3 Ways to Spot the Everyday Sadist

6 min read

Have you ever been in a conversation about a case in the news where someone was attacked, injured, or killed, where one person in the group takes the stance that the victim should have known better? Called victim-blaming, this unsympathetic attitude may baffle you. Maybe this isn’t such a good person to be around.

Victim-blaming is one feature, according to a new study by Ulm University’s Claudia Sassenrath and colleagues (2023), of what’s called “everyday sadism.” Although previous researchers equate victim-blaming with a way for individuals to maintain their belief in a just world (i.e., people get what they deserve), this isn’t enough to explain the lack of empathy that some people show to those who suffer. Instead, personality contributes to individual differences in attitudes toward victims.

Everyday Sadism as an Everyday Tendency

As the German research team proposes, those high in everyday sadism “react with sadistic pleasure combined with little empathic concern for the suffering of others” (p. 4). It’s not some sort of moral judgment that drives their unempathic response, but a pleasure in seeing others being hurt or killed.

Additionally, Sassenrath and her co-authors predict that a kind of mental laziness kicks in when something bad happens to others. It’s easier to blame the victim than to give the matter serious thought.

As unpleasant as it might be to hear victim blaming from someone in your circle of acquaintances, such statements should also serve as a warning. While not every person who blames victims in conversation is one, being around an everyday sadist could mean that they will behave in ways that could cause you pain in your daily life. For all you know, they could be spreading the word that your recent slip and fall (in which you sprained your ankle) was actually your own fault because you’re such a clumsy person.

Beyond the attributions they make, because everyday sadists enjoy watching others in bad situations, they may also create those situations themselves, just for their amusement. They might push you around, mock you behind your back, and play mind games with you to establish their dominance. Indeed, these are some of the qualities of a 12-item questionnaire, the Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies (CAST), developed by the University of Winnipeg’s Erin Buckels (2023).

What to Look Out for in the Everyday Sadist

The Uhm U. study included three separate investigations to test its model, including a scenario-based online study with situations such as cyber mobbing. Across three of the studies, they analyzed the contribution of related factors such as “dark tetrad” traits (narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism), beliefs in a “just world” (people are deserving of their fate), willingness to engage in effortful thinking, empathic concern, and simple sadistic pleasure. Regarding this last quality, participants responded to questions such as “While reading about what happened to [X], I couldn’t resist a little smile.”

In the fourth and last of the series, Sassenrath et al. used experience sampling, or daily ratings of reactions that participants had to learning about other people’s misfortunes. Across a 10-day period, they recorded these events as well as their reactions to them. They rated participants’ affect, perceptions of the situation, and pleasure. This stringent test of the model reinforced the importance of everyday sadism as a predictor of victim-blaming, even after controlling for the personality traits included in the dark tetrad, as well as other possible contributing factors.

Now that you know why everyday sadists have harsh and enjoyable reactions to other people’s misery, it might seem worthwhile to figure out how to steer clear of these people in your life. Here are the three scales from the CAST with the four items in each (rated on a 1-5 scale). See how much each applies to an individual you’d like to assess on this toxic quality:

Direct verbal sadism:

  1. I was purposely mean to some people in high school.
  2. I enjoy making jokes at the expense of others.
  3. I have purposely tricked someone and laughed when they looked foolish.
  4. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I never got tired of mocking certain classmates.

Vicarious sadism:

  1. I love to watch YouTube videos of people fighting.
  2. In video games, I like the realistic blood spurts.
  3. I enjoy watching cage fighting (or MMA) where there is no escape.
  4. I sometimes replay my favorite scenes from gory slasher films.

Personality Essential Reads

Direct physical sadism:

  1. I enjoy physically hurting people.
  2. I enjoy tormenting people.
  3. I have the right to push certain people around.
  4. I have dominated others using fear.

The average score from the cross-national sample was 2 (disagree), with most people in the range of 1 (strongly disagree) to 3 (neither agree nor disagree). Therefore, if you were scoring someone you know who you think would reach a 4 on average, this could be a sign that you’re better off without them. It’s not only what they say and do, but also, perhaps, some of the videogames, movies, or shows that could provide a tip-off. In other words, one set of qualities might be highly related to another, as Buckels notes in the interpretation of her test of the CAST. Sadly, she concludes that “cruel behavior is more common than most people realize” (p. 201).

Keeping Your Distance From the Everyday Sadist

Although cruel behavior may be common enough, you’d probably rather not be at the receiving end. You now have clues both from the CAST itself as well as what you can observe in a person’s words and actions about this personality trait. Do they brag about having pushed a weak person around? Do they laugh at seemingly tragic circumstances? If someone drops a cup of hot coffee, do they rush to help or snicker to themselves?

Knowing how to avoid the everyday sadist still begs the question of why you would want to. Clearly, they will not be there to watch out for you, they can make you feel small and fearful, and they may actually go out of their way to stymie you from achieving your goals. Whatever endearing qualities they might possess, such as a sense of humor or a certain dangerous attractiveness, may not make up for this harsh attitude toward the suffering of others.

To sum up, keeping your distance from the everyday sadist may require that you disengage from what you thought was an otherwise good relationship. Protecting yourself can facilitate not only your safety, but your ability to live a safe and fulfilling life.

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