Psychologists have long discussed the idea that there exists a set of “dark” personality traits alongside the more benign Big Five — so much so, in fact, that one team of researchers argued that too much time had been spent pondering the darker side of human nature and that a “Light Triad” was needed to counteract it.
There is also debate around whether such traits — psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism and sadism — are stable, or whether they can be induced. The most famous exploration of the question is almost certainly Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment, which claimed that being in a powerful position over others — in this case, acting as a prison guard — could induce sadistic behaviour in apparently non-sadistic people. The experiment’s influence is undeniable; it’s even been made into a film. But it has also been subject to criticism, casting some doubt over the extent of its findings.
Now a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences has joined the conversation, examining whether sadistic tendencies can be induced. The study finds that they can — particularly in people who already have some level of sadistic interest — but leaves a question mark over what that might mean for real world behaviour.
Leonie Themelidis and Jason Davies from Swansea University recruited 322 participants to take part in the study. First, participants completed the Varieties of Sadistic Tendencies measure, in which they rated themselves on various statements measuring the enjoyment of directly sadistic or cruel behaviour (e.g. “I enjoy mocking losers to their face”) and the enjoyment of watching such behaviour without taking part (e.g. “I love YouTube clips of people fighting”).
Next, participants were split into two groups. One group saw 20 images of hands being given accidental or self-inflicted injuries (such as being cut while chopping vegetables), while a control group saw similar images without any depiction of injury. For each picture, participants completed an “empathy rating”, designed to make them think about how the person in the photograph might feel.
Finally, participants filled in another scale designed to screen sadistic personalities, rating on a scale from one to five how much they agreed with statements including “hurting people would be exciting” and “I enjoy seeing people hurt”.
For their analysis, the researchers split the participants into groups depending on whether they had low, medium, or high sadism scores at the beginning of the study. Among people with low scores, those who viewed the images of harm showed very slightly higher levels of sadism at the end of the study compared to those who viewed the control images.
But this effect was much more pronounced in those participants who had higher levels of sadism to begin with, supporting the hypothesis that images of harm can increase sadistic feeling. Female participants also tended to show a greater increase in sadism after viewing the pain pictures compared to males. This suggests that while to some degree sadism remains stable over time, particular states and contexts may increase it to a greater or lesser degree.
Why the images induced sadism, however, is unclear. The team makes two suggestions: that viewing pain was simply enjoyable to those with sadistic traits, or that the pictures triggered an elaborate fantasy or recall process, increasing sadistic feeling.
It’s important not to make too strong a conclusion about what the findings might say about sadistic behaviour. For one, the follow-up measure took place immediately after viewing images of harm, so the increase in feeling experienced by the participants may not endure over time. And the team only measured sadistic feelings and tendencies, so it’s unclear whether this kind of intervention actually produces changes in people’s behaviour. It’s also worth pointing out the scales included questions related to videogames (enjoying watching blood spurt in violent games) and sports (MMA matches) — things that many people enjoy harmlessly with little or no impact on their behaviour. Future research may look into the correlation between sadistic urges and the likelihood of actually harming others.