Psychologist Steven Pinker has a small section on sadism in his book The Better Angels Of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined.
Says Pinker: “A serial killer is aroused by the prospect of tormenting, disfiguring, dismembering eviscerating and slowly draining the life out of victims with [his] bare hands.” Fortunately, no more than 2 or 3 dozen serial killers are at large in the US at any time.
But in normal people, the two ingredients of sadism are a motive to enjoy the suffering of others and a removal of restraints that ordinarily inhibit people from acting on this motive.
a) a fascination in the vulnerability of human flesh – as when boys fry ants with a magnifying glass or even when adults rubberneck as they pass a traffic accident.
b) dominance – it can be enjoyable to see the mighty fallen, especially if they tormented you. It is ultimate power to be able to cause pain to someone at will.
c) revenge – the desire for revenge turns off the empathic response in brain (among men at least). Revenge is consummated when the avenger knows that the target knows his suffering is payback for whatever he is supposedly guilty of.
e) sexual sadism – Some observers of violence have said there is a sexual aspect in some cases – not just in the crimes of serial killers, but with the violence of others. To illustrate this, Pinker quotes a witness of a Nazi flogging, and a war veteran. Sex and Agression centers are close by in the brain – so maybe (my thought) they get cross-wired in some people so that one activates the other.
f) Sadism can ensue from government efforts to get information from a criminal, or to punish a criminal or political opponent.
g) Another cause of sadism is when soldiers or rioters or militiamen, are released from fear, and can subsequently get at the people who inflicted the fear. Think of what happened to Gaddafi (dictator of Libya) when he was finally caught.
To counter sadism, we need more than empathy, we need to align our own happiness with that of another human.
Unfortunately, the more you engage in sadism, the nastier you get. For instance, with interrogators – it’s the veterans, not the novices, who torture prisoners beyond any conceivable purpose.
Sadists do become connoisseurs–the instruments of torture in medieval Europe, police interrogation centers and the lairs of serial killers can be gruesomely sophisticated–and sometimes the sadists can become addicts to sadism.
The above is from Pinker’s book. I’ll add my own two cents here: A sadist can have an advantage. Suppose you are in a barroom brawl with a sadist. You don’t know what level of violence to expect, or to administer. Will the fight involve a few punches? Will it involve bottles being smashed over heads? Will it be much more shocking, so shocking and horrible that you don’t expect it and would be unprepared? (Such things do happen). Likewise, nations that are ruthless tend to develop weapons that we don’t. I remember the debate about the “neutron bomb”, which was supposedly terrible because it would kill soldiers without destroying the property around them. So we didn’t develop that bomb, (though we do have some types of small nuclear warheads) but Russia, for instance, has many more tactical weapons of all sorts. In a battle, we would be under a disadvantage if a tactical nuke went off among our tanks or infantry. Also, a ruthless country might develop chemical and biological weapons that we might have no answer for.
I personally believe that some country has developed a technology of drugs that affect the body and brain, and that this technology has fallen into the hands of organized crime. This is based on my experiences, and even if I’m wrong, we do know that drugs like “date rape drug” and “sleeping gas drugs” are being used by criminals. If you don’t have a sadistic imagination, you can’t defend against sadists.