Feeling bored can be a factor in setting off sadistic behavior

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A team of researchers at Aarhus University has found evidence that suggests feeling bored can be a factor in setting off sadistic behavior.

In their paper published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, the group describes their review of nine unique studies they looked at that involved the study of sadistic behavior by people in different settings and what they found by doing so.

Prior research has shown that a large number of people engage in sadistic behavior – from insulting others, to taunting, bullying or physical abuse – people have at their disposal a long list of ways to hurt other people. In this new effort, the researchers looked at the role boredom plays in such behavior.

To learn more about such behavior, the researchers looked at nine unique studies that had been conducted to learn more about sadistic behavior. The first involved researchers sending personality assessments to large numbers of people and happened to include some questions about boredom. A closer look showed that people admitted to intentionally harming others more often when bored.

In a second study, the researchers looked at an effort that involved people in the military inflicting harm on their colleagues and once again found boredom appeared to play a role. The third study involved looking at the trolling behavior of people online and it showed that people reported doing so more often when bored.

In the fourth study, researchers looked at adults abusing children, either verbally or physically and once again found boredom was a factor.

Noting that the first four studies were all based on self-reporting scenarios, the researchers looked at other studies that involved conducting experiments and studying the results. In the first, volunteers were asked to watch videos – some of which were more boring than others.

As they watched, the volunteers were allowed to push maggots through a coffee grinder as a way to alleviate their boredom, (the volunteers were deceived, no maggots were actually harmed).

The researchers found that most of the maggot grinding was done by those watching the more boring videos. In two other experiments, online volunteers were allowed to decide whether to give more money to another participant or to deduct from their tally. In both studies, those feeling more bored were found more likely to deduct from others.

The researchers also looked at a couple of studies that looked at the reasons behind sadistic behavior and found once again, that boredom seemed to play a role.

The researchers conclude by suggesting that boredom appears to play a role in sadistic behavior and that it appears to be tied to attempts to mitigate negative feelings associated with being bored.


The wholesome pleasure of prosocial acts must contend with humankind’s darker delights. Some people exhibit sadism, which involves “the deliberate infliction of pain for the sake of enjoyment” (pp. 227; Nell, 2006). Sadistic tendencies are not purely the domain of violent criminals but appear among non-clinical and non-criminal populations (Buckels, Jones, & Paulhus, 2013).

Preliminary evidence links sadism to aggression, yet many aspects of sadistic aggression remain incompletely understood. This investigation examined the robustness of the sadism-aggression link across a variety of contexts, targets, and operationalizations of aggression. Further, we examined whether sadists enjoyed the aggressive act and whether the victim’s pain caused this aggressive pleasure.

Sadism: The Pleasure of Inflicting Pain

Sadism is a constellation of personality traits that are characterized by the tendency to enjoy the suffering of others (Baumeister, 1997; Nell, 2006). Rather than passively taking pleasure in others’ pain, sadists actively perpetrate harm, motivated by the enjoyment of the aggressive act and the painful outcome (O’Meara, Davies, & Hammond, 2011).

In the past, sadism was as a clinically-diagnosable form of psychopathology, yet such diagnoses have now changed (e.g., sexual sadism disorder; Krueger, 2010). More contemporary approaches to sadism conceptualize it as a continuously-distributed facet of ‘dark’ personality that extends beyond forensic and clinical samples into the broader distribution of humankind (Buckels et al., 2013; Chabrol, Van Leeuwen, Rodgers, & Sejourne, 2009; O’Meara et al., 2011).

The ‘Dark Triad’ and Forms of Aggression

Clues about sadism’s link to aggression are likely to come from the research on the ‘dark triad’: Machiavellianism (manipulating others to fulfill selfish goals), Narcissism (holding grandiose and vulnerable views of the self), and psychopathy (sensation- seeking and callous disregard for others; Furnham, Richards, & Paulhus, 2013; Paulhus & Williams, 2002). The dark triad often predict aggressive traits (Jonason & Webster, 2010) and acts (e.g., bullying; Baughman, Dearing, Giammarco & Vernon, 2012).

However, the type of aggression is critical to understanding the links between the dark triad and harm-doing. Harming innocent targets in the absence of provocation is deemed proactive aggression, which can be juxtaposed against reactive aggression that takes the form of retaliation against perceived provocateurs (Raine et al., 2006).

These forms of aggression are not mutually exclusive and correlate strongly= (Miller & Lynam, 2006). Narcissism is associated with greater reactive aggression, particularly retaliatory acts in response to ego threats (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998; c.f.

Kirkpatrick, Waugh, Valencia, & Webster, 2002). Psychopathy is linked to both proactive (Porter & Woodworth, 2006; Raine et al., 2006) and (to a lesser extent) reactive aggression (Reidy, Zeichner, & Martinez, 2008; Reidy, Zeichner, Miller, & Martinez, 2007).

When compared in a meta-analytic framework, psychopathy had the strongest association with proactive aggression followed by Machiavellianism, whereas Narcissism was unassociated with proactive aggression (Webster et al., 2014). Some scholars argue that the dark triad form the latent basis of aggressive dispositions and replace the unitary construct of ‘trait aggression’ (Paulhus, Curtis, & Jones, 2018).

Sadism is considered part of these dark traits, forming a ‘dark tetrad’ (Paulhus, 2014).

Although the links between the dark triad and aggression have been well-established, the potential role of sadism in aggression is less understood.

Preliminary Evidence for the Sadism-Aggression Link

Nascent research has hinted at a link between sadism and aggression. For instance, sadism correlates positively with trait physical aggression and is a core feature of trait revenge-seeking (Chester & DeWall, 2018). However, such correlations use self- report instead of overt behavior.

Initial research on the relationship between sadism and aggressive behavior focused on the infliction of harm upon innocent targets. For example, sadism is linked to harming insects and innocent humans who refuse to retaliate (Buckels et al., 2013). Implicit sadism was associated with greater electric shocks administered to an innocent target (Reidy, Zeichner, & Seibert, 2011).

Sadism is also uniquely associated with self-reported acts of sexual violence (Russell & King, 2016), tendencies towards antisocial vices (Jonason, Zeigler-Hill, & Okan, 2017), as well as self-reports of conventional and online forms of bullying and ‘trolling’ behavior (Buckels, Trapnell, & Paulhus, 2014; ; March, Grieve, Marrington, & Jonason, 2017).

Despite this array of research, further confirmation is necessary to establish sadism’s link to aggression. One reason for this uncertainty is that only a handful of studies have assessed sadism’s link to actual behavioral measures of aggression. Among these few studies, aggression was operationalized proactively, as the targets of aggression were innocent victims (e.g., Buckels et al., 2013).

Aggression is more often reactive than proactive because provocation is the most reliable situational predictor of aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Sadism’s link to reactive aggression remains uncertain, and therefore, the sadism-aggression link is uncertain. Despite this lack of

evidence, there are good theoretical reasons to expect that sadism would be associated with reactive aggression, largely centering on the role of positive affect.

The Role of Positive Affect in Aggression

Traditionally, aggression was theorized to arise from negatively-valenced affective states such as frustration and pain (Berkowitz, 1989). More recently, a wealth of evidence has arisen to support the role of positively-valenced affect in motivating revenge and retaliatory aggressive behavior (Chester, 2017). For example, reading about acts of retaliatory aggression induces positive affect (Eadeh, Peak, & Lambert, 2016).

Actual acts of retaliatory aggression are associated with activity in the brain’s reward network (Chester & DeWall, 2016) and genetic profiles that modulate pleasure- seeking (Chester et al., 2015, 2016). This hedonic reward appears to form a positive feedback loop in which acts of violence beget even more acts of violence (Martens, Kosloff, Greenberg, Landau, & Schmader, 2007).

The perceived and ephemeral ability of aggression to regulate and improve aversive affective states further fuels this cyclical aggression (Bushman, Baumeister, & Phillips, 2001; Chester & DeWall, 2017; Gollwitzer & Bushman, 2012). This positive feedback loop may even explain the development of stable, sadistic tendencies.

Such a positive feedback loop meshes well with the General Aggression Model (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; DeWall, Anderson, & Bushman, 2011). Specifically, sadism acts as a personality input variable that increases the likelihood of aggression through the internal route of positive affect. Such a positive, rewarding experience informs appraisal and decision processes when sadists encounter potential victims, making them more likely to engage in impulsive acts. Those impulsive acts, in turn,

influence how sadists approach their future social encounters, strengthening the knowledge structures that form the basis of how they interpret and react to events in their social world. The next section fleshes out this potential tendency for sadism to experience the pleasure of aggression.

Sadism and the Pleasure of Aggression

Some individuals are more prone than others to experience the pleasure of aggression and sadism measures are designed to capture this variability (Chester & DeWall, 2018). Only preliminary evidence exists for sadism’s link to aggression-related positive affect (i.e., aggressive pleasure). Sadism was positively-correlated with more enjoyment of killing insects (Buckels et al., 2013) and ‘trolling’ others online (Buckels, Trapnell, Andjelovic, & Paulhus, in press; Buckels et al., 2014).

However, little evidence links sadism to the pleasure of harming other individuals across proactive and reactive forms of aggression. It also remains uncertain from what aspect of the aggressive act do sadists derive pleasure. Theoretical accounts of sadism invoke the suffering of the victim as the source of aggressive pleasure (Baumeister, 1997; Nell, 2006), yet there is no evidence for this proposal.

Such evidence is necessary to determine the very nature of the sadism construct. Further, the timecourse of aggressive pleasure remains uncertain, whether it arises during or after the aggressive act, and how long the feeling lasts after the aggressive act.

Is Sadism Linked to Aggression?

Across eight studies, participants’ self-reported sadism was positively associated with greater administrations of aversive noise blasts, painfully spicy hot sauce, gruesome images, and sharp pins administered to other people. Sadism was also linked to violent acts perpetrated in participants’ real-world recent histories. These associations between sadism and aggressive behavior were robust, remaining reliable after controlling for poor self-control, impulsivity, trait aggression, and the dark triad of Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and psychopathy.

This wealth of evidence replicates and extends upon previous work that highlights the discriminant validity of sadism in its role as a correlate of greater aggressive behavior (e.g., Buckels et al., 2013; Chester & DeWall, 2017, 2018; Reidy et al., 2011). Further, sadism was linked to aggression within both males and females. Given that sadism is higher among males (Buckels et al., 2013), it was important to rule out this possibility. These results support sadism’s robust (though modestly-sized) effect on aggressive behavior.

Towards Whom is Sadistic Aggression Directed?

Sadism was associated with both retaliatory aggression towards provocateurs and also towards innocent targets. In two studies, sadistic aggression was more strongly directed at innocent individuals. These findings replicate previous work linking

sadism to aggression against innocent individuals (Buckels et al., 2013), provide a novel extension by linking sadism to retaliatory forms of aggression, and suggest that sadistic forms of aggression are largely numb to situational inputs that normally magnify aggression. The inability of these provocations to amplify sadists’ aggression suggests a different motivation than revenge, and may be rooted in the anticipated affect surrounding sadistic acts.

Is the Aggressive Behavior of Sadists Linked to the Experience of Pleasure?

Although we initially expected that sadists would experience greater positive affect after an aggressive act (as in Buckels et al., 2013), we routinely observed that sadism was unassociated with such post-aggression positive affect. This discrepancy may be due to the fact that the targets of aggression in the studies performed by Buckels and colleagues (2013) were pill bugs and not humans. Conversely, sadism was most often associated with greater negative affect after aggression.

This association was not simply due to sadists’ general tendency to experience greater negative affect, as we statistically controlled for baseline affect. It appears that, while sadists appear to be more aggressive, these aggressive acts seem to have a detrimental impact on their mood. In line with recent research on aggression’s perceived emotion-regulating qualities (Chester & DeWall, 2017), sadists may perceive as aggression an effective means to improve their mood, despite its contrary results.

We developed a new self-report measure of aggressive pleasure, which demonstrated that sadism was associated with greater pleasure during the aggressive act. Further, such aggressive pleasure accounted for a significant portion of the effect of sadism on aggression. Sadism may thus be reinforced by experiences of aggressive

pleasure and this reinforcement may serve as a proximate mechanism by which aggressive and sadistic traits and tendencies are formed and reinforced over time (Chester, Lynam, Milich, & DeWall, 2018). These findings fit within the growing literature that establishes positively-valenced affective states as a potent motivator of aggression (Chester, 2017).

The findings are also in line with predictions from the General Aggression Model in terms of how personality input variables can increase the likelihood of aggression through affect, appraisal and decision-making processes, and feedback loops (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; DeWall et al., 2011).

Do Sadists Derive Pleasure from Others’ Suffering?

By measuring and manipulating how much the victims of participants’ aggression were perceived to experience actual suffering, we established that aggressive pleasure is contingent upon the perceived suffering of sadists’ victims. This core feature of sadism has been theorized (Baumeister, 1999: Chabrol et al., 2009), but our studies offer the first definitive evidence.

Typically, others’ suffering is automatically met with empathic concern and shared distress (Preston & De Waal, 2002), yet sadists display an opposing process in which others’ pain is transmuted into their pleasure. More work is needed to understand the precise psychological and biological mechanisms that allow others’ pain to be experienced as pleasant.

reference link : DOI: 10.1177/0146167218816327


More information: Stefan Pfattheicher et al, On the relation of boredom and sadistic aggression., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2020). DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000335

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