The Sadistic Personality

borderline personality disorder Graphics courtesy of Wikipedia® Opens in new window

Sadistic personality is a personality disorder which manifests when a person derives pleasure through others undergoing discomfort or pain.

When most of us think of sadism, we think of either the violent psychopath or the use of dominance and pain to accentuate sexual pleasure. But there is a difference between sadistic behavior and a sadistic personality.

  • Although psychopaths can be instrumentally aggressive and hostile to the point of murder, only when the knowledge that others are suffering gives the individual pleasure does behavior become sadistic.
  • And only when the inflicting of psychological or physical pain becomes the organizing principle for life does the individual become a sadistic personality.

Assault committed during robbery, for example, is one thing; torturing someone for no apparent reason is quite another. Intentionality is thus core to the definition of the construct.

As with masochismOpens in new window, the acceptance of a sadistic personality has waxed and waned over time. The term sadism was coined by Krafft-Ebing (1867, 1937) in response to the works of the famous French author, the Marquis de Sade, who derived sexual pleasure by dominating others and causing them pain.

Krafft-Ebing defined sadism as “the experience of sexual, pleasurable sensations (including orgasm) produced by acts of cruelty, bodily punishment, afflicted on one’s own person or when witnessed in others, be they animals or human beings” (1937, p. 80). Furthermore, he held that the “innate desire to humiliate and hurt” (p. 82) was characteristic of all humans.

In claiming that the origins of sadism extend beyond the merely sexual, Krafft-Ebing was only recognizing what human beings have known for centuries: There exists a certain class of persons for whom the ability to aggressively inflict psychological and physical suffering is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

From Normality to Abnormality

As a vampire who feeds on the suffering of others, the sadist is only rarely encounterd in the course of everyday life. Nevertheless, sadistic traits and behaviors are common. TeasingOpens in new window, for example, travels under the guise of good-natured fun but is often intended to embarrass, shame, and ridicule.

Sadistic traits have also been observed to covary within the normal range. For example, Millon et al. (1994) describe the controlling style — individuals who enjoy the power to direct and intimidate, to evoke obedience and respect. Tough and unsentimental, they make effective leaders by assigning tasks and coercing performance from subordinates. They also gain satisfaction by dictating and manipulating the lives of those around them.

Where cruelty is expressed more through emotional than physical abuse, many sadistic personalities are able to rationalize their actiosn and thus put themselves in a favorable light.

Although others see them as impulsively aggressive and stubborn, for example, sadists may think of themselves as energetic, assertive, and realistic. What is dominating and callous to others is competitive and not overly sentimental to the sadist, who views kindness as weakness. By normalizing their pathological characteristics, sadistic personalities enhance their self-image of strength, power, and forthrightness.

Many do find a niche for themselves in roles where hardheadedness is required. Sadistic stereotypes that often cross the boundary between normality and pathology include:

  • The disciplinarian stepparent, whose strictness oppresses and suffocates
  • The puritanical preacher, whose hellfire sermons are deliberately designed to force the flock onto the straight and narrow;
  • The authoritarian police officer, who gloats from behind the badge while writing your ticket
  • The petty bureaucrat, whose regulatory maze and eye for detail induce suicidal ideation; and
  • The harping mother, who delights in making her children feel guilty about the sacrifices she has made (Leary, 1957).

In every case, there is something about making someone else feel bad, powerless, or ashamed that gives the subject a perverse satisfaction.

Variants of Sadist Personalities

  1.     The Tyrannical Sadist

The tyrannical sadist and the malevolent antisocial are perhaps the most frightening and cruel of the personality disorder subtypes. Some are physically assaultive, whereas others overwhelm their victims by unrelenting criticism, forceful anger, and vulgar and bitter tirades.

Tyrannical sadists seem to relish the act of menacing and brutalizing others in the most unmerciful and inhumane ways.

More than any other personality, they derive a deep satisfaction from creating suffering, observing its effects, and reflecting on their actions.

Violence may be employed intentionally to inspire terror and intimidation. Resistance only seems to stimulate them more. Often calculating and cool, tyrannical sadists are selective in their choice of victims, identifying scapegoats who are easily intimidated and unlikely to react with violence in return.

Frequently, their goal is not only to inflict terror but also to impress the audience with their total, unrestrained power. Most intentionally dramatize their surly behavior. Although these individuals are in many respects the purest form of the psychopathic sadist, they also exhibit characteristics of the negativistic or paranoid personalitiesOpens in new window.

  1.     The Enforcing Sadist

Every society charges certain agents with the power to enforce its rules to protect the common good. At their best, such individuals recognize the weight of their mission and balance social and individual needs, consider extenuating circumstances, and dispassionately judge intentions and effects before rendering a final verdict. In contrast,

the enforcing sadist is society’s sadistic superego, vested in punishment for its own sake, unable to be appeased.

Military sergeants, certain cops, university deans, and the harsh judge all feel that they have the right to control and punish others. Cloaked within socially sanctioned roles, they mete out condemnation in the name of justice with such extraordinary force that their deeper motives are clear.

Ever seeking to make themselves seem important, these sticklers for rules search out those guilty of some minor trespass, make them cower before the power of their position, and then punish them with a righteous indignation that reeks of repressed anger and personal malice.

Despite their responsibility to be fair and balanced, such individuals are unable to put limits on the emotions that drive their vicious behaviors. Though not as troublesome, many minor bureaucrats also possess such traits. The enforcing sadist represents a combination of the sadistic and compulsive personalitiesOpens in new window.

  1.     The Spineless Sadist

Not all sadists are intrinsically dominant, cruel, and vicious like the tyrannical and enforcing subtypes. Some are deeply insecure, even cowardly. Spineless sadists are a combination of the avoidantOpens in new window and sadistic personalities; their private world is peopled by aggressive and powerful enemies. Attack can only be forestalled by creating an image of strength, a sense of mutual ensured destruction.

For spineless sadists, aggressive hostility is a counterphobic act, designed to master their own inner fearfulness, while sending a message of strength to the public that they will not be intimidated. Displays of courage serve to divert and impress the audience with a façade of potency that says, “I will not be pushed around.”

Neither naturally mean-spirited nor intrinsically violent, the spineless sadist caricatures the swaggering tough-guy or petty tyrant. Having been repeatedly subject to physical brutality and intimidation, these individuals have learned to employ aggression instrumentally against others who seem threatening and abusive.

Fearful of real danger, they strike first, hoping to induce a measure of fearfulness that forestalls further antagonisms. Many spineless sadists join groups that search for a shared scapegoat, a people or ethnic population set aside by the majority culture as a receptable for hate and prejudice.

Evolutionary Neurodevelopmental Perspective

When Freudian theoryOpens in new window had only drive, it was difficult to explain the sadist. However, when he theorized the instinct of ThanatosOpens in new window, sadism was readily explained. Later analysts extended the psychosexual modelOpens in new window to include a form of aggressive sadism at each stage.

Ego psychologistsOpens in new window later argued that instead of being a part of sexual drive, sadistic acts give the sadist a feeling of superiority and omipoetnce. They often use isolation, projection, rationalization, and displacement as defense mechanismsOpens in new window.

  • Interpersonally, sadists regularly violate the rights of others, ridicule and taunt others, and generally try to control others.
  • Cognitively, they are acutely sensitive to the psychological states of others even if they ignore their own vulnerabilities and sensitivities. They use this awareness to exploit people as effectively and cruelly as possible.
  • Biologically, the sadist most likely shares features with the antisocialOpens in new window and paranoid personalitiesOpens in new window, such as low activation of aggressive energy and a hostile temperament.

From an evolutionary perspective, the sadist, like the masochistOpens in new window, is more than the sum of its parts, so no one perspective has causal priority; instead, each integrates with, and reinforces, the others.

Like the sadist, like the masochistOpens in new window, the sadistic personality is reversed on the pleasure-pain polarity. The sadist, however, expresses this reversal actively through malevolent intentions and outright violence, a hostile enmeshment that exists to create pain in relationships.

The early environment of the sadist produces a sense of helplessness that is dealt with by taking omnipotent control of others in ways that lead to vicious circles in which hostility is expected and evoked. The sadist can also be thought of as a more pathological version of the negativistic personalityOpens in new window, one in whom resentment at being controlled has given way to a desire to control in turn.

Although sadistic characteristics may be traced in part to biogenic dispositions, psychogenic factors will shape the content and direction of these dispositions; moreover, psychogenic influences often are sufficient in themselves to promt these behaviors. The following hypothesis focus on the role of experience and learning, but remember that, as far as personality patterns are concerned, biogenic and psychogenic factors interrelate in a sequence of complex interactions.

Infants, who for constitutional reasons are cold, sullen, testy, or otherwise difficult to manage, are likely to provoke negative and rejecting reactions from their parents. It does not take long before a child with this disposition is stereotyped as a “miserable, ill-tempered, and disagreeable little beast.” Once categorized in this fashion, momentum builds up, and we may see a lifelong cycle of parent-child feuding.

Parental hostilities may stem from sources other than the child’s initial disposition; for example, children often are convenient scapegoats for displacing angers that have been generated elsewhere.

Thus, in many cases, a vicious circle of parent-child conflict may have its roots in a parent’s occupational, marital, or social frustrations. Whatever its initial source, a major cause for the development of a sadistic personality pattern is exposure to parental cruelty and domination.

Hostility breeds hostility, not only in generating intense feelings of anger and resentment on the part of the recipient but, perhaps more importantly, in establishing a model for vicarious learning and imitation. It appears to make little difference as to whether a child desires consciously to copy parental hostility; mere exposure to those behaviors, especially in childhood when alternatives have not been observed, serves as an implicit guide as to how people feel and relate to one another.

Thus, impulsive or physically brutal parents arouse and release strong counter feelings of hostility in their children; moreover, they demonstrate in their roughshod and inconsiderate behavior both a model for imitation and an implicit sanction for similar behaviors to be exhibited whenever the child feels angerOpens in new window or frustration.

Sadists go out of their way to denigrate any values that represent what they themselves did not receive in childhood. In its stead, the future sadist asserts that the only true philosophy of life is one guided by living for the moment, discharging one’s hostile feelings, and distrusting the so-called goodwill of others.

Although warmth and sensitivity are usual parts of most intimate encounters, nascent sadists view such encounters as likely preludes to later humiliations and the ultimate control by another. Hence, whatever its possibilities may have been, this usually reinforces the future sadist’s suspiciousness and wish to maintain control over new relationships.

Contrast with Related Personalities

The sadistic personality shares major traits with a number of other personality disorders. Negativistic and sadistic personalities share strong resentment and anger that often lead to overt hostility. They never forget past wrongs done to them. Moreover, negativists often seem covertly sadistic in the way they frustrate and obstruct others.

In contrast to the sadist, however, negativists are deeply ambivalent about issues of love and loyalty. They seek fusion with others and become aggressive as a response to disappointment, sensing that their precious offering of themselves has been taken for granted or, worse, thrown away for another.

Nevertheless, negativists still have a shaken faith that life can be turned around, and a rewarding existence is not impossible. If love could be ensured, all would be forgiven. For this reason, they vacillate between covert aggression and genuine helpfulness, often making them seem emotionally erratic.

In contrast, sadists are hell-bent on inflicting pain on others, on spoiling their lives, and on making them kneel down under absolute control. Their mantra is: Dominate or be dominated. Negativists react to a sense of loss for what could have been; sadists feel that others’ pain is their gain.

Sadistic and antisocial personalitiesOpens in new window are indifferent to the rights of others and often use aggression instrumentally, but for different reasons.

  • The sadist uses aggression to secure dominance and is concerned that others be intimidated and know that it is the sadist who is the source of their suffering.
  • In contrast, antisocial may be greedy and grasping, but their joy lies in the having. Aggression is a means to an end, not an end in itself, as with the sadist.

Moreover, many antisocial are able to delay gratification, for example, in the service of swindling others out of their money. Sadists are generally more direct. Their joy is that others know that they are controlled and finally resign themselves to a position of weakness.

The sadistic personality also shares important traits with a number of other patterns.

For example, both sadistic and paranoid personalitiesOpens in new window expect hostility from the social environment, so much so that they sometimes seethe with a hostility that seems barely contained. Further, both project their own aggressive impulses and interpret ambiguous messages as being belligerent or insulting, and both place a premium on autonomy and realism.

  1. Miller, G. A. (Ed.). (1995). The behavioral high-risk paradigm in psychopathology. New York: Springer.
  2. Shriqui, C. L., & Nasrallah, H. A. (Eds.). (1995). Contemporary issues in the treatment of schizophrenia. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press.
  3. Theodore Millon, Carrie M. Millon, Sarah E. Meagher, Seth D. Grossman, Rowena Ramnath. Personality Disorders in Modern Life.