A qualitative analysis of sadistic endorsement in a group of Irish undergraduates

‘I consider myself sadistic’: a qualitative analysis of sadistic endorsement in a group of Irish undergraduates

Davies, Jason


Sadistic behaviour is not uncommon in offender populations, especially in some groups of violent and sexual offenders. However, little research has been conducted on sadism in a non-offender group who are not part of a sadomasochistic culture or club. Twelve undergraduates, six of whom considered themselves sadistic and six who did not, completed an open-ended questionnaire exploring individuals’ experiences and views of themselves and others. Questionnaire responses were analysed using a thematic analysis approach and substantial differences were found between the two groups. Further research should be conducted with general population groups to further our understanding of sadistic behaviour and attitudes.


sadism; attitude; sexual behaviour; personality; thematic analysis


There is a lack of good research on sadistic personality and sexual sadism, both as diagnostic constructs and as clinical presentations. In the diagnostic arena, sadistic personality disorder (SPD) in particular has moved in and out of fashion, appearing in DSM-III-R (APA, 1987) as a personality disorder requiring further study, and subsequently being removed from the manual in its fourth edition (DSM-IV; APA, 1994). As a result, sadism is defined by many solely by reference to a particular sexual behavioural expression (sexual sadism), rather than by the motives or personality factors leading to such behaviours (for example power, control).

Research conducted to date on the construct of sadistic personality has taken place predominantly in populations of violent and or sexual offenders (Darke, 1990; Gratzer & Bradford, 1995; Seto & Kuban, 1996), or with those who engage in sado-masochistic sexual practices (for a review see Sandnabba et al, 2002). This has limited the research population to individuals who have demonstrated their sadistic interest through sexual behaviours, possibly in the context of the commission of a crime as well as those who were otherwise incarcerated. Additionally, researchers have tended to use a variety of definitions of sadism as a basis of study, many of which are counter to specific criteria outlined in either the DSM or other contemporary researchers’ definitions, or both (Langevin, 1983; Dietz et al, 1986).

With such a restricted research population and ill-defined research area, it is understandable that demographics indicate inconsistent and ultimately low prevalence rates of sadism in forensic, clinical and general populations. Such contentious research findings therefore necessitate clearer research on the general population, not just the over-restricted prison population.

For the purpose of this paper, a sadistic individual is defined as:

A person who humiliates others, shows a longstanding pattern of cruel or demeaning behaviour to others or intentionally inflicts physical, sexual or psychological pain or suffering on others in order to assert power and dominance or for pleasure and enjoyment.

This definition is designed to include a broad range of behaviours and intentions, as well as a number of their functions.

The prevalence of sexual sadism in the general population is currently unknown, but Hunt (1974), Crepault & Coutre (1980) and Anrdt et al (1985) have suggested that 10% to 50% of people have fantasies of hurting or humiliating others, and 2% to 5% report obtaining sexual gratification from inflicting pain on others. O’Meara et al (2004) found that approximately 6.9% of a sample of 407 undergraduates from the UK and Ireland considered themselves sadistic. However, there appear to be individual differences in relation to understanding and defining sadism which may account for the increased prevalence in this sample.

The research

This research aims to explore behaviours, attitudes and experiences associated with sadistic endorsement in a student population.


Twelve undergraduate students from a university in Ireland agreed to take part in the qualitative study on sadism. These individuals had previously taken part in a larger study (O’Meara, 2004) relating to the ongoing validation of a measure of sadism – the Sadistic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS; Davies & Hand, 2003; O’Meara etal, 2004), designed to gauge endorsement levels of the characteristics of sadism. Participants in the current study were included on the basis of their response to a single item in the larger scale psychometric study, namely ‘I consider myself a sadistic person, which was rated on a four-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. An equal number of respondents from the ‘strongly agree’ group (21.6 yrs, four male, two female) and ‘strongly disagree’ group (21.8 yrs, four male, two female) were included.

The study reported here consisted of an openended questionnaire designed by the researchers specifically to investigate differences between the two groups’ accounts of behavioural, attitudinal, and developmental aspects of sadism. This questionnaire included sections on bullying, relationships and a series of hypothetical scenarios, in which participants said how they would respond to seeing or causing physical or emotional anguish in someone close or unknown to them. Responses were analysed using a standard thematic analysis approach. This consisted of four steps, namely reading through and noting items/ideas of interest, sorting items into ‘protothemes’, re-examination of the data for material relevant to the theme, and naming, defining and supporting/illustrating the theme.


Initial analysis of these questionnaires showed a notable lack of consistency in participants’ understanding of what the term sadism actually meant. Both groups often gave control, dominance, disrespect for others’ feelings and obtaining pleasure from infliction of pain on others as descriptors of sadists. Despite the variety of definitions, those who considered themselves sadistic differed from those who did not in a number of ways. These are summarised in Table 1, overleaf, while a broad categorisation is provided in Table 2, page 27.

First, those who considered themselves sadistic tended to justify sadistic behaviour, suggesting that it was a means of protecting oneself, a way of making oneself feel better, or a fear response to the prospect of being hurt. In contrast, those who did not consider themselves sadistic suggested that sadists were incapable of empathy, apathetic towards others’ physical state or selfish individuals for whom the infliction of pain was reinforcing.

Those endorsing the sadism statement who reported having experienced being bullied or treated sadistically by others attempted to rationalise these experiences, offering possible justifications (located within themselves) for their treatment. They included suggesting that they had been bullied for being ‘foreign’ or ‘fat’. Anger and a desire for revenge characterised these individuals’ reactions to their maltreatment. In contrast, those not endorsing the sadism statement, and who reported having experienced bullying by others, stated that, while initially they felt isolated and excluded, they were now unperturbed by the experience.

Contrary to expectations, none of those who considered themselves sadistic admitted to committing acts that they would consider sadistic (one participant in this group did offer an act of masochism), while two of those who did not consider themselves sadistic presented playful biting and disrespecting a partner as sadistic acts they had engaged in.

Generally, participants’ reports about familial and romantic relations yielded no specific features which distinguished the two groups or which appeared to influence sadistic presentations. However, one difference did present itself in relation to how the respective groups evaluated their fathers. Those who considered themselves sadistic, and who described their parents individually, described their fathers as ‘short-tempered’, ‘angry’, ‘irritable’ and Opinionated’. In contrast, those who did not endorse the sadism item described their fathers as ‘intelligent’ and ‘loving’.

The members of each group largely used neutral descriptions of themselves. However, those who did not consider themselves to be sadistic tended to be positive in describing their own attributes (for example, Optimistic’, Open’, ‘bubbly’, ‘sound’), while those who identified themselves as sadistic used more negative language (such as ‘analytical’, ‘irritable’, ‘uptight’, ‘lack of morals’).

In response to the hypothetical scenarios of others’ physical and mental suffering (What would you do if you saw someone you know in pain?; How would you feel if you saw a stranger upset?), helping behaviours were pervasive in the entire sample. However, levels of concern differed between the two groups. Those who considered themselves to be sadistic reacted with neutrality or non-concern, as indicated by the statements ‘Id leave them alone’ and ‘try to help but not really give a s**t’, while those who did not consider themselves to be sadistic indicated a greater propensity to help and demonstrated more empathy for others’ distress, for example, Td feel upset’, Td try to comfort them, almost feel their pain’, ‘feel sorry for them’. Despite these differences, a number of individuals from both groups claimed that they would ‘probably laugh’ if they saw someone being humiliated. One participant who did consider themselves to be sadistic who gave this response, emphasised, however, that they did not enjoy seeing ‘real’ people in pain, bringing into question individuals’ understanding of sadism.


This study represents the first qualitative exploration of sadistic attitudes, behaviours and development in a student population. Despite the small numbers and the limited design and scope of the study, it is possible to draw out a number of observations and highlight a number of avenues worthy of further research in this area.

Throughout the analysis of the responses, there was a notable lack of consistency in participants’ understanding of sadism. This suggests that sadism does not have a clear shared meaning to the general population, and may mean that those who consider themselves sadistic are a heterogeneous group, at least in part as a result of the idiosyncratic meanings linked to the term. However, the lack of consistency may also reflect sadism as a multi-level construct, as suggested by Baumeister (1997) and Millon (1996). Thus, the findings here could support the notion that sadism exists on a continuum, starting with interest, then extending through passive to active sadism.

Passive sadism may be defined as cruel or demeaning behaviour of a playful or benign nature where no real hurt is intended. This may explain the ‘laugh response’ suggested by a range of the participants to the humiliation of others, with the caveat of ‘as long as no-one is really in pain’, as one of the self-proclaimed ‘sadistic’ participants put it. It might also account for the popularity of TV programmes depicting ‘benign’ acts of humiliation or suffering (such shows as Jackass TV, broadcast on MTV, You’ve Been Framed broadcast on ITV or the Japanese show Endurance), and may explain disclosure of acts of biting described by some of those in the ‘non-sadist’ group. Baumeister (1997) makes the important point that the inhibiting influence of guilt may prevent ‘passive sadists’ from engaging in ‘active sadism’. However it may also be that there are thresholds to overcome (akin to the notion of ‘permission giving’ for offenders) in any move from passive to active sadism. These thresholds may carry with them social or psychological costs which typically serve to inhibit such a transition.

Active sadism, in contrast, constitutes willingly abusing others, psychologically and physically, in order to assert power or for pleasure. Although those who considered themselves to be sadistic did not disclose definitive acts of sadism, the use of sadistic behaviour as a means to change mood was evident. This study suggests some limited support for Baumeister’s model, but this requires further testing in a general population.

In the research reviewed by Sandnabber and colleagues (2002), attachment to the father was connected to physical abuse, alcohol consumption and emotional closeness. The words the participants in our study used to describe their fathers could be seen to overlap with these concepts, but it is unclear from the Sandnabber et al (2002) research what implications this might have in relation to sadism or its development. It may be worth exploring further the descriptions of their fathers by participants who considered themselves sadistic.

In their self-descriptions, those who consider themselves sadistic provide far less optimistic or favourable comments than do those who do not consider themselves sadistic. However, of the words and phrases used, it is only reference to ‘lack of morals’ that may reflect characteristics more widely associated with sadism. In order to explore this further, it may be useful for future research to use techniques such as self-characterisation, a method drawn from personal construct psychology, in order to expand the level, quantity and. quality of the self-description gathered.

Finally, it is worth commenting on the views of the two groups towards those who might have bullied them, or why they might have been recipients of bullying. Those who considered themselves sadistic were more self-critical in explaining why they might have been bullied, internalising the ‘blame’. In addition, this group commented on the anger they felt towards those who had bullied them and expressed a desire for revenge for their own maltreatment. Such descriptions could be seen within a powerless/powerful description of the motive for sadism. In contrast, those who did not see themselves as sadistic appeared to have managed their experiences of being bullied and had ‘moved on’ psychologically from the experience. What is not clear, however, is whether the experiences of the two groups were equivalent in nature and extent. Knowing this would ensure that the difference between the groups is derived from individual differences rather than differences in the nature or severity of the event(s).

Implications for forensic practice

The research described here has a number of implications for forensic practice. First, the diverse way in which individuals have understood sadism suggests that, when working with offenders considered (either by themselves or others) to be sadistic, practitioners should seek a definition including attitude and behaviours from the individual, rather than making assumptions about such things. Second, the lack of disclosure in relation to sadistic behaviour among the group describing themselves as sadistic might reflect denial or reluctance to disclose such tilings. Although more work needs to be done to test whether this is the case, the lack of behaviours described here suggests that non-disclosure may be common rather than deviant. In the same vein, mention of behaviours such as biting may not, in themselves, indicate sadistic intent or attitude. Practitioners should again not make assumptions based on such descriptions. Finally, the rationale for engaging in sadism, the justifications offered, the view of the self and the wish for revenge all indicate the need for an individual formulation approach to be taken in understanding and working with individuals who indicate sadistic interest or behaviour.

Conclusions and future research

We recognise that the research described here can be considered only a very initial exploration of sadism in a non-offender group who are not part of a specialist sado-masochistic scene or group. Despite this caution, the results suggest that sadistic interest and behaviour are part of the normal spectrum of attitude and behaviour and that differences can be identified which could distinguish sadistic individuals from those who do not view themselves as sadistic. Future research could focus on:

* understanding the continuum model proposed by Baumeister (1997), which has received some support from the findings described here

* investigating individuals’ relationships with significant others (especially father figures)

* self-characterisation to understand views of the self

* experiences of abuse and/or bullying,

in order to build on the conclusions drawn here. In addition, further development of techniques for assessment of sadistic behaviour and attitude, which have clear reference to the general population, should be pursued.


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Jason Davies


Aisling O’Meara


Address for correspondence

Dr Jason Davies, Clinical Psychology Unit, University of Sheffield, 302 Western Bank, Sheffield, S10 2TP. Tel. (+44) (0)114 2226632. Email: Jason.Davies@sheffield.ac.uk.

Copyright Pavilion Publishing (Brighton) Ltd. Apr 2007

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