We need to talk about sadism and the assumptions surrounding it. Often I see questions, answers, and get comments from people that think that psychopathy and sadism are linked. One is forever and indelibly connected to the other. However, this is not what has been found in science. In fact, they have found a negative correlation between psychopathy and sadism.
Why would that be? It is because sadism requires emotional empathy. Now, you might be thinking, that makes no sense. If you have empathy, you wouldn’t want another person to suffer? Right? Why would you?
There are a lot of reasons why one normal person would want another normal person to suffer, and why they might enjoy it. The dark side of someone’s mind is a good example of this. Once you go down the slippery slope of evil:
The seven social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil;
Mindlessly taking the first small step
Dehumanization of others
De-individuation of others
Diffusion of personal responsibility
Blind obedience to authority
Uncritical conformity to group norms
Passive tolerance of evil through inaction, or indifference.
seeing people that don’t fit into your view of acceptable, or within your “tribe” it becomes very easy to wish awful things upon their heads. The further apart the divide, the more it is easy to see others as your “enemy”. That alone can bring about some incredible displays of sadism.
Another example would be when someone is emotionally unbalanced and does not know how to engage in a relationship in healthy terms. They instead are highly manipulative and can bring about some deep emotional devastation. In this case, the person seeks your suffering because it is the only way they know how to control you. If you can’t live without them, or you are afraid to try, they have you in their sights and locked in place.
This brings me back to the lack of correlation between psychopathy and sadism. I have written about this many times on Quora, and it always gets a lot of pushback. it is not something that people want to see or accept. Either they are invested in their imaginary life of a super sadistic teenage psychopath, or they have an ex they have decided is psychopathic and sadistic, therefore I am wrong. I point to neuroscience and they disagree with it. Not with evidence of course, but with the age-old argument of “because I say so”. I am sure most of you have read me long enough to know what I am going to say next, but for you newcomers:
“Because I say so, does not an argument make.”
What does neuroscience say on this subject? Let’s have a look-see, shall we?
The Psychopath vs. the Sadist
The typical Hollywood serial killer combines psychopathic traits — cold calculation, lack of empathy, delight in manipulation — with the sadist’s joy and erotic pleasure gleaned from the pain of others. But in reality, these traits may be quite distinct. “If you look at movies, there are people that are both — like Hannibal Lecter,” says Decety. “I’m not sure that’s what we have in the real world.”
Decety and his colleagues recently published a brain-scan study of 15 violent sexual offenders, eight of whom were classified as sexual sadists. The research deliberately excluded psychopaths in order to find brain differences unique to sadism.
Participants were shown images that involved either pain or no pain — for example, a picture of a person stabbing a table or another person’s hand with scissors, or an image of someone slamming a car door and either hitting or not hitting another person.
When viewing the pictures of pain, the sadists showed greater activation in their amygdala — a brain area associated with strong emotion — compared with the other sexual offenders. Moreover, the sadists rated the pain experienced by the victim as more intense than the nonsadists did. And the more intense the sadists thought the pain was, the greater their activation in another brain region called the insula, which is involved with monitoring one’s own feelings and body states.
“When you feel something like disgust, pain, pleasure, even orgasm, the insula plays a critical role to bring those bodily emotions to awareness,” Decety says.
Decety’s study suggests that sadists seem to be especially tuned in to what their victims are feeling — in fact, they experience it vicariously and are aroused by it. Psychopaths, on the other hand, tend to be indifferent to the emotions of others. “If you live with a psychopath and you cry because that person was unpleasant to you, that probably doesn’t matter to him. He is not moved and doesn’t care, because he doesn’t feel anything about what you feel,” says Decety. “The sadists do feel. They understand that the victim is in pain.”
Psychopathy vs. Antisocial Personality Disorder
In another new study aimed at elucidating the workings of the psychopathic brain, researchers at King’s College London explored the differences between people with psychopathy and those with another dangerous personality type: antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, views psychopathy as basically the most extreme type of ASPD, but increasingly, research suggests that they are separate. **“Nobody had ever done [a brain-imaging] study contrasting people with ASPD and psychopathy,” says lead author Nigel Blackwood.
Blackwood describes people with ASPD this way: “They’re impulsive, irritable and hotheaded. They use reactive aggression like the classic pub-brawl scenario when they see a threat where it may not exist and use violence to ‘solve’ the situation.”
“Once that’s done, they might experience some degree of regret or remorse. They might feel guilty. They have lot of anxiety [disorders] and depression and substance misuse,” he says. Psychopaths, in contrast, may be equally violent and aggressive — and are also likely to frequently take drugs — but they are remorseless and coldly plan their attacks.
Another difference: both those with ASPD and psychopathy tend to have experienced maltreatment during childhood, but unlike people with ASPD, psychopaths don’t have symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder as a result. Quite the opposite: psychopaths tend to have little anxiety and virtually no fear.
Compared with people with ASPD only, the brain-scan study found that psychopaths had reduced volume in a region called the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex (arPFC) and another area known as the temporal pole. These regions are important for understanding one’s own thoughts and feelings as well as the minds of others.
What they have been able to demonstrate is significant, and it highlights what I have been saying for a very long time. A psychopath does not understand the depths of your suffering. It doesn’t happen for us. If there is something unpleasant, it is a problem to be solved. Once it is solved, or I can find the best way to make it work to my advantage, it is no longer considered. There is no emotional suffering, and in order to enjoy emotional suffering, the person inflicting it has to first understand that suffering is real, and what they are doing will cause that suffering to appear.
Now, I can get to this conclusion by observation in life, but that doesn’t mean that the suffering takes on any new meaning to me. It’s an acknowledgment that it’s real. That’s pretty much it. I have heard the argument that a psychopath could then learn to use it, but let me explore that a bit.
I will not deny that a psychopath could learn to explore it, but the suffering a psychopath is far more likely to inflict is that of indifference or lack of understanding of your claims of pain. Let me give you a more physical example. I have headaches, and they can be terrible. I have not had a cluster period in a few years, but when I had them, they were very extreme in the amounts of pain they could deliver. Most people that have these headaches are incapacitated by them. I’m not. Yes, they suck, but that pain doesn’t stop me from doing what I have to do in my life.
Other people that I know have regular migraines. I have these as well, but compared to the clusters, they aren’t something that is going to get me to stop living as I need to. I also have long-term headaches. They can last, at full strength and volume for a month, sometimes more. That doesn’t mean that they remove my will for function. Most of the time, unless I tell you, you will have no idea that I have a headache, nor that it has been around for as long as it has been.
Back to the people who get regular migraines. They can be laid out by them, lock themselves in a dark room, and not be able to live their lives. This is totally foreign to me. It seems that there is an emotional component to their pain. I lack that experience, so I am only dealing with the physical problem. I cannot comprehend how a headache causes that much inability to function. Even if we are comparing apples to apples, migraines to migraines, I do not have a clue why the emotional part is so debilitating. If I lacked cognitive empathy my response would probably be:
“Really? It’s a headache. Stop whining and get busy.”
Cognitive empathy prevents this but it does not have the ability to teach me why you suffer so when having the same experience I do not. Extrapolate that to sadism. Starting with physical sadism, I can experience one part of your suffering, but not the other. For me, physical pain does indeed suck, but it is something to be dealt with. There is no fear attached to the pain, there is no angst, dread, or feeling of a loss of self-control. I know that these things accompany many neurotypicals when it comes to the physical suffering a sadist might bring, but that doesn’t mean that I can remotely understand it past an acknowledgment that part is very real.
Now to the emotional suffering that a sadist might bring. This is totally out of my wheelhouse of understanding. All the things that emotional sadists or toxic people bring are outside my purview of understanding. To me, it seems just as easy to tune them out as it does to walk away. I don’t have time for someone’s unhinged tirade, so why would I bother listening to it. Everything that they have to say has nothing to do with me, and all they are doing is wasting my precious time that I could be doing stuff for me.
This is an example of the totally self-focused type of mentality that a psychopath lives in. Nothing that another person thinks about me has anything to do with me, it’s just their warped view of reality. That is where the responsibility lies, and I can’t be bothered to entertain their need to try and get me to feel some sort of particular thing. It won’t happen, and I have stuff to do.
How would a person that has this response to emotional abuse understand the impact that these words have on a neurotypical? They are asking me to rearrange my way of seeing the world that is fundamental to my functioning, and see it through the eyes of someone else. Not only that, but take their word that this type of thing impacts them and that they are suffering. That to me makes no sense. Why would you care what that person says to you? It’s not your problem.
Since there is no emotional suffering, no understanding of what that is like, there is nothing to drive trying to inflict it, and certainly nothing that would wire me to enjoy it. Imagine having no ability to feel physical pain at all. Would you then understand that when someone falls and skins their knee that they are suffering? No. You would look at it and think, what are you crying about. It happens to me all the time, and I’m fine. That disconnect is somewhat similar to the emotional suffering.
I think that there is a possibility that a psychopath could have a sadistic side, but this is rarely going to be the case. I have thought about this for a good while and arrived at a route that might produce this end.
My hypothesis has to do with the amygdala in abused children. In an abused child their amygdala tends to get larger as a result. It helps them be aware of the situation around them and evaluate it for danger. It is a self-protection response of the brain.
In a psychopath, we have several changes in our brain structure, but the amygdala being smaller by around eighteen percent is one of those changes.
The hypothesis that I have is that sadistic psychopaths were horrifically abused, which caused their amygdala to become slightly larger than that of a normal psychopath. In that transition, and with the rest of the emotional processing not available, and as a response to the abuse (psychopaths don’t internalize abuse, we externalize it) they become sadistic. I would think that a person like this would indeed be dangerous. They aren’t going to be the psychopath writing on Quora about how casually sadistic they are. I think instead they would be in prison. I don’t see how that combination provides for a productive life at all.
Now to talk about those that do want you to suffer.
Remember, sadism, be it physical or emotional requires emotional empathy, which psychopaths lack entirely. The sadist knows you are suffering because they understand that suffering and want you to feel it. Psychopaths have no concept that emotional pain is suffering. We don’t feel it so it isn’t something that occurs to us. You can cry about it to us, and we will just think that you are trying to manipulate us with emotional tactics like guilt, which is also a dead-end with us.
A neurotypical on the other hand knows that suffering and knows what they are doing when they induce it in you. They will make you feel guilty, sad, emotional pain, fear, panic, insecurity, dread, self-doubt, create emotional ruin because they understand all of those feelings. I don’t feel any of those things and have no real appreciation for their power in your lives. Also, keep in mind why these methods of manipulation are employed. They are employed to keep you with that person.
Either they are seeking to tear out your insides to make you feel terrified to leave, or they are trying to make you dependent like they are they are the only ones that can save you.
Could I learn to do this to a person? Sure, but there is no payoff for me. I do not want anyone depending on me for anything. I want someone that can stand with or without me in their lives. If someone becomes dependent on me, if they need me around, I am less apt to have any interest in being so. Psychopaths aren’t interested in your emotional life. There is no connection there for us.
The people that are emotional terrorists are so because they understand how much damage they can do. For a psychopath it is like finding something like this:
and trying to find the logic in it. You might turn it around once or twice, look inside, see if there is anything you missed, but for the most part, you are just going to set it down with a perplexed look on your face and try to find something more interesting to examine. That’s sadism to me. I don’t get it at all. It would just be time and effort going down the drain, not to mention that the results are often a highly emotional person that I would now have to deal with.
Let me be clear. It is true that I know enough about neurotypical emotions that I could drive one past the point of insanity. It really isn’t difficult, but anyone can do this if they have studied sufficiently. The difference is this, it provides me nothing. There is no payoff for me emotionally, so there is nothing in it that is attractive as a tactic. The only reason that doing something like that would be considered is when someone has targeted me for some reason. Then, I admit, it’s a pretty useful tool to have. However, it isn’t one wielded with glee, it is one wielded with skill for the proper outcome, and that is for the person to either leave me alone or be discredited entirely.
**Did you see that bolded part? The part where they have done no studies to compare and contrast ASPD and psychopathy? Granted, this article is from 2012, so ten years ago, but the conclusions about what makes up the idea of psychopathy, specifically the notions that the PCL-R has put in place, are far older than that. Most studies since then have been built on the understanding that ASPD and psychopathy are the same things. Not doing the work to demonstrate the difference, brain scans comparing and contrasting them, is a huge part of the body of misinformation. This is going to be a part of a larger post I think.
Seriously? They can’t be bothered to look at the very definition of what they are studying before drawing conclusions? How can you draw any conclusions? That is like saying, well, we have these dogs over here… and we have these cats that like to play fetch… clearly they are the same thing.