The BBC profiles scientist Delroy Paulhus, a specialist studying why some people have an unusual propensity to be selfish, manipulative, and unkind.
If you had the opportunity to feed harmless bugs into a coffee grinder, would you enjoy the experience? Even if the bugs had names, and you could hear their shells painfully crunching? And would you take a perverse pleasure from blasting an innocent bystander with an excruciating noise?
These are just some of the tests that Delroy Paulhus uses to understand the “dark personalities” around us. Essentially, he wants to answer a question we all may have asked: why do some people take pleasure in cruelty? Not just psychopaths and murderers – but school bullies, internet trolls and even apparently upstanding members of society such as politicians and policemen.
It is easy, he says, to make quick and simplistic assumptions about these people. “We have a tendency to use the halo or devil framing of individuals we meet – we want to simplify our world into good or bad people,” says Paulhus, who is based at the University of British Columbia in Canada. But while Paulhus doesn’t excuse cruelty, his approach has been more detached, like a zoologist studying poisonous insects – allowing him to build a “taxonomy”, as he calls it, of the different flavours of everyday evil.
He turns his eye to a particularly vexing problem for those who create online communities as well:
He thinks this is directly relevant to internet trolls. “They appear to be the internet version of everyday sadists because they spend time searching for people to hurt.” Sure enough, an anonymous survey of trollish commentators found that they scored highly on dark tetrad traits, but particularly the everyday sadism component – and enjoyment was their prime motivation. Indeed, the bug-crushing experiment suggested that everyday sadists may have more muted emotional responses to all kinds of pleasurable activities – so perhaps their random acts of cruelty are attempts to break through the emotional numbness.