The Sadistic Personality

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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 instrumen-tally 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 masochism, 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.

Though well known to history and contemporary society, the sadistic personality nevertheless appears only in the appendix of the third revised edition of the DSM, published in 1987, as a provisional personality disorder requiring further study. The intent was to describe a long-standing, maladaptive pattern of cruel, demeaning, and aggressive behavior, usually seen in forensic settings and distinct from other personality disorders (Fiester & Gay, 1991), particularly the antisocial. Unfortunately, the disorder was not continued in DSM-IV In part, it was dropped because of scientific concerns, such as the relatively low prevalence rate of the disorder in many settings. However, there were also political reasons. Physically abusive, sadistic personalities are most often male, and it was felt that any such diagnosis might have the paradoxical effect of legally excusing cruel behavior.

As an introduction to the sadistic personality, consider the case of Chuck (see Case 15.2). Like many sadistic personalities, Chuck has found a niche for himself in a job that naturally allows him to make life difficult for others. If he gets to inflict some gratuitous suffering along the way, Chuck will tell you that that's just part of his job. Indeed, he is good at what he does, a fact that no doubt won him his supervisory role in the first place. But that's the problem. Everyone would like work to be fun, but Chuck finds his job gratifying in pathological ways (see criterion 4). He gets a rush from intimidating others into handing over their money, almost as if he had a personal score to settle (see criterion 6). Like other sadistic personalities, he intimidates others into doing what he wants. For example, he sometimes "pays visits" to customers who aren't sufficiently respectful. Worse, he lies about the legal limits of his role (see criterion 5), frightening people by claiming that he can take away their home if they don't pay. If they don't give in, he keeps calling back and counts down the days to keep the pressure on. Once, he

Chuck is a middle-level supervisor for a debt-collection agency. He Is good at what he does, and he enjoys his work. He is here because of a bad evaluation, one Chuck believes was rigged by his own supervisor to prevent Chuck from taking his job, a feat in which Chuck feels confident in succeeding.1 The evaluation claims that Chuck is too hard on his subordinates, specifically, that he disciplines them publicly, and does so deliberately to humiliate them.

With great zeal, Chuck pronounces himself a fair supervisor, but emphasizes that no one is going to slack off on his watch. He expects a full day from everyone, with no chatter, no down time, no small talk, no coming in late, and no excuses for not getting assigned work done. "I don't work with problem employees. I pressure them until they work, and if they don't have the good sense to quit, then I find reason to fire them!" he says, smirking. "Not everyone can do this kind of work," Chuck says, almost glowing, "but it's made for me. I love making people do their job, but I get the biggest rush from collecting debt. I collect more debt than anyone." Though his job is usually done on the phone, he confided that has in fact "paid visits" to customers who are not sufficiently respectful of his efforts.

Chuck was born in South Boston to a fiercely religious Italian family, the fifth of six children. He notes proudly that his family "had no goddamn idea what to do with me." His four sisters are described as "virgins that should be in a nunnery." His only brother has always been actively involved with the church, and considered joining the seminary, but decided to teach instead. "I had no such ambitions," Chuck states, "and the family always looked down on me." He notes sarcastically that "there was so damn much saintli-ness in our family that God must have decided to throw in a devil, me, to test their faith." He smiles at that idea, and goes on to describe himself as a "tough little fucker" who was first a problem in school, then a problem because he was never in school, then a juvenile delinquent with a talent for fighting. "My smart mouth got me in a lot of trouble when I was young. That's the reason I'm so damn good at my job." He still studies weapons, and collects books on war.

Chuck's relationship with his family is distant. He has never married but boasts about the several girlfriends he "services." His life seems centered on his work, where manipulative aggressiveness is not only approved, but rewarded. Chuck sees himself as an "enforcer of the law" and is somehow righteously empowered by this egotistical interpretation. Chuck described one case with great satisfaction where he so completely intimidated a debtor that she fled completely across the country. "Sometimes, I tell them we can put a lien on their home and take it away, even though there's no such thing," he boasts. "Then I keep calling them back and count down the days." He does not perceive his behavior to be a problem.

1 Numbers mark aspects of the case most consistent with DSM criteria, and do not necessarily indicate that the case "meets" diagnostic criteria in this respect.

Sadistic Personality

Disorder DSM-III-R Criteria

A. A pervasive pattern of cruel, demeaning, and aggressive behavior, beginning by early adulthood, as indicated by the repeated occurrence of at least four of the following:

(1) has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him or her)

(2) humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others

(3) has treated or disciplined someone under his or her control unusually harshly, e.g., a child, student, prisoner, or patient

(4) is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals)

(5) has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal)

(6) gets other people to do what he or she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror)

(7) restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has a close relationship, e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teen-age daughter to attend social functions

(8) is fascinated by violence, weapons, martial arts, injury, or torture

B. The behavior in A has not been directed toward only one person (e.g., spouse, one child) and has not been solely for the purpose of sexual arousal (as in Sexual Sadism).

Reproduced with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition Revised. Copyright 1987 American Psychiatric Association.

intimidated a woman so thoroughly that she fled across the country to get away from him, a story he recounts with great satisfaction.

Aggressive domination seems to be Chuck's only interpersonal strategy. He is a physically threatening person, and in his own way, he is very successful, though his approach has begun to backfire in the office. Just as he pressures the debtors, he pressures his subordinates. If someone slips out from under his thumb, he doesn't call that person aside into the privacy of his office and explain why his or her behavior is in error. Instead, he makes a public spectacle of intimidating, humiliating, and demeaning the person in front of the other workers (see criterion 2). Everyone must know that he is the boss—he sets down the rules. No one slacks off around Chuck, because he doesn't tolerate it. He imposes harsh discipline (see criterion 3) and weeds out supposed slackers by finding an excuse to fire them. Aggression is so much a part of Chuck that he even enjoys studying the instruments of aggression and books about war (see criterion 8).

Given the portrayal of Chuck, we are now in a position to approach additional issues that form the plan of this section. First, we compare normality and abnormality; then we move on to variations on the basic sadistic theme. Developmental hypotheses are also reviewed but are tentative for all personality disorders. Next, the section "Evolutionary Neurodevelopmental Perspective" shows how the existence of the personality disorder follows from the laws of evolution. Also included are a contrast between the sadistic and other personality disorders and a discussion of how sadistic personalities tend to develop Axis I disorders.

From Normality to Abnormality

As a vampire who feeds on the suffering of others, the sadist is only rarely encountered in the course of everyday life. Nevertheless, sadistic traits and behaviors are common. Teasing, 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 actions 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.

Though the name is almost a contradiction, a sadistic personality style can also be developed by normalizing the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-III-R. Whereas the personality disorder establishes dominance through physical cruelty or violence (see criterion 1), the style does not, but instead uses an imposing physical presence as a means of pulling for respect in interpersonal transactions. Whereas the disordered individual humiliates and demeans others publicly (see criterion 2), those with the style simply enjoy an image of strength and hold this as part of their self-image. Whereas the disordered discipline those within their control unusually harshly (see criterion 3), the style is authoritative, not authoritarian. Whereas the disordered finds pleasure in the suffering of others (see criterion 4) for its own sake, those with the style feel gratified only where punishment was administered and justice was served. Whereas the disordered lies to inflict pain or harm (see criterion 5), those with the style do not, but they may not hesitate to smile when others become snared in their own deception. Whereas the disordered forces others to action through intimidation (see criterion 6), those with the style use their position of power for the greater good. Whereas the disordered restrict the freedom of those within their sphere of influence (see criterion 7), those with the style create rules and expect them to be followed, though within reasonable limits. Whereas the disordered are fascinated by the instruments or results of aggression, those with the style simply admire the potential of strength and its various symbols to evoke respect. For each of the contrasts applicable to Chuck, he falls more toward the pathological end.

Variations of the Sadistic Personality

Not every sadistic personality is like Chuck, the debt collector. Most of the diagnostic criteria of the sadistic personality apply to Chuck, but not all. Other sadists combine the criteria in different ways, in different settings, and with a different history. Many have secondary personality characteristics that synthesize with the major pattern. Some of these are described in Figure 15.2. Actual cases may or may not fall into one of these combinations.

The Explosive Sadist

Most persons tend to become aggressive or hostile by degrees. In contrast, explosive sadists are distinguished for sudden eruptions of uncontrollable rage, frequently vented against members of their own family as safe targets. Explosive sadists appear to be coping competently until some unknown threshold is reached, after which they react instantaneously with abusive defiance and possibly physical violence. In contrast to other sadists, their displays of aggression are not used instrumentally to dominate others, but instead release pent-up feelings of frustration or humiliation. Neither do they conduct themselves in a surly and truculent manner. Many are hypersensitive to feelings of betrayal, or they may be deeply frustrated by the futility and hopelessness of life. Physical assaults are often the product of a verbally unskilled individual unable to express a reaction, who feels helpless to respond in any other way. Periodically under control, but lacking in psychic cohesion and, therefore, vulnerable to impulsive discharge, the explosive sadist represents a combination of the sadistic and borderline personalities.

Sadistic Borderline Personality Disorder

FIGURE 15.2 Variants of the Sadistic Personality. 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 personalities.

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 personalities.

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 avoidant 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 receptacle for hate and prejudice.

Evolutionary Neurodevelopmental Perspective

When Freudian theory had only one drive, it was difficult to explain the sadist. However, when he theorized the instinct of thanatos, sadism was readily explained. Later analysts extended the psychosexual model to include a form of aggressive sadism at each stage. Ego psychologists later argued that instead of being a part of sexual drive, sadistic acts give the sadist a feeling of superiority and omnipotence. They often use isolation, projection, rationalization, and displacement as defense mechanisms. 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 antisocial and paranoid personalities, such as low activation of aggressive energy and a hostile temperament. From an evolutionary perspective, the sadist, like the masochist, 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 masochist, 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 personality, 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 prompt these behaviors. The following hypotheses 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 these 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 anger 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.

Table 15.2 summarizes the sadistic personality in terms of eight clinical domains. Contrasts with other personality constructs are examined in the following section, followed by a sketch of its Axis I vulnerabilities.

TABLE 15.2 The Sadistic Personality: Functional and Structural Domains

Functional Domains

Structural Domains

Expressive Behavior




Is disposed to react in sudden abrupt outbursts of an unexpected and unwarranted nature; recklessly reactive and daring, attracted to challenge, risk, and harm, as well as unflinching, undeterred by pain, and undaunted by danger and punishment.

Is proud to characterize self as assertively competitive, as well as vigorously energetic and militantly hard-headed; values aspects of self that present pugnacious, domineering, and power-oriented image.

Interpersonal Conduct



Reveals satisfaction in intimidating, coercing, and humiliating others; regularly expresses verbally abusive and derisive social commentary, as well as exhibiting vicious, if not physically brutal, behavior.

Internalized representations of the past are distinguished by early relationships that have generated strongly driven aggressive energies and malicious attitudes, as well as by a contrasting paucity of sentimental memories, tender affects, internal conflicts, shame, or guilt feelings.

Cognitive Style


Morphologic Organization


Is strongly opinionated and close-minded, as well as unbending and obstinate in holding to preconceptions; exhibits a broad-ranging authoritarianism, social intolerance, and prejudice.

Despite a generally cohesive morphologic structure composed of routinely adequate modulating controls, defenses and expressive channels, surging powerful and explosive energies of an aggressive and sexual nature threaten to produce precipitous outbursts that periodically overwhelm and overrun otherwise competent restraints.

Regulatory Mechanism


Mood/ Temperament


Can be cold-blooded and remarkably detached from an awareness of the impact of own destructive acts; views objects of violation impersonally, as symbols of devalued group devoid of human sensibilities.

Has an excitable and irritable temper that flares readily into contentious argument and physical belligerence; is cruel, mean-spirited and fractious, willing to do harm, even persecute others to get own way.

Note: Shaded domains are the most salient for this personality prototype.

Note: Shaded domains are the most salient for this personality prototype.

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 them. Moreover, neg-ativists 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 personalities 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, antisocials 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 antisocials 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 personalities 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, even though the paranoid's worldview is highly distorted. However, whereas sadists wish to go forth and subdue, paranoids are walled off. Their hostility is reactive to slights and injustices for which they believe others are responsible. The narcissistic and sadistic personalities often share a sense of omnipotence, but for different reasons. Narcissists are grandiose about their own talent and brilliance. Other persons are often exploited in a way that seems sadistic to the observer. However, narcissists expect others to service their needs and consider such special treatment justified by their superior ability. Here, a sense of omnipotence is derived primarily through observation of the self. In contrast, sadists use their control of others to signify omnipotence to both themselves and others. Everyone should know who is in control.

Pathways to Symptom Expression

Sadistic personalities are vulnerable to a number of Axis I disorders. As always, it is important to remember that there is a logic that connects the personality pattern with its associated Axis I syndromes. Symptoms are particularly likely to arise when the effectiveness of sadists' aggression or their position of dominance is threatened. Anxiety disorders may reflect fears of retribution or revenge, legal or otherwise. Because sadists monitor the helplessness of others as an indicator of omnipotence, they may experience feelings of worthlessness and depression as the formerly oppressed become empowered to resist their cruelty. They are also vulnerable to substance abuse, usually as a means of heightening their self-confidence, retrieving a sense of energy, or relieving a nagging sense of self-doubt. Explosive sadists may abuse alcohol as a means of dealing with feelings of guilt.

Because sadists see aggression as the fundamental human motive and so anticipate hostile counterattacks from others, they sometimes develop clinically significant paranoid fears that wax and wane, depending on their confidence and circumstances. Chuck, for example, believes that his lousy review is a setup to prevent him from taking his supervisor's job. Finally, sadists who are forced to withdraw socially, those whose power and authority are suddenly overturned, perhaps, sometimes develop delusional ideas, usually with a paranoid or persecutory flavor.

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