Is sadism a mental disorder?

Sadistic Personality Disorder: The Cleveland Tragedy

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states …Read More

How is it possible that one human being can perpetrate such pain and suffering on other human beings as happened in Cleveland with the three women who were kidnapped as teenagers and held in captivity for ten years? Not only were they held captive but were beaten, raped and dehumanized in every way possible. Why would someone do such a terrible thing? For most of us it is difficult to grasp, explain or understand how such a thing can happen. Unhappily, it happens all too often. The Holocaust is one example of mankind dehumanizing others. Similar types of things have happened in prisoner of war camps where prisoners are beaten and killed even after they are no longer in combat. Then, too, there have been many and recent examples of others being kidnapped and held captive for many years. What makes this possible? One theory is that that these people have a Sadistic Personality Disorder for which there is no known cause and for which there is no listing in the DSM four or five.

However, one explanation is that the perpertrators of these horrors were harshly and constantly emotionally, physically and sexually abused during childhood. Unfavorable experiences during childhood or in early stages of sexual development are believed to be one of the major contributing factors in the development of a sadistic personality. It has also been observed that sadism or a sadistic personality can also get developed in an individual through learning. For instance, continually being exposed to situations in which sexual enjoyment or of excitement with the anguish of others can cause sadism or sadomasochism. In other words, the suffering of others gives pleasure and observing that suffering feels good.

What is a personality disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “a personality disorder is a type of mental illness in which you have trouble perceiving and relating to situations and to people — including yourself. There are many specific types of personality disorders. In general, having a personality disorder means you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking and behaving no matter what the situation. This leads to significant problems and limitations in relationships, social encounters, work and school.”

What is sadism?

According to Wikipedia, Sadism involves gaining pleasure from seeing others undergo pain or discomfort. It’s the way in which individuals not only display, but also take enjoyment in committing sadistic acts. Individuals possessing sadistic personality display recurrent cruel behavior and aggression. Sadism can also include the use of emotional cruelty, purposefully manipulating others through the use of fear, and a preoccupation with violence.

Sexual Sadism:

The essential feature of sexual sadism is a feeling of sexual excitement resulting from administering pain, suffering, or humiliation to another person. The pain, suffering, or humiliation inflicted on the other is real; it is not imagined and may be either physical or psychological in nature. A person with a diagnosis of sexual sadism is sometimes called a sadist. The name of the disorder is derived from the proper name of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), a French aristocrat who became notorious for writing novels around the theme of inflicting pain as a source of sexual pleasure.

All of this information helps provide an explanation for why accused kidnapper and rapist, Ariel Castro committed those awful and sadistic acts. In fact, he did not do these things out of “thin air” but had a history of abuse. For example:

Castro had an order of protection filed against him by his common law wife for brutalizing her and kidnapping their children on several occasions in order to keep them from their mother. She reported to police that Castro had broken her nose(twice), her ribs, given her lacerations, knocked out her tooth, caused her to form a blood clot on her brain, dislocated her shoulder, (twice, one on each side,) and threatened to kill her and their daughters. This happened 3 to 4 times in the past year.

Besides having a sadistic personality disorder, it is clear that this man is psychopathic. In other words, he experiences no guilt or remorse for the people he has brutalized. That is how he was able to imprison them for ten long years. The psychopath has no empathy or sympathy for others. How else does one inflict such pain and suffering on others. In addition, the captivity of these three women provided him with the opportunity to take full sexual control over them. He got them pregnant and beat and starved them to make them abort. In one case, a pregnancy was allowed to go full term. He exerted full control over them by keeping them in a dark world where they were kept bound and chained.

Most human beings are guided by a sense of morality, conscience, empathy and warmth towards others. That is why someone like Castro is so incomprehensible. Yet, he is not alone in committing these types of heinous acts. By the way, it is said that men constitute 90% of these cases.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Read In Order Of Posting

Aggressive behavior brings emotional pain to the sadist

The research appears in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

“Sadistic tendencies don’t just exist in serial killers, but in everyday people and are strongly-linked to greater aggressive behavior,” says David Chester (Virginia Commonwealth University), lead author of the study.

In the real world, sadists might be someone bullying others to feel better, or a group of sports fans looking for rival fans to fight for the “excitement” of it.

In a lab setting, the scientists gauged people’s aggressive and sadistic tendencies by measuring participant’s likelihood to seek vengeance or to harm an innocent person.

For some cases, the virtual event may have been having someone eat hot sauce as punishment or blasting an opponent with loud noises and reading about their suffering.


With each scenario, the researchers found those with a history of aggression and sadistic behaviors, as measured by personality tests and questionnaires, showed more pleasure in causing harm to others, as expected, but they also saw that their overall mood went down following the event.

The authors were surprised to see the negative impact on mood.

It may be due to how aggression affects the brain, making people perceive something as pleasurable, when it actually creates the opposite effect, suggests Chester.

Better understanding the dynamic emotions that drive sadistic aggression may help people create interventions as well.

How aggression and sadistic behaviors tie into the cycle of violence

If they break the link between pleasure and inflicting pain, by changing how the sadist perceives the harm they inflict, or by helping the sadist understand how it will harm them, Chester suspects we may be able to “short-circuit” the aggression cycle.


The complex relations between the positive feelings before or during aggression in sadists, coupled with the negative mood following a sadistic behavior, suggests there are several ways to understand, and hopefully address, violence.

“Aggression is often thought of as a product of negative feelings such as anger, frustration, and pain — yet this is not the whole story,” says Chester. Their research on the link between aggression and sadism suggest that positive feelings are also an important cause of human violence.

“Going forward, psychologists should not neglect this side of the aggressive coin,” says Chester.

Colleagues C. Nathan DeWall and Brian Enjaian (both University of Kentucky) contributed to the research.

Sadistic Personality Disorder

Discover the characteristics of Sadistic Personality Disorder and the sadist. Plus the different types of sadists and why people become sadists.

  • Watch the video on The Sadistic Narcissist

The Sadistic Personality Disorder made its last appearance in the DSM III-TR and was removed from the DSM IV and from its text revision, the DSM IV-TR. Some scholars, notably Theodore Millon, regard its removal as a mistake and lobby for its reinstatement in future editions of the DSM.

The Sadistic Personality Disorder is characterized by a pattern of gratuitous cruelty, aggression, and demeaning behaviors which indicate the existence of deep-seated contempt for other people and an utter lack of empathy. Some sadists are “utilitarian”: they leverage their explosive violence to establish a position of unchallenged dominance within a relationship. Unlike psychopaths, they rarely use physical force in the commission of crimes. Rather, their aggressiveness is embedded in an interpersonal context and is expressed in social settings, such as the family or the workplace.

This narcissistic need for an audience manifests itself in other circumstances. Sadists strive to humiliate people in front of witnesses. This makes them feel omnipotent. Power plays are important to them and they are likely to treat people under their control or entrusted to their care harshly: a subordinate, a child, a student, a prisoner, a patient, or a spouse are all liable to suffer the consequences of the sadist’s “control freakery” and exacting “disciplinary” measures.

Sadists like to inflict pain because they find suffering, both corporeal and psychological, amusing. They torture animals and people because, to them, the sights and sounds of a creature writhing in agony are hilarious and pleasurable. Sadists go to great lengths to hurt others: they lie, deceive, commit crimes, and even make personal sacrifices merely so as to enjoy the cathartic moment of witnessing someone else’s misery.

Sadists are masters of abuse by proxy and ambient abuse. They terrorize and intimidate even their nearest and dearest into doing their bidding. They create an aura and atmosphere of unmitigated yet diffuse dread and consternation. This they achieve by promulgating complex “rules of the house” that restrict the autonomy of their dependants (spouses, children, employees, patients, clients, etc.). They have the final word and are the ultimate law. They must be obeyed, no matter how arbitrary and senseless are their rulings and decisions.

Most sadists are fascinated by gore and violence. They are vicarious serial killers: they channel their homicidal urges in socially acceptable ways by “studying” and admiring historical figures such as Hitler, for instance. They love guns and other weapons, are fascinated by death, torture, and martial arts in all their forms.

The Monk-sadist

In broad strokes, there are two types of sadists: the Monster and the Monk.

We are all acquainted with the first type, the habitué protagonist of horror films, as described above, in this article.

Far less known and acknowledged is the Monk-sadist. He tortures people by confronting them with a personal example of unparalleled and unsurpassed morality, rectitude, virtue, asceticism, and righteousness. His saintly conduct is intended solely to inflict pain by allowing him to criticize, berate, and chastise from a position of high moral ground. His soapbox is his weapon as he poses and imposes impossible demands and untenable standards of behavior, setting up his victims to failure and humiliation.

Having thus secured their fall from grace, he then proceeds to harp on their shortcomings, errors, peccadilloes, and vulnerabilities, labelling them “moral turpitude” and “decadence”. He dispenses punishment with relish and basks in the agony and writhing of his flock, charges, or interlocutors.

Read about these two subtypes of Monk-sadists:

The Misanthropic Altruist

The Compulsive Giver

The Narcissist as a Sadist – Click HERE!

Read Notes from the therapy of a Sadistic Patient

This article appears in my book, “Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited”

next: Masochistic Personality Disorder

10 Ways to Spot an ‘Everyday’ Sadist

Source: beboy/

The film series based on the Fifty Shades of Grey novels brought into theaters a vivid depiction of the forms that sadism can take in the bedroom.

But there is a more pervasive, and more mundane, type of sadism hiding within the recesses of many individuals’ personalities.

Psychologists talk about “the dark triad” in personality, representing a perfect-storm combination of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. People high in the dark triad traits callously use people to their own advantage, seeing them as tools to exploit in order to get what they want.

To be sure, enjoying the suffering of others—the hallmark of sadism—can be part of the picture in the dark triad constellation. However, personality psychologists are beginning to believe that a predilection for cruelty stands on its own in understanding why one person would want to harm another. Rather than express itself in behavior that results in humiliation, maiming, or death, however, there’s a kind of everyday sadism that shows up in more benign, everyday form.

You might even express the everyday form of sadism without realizing it.

Perhaps you enjoy the rush of blasting a videogame opponent’s avatars to bits. At a hockey game, you may cheer less for your team to score than for members of both teams to engage in a violent clashing of sticks and bodies against the glass. Action movies involving battles to the death may be your favorite form of entertainment. In all of these cases, you’re taking pleasure from ordinary experiences in which the cruelty (other than at the hockey game) is vicarious.

University of British Columbia psychologist Erin Buckels and collaborators (2013) decided to investigate the idea that everyday sadists are willing to inflict real, not just vicarious, harm. They also reasoned that people high in this less overt form of sadism might themselves become more aggressive when provoked than other individuals. Further, they believed it possible for sadism to provide a unique prediction of antisocial behavior above and beyond those of the dark triad qualities.

To investigate everyday sadism in actual behavior, they needed to come up with a laboratory task that would mimic the kind of casual harm-producing behavior people might perform in their daily life. But translating everyday sadism into a lab setting is, understandably, a challenge: You have to invent a task that will not actually hurt people but which has to seem realistic. Buckels and her team zeroed in on bug-killing. The act of killing a bug, they argued, would satisfy a sadistic desire to cause a live creature harm through direct physical contact.

To test their theory, they offered participants a choice of unpleasant tasks in which killing bugs would be one alternative among a set of unpleasant but non-sadistic options. They settled on these three choices (plus bug-killing) as possible “jobs” a participant could pick—assisting someone else in killing bugs; cleaning dirty toilets; and putting their hand in a bucket of ice water. (In case you’re worried, the bug-killing wasn’t real, but it appeared to be, as the bugs were supposedly being ground in a machine that would loudly crunch them into bits.)

To identify the everyday sadists in the sample, Buckels and her team used the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS) developed by University of College Cork psychologist Aisling O’Meara and her team (2011). They also administered dark triad questionnaires to be able to tease out the separate contributions of sadism from those other three qualities.

As expected, the highly sadistic-scoring participants were the most likely to choose the bug-killing task. After completing the task, they also reported enjoying it the most—and, if they had chosen a different task, seemed to regret not having taken on the bug-killing job in the first place.

In the second laboratory task, the highly sadistic were compared with their less cruelty-oriented counterparts in their willingness, in a button-pushing competition, to attack an opponent who they believed would not attack them back. Over the course of the experiment, participants had the opportunity to blast white noise into the headphones of their opponents for every trial that they won. The situation was rigged, of course—there was no actual opponent. However, the participants were led to believe that their opponent would not attack them back after receiving the ear-disrupting blast.

The question, then, was whether those high in sadism would continue to inflict the aversive stimulus to a non-attacking opponent. As it turned out, not only were the everyday sadists quicker to harm their opponents, but they would also work harder for the opportunity to blast them some more. Dark triad qualities, as in the bug-killing experiment, didn’t predict the outcome of noise-blasting tendencies—but sadism did.

We have pretty good evidence, then, that people who score high on a questionnaire measure of sadism may also behave in the casual, everyday ways that might be similar to these lab tasks. That questionnaire measure appears, then, to have reasonably good validity as a way to predict who will kill for the sake of killing (bugs, of course, not people) and who could inflict harm on an opponent offering an olive branch.

Now that you know that the SSIS questionnaire predicted people’s lab behavior, you can take the questionnaire yourself, or look at each item from the vantage point of a person you’d like to rate. Other personality research shows that ratings of people we know on questionnaire measures can provide fairly reliable insights into those people’s dispositions. In fact, in some cases, the ratings we make of others are even more accurate than those we make of ourselves. This is because it can be difficult to admit having certain qualities, perhaps particularly so when considering the darker sides of our nature, which we would prefer to think we don’t have.

With this background, then, here are the 10 questions from the SSIS. Each one is rated simply as “describes me/this person” or “does not describe me/this person”:

  1. I enjoy seeing people hurt.
  2. I would enjoy hurting someone physically, sexually, or emotionally.
  3. Hurting people would be exciting.
  4. I have hurt people for my own enjoyment.
  5. People would enjoy hurting others if they gave it a go.
  6. I have fantasies which involve hurting people.
  7. I have hurt people because I could.
  8. I wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone. (Reversed-scored)
  9. I have humiliated others to keep them in line.
  10. Sometimes I get so angry I want to hurt people.

Now, scoring one point for each Yes answer (or No on number 8), compare your scores with those from the participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 65 but were mostly undergraduates. Although the scores from participants did range from 1 to 10, meaning that some participants did in fact endorse every item, 96% of the sample scored at 4 or lower. Thus, if you, or the person you’re rating, scored at 5 or higher, you or that person may fall within the small minority of the population who could be considered everyday sadists. (The more sadistic are particularly likely to endorse the items on the SSIS dealing with fantasy and self-gratification.)

O’Meara and her team examined the relationships among the SSIS and other relevant measures to find out if sadism and empathy were related. The pattern of findings led them to conclude that everyday sadists are aware of the impact that their actions have on others but don’t have a particular concern for how those people feel.

Returning to the Buckels study, it was people with scores on the SSIS of close to 2 who were most likely to choose the bug-killing option. Apparently, it doesn’t take much to qualify as an everyday sadist. Agreeing with just two of the items appears to put an individual at risk; four is even more atypical.

Perhaps with the popularity of 50 Shades, and whatever copycat movies it stimulates, we’ll be more willing to look at sadism as a part of the human experience. Fortunately, it’s only the minority who would ever take their desire to harm others from the realm of fantasy to that of everyday behavior.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

Facebook image: Yunaco/

Everyday Sadists Walk Among Us, Study Says

Whether it’s the Marquis de Sade, the evil stepmother from Snow White, or Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, all sadists take great pleasure in inflicting pain on others. Fortunately, you are unlikely to meet those particular three anytime soon, but according to an unusual duo of studies conducted in Vancouver, British Columbia, and published in Psychological Science this week, it is very possible you will bump into a boss, a colleague, or even a family member who may be considered an “everyday sadist.”

While most people try to avoid hurting others — and will feel guilty, remorseful, and distressed if they do hurt someone intentionally or unintentionally — an everyday sadist enjoys being cruel and may find it exciting.

“We have probably all encountered people in our daily lives who — at least seem to — enjoy hurting others,” said lead researcher Erin Buckels, MA, who conducted this work as part of her master’s thesis in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of British Columbia. She is now a doctoral student at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

“Everyday sadists lack empathy, and they possess an internal motivation to hurt others. However, they are unlikely to act in a way that would be criminal or dangerous — at least in most contexts, where such behavior is met with social disapproval or punishment,” Buckels said.

Everyday sadists may be cousins to classic sociopaths in their lack of empathy, but they are not considered a danger to society in the same way. “It is only in situations where cruelty is encouraged or socially acceptable that dangerous behavior might enter the equation,” said Buckels. “Both sadistic personality and situational pressures are necessary for sadism to manifest with everyday people. War is one example of this confluence — we have all seen the images of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse. All forms of cruel behavior have the potential to be motivated by sadistic pleasure, including bullying and abuse by others. If it were done purely for pleasure, then it would be sadism.”

If You Like to Hurt Bugs, You May Be a Sadist

It’s one thing to take an empty mayonnaise jar to catch fireflies when you are a kid and accidentally forget to poke holes in it, causing the fireflies to die; or to dispose of unhealthy bugs like roaches or insects that can harm you. It’s another thing to enjoy harming bugs (or animals). Buckels used a bug-crushing exercise to draw the everyday sadists out in a controlled laboratory environment. For the experiment, she defined sadists in two ways: Their cruel behavior and felt pleasure in the lab, and personality characteristics consistent with sadism. A group of 71 participants were asked to fill out a sadism personality questionnaire and also given a list of four tasks they could choose from:

  • Killing bugs
  • Helping the experimenter kill bugs
  • Cleaning dirty toilets
  • Enduring pain from ice water

A bug-crunching machine fashioned out of a coffee grinder made distinct crunching sounds. Placed close to this machine were cups containing live pill bugs that were labeled with names like Muffin, Ike, and Tootsie. Those who selected bug-crushing were told to put the bugs into the machine and grind them up. Unbeknownst to them, there was a barrier that prevented the bugs from being dropped into the grinder. No bugs were killed for this experiment, but it brought the sadists out of the closet. Of 71 participants, nearly 28 percent chose to kill bugs.

What Exactly Is a Sadist?

Sadistic personality disorder was once defined as a mental illness, but over time sadism has been considered more of a lifestyle choice or a personality quirk or trait. The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), does include sexual sadism disorder. “This is marked by recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the suffering of others as manifested by fantasies, urges, and behaviors,” said Wilfried Busse, PhD, a psychotherapist based in Bethesda, Md. “To meet full criteria for the disorder, an individual also has to act on such urges by inflicting harm on a non-consenting individual, or must experience such uncontrollable urges to cause significant social and occupational impairment.”

“The central feature of sadism is deriving pleasure from watching or inflicting physical or psychological harm on others,” added Dr. Busse. “In the extreme form a sadist will seek to inflict suffering on another for the psychological gratification derived from such an action.”

Buckel’s study did not use classic criteria to define sadism – most widely known as sexual or criminal behavior – and instead explored sadism as it exists in the “subclinical” range of personality, an aspect of sadism not considered a mental illness.

“There is clearly a difference between a person who gets pleasure from killing bugs and a person who kills other humans for pleasure,” said Buckels. “That being said, the core experience of sadism is probably pretty similar for both of them. Our research has also revealed both similarities and differences between people who enjoy acting cruelly, or direct sadists, and those who simply enjoy watching cruelty, or vicarious sadists.Regardless of whom the victim is, direct aggression requires a certain amount of callousness and a lack of distress towards the suffering of another living creature.”

How to Spot a Sadist

There is a big difference between the kind of evil sadists we know from history and movies and people with sadistic impulses, who fall into a category of sadism that is considered a personality trait rather than a personality disorder.

“It is very important to differentiate between an antisocial, or sadistic, personality disorder and sadistic impulses,” said psychologist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a family therapist and author in Beverly Hills, Calif.

“Antisocial personality disorder is very rare,” Walfish said, offering examples such as Hitler, murderers who enjoy torturing their victims and watching them suffer, and, possibly, Syrian President Bashar Assad. “But the rest of us have unconscious sadistic impulses. Even the kindest, most loving person, when terribly mistreated, can feel an impulse of hate very strong,” she added.

Walfish explained that there are several sub-types of sadists:

Explosive sadist. When disappointed and/or frustrated with their lives, humiliated or hopeless, they lose control and seek revenge for the mistreatment to which they feel subjected. They are known for being unpredictably violent. This manifests through tantrums, fearsome attacks on others, especially family members, and uncontrollable rage.

Tyrannical sadist. They are frightening and cruel because they appear to relish the act of menacing and brutalizing others; forcing their victims to cower and submit gives them satisfaction.

Enforcing sadist. They tend to be military sergeants, deans of universities, prison overseers, police officers or people with other authoritative functions who feel they should be the ones controlling and punishing people who have broken rules, regulations or laws.

Spineless sadist. They are typically deeply insecure and act like cowards. In anticipation of real danger, they project their hostile fantasies and strike first, hoping thereby to forestall their antagonist and ask questions later. They use aggressive hostility to send the message to others that they aren’t intimidated or fearful, so that they can control their inner feelings and display the exact opposite of how they actually feel. They seek out scapegoats to gang up on, which allows them to assault the exact things that exist within themselves that they want to deny.

Everyday sadist. There is a renewed interest in studying subclinical sadism as a personality trait, said Walfish. Subclinical psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and everyday sadism form the so-called “Dark Tetrad” of personality.

“These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others’ suffering,” said Walfish. “The type of person the study is referring to are, for instance, the co-worker who repeatedly humiliates you and smiles or appears to reap pleasure from hurting you. If you self-advocate and say something that inflames your co-worker, she retaliates with evil revenge, further humiliating you.”

Exercise Caution Around Everyday Sadists

The British Columbia researchers surmised that everyday sadists are not the most popular people.“A person who has a high score on a sadism personality questionnaire is unlikely to be regarded as a nice and loving person,” said Buckels. “That is not to say that they are always nasty or that they can’t love others; but in general, high scorers tend to be less nice than average.”

How does someone become an everyday sadist? “In general, the cause or reason someone wants to go the extra effort to hurt another is because someone terribly mistreated them,” said Walfish. “That someone is usually their mother, father, or an older sibling. The sadist was a receptacle, or container, for hostility and evil meanness. These toxic feelings become too much for one to bear. They have no choice but to find a weaker victim and spew their venom onto the other.”

“Within their own families and in the workplace these people cannot be trusted,” Walfish observed. “No one can ever feel safe with them. Therefore, they do not have real relationships. They engage by exploiting, manipulating, and using other people as a means to their own end. The best thing to do is keep reasonable distance from these people. Always be pleasant so you don’t become their target. This does not mean to kiss up. It just means you present yourself as a benign nice guy. Never do business or get close to one of these people. They will always take you down.”

Buckels said she was surprised to find such a low baseline of positive emotions reported by sadists. “They are not just acting out to compensate for deep-rooted insecurity or low self-esteem,” she said. “Interestingly, after an act of cruelty, their moods seemed to lighten, suggesting instead that the sadist’s appetite for cruelty derives from some diabolical need. Although speculative, our hypothesis is that sadists have an underlying deficit that is sated through cruelty’s rewards.”


There’s something immensely intriguing about true crime stories. You’ve probably fallen victim to binge watching various docuseries that feature fascinating tales of tragedies. Your latest obsession may have you wondering — why would someone torment people, especially those they don’t even know?

By definition, a sadist is, “A person who derives pleasure from inflicting pain or humiliation on others.” Instinctively, when one thinks of sadists, they think of serial killers. However, we all know sadists. According to David Chester, they are everywhere to varying degrees. In fact, sadists are commonly considered bullies.

“Sadistic tendencies are impulses that people have to experience pleasure from inflicting harm on others,” he said. “These impulses exist in many people, not just violent criminals.”

A new study authored by Chester, who graduated with a doctorate in experimental psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences from the University of Kentucky, delves deeper into sadistic tendencies and aggressive behavior. More specifically, the emotions that accompany aggression.

“We examined the feelings that sadists associate with aggressive acts,” Chester explained. “We also tested whether the pleasure that sadists feel during and after aggression are contingent on the suffering of their victim.”

In a lab setting, researchers measured 2,000 people’s probability to seek vengeance or harm an innocent person. In some cases, the virtual scenarios included having someone eat hot sauce as punishment or blasting them with loud noises.

As expected, those with a history of aggression showed more pleasure in causing harm to others. However, in a shocking result, their overall mood went down afterwards. Contrary to popular belief, the aggressive behavior ultimately brought emotional pain — leaving them feeling worse than before.

“We expected that sadists would feel more pleasure and less pain after aggression, but we found the opposite. Sadistic individuals actually reported greater negative emotion after the aggressive act, suggesting that aggression feels good in the moment but that this pleasure quickly fades and is replaced by pain.”

Overall, the results provide credible evidence that sadists find pleasure in harming others, but once they believe their victims are no longer suffering the pleasure fades.

So, what can be done with this revelation?

Having a better understanding of emotions that drive sadistic aggression could help with intervention. By changing how a sadist perceives the harm they inflict — or by helping the sadist understand how it will harm them — Chester suspects, the aggression cycle could be broken.

“These findings will hopefully serve as a foundation for future research and treatment that seeks to understand and reduce the human tendency to inflict pain on others for the pleasure it brings,” he continued. “For example, if the pleasure of sadistic aggression is contingent on the perception that victims are suffering (as our research suggests), interventions that seek to reduce violence may be helped by blunting sadists’ perceptions that their victims are hurt by their actions (a counter-intuitive suggestion).”

Nathan DeWall, a psychology professor, and Brian Enjaian, a social psychology graduate student, both contributed to the research.

You can also review this research online. It appears in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Sexual Sadism Disorder

What is Sexual Sadism Disorder?

Prior to the release of the DSM-5, this disorder was known as Sexual Masochism and Sadism. Sexual Masochism and Sadism has now been split into two separate disorders of Sexual Masochism Disorder and Sexual Sadism Disorder. Both are classified as Paraphilic Disorders, which requires the presence of a paraphilia that is causing significant distress or impairment, or involve personal harm or risk of harm to others.

A paraphilia involves intense and persistent sexual interest (recurrent fantasies, urges or behaviors of a sexual nature) that center around children, non-humans (animals, objects, materials), or harming others or one’s self during sexual activity. Sometimes this sexual interest focuses on the person’s own erotic/sexual activities while in other cases, it focuses on the target of the person’s sexual interest.

In order to be diagnosed with a Paraphilic Disorder, the paraphilia needs to be causing significant distress or impairment, or involve personal harm or risk of harm to others. You can have a paraphilia, but not have a paraphilic disorder. It is only when it causes impairment, harm or the risk of harm that it become a clinical diagnosis.

Symptoms of Sexual Sadism Disorder include:

  • over a period of at least 6 months, a person has had recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors from the physical or psychological suffering of another person.
  • the individual has acted on these sexual urges with a nonconsenting person, or the fantasies and sexual urges are causing clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Clinicians can also specify if the disorder is:

  • In a controlled environment – usually applicable to people who are living in institutions or other settings where opportunities to engage in sadistic sexual behaviors are restricted.
  • In full remission – the person has not acted on the urges with a nonconsenting person, and there has not been distress or impairment for at least 5 years while in an uncontrolled (non-institutional) environment.

How common is Sexual Sadism Disorder?

The prevalence for Sexual Sadism Disorder in the general population is unknown. According to the DSM-5, depending on the criteria for sexual sadism, prevalence varies widely from 2% to 30%. Among committed sexual offenders in the United States, less than 10% have this disorder. Among those that have committed sexually motivated killings, rates of sexual sadism disorder range from 37% to 75%.

Research in Australia estimated that 2.2% of males and 1.3% of females had been involved in bondage and discipline, or dominance and submission in a 12-month period.

Not much is currently known about the occurrence over time, but it is likely that the course of the disorder varies with age and that it will decrease as a person gets older.

What are the risk factors for Sexual Sadism Disorder?

Risk factors have not yet been identified for this disorder.

What other disorders or conditions often occur with Sexual Sadism Disorder?

Research in this area has focused on people (mostly males) who have been convicted of criminal acts involving sadistic behavior against nonconsenting individuals. This means that the co-occurring conditions found in this population might not be the same as in the general population. They typically include other paraphilic disorders.

How is Sexual Sadism Disorder treated?

Common treatments include psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be used where the therapist helps the person discover the underlying cause of the behavior and then works with the person to teach skills to manage the sexual urges in more health ways. This may include the use of aversion therapy and different types of imagery/desensitization in which the person imagines themselves in the situation and then experiencing a negative event, such as being arrested, to reduce future interest in participating in the sadistic activities. Cognitive restructuring (identifying and changing the thoughts that drive the behavior) and empathy training may also be used.

Various medications can be used to decrease the level of circulating testosterone in order to reduce the frequency of sexual fantasies and erections. Antidepressant medications may also be used to reduce sexual desire.

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