What Is Sadism — and When Is It a Disorder?

Because sadism exists on a spectrum, examples of the trait range from petty to downright criminal. Physical examples of sadism might include deriving pleasure from acts like killing someone, violently hurting someone, inflicting pain on someone in a sexual context without their consent, or hurting or killing an animal.

While violence and sadism aren’t the same thing, Chester says there’s a strong correlation between the two. “A lot of studies have tried to isolate the variables of why people are violent or aggressive, and sadism tends to win out,” he says. In 2019, Chester and his colleagues conducted a series of studies on sadism and performed a meta-analysis on the results. They found a correlation between sadism and aggression; namely, that those with higher scores for sadism (typically measured with a questionnaire) were more likely to also behave aggressively.

Sadism also manifests as psychological abuse, according to Delroy Paulhus, PhD, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who studies sadism and other dark personality traits (and who was a coauthor on Buckels’ study mentioned above). An example is online trolling, which researchers have defined as intentionally disruptive communication or debate conducted over the internet, rather than in real life. While it brings no physical harm to the victim, it can have painful mental and emotional consequences for them.

In a study conducted by Dr. Paulhus, Buckels, and colleagues, the researchers explored the relationship between sadism and online trolling. They found that a sadistic personality was strongly associated with online trolling, with participants who scored higher on a scale of sadistic traits more likely to both receive pleasure from online trolling and minimize the harm they inflicted on others in their own minds.

Vicarious sadism, Paulhus says, is a third type of sadism characterized by deriving pleasure from watching another person harm someone else, like in a particularly violent movie or a bar fight.

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