November 22nd, 2013

Workplace bullying-related research: Bug-crunching sadists

Review of Buckels, Jones & Paulhus (2013) Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism. This research was conducted at the University of British Columbia and the University of Texas at El Paso.

The phrase “workplace bullying” prompts most listeners to ponder deviant personality quirks of perpetrators. Though we at WBI believe work environment factors are better predictors of a bullying-prone workplace, it is the interaction of personality and work conditions that provide the fullest explanation. Bullied targets, when under assault, ruminate too long on the personality of their bully and the perp’s motivation. So, we advise them to ignore the perp’s personality so that they can act to get to safety. Given these forewarnings about the limited role of personality in bullying, here is a research article that addresses perhaps the most relevant of all personality traits related to bullying — sadism.

Delroy Paulhus’ “Dark Triad” was the starting point for the experiments. The “Dark Triad” includes three traits: subclinical psychopathology (antisociality, meanness), narcissism (inflated sense of self) and Machiavellianism (willing to exploit others to achieve personal goals). There has been a decade of research on these traits.

This 2013 study explores whether subclinical sadism, a pleasure-driven form of aggression is distinct from the other three negative personality factors. The researchers believe that sadism is “more morally disturbing and perhaps more dangerous” than antisocial behavior. Subclinical refers to troubling aspects of personality not sufficient to warrant a psychiatric diagnosis according to DSM-V standards.

There were two experiments.

In study 1, 71 college students (52 females, 19 males) completed a collection of personality measurement scales: Sadistic Impulse (the tendency to enjoy hurting others), Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism & subclinical psycopathology), Disgust Sensitivity, and whether they had a fear of bugs.

Then, under the guise of studying the role of personality in tolerating challenging jobs, the students chose from among four tasks:
– killing bugs (exterminator)
– helping the experimenter kill bugs (exterminator’s assistant)
– cleaning dirty toilets (sanitation worker)
– enduring pain from ice water (being a worker in cold environments)

Those who chose bug killing were instructed to use the bug-crunching machine (a coffee bean grinder modified to protect the bugs from the blades — as the researchers explicitly stated “no bugs were harmed in this experiment”) pictured on the right. On the table were three small paper cups each containing a live on-fourth inch pill bug and labeled Muffin, Ike or Tootsie. “Exterminators” put a bug directly in the machine, covered it and ground away. “Exterminator assistants” simply handed the cups to the experimenter. Of the 71, 53.6% chose bug killing (evenly split between exterminator and assistant; with no gender differences), and some chose to kill more than one bug.

The participants who chose the other “jobs” were excused from completing the task. Afterwards, all participants completed scales (happy, excited, aroused) that provided a “pleasure” score for each person.

Bug killers had the highest sadism scores. And higher sadism scores made people more likely to choose bug killing (the sadistic behavioral choice). Participants with the highest sadism levels and who chose to kill bugs reported greater pleasure than high level sadists who did not choose bug killing. The association between number of bugs killed and pleasure was positive and large.

The theoretical payoff for the researchers was that sadism operated independently from the other personality variables in the Dark Triad.

In study 2, the researchers provided participants the opportunity to harm innocent others who did not provoke the attack and the attack required time and effort that pays little benefit. They reasoned that cruelty itself is a reinforcing motive.

Researchers noted that all of the Dark Triad factors are context dependent. That is, psychopaths’ goals are mainly instrumental (they harm to get something they want), narcissists don’t aggress unless their ego is threatened, and Machiavellians prefer to not risk retaliation or punishment unless the benefits are high.

A different set of 71 college students (36 males, 35 females) participated. The personality measurement scales were: Sadism, Varieties of Sadistic Tendencies, Short Sadistic Impulse, Dark Triad, Big Five Inventory (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness), and Empathy (personal distress, empathic concern, fantasy and perspective taking).

Participants were college students presumably playing a computer game — first to hit a button –with one other virtual player. There were 8 rounds and participants won 6 times, losing twice. Winners were able to deliver a loud blast of noise selecting duration and loudness each time. When the same-sex opponent won, that person chose to not deliver punishment. There was no provocation for retaliation.

Half of the participants were allowed to deliver punishment immediately; half had to complete a tedious, boring word task first.

Of all the factors that could explain the level of aggression directed against opponents in the immediate punishment group, sadism was the significant predictor, independent of the other factors. When the boring intervening task was introduced, sadism was highly correlated with how hard the person worked to earn the right to aggress against the innocent opponent. In other words, sadists had to incur personal costs in order to hurt others. When the Dark Triad and sadism were analyzed together as potential predictors of aggression, only sadism was significant.

In the researchers’ own words:

… we found that sadists, psychopaths, narcissists, and those low in empathy and perspective taking aggressed against an innocent person when aggression was easy. Of those with dark personalities, however, only sadists increased the intensity of their attack once they realized that the innocent person would not fight back. Sadists were also the only dark personalities willing to work (i.e., expend time and energy) to hurt an innocent person. Together, these results suggest that sadists possess an intrinsic appetitive motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others—a motivation that is absent in other dark personalities. Inflicting suffering on the weak is so rewarding for sadists that they will aggress even at a personal cost.


For the phenomenon of sadism to be fully addressed, its everyday nature and surprising commonness need to be acknowledged.


Erin E. Buckels, Daniel N. Jones & Delroy L.Paulhus (2013) Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism. Psychological Science, 24 (11), 2201-2209 doi: 10.1177/0956797613490749


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This entry was posted on Friday, November 22nd, 2013 at 3:42 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Social/Mgmt/Epid Sciences, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. sandyvc says:

    My psychiatrist called me a liar when I said that I had been badly hurt and my career stalled by work place bullying. She said if it was real she would know about it. That I am very well educated never meant anything to the god queen of bunkola. She said I must have asked for it.So I got slammed on both sides. I tried to stop it. I tried to get others who were being bullied to help. Nope. The fear in these work places is rampant. People will stab their friends in the back and side with the bully to keep safe. I had to take disability retirement which trashed my pension and despite having worked hard to get an education (grew up in the slums) and stay current I have nothing to show for it but PTSD related to working and getting laid off when I did not quit on my own. I had enough material to sue but I needed the pay off package and you have to sign that you won’t talk. Yes. They have contracts all ready for hush money.

    It was not at small companies either.It was major, top of the heap consulting companies. I considered joining a support group but had panic attacks thinking about talking about my experiences. I realized I had no help or comfort to give because there is no help. I have read what to do and did those things. It makes it worse. These people also stole my son’s future by making it impossible for me to help him go to college.

  2. TwylightZone says:

    I would love to see more studies on the psychological makeup of bullies. No doubt it would be difficult to find subjects who admit to being bullies and are honest in their responses.
    The bullies I’ve encountered seemed to enjoy abusing others, so I suppose they are sadists. They would rationalize their behavior by painting their targets as a threat to the organization or themselves. I think they really believed this as they were paranoid and delusional. The accusations they made against people were outlandish. They would lie and fabricate evidence to support their claims. They were like the Salem witches but much more sophisticated. I believe they got high off of seeing targets suffer and influencing others to support their cause.

  3. Hannah says:

    I’ve been subjected to over a decade of bullying. Managers told me I needed to learn how to get along, I needed to show empathy to my bully, I needed to keep things in perspective, I needed ignore him, I needed to demonstrate that I wasn’t internalizing it…Ultimately HR got involved and I spent hours being eviscerated by the bully while they failed to intervene and then told us we both needed to go to trainings for workplace interpersonal skills. He lied in retaliation and I illustrated for HR exactly what a facile liar he was, to no avail. He’s paid more w less experience, and given opportunities while I’m diminished. Now I’m chronically I’ll, cornered w no recourse despite my best efforts, and trying for disability as my last hope. Meanwhile, they’ve doubled my hours of exposure to him.
    Therapists want to explore what I do that makes him behave like this and makes myself a target, even after I describe the many people, above and below him, he targets. A colleague labeled him a sadist.
    My advise: assume no one will help, document date, time, location, action in a bound notebook, learn your work benefits inside out, talk to an employment attorney immediately, plot your course, and get out whole or better. I didn’t, but you can.

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