Sadism — harming others for pleasure — is often viewed as a “dark” personality trait, alongside narcissism, say, or psychopathy. Research exploring just what can bring out someone’s sadistic tendencies has found that even viewing images of injuries can do it. But now a new paper reveals a factor that the researchers conclude has a “crucial but overlooked” role in fostering sadistic behaviour: simple boredom.
We already know that bored people will give themselves electric shocks to alleviate their under-stimulation. This new work suggests that a willingness to harm when there’s nothing else to do extends to hurting other people, too — and this was true even for those who’d scored low on a general sadism scale. It’s not exactly an uplifting message about humanity. But, the authors argue, it could lead to new approaches to preventing sadism in schools, the military and other settings.
Stefan Pfattheicher at Aarhus University and colleagues report a total of 9 studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. In the first, 1,780 people from the US, Germany and Denmark completed personality assessments and scales that measured proneness to boredom in everyday life and sadistic tendencies. They indicated how much they agreed with statements including ‘Many things I have to do are monotonous and repetitive’ and ‘I often find myself at “loose ends”, not knowing what to do’. And they reported on whether they’d been “purposely mean” to people in high school, and enjoyed hurting or humiliating other people, for example. The results revealed that more everyday boredom was associated with more sadism.