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Social and behavioural

People behave more sadistically when they’re bored

A new paper reveals a factor that the researchers conclude has a “crucial but overlooked” role in fostering sadistic behaviour: simple boredom.

12 January 2022

By Emma Young

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.

The team then explored boredom and sadism in different specific settings. In a study of US military personnel, the team found that sadistic behaviour towards other soldiers was linked to more boredom during military service. Similarly, a study of internet behaviour revealed online trolling was associated with more boredom in everyday life. Finally, in a study on child care, parents living in the US, Canada and the UK were asked whether they sometimes enjoyed making jokes at the expense of their child, or had even enjoyed physically hurting their child. The team found that when sadism did happen during child care, it was more likely to be reported by parents who felt bored while caring for their children. This study “points to a potential cause of child maltreatment that has not so far been considered in empirical research” they write.

However, a weakness of these studies was that they were all correlational and based on self-report. So the team then looked at what impact experimentally-induced boredom might have on sadistic behaviour. These studies of more than 4,000 people produced some fascinating if also disturbing results.

In one, 129 participants came into the lab, handed in their phones and anything else that might be distracting, and were put into a cubicle to watch either a 20-minute film of a waterfall (this was designed to make them feel bored) or a 20-minute documentary about the Alps. In the cubicle with them were three named cups, each holding a maggot, and a modified coffee grinder. The participants were told that while watching the film, they could shred the maggots if they wished. (In fact, if a maggot was put through the grinder, it was not harmed). The vast majority did not grind any. However, of the 13 people that did, 12 were in the boring video group. And the team found a link between worm-grinding and reporting feeling pleasure/satisfaction. “In this way, we document that boredom can motivate actual sadistic behaviour,” they write.

In subsequent experimental online studies, the researchers looked at how levels of underlying, trait sadism might influence sadistic behaviour while bored. These studies again involved participants watching boring vs interesting videos, during which they had the option to deduct money from, or add money to, a payment that they believed was going to be made to another participant. The team found that boredom made participants more likely to make the money-cutting choice — but only if they were already high in trait sadism. However, when there was no positive, prosocial alternative — when participants could only reduce and not increase the payment — bored individuals cut more money whether they were low or high in trait sadism. “Remarkably, this was the case even when looking at the very bottom of the sadism scale,” the team reports.

In a final study, the team explored why bored people behaved in this way, and concluded that it was down to a desire for novelty and excitement.

So what are the implications of all this?

The team accept that their investigations of boredom and sadism in the real world — on the internet, and in military and child care contexts — can’t themselves show that boredom definitely causes sadistic behaviour. But when considered in the light of the results from the experimental studies — especially the finding that when there’s nothing else to do, even people who aren’t normally sadistic become more willing to punish others, apparently just for the minor thrill of it — the results suggest that strategies to reduce boredom in these settings might reduce sadistic behaviour, too.  “We argue,” they write, “that the present research represents ground for giving such interventions a try.”

Further reading

– On the relation of boredom and sadistic aggression.

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest