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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