our findings show that sadistic tendencies among otherwise well-adjusted people must be acknowledged,” says Buckels.  “These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others’ suffering.”

Based on their previous work on the “Dark Triad” of personality, Buckels and colleagues Delroy Paulhus of the University of British Columbia and Daniel Jones of the University of Texas El Paso surmised that sadism is a distinct aspect of personality that joins with three others — psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism — to form a “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits.

via Association for Psychological Science.

So this looks like another one of those experiments where one might assume participants are likely to experience psychological trauma at being unmasked….is that an ethical question or simply one of the hazards of confronting oneself?

Is it part of volunteering for psych tests?

Is being unmasked as a sadist somehow more ethical – because sadism is bad – than some other psych situation that causes trauma?

I think the Milgram experiment – however useful it might have been – seems unethical. I think psych participants should be protected from anything likely to cause identity trauma – or, conversely, the experimenters should take responsibility for helping participants resolve any issues brought up as a result of such participation. As long as dishonesty is a necessary component of psychological research (since many experiments could not succeed if the participants gave truly informed consent), it seems abusive to simply use people and then leave them damaged and unhealed.

Or there’s the quickie way to make sure nobody is ever mistreated in the act of participating in a study: require scientists to volunteer for each others’ experiments. That’s one way to make clear exactly who is paying how much and for what: if scientists might end up on either side of an experiment, would things like the Milgram experiment still happen – and would that change (if any) be a good thing or a bad thing?