Sadism represents a predisposition towards enjoying the suffering that we cause others. However, this conceptualization of Sadism closely abuts that of schadenfreude—the tendency to find pleasure in others’ suffering. The relationship between trait Sadism and trait schadenfreude has gone understudied. Using latent construct modeling with a cross-sectional and diverse sample of 322 undergraduate participants, we found that the bi-factor model of Sadism and schadenfreude that best fit the data articulated Sadism as a sub-facet of schadenfreude. Sadism was more strongly related to physical aggressiveness, anger, and antagonism than schadenfreude, suggesting a distinct nomological profile. Future research should seek to identify the mechanisms that translate a passive, schadenfreudic disposition into actual acts of Sadistic aggression.
Sadism is a Lower-Order Facet of Schadenfreude
Pleasure is sweetest when 'tis paid for by another's pain. – Ovid
Sadism reflects the tendency for some people to enjoy the harm that they inflict
upon others (Foulkes, 2019). Research into this topic has resulted in significant
progress but also some inconsistency in the conceptualization of what traits are and are
not central to Sadism. The present study combined a novel factor analytic approach
with bi-factor models to bring clarity to this literature by empirically examining (I)
whether dominance-seeking and callous-unempathic responding belong in the core
Sadism construct, (II) whether vicarious Sadism is redundant with schadenfreude, and
(III) whether Sadism is a lower-order facet of schadenfreude.
Sadism, first conceptualized as a form of psychopathology and criminal behavior
outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders revised third
edition (American Psychiatric Association, 1987), was once considered a purely sexual
phenomena (i.e., sexual Sadism), and indeed its very name comes from Marquis de
Sade, who wrote sexually explicit fiction depicting extreme violence and suffering.
Modern conceptualizations of Sadism, however, have broadened the definition to “the
deliberate infliction of pain for the sake of enjoyment” (Nell, 2006, p. 227). Sadism was
previously considered a psychiatric disorder, and Sadistic personality disorder was
included in the revised third edition of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1987). However, more recently
researchers have conceptualized Sadism as a broader personality trait, and have
demonstrated the existence of sub-clinical, so-called “everyday,” Sadism that exists
within the broader population (e.g., Buckels et al., 2013; Paulhus & Dutton, 2016).
Sadism is of key interest to researchers, clinicians, policy-makers, and the
American legal system, as it shows some of the strongest relationships among
personality traits with acts of aggression (Chester et al., 2019). The relationship
between Sadism and aggression depends upon the perceived suffering of target.
Greater perceived harm then leads to greater pleasure derived from the act (Chester et
At its core, Sadism represents a predisposition towards enjoying the suffering of
others. However, other conceptual approaches to Sadism expand this construct to
include other psychological traits and tendencies. Specifically, the Assessment of
Sadistic Personality (Plouffe et al., 2017) includes domination (i.e., a disposition towards
seeking power over others) and callousness (i.e., an unemotional disposition towards
the feelings of others) facets of Sadism within its model of Sadism. Sadistic individuals
may indeed also be predisposed towards dominating others and having a callous
response to others’ suffering. However, it remains unseen whether these constructs are
inherent aspects of the Sadism construct or if they are correlated but ultimately distinct
Other conceptualizations of Sadism (e.g., those manifested in the
Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies; Buckels & Paulhus, 2013) include
separate constructs describing the direct inclination to cause harm for enjoyment (i.e., direct sadism) and the passive enjoyment of the suffering of others while not inflicting
the harm directly (i.e., vicarious sadism). Though such vicarious Sadism is put forth in
this model as a core facet of Sadism, it may also be closely related to—if not directly
redundant with—the construct of schadenfreude.
Sadism and Schadenfreude
Schadenfreude reflects the pleasure people experience from the suffering of
others (Van Dijk et al., 2011) and has been compared to Sadism in the past. Trait
Sadism has been previously linked to greater momentary experiences of schadenfreude
(Lee, 2019; Schumpe & Lafrenière, 2016). However, the relationship between
schadenfreude and Sadism as personality traits remains understudied. At a prima facie
level, there is clear overlap between Sadism and schadenfreude—both involving joy
derived from other’s suffering. Indeed, there may be grounds to claim that these may
have a nested relationship rather than a mere correlational one. Sadism, as a trait, may
be nested under a broader disposition towards schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude has also been conceptualized as a context-specific response to a
situation. Individuals are likely to experience schadenfreude when they have some
instrumental or emotional gain from the victim’s suffering (e.g., positive self-esteem from
downward comparison), when the other deserves their harm, or when individual envies
the victim (e.g., Smith et al., 1996; Smith et al., 2009; Wang et al., 2019). These
conditions are not necessarily unique to schadenfreude as individuals high in Sadism
are still likely to receive pleasure from these same scenarios. However, most definitions
of Sadism emphasize that the pleasure that a Sadistic individual gains from harm is an
end unto itself, and does not rely on situational context (e.g., Chester et al., 2019). This non-contextual “harm for the sake of harm” may differentiate schadenfreude from
Sadistic pleasure and propel Sadistic individuals to directly cause the harm they enjoy.
Furthermore, the influence of these situational factors does not preclude stable
dispositions towards experiencing schadenfreude. Schadenfreude, like all affective
states occurs both momentarily and dispositionally. Indeed, there is clear evidence for
trait schadenfreude. Crysel and Webster (2018) developed and validated a measure of
stable dispositions towards experiencing schadenfreude. This scale showed adequate
test-retest reliability and stability over time, clearly indicating that individuals have a
stable disposition towards or away from experiencing schadenfreude. This measure of
trait schadenfreude was positively correlated with Machiavellianism, psychopathy,
Narcissism, physical aggression, anger and hostility. However, the relationship between
trait schadenfreude and trait Sadism remains empirically unexamined.
The key distinction between schadenfreude and Sadism may lie in the tendency
to passively experience the suffering of another versus the tendency to be actively
involved in causing that suffering. Indeed, Sadism inherently entails the active
perpetration of harm (Chester et al., 2019), whereas schadenfreude does not. Whereas
individuals high in schadenfreude may enjoy passively watching someone slip on a
banana peel, Sadistic individuals may only enjoy this person’s suffering if they were the
one who actively placed the banana peel in the path of their hapless victim. But this
distinction does not entail that schadenfreude and Sadism are inherently alienated from
one another. Instead, they may still share an intimate conceptual connection. It may be
that Sadism is best defined as an active form of schadenfreude.
The first aim of the present study was to empirically examine the conceptual core
1 More specifically, we used a novel latent construct modeling technique to
examine Sadism’s relation to its more peripheral facets: dominance, callousness, and
Our preregistered hypotheses were as follows:
H1: Including Sadistic subjugation with dominance will show better model fit
compared to including Sadistic subjugation items with Sadism.
H2: Including Sadistic callousness with callousness will show better model fit
compared to including Sadistic callousness with Sadism.
H3: Including vicarious Sadism items with schadenfreude will show better model
fit compared to including vicarious Sadism items with Sadism items.
The second aim of the present study was to clarify the relationship between
Sadism and schadenfreude, specifically investigating if these constructs were
empirically redundant, or if they might be nested within one another. We predicted that:
H4: The bi-factor model including Sadism and schadenfreude as a general factor
and Sadism as a lower-order facet factor should show the best fit, suggesting
that trait Sadism can be considered a lower-order facet of trait schadenfreude.
Finally, we aimed to clarify the nomological networks of Sadism and
schadenfreude, we also conducted and compared their bivariate correlations with
several theoretically-relevant personality constructs, including the Big 5 personality
dimensions, aggression, behavioral approach and inhibition, and a tendency towards holding contradictory responses with others’ emotions (i.e., affective dissonance). We
did not have specific predictions concerning these correlations.
Statistical Power Statement
Sample size was derived via a power analysis using the semPower package in R
version 1.2.0 (Moshagen, 2021) for a S-1 bi-factor model (i.e., model 6) with an
expected RMSEA of .07, α = .05, and 80% power. Due to the large number of items in
each scale of the intended model, we preregistered using the 16 component subscales
as indicators instead of raw items. This power analysis suggested a minimum of 219
participants. In order to add account for a possibly inflated effect size in our power
analysis and to ensure sufficient power, we over-recruited to 322 participants. This
decision was made prior to accessing any data.
Participants consisted of 322 undergraduates from a large southeastern
university in the United States. Demographic information for the sample can be found in
Assessment of Sadistic Personality (ASP; Plouffe et al., 2017). The ASP is a
nine-item scale assessing trait Sadism consisting of three subscales: subjugation (three
items; e.g., “I never get tired of pushing people around”), pleasure-seeking (four items;
e.g., “When I mock someone, it is funny to see them get upset), and unempathic (two
items; e.g., “I think about hurting people who irritate me”). Participants were asked to
rate the degree to which they agree or disagree with each statement on a scale from 1
(Strongly disagree) to 5 (Strongly agree).
Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS; O’Meara et al., 2011). The SSIS is a 10-
item scale of dispositional Sadism (e.g., “I would enjoy hurting someone physically,
sexually, or emotionally”). Participants were asked to rate the degree to which they
agree or disagree with each statement on a scale from 1 (Strongly disagree) to 5
Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies (CAST; Buckles &
Paulhus, 2014). The CAST is a measure of trait Sadism, and is comprised of three
subscales, two measuring direct Sadism: verbal (six items; e.g., “I have purposely tricked someone and laughed when they looked foolish”) and physical (five items; e.g.,
“I enjoy physically hurting people”) and one subscale measuring vicarious Sadism
(seven items; e.g., “In video games, I like the realistic blood spurts”). Participants were
asked to rate the degree to which they agree with each statement on a scale from 1
(Strongly disagree) to 7 (Strongly agree).
Secondary Construct Scales
Computerized Adaptive Test of Personality Disorder (CAT-PD; Simms et al.,
2011). The CAT-PD is a measure of personality disorders based on the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition (DSM-V). It contains 33 subscales,
but only the domineering subscale (six items; e.g., “I like having authority over others.”)
and callousness (seven items; e.g., “I do not care how my actions affect others.”) were
used in the present study. Participants were asked to respond to each item on a scale
from 1 (Very untrue of me) to 5 (Very true of me).
Trait Schadenfreude Scale (Crysel & Webster, 2018). The Crysel and
Webster (2018) Schadenfreude Scale measures trait dispositions towards experiencing
pleasure from viewing others’ pain. This scale contains two theoretically-derived
subscales of benign schadenfreude, in which the harm done to the target was minimal
(six items; e.g. “I have laughed at someone who has fallen before helping them up”),
and malicious schadenfreude, in which serious harm to the target occurred (six items;
e.g. “I like to see someone successful get fired”). Participants were asked to rate the
degree to which they agree or disagree with each statement on a scale from 1 (Strongly
disagree) to 9 (Strongly agree).
Discriminant Validity Scales
Affective and Cognitive Measure of Empathy (ACME; Vachon & Lynam,
2016). The ACME is a 36-item self-report measure of empathy that includes 3
subscales, however, only the 12-item affective dissonance (e.g., “I get a kick out of
making other people feel stupid”) was used in the present study. Participants were
asked to rate the degree to which they agree or disagree with each statement on a
scale from 1 (Disagree strongly) to 5 (Agree strongly).
Behavioral inhibition system/Behavioral activation system Scale (BIS/BAS;
Carver & White, 1994). The BIS/BAS scale was designed to measure individual
sensitivities to two affective/behavioral motivation systems, the behavioral inhibition
system (BIS; i.e., regulation of aversive motivations) and the behavioral activation
systems (BAS; i.e., regulation of appetitive motivations). The BIS/BAS consists of four
subscales: BAS drive (four items; e.g., “If I see a chance to get something I want I move
on it right away”), BAS fun-seeking (four items; e.g., “I will often do things for no other
reason than that they might be fun”), BAS reward responsiveness (five items; e.g.,
“When I'm doing well at something I love to keep at it”), and BIS (seven items; e.g., “I
feel worried when I think I have done poorly at something important”). Participants were
asked to rate the degree to which they agree or disagree with each statement on a
scale from 1 (Very true of me) to 4 (Very false of me).
Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ; Buss & Perry, 1992). The
BPAQ is one of the most widely used trait aggression questionnaires among non-clinical
populations. It is comprised of four subscales: physical aggression (nine items; e.g.,
“once in a while I can’t control the urge to strike another person”), verbal aggression
(five items; e.g., “I can’t help getting into arguments when people disagree with me”), anger (seven items; e.g., “I have trouble controlling my temper”), and hostility (eight
items; “I know that ‘friends’ talk about me behind my back”). Participants were asked to
respond to each item from 1 (Extremely uncharacteristic of me) to 5 (Extremely
characteristic of me).
International Personality Item Pool NEO-60 (IPIP-NEO-60; Goldberg, 1999;
Goldberg et al., 2006). The IPIP NEO-60 is a 60-item scale measuring the Big Five
model of personality traits: agreeableness (e.g., “I sympathize with the homeless”),
conscientiousness (e.g., “I like order”), extraversion (e.g., “I love large parties”),
neuroticism (e.g., “I get irritated easily.”), and openness to experience (e.g., “I prefer
variety to routine”). Participants were asked to rate the degree to which they agree or
disagree with each statement on a scale from 1 (Strongly disagree) to 5 (Strongly
Participants were recruited through a university participant pool system. After
signing up for the study through the system, they were directed to an online Qualtrics
survey. After consenting, participants were asked to complete the study questionnaires
in a random order, randomized by Qualtrics, in order to reduce possible order effects.
They then read a full debriefing form through the online survey describing the purpose
of the study, the initial withholding of hypotheses, and were referred to the first and
second authors if they had any questions or concerns.
Data Analytic Strategy
In accordance with our preregistration, missing data were replaced with multiple
imputation predictive mean metric using the mice package version 45i03 (van Buuren &
Groothuis-Oudshoorn, 2011) in R version 4.0.5 (R Core Team, 2021). We then created
indices for each applicable Sadism and schadenfreude subscale (e.g., benign
schadenfreude, physical Sadism) for use as indicators within our latent models by
converting all individual item scores into Z-scores and then averaging appropriate items
together. All subsequent analyses were performed with R version 4.0.5 (R Core Team,
2021), including the lavaan package version 0.6-11 (Rossel, 2012).
“Dance Partner” Construct Modeling
Several facets of Sadism, which conceptually extend past the core feature of
Sadistic pleasure, have been put forth (i.e., subjugation or dominance, unempathicness
or callousness, and vicarious Sadism). However, these traits may not necessarily be
intrinsic parts of Sadism. We applied a novel factor analytic approach to empirically
estimate whether these peripheral traits truly belong within the Sadism construct or
not—a technique we term “dance partner modeling.”
We conducted three sets of latent variable analyses (please see Figure 1 for a
conceptual example diagram; Models 1-3). Within each of the three sets were two
models that modeled the same two latent factors. The first latent factor was labeled
Sadism and was indicated by all available Sadism subscales. The second latent factor
changed for each set of models, reflected the given construct of interest (e.g.,
dominance), and was indicated by a measure of that construct of interest (e.g., the
Dominance subscale of the CAT-PD). The first model within each set modeled the
construct of interest’s (e.g., dominance) corresponding Sadism subscale (e.g., ASP subjugation) as an indicator for the Sadism factor. The second model within each set
modeled the construct of interest’s (e.g., dominance) corresponding Sadism subscale
(e.g., ASP subjugation) as an indicator for the factor that reflected the construct-ofinterest (e.g., dominance). These models used maximum likelihood estimation and set
the loading of the first indicator for each factor to one, in order to set the scale of each
latent factor. Error terms were left uncorrelated and latent factors were allowed to
correlate. In accordance with our preregistration plan, we inferred that a model had
superior fit to another model if the χ2 difference test was statistically significant and the
comparative fit index (CFI) increased by at least .02
By comparing model fit between two competing models, we can examine if (for
example) subjugation is a “better dancer” when it is partnered with Sadism or when it’s
partnered with items from a similar construct (i.e., dominance). If model fit is better
when Sadistic subjugation items are loaded onto a dominance factor rather than a
Sadism factor, it implies that dominance is not an inherent part of Sadism, and should
thus be excluded from the Sadism construct and measures thereof.
Bi-factor models are useful for testing hypotheses that one construct is
subsumed under another. By separating the variance into a general effect (G) and a
number of lower-order specific effects, we can understand nested relationships of
constructs. However, commonly used symmetrical bi-factor models may be biased
towards the bi-factor model, favoring it over competing models (Bonifay et al., 2017).
Other studies have shown that symmetrical bi-factor models often produce impossible
or unusual results such as small or negative factor variances (Heinrich et al., 2020).
Instead, S-1 bi-factor models, which sets one of the specific factors as a reference
factor compared to the other specific factors, have been shown to reduce this bias and
produce more easily interpretable results (e.g., Heinrich et al., 2020). We used S-1 bifactor modeling to examine if Sadism is a facet of schadenfreude. In order to do this, we
constructed four different models (Models 4-7; Figure 2). Models 4 and 5 were set as
baseline models, showing Sadism and schadenfreude as orthogonal or correlated
factors, respectively. We then test two empirical S-1 bi-factor models. Model 6 tested
our hypothesis that Sadism can be understood as a facet of schadenfreude, including
all facets of schadenfreude and Sadism in the overall G factor, and Sadism alone in the specific factor. Finally, Model 7 tested an alternative hypothesis that schadenfreude is a
facet of Sadism, including all facets of schadenfreude and Sadism in the overall G factor
and schadenfreude alone in the specific factor. In accordance with our preregistration
plan, we inferred that a model had superior fit to another model if the χ2 difference test
was statistically significant and the comparative fit index (CFI) was larger by at least .02.
Figure 2. Conceptual diagrams of bi-factor models used for models 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Finally, we conducted bivariate correlations between Sadism and schadenfreude
and several antagonistic traits. In order to compare Sadism and schadenfreude, we
created a composite Sadism index by standardizing scores from the CAST, SSIS, and
ASP into z-scores, then averaging those scores. We further used the overall Crysel and
Webster (2018) Schadenfreude scale, rather than the benign and malicious subscales separately. We used Fisher’s r-to-Z transformation to then test the difference in strength
between these correlation coefficients in order to get a better sense of discriminant
Descriptive statistics and reliability for model indicators can be found in Table 3
and model fit parameters can be found in Table 4. Although our preregistration specified
that we would use the component subscales of each measure as our model
parameters, we were unable to establish adequate fit for any model using this subscalelevel approach (RMSEAs > .10). Thus, we deviated from our preregistered plan and
used individual items instead of subscales as indicators for each latent factor. Full factor
loadings and residual variances for each item from each model can be found in
supplemental materials (S1).
Hierarchical Construct Models
Model 1: Dominance and Sadistic Subjugation.
Our first model examined whether model fit was better when ASP subjugation
was included with Sadism (Model 1a) measures or with another dominance measure
(Model 1b). Both Model 1a and Model 1b showed adequate fit by RMSEA but not by
CFI. Due to the same degrees of freedom, we were unable to interpret the χ2 difference
test, however, the difference in CFI between exceeded our established threshold, with
greater CFI in Model 1a than Model 1b. Thus, model fit was better when Sadistic
subjugation was included with Sadism than when paired with dominance.
Model 2: Callousness and Sadistic Unempathicness.
Our second model compared model fit when ASP unempathicness was included
with other Sadism items (Model 2a) and when it is included with other callousness items
(Model 2b). Model 2a and Model 2b had adequate fit by RMSEA but not by CFI. Due to
the same degrees of freedom in each model, we were unable to interpret the χ2
difference test. However, the difference in CFI between exceeded our established
threshold, with greater CFI in Model 2a than Model 2b. This suggests that
unempathicness is better when paired with Sadism than when paired with callousness.
Model 3: Schadenfreude and Vicarious Sadism.
Our third model compared model fit when CAST vicarious Sadism was included
with other Sadism items (Model 3a) and when it is included with trait schadenfreude
(Model 3b). Model 3a and Model 3b both adequate fit by RMSEA but not by CFI. Due to the degrees of freedom being equal in each model, we were unable to calculate a chisquare difference test. In addition, the difference in CFI between models did not exceed
our threshold, suggesting that vicarious Sadism is just as good when paired with
Sadism as it is when paired with schadenfreude.
The relationship between trait Sadism and schadenfreude has gone
understudied, and may be deeper than previously suggested. It may be that Sadism
and schadenfreude are not merely correlated, but represent a nested hierarchical
structure. That is to say, trait Sadism is a facet under a broader umbrella of
schadenfreude that captures not only a tendency towards enjoying the pain of others,
but an inclination to directly cause it. Our bi-factor models investigated this.
Our first baseline model (Model 4)—setting Sadism and schadenfreude as
orthogonal—had adequate by RMSEA but not by CFI. Our second baseline model
(Model 5)—setting Sadism and schadenfreude as correlated but separate constructs—
showed adequate by RMSEA but not by CFI. Model 5 showed improved fit over Model
4, χ2 difference (1) = 211.89, p < .001. This was expected, as other research has shown
that individuals high in trait Sadism are more likely to experience schadenfreude (e.g.,
Schumpe & Lafrenière, 2016). Model 6, setting Sadism as a facet of schadenfreude,
showed adequate fit by RMSEA but not by CFI, as did Model 7, setting schadenfreude
as a facet of Sadism. Most important for our hypothesis, Model 6 had significantly better
fit compared to Model 4, χ2 difference (33) = 356.06, p < .001, Model 5, χ2 difference
(32) = 144.17, p < .001, and Model 7, χ2 difference (21) = 65.29, p < .001. Model 7
showed significantly better fit compared to Model 4, χ2 difference (12) = 290.76, p < .001, and Model 5, χ2 difference (11) = 78.88, p < .001. These results suggest that
Sadism is best considered as a facet of trait schadenfreude.
Reliability and descriptive statistics for discriminant validity measures can be
found in Table 5 and bivariate correlations between schadenfreude, Sadism, and our
discriminant validity measures can be found in Table 6.
Both Sadism and schadenfreude fit within a common antisocial nomological
network: both were positively correlated with affective dissonance—a predisposition
towards experiencing the opposite emotional and psychological states as others (e.g.,
pleasure from another’s pain and pain from another’s pleasure)—and all facets of trait
aggression, and negatively correlated with agreeableness and conscientiousness.
However, schadenfreude and Sadism diverged on several traits. Sadism was more
strongly correlated than schadenfreude with physical aggression, trait anger,
agreeableness, BAS reward responsivity, and BIS. In addition, schadenfreude was
significantly correlated with neuroticism, while Sadism was not, although this difference
was not significant. This pattern of correlations suggests that Sadism can be
differentiated from its broader construct of schadenfreude by inclinations towards direct
aggression, greater anger, lower agreeableness, responsiveness towards rewards, and
an ability to inhibit behavior.
The current project attempted to investigate the relationship between Sadism and
schadenfreude, as well as to clarify whether three facets of Sadism truly belonged in the
core of Sadistic personality. Given Sadism’s strong relations to real-world aggression
(Chester et al., 2019), it is of critical importance to understand its nomological network
of Sadism. By identifying Sadism as a facet of schadenfreude, future interventions may
be able to address when the passive enjoyment of harm propels the future perpetration
The Structure of Sadism
Our attempts to tease apart the callous, dominant, and vicarious facets of sadism
via dance partner modeling were unsuccessful. Against our predictions, it appears that
these three ingredients are required in the recipe for the broad Sadism construct. The
disposition towards enjoying the suffering of others would also include the enjoyment of
dominating others. In order to overcome the natural empathic reaction to another
person being harmed, individuals high in Sadism would need to be callous to their
victim’s suffering. This supports the inclusion of these constructs in further Sadism
studies. Furthermore, it is natural that an individual who enjoys harming others would
experience a similar degree of joy from passively seeing others harmed. However,
contrary to our predictions, vicarious Sadism was not redundant with schadenfreude.
This is somewhat surprising given our further findings that Sadism is a facet of
schadenfreude. It may be that the specific facet of vicarious sadism captured by the
CAST is qualitatively different from that captured by the schadenfreude scale.
The Relationship Between Sadism and Schadenfreude
In line with our predictions, our findings imply that Sadism can best be
considered as a facet of a broader schadenfreude. These results may help distinguish
trait schadenfreude as more passive—experiencing joy from others pain but not
necessarily being the cause of it—as opposed to more direct Sadism—enjoying actively
harming others, as others have suggested (e.g., Ben-Ze’ev, 2014). Indeed, although
both Sadism and schadenfreude were positively correlated with trait aggression,
Sadism was more strongly correlated with physical aggression and anger than
schadenfreude was, suggesting that it is Sadism that propels direct aggression. This was further supported by Sadism’s correlation with reward responsiveness and
schadenfreude’s relationship with neuroticism.
From the above research, it is clear that Sadism is a facet of trait schadenfreude.
To put it another way, Sadism is a disposition towards experiencing a certain kind of
schadenfreude. However, Sadism does not fit into any of the pre-existing perspectives
of schadenfreude. Within the body of scientific literature, there are three broad
perspectives of why and when schadenfreude occurs: justice (e.g., Berndsen &
Tiggemann, 2020), envy (e.g., Van Dijk et al., 2015), and group identity (e.g., Combs et
al., 2009). Although some have found that Sadism is linked to malicious envy (e.g.,
Dinic & Brankovic, 2022) and dominance is a part of Sadism (e.g., Plouffe et al., 2017),
the Sadistic enjoyment of harm is not contingent on envying the target, nor is the
ultimate goal of the harm dominance over another—but rather the pure hedonism
gained through aggression. Thus, new conceptualizations of schadenfreude are needed
to unify these constructs.
How, why, and when do individuals who experience schadenfreude decide to
directly pursue Sadistic harm? Future research should leverage longitudinal designs to
investigate schadenfreude as a risk factor or predispositional precursor to Sadism.
Experimental and computational approaches might further the study of these topics by
disentangling the mechanisms that differentially motivate and reinforce Sadism and
schadenfreude. Such studies might allow us to prevent a person prone to the passive
enjoyment of others’ suffering from seeking to inflict such suffering themselves.
Limitations and Future Directions
An obvious limitation in the current study is its sample characteristics. Although
the sample was relatively racially and ethnically diverse, it still consisted of
undergraduate students in the United States, and a majority of participants were
cisgender women. Although there is little evidence to suggest that the core construct of
Sadism or its relationship with schadenfreude would differ by age, it could very well
differ by gender identity and cultural context. In this study, we found that men were
higher than women on all facets of Sadism besides Sadistic subjugation and were
higher than women on malignant schadenfreude. Individuals in collectivist cultures, or
cultures with different social display rules than the United States may experience or
report schadenfreude differently. Future research should thus use cross cultural
samples. Furthermore, the present study only investigated these constructs at the trait
level, and not at the experiential or behavioral levels, and cannot necessarily comment
on the experience of schadenfreude nor the perpetration of Sadistic aggression.
Sadism is arguably the most malevolent personality trait studied within
psychology, showing the strongest links to aggression (e.g., Chester et al., 2019), and is
of critical importance to understand. The present study suggested that Sadism is a facet
of schadenfreude. By situating the active perpetration of harm for the sake of pleasure
within the broader context of the passive enjoyment of harm, we hope that our findings
help researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners to understand the nuanced ways in
which pleasure can lead to the infliction of pain.
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