That’s Men: No big mystery about sadists – they just enjoy what they do

Researchers are looking into links between sadists and the behaviour of online trolls

An image from the Department of Education as part of an anti-bullying campaign.

An image from the Department of Education as part of an anti-bullying campaign.


My first encounter with everyday sadism came in the form of a teacher who was at his happiest when administering punishment to his pupils.

This punishment usually took the form of slapping boys whom he would save up, so to speak, until the morning break so that he could enjoy a sort of slapfest. On one winter day he sent us to play in the snow and the condemned thought they had been given a reprieve – until he lined them up when their hands began to thaw and get tender, and commenced a round of slapping with huge delight on his face.

His big moment came when a boy who had just had a tooth pulled by a visiting dentist mumbled the litany of the rosary because his mouth was full of blood. A hard slap to the face got him enunciating the litany with no mumbling, blood running down his clothes. The teacher gazed on this with immense satisfaction as he led us in the remaining prayers.

This was not the case, I should emphasise, with most teachers who dished out corporal punishment.

Some acted out of frustration, some out of anger and some simply saw corporal punishment as a form of discipline.

Pleasure in administering pain
But this guy, we knew, was different and whether or not we were familiar with the term “sadist”, we knew that this teacher’s pleasure in administering pain marked him out.

I thought of him when I read of a study in “everyday sadism” conducted by Erin Buckels at the University of British Columbia and published in the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers asked their subjects to volunteer for tasks which ranged from putting their hands in ice water to killing bugs. The ones who opted for bug killing also scored high on sadistic impulses in a personality test. The more sadistic the individual, the more pleasure they reported in the task which included feeding bugs into a machine and crushing them. And the more bugs they fed into the machine, the more pleasure they got from the crunching sounds of bug-death. (It’s okay, bug lovers, the sound effect fooled the subjects into thinking they were killing bugs but no bugs were harmed).

In another experiment, subjects were asked to blast volunteers with what they thought was pain-producing white noise. The sadists were the only ones to make the blasts more intense even though doing so involved extra time and effort.

We like to seek all sorts of complicated explanations for sadistic behaviour – and sometimes such explanations are valid – but it’s easy to overlook the simplest motivation, namely that sadists get pleasure from what they do.

The researchers are now looking into the links between these findings and the behaviour of online trolls.

It’s scary to think that some trolls, at least, set out to inflict pain on the bereaved or to drive the vulnerable to suicide simply because they get pleasure out of it.

I suspect, though, that this is what the researchers will find: some trolls act out of deeper motivations (powerlessness, sense of inadequacy, for instance) but others just enjoy what they are doing.

And I suspect that among our schoolyard and workplace bullies, domestic abusers and thugs, some do what they do for pure enjoyment.

It’s a gloomy reflection on human nature but what’s most gloomy is that it’s not all that surprising after all. Go to if you want to read more on this study on the Medical Xpress website.

Addendum: As part of The Irish Times/Pfizer Healthy Town programme I will be in the Grand Hotel, Wicklow, at 7pm this evening to deliver what is billed as a talk on stress management. I will be presenting some of the more popular ideas I have written about in this column and will take the audience through a very, very short course in mindfulness. I think it will be enjoyable, even if you are not stressed. I hope to see you there.

To book a place for this evening’s talk, which is free, call Niamh O’Keeffe on tel: 01 6690299 or email
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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