Who can forget Hannibal Lecter, in his famous scene with the police detective, Clarice, describe his savor for the delicacies of human cuisine with fava beans and Chianti. Or the horrifying vengeful murders of the anonymous serial killer, “John Doe,” played by Kevin Spacey in the movie, “Seven,” as he plied his methodical imagination to torture each of his victims according to the papal caveats illuminated in Dante’s Inferno. Serial killers have always fascinated and when they are sadistic as well, well, all the more brio.
The “Killer” Among Us
But we don’t need to rely on fiction to find these characters actually do exist among us. Most of us are, at least in passing, familiar with infamous names such as Jeffrey Dahmer who cannibalized his victims, John Gacy, a “professional clown,” who buried his juvenile victims in his yard and basement, and Dennis Rader, the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Strangler, who in his alternate life was a Boy Scout Leader and Church President. Then there were others . . . Robert Berdella, “The Butcher of Kansas City,” who displayed his victims’ skulls as trophies, Robert Hansen who set his victims free and naked in the wilderness of Anchorage, Alaska, in order to pursue them with a knife or rifle as if they were prey, and John Brennan Crutchley, “The Vampire Rapist,” who bound and assaulted his victims before extracting and drinking their blood.
The ”Lesser Angels” Within Us
Not everyone, thank God, is a serial killer. Yet, there may be a bit of what motivates them in each of us, hence our fascination. According to one survey, 6% of undergraduate college students report getting pleasure from hurting others. Though that’s not a high percentage, it nonetheless seems 6% more than should be acceptable. “Everyday” sadists, though not serial killers, get pleasure from hurting others or watching their suffering. Taking pleasure in acting, or even just imagining oneself acting, to inflict pain on someone else deliberately is an experience, while not something to be proud of, that might not be all that unfamiliar to most people. Vengeance, as they say, can be sweet, and who has not experienced at some time or another taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, an emotion known by the German word, schadenfreude. Though, needless to say, this experience is a far cry from Hannibal Lecter it would be disturbing to realize that it reveals something within each of us that we might share with him. It is this realization, viz., our commonality with something we instinctively find abhorrent, that helps us to understand nonetheless what motivates the sadistic personality.
The Sadistic Personality
Sadism is a concept first introduced by the 19th century German physician, Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his classic text, Psychopathia Sexualis. He borrowed the name from the notorious 18th century nobleman, the Marquis de Sade, a French revolutionary who was also a political philosopher and novelist who while incarcerated wrote his infamous stories depicting a panoply of atypical, many commonly deemed depraved, sexual practices. A sadist, according to Krafft-Ebing, is someone who takes sexual pleasure from inflicting pain on others, an aberration of sexual behavior known today as a paraphilia. Freud later extended this concept to encompass both sexual and “generalized” or what one might call, characterological, sadism.
A person who might be defined as having a sadistic personality would exhibit a host of behaviors that might include poor frustration tolerance, a harsh, demeaning manner, and a fascination with weapons or heinous criminals. Such persons might also be attracted to careers that allow them to control or punish others such as in law enforcement, the military, or the government. Roughly 90% of people diagnosed with sadistic personality disorder are men. According to the psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm (The Authoritarian Personality, 1957), the sadistic personality is ultimately motivated by the need to humiliate others. While this behavior is used to exhibit power and dominance it belies weakness inasmuch as it depends on an “other” to dominant in order to feel strong. In real life, humiliation is more likely to be exhibited by social, or verbal, rather than physical means, but in either case, this behavior serves as a defense against feeling or exhibiting vulnerability.
In fundamental ways the sadistic personality looks a lot like narcissists and sociopaths, or what is technically known as the antisocial personality. Both personality disorders are classified under “Cluster B,” of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). They are characterized by behavior that is often grossly self-serving and as varying between insensitive to toward being exploitative of the feelings and concerns of others. However, the sadistic personality has, in one essential way, more in common with the average person than do the other two categories. Where the narcissist and sociopath lack awareness or concern about the impact of their behavior on others, the sadist is aware, albeit as the source of his greatest satisfaction. Whilst it is from this essential cruelty that the sadist derives pleasure from the suffering his behavior inflicts on others, his presumed “attunement to” the emotions he endeavors to elicit from his victim, however predatory in its quality, suggests that the sadist has the greater degree of empathy.
In consideration to this qualitative distinction of diagnostic conceptualization, the American Psychiatric Association’s revisions to its third edition in the 1980’s proposed adding Sadistic Personality Disorder (SPD) to its diagnostic taxonomy. Diagnosis of this disorder, according to the manual at that time required meeting four of the following eight criteria:
SPD was not, finally, adopted in the DSM’s fourth edition because it was not supported by statistical evidence to sufficiently differentiate it from antisocial personality disorder. Moreover, there was concern that establishing a clinical diagnosis for behavior that is categorically destructive to others might, by assigning it to a “medically” diagnosed condition, diminish its social and legal culpability. While some, such as Theodore Millon (The Assertive to Sadistic Personality Spectrum, 2009) believe there remains sufficient evidence to recognize its clinical distinctiveness, it was proposed instead to consider SPD as, at best, representing a possible subset of antisocial personality disorder.
Origins and Treatment of SPD
While there is evidence as with most clinical phenomena of hereditary contributions to SPD, such as impulsiveness and dominance, for example, the pathological dimensions such as cruelty and taking pleasure from someone else’s pain likely originate from social learning and early life trauma. There is some evidence that exposure to role models, whether from one’s family, community, or social media, can contribute to sadistic behavior. However, even in such instances, it remains compelling that what differentiates sadistic from antisocial personality, viz., taking pleasure, originates from the painful experience of victimization and the vain attempt, either in fantasy or cruel behavior itself, to overcome these helpless feelings through the role reversal necessary to transform traumatic experience. It is a tragedy that beyond the suffering such behavior inevitably inflicts on its victims the repetition of sadistic behavior fails to diminish the force with which it continually influences the emotions that drive it in compulsive fashion. In fact, empirical research has suggested that, paradoxically, rather than assuage the need to cause suffering in others, for the sadistic personality, cruel actions are more likely to result in an exacerbation of dysphoric feelings.
Psychological treatment for SPD, as for all personality disorders, normally requires intensive and prolonged psychotherapy. These persons are not likely to enter therapy for reasons that are most likely obvious to others. Instead, they either are referred because of the consequences of their behaviors, such as from law enforcement or from family members. Intervention often focuses on helping the patient better understand how the consequences of their behavior originate from their behavior while at the same time establishing a sufficiently trusting relationship with the patient to allow such insights to be accepted. Working with a patient’s trauma history and probing insights that may be derived from the psychodynamics of trauma often constitute an essential part of therapy for this particular disorder as well.
Robert Hamm Ph.D