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
This is not the first psychology study to involve the apparent killing of bugs. Check out “How killing begets more killing“.