Two studies on primary and secondary school students in Serbia showed that students who are more often bored in school are more likely to engage in sadistic actions. Students more prone to sadistic actions were also found to be more prone to bullying others. The study was published in the Journal of School Psychology.
Attending school presents a range of different experiences for students. It can be an inspiring environment where basic knowledge on a wide range of different subjects is obtained and where close friendships are developed. However, it can also be a place where one experiences aggression and cruelty. These other types of experiences can sometimes lead to adverse consequences such as mental health issues, lower academic achievement and even suicide.
“Sadism is the practice of an individual causing others pain and suffering for the purpose of gaining pleasure for themself. Sadism encompasses harmful acts in which the perpetrator derives pleasure directly from the act, in and of itself, of harming another individual. Within the context of sadism, pleasure typically refers to general positive affect as well as more specific emotions such as joy and excitement”, study authors explain.
In the school context, sadism can take different forms. These include physically hurting classmates (physical sadism), making jokes at the expense of classmates (verbal sadism), or watching video clips or similar materials in which a schoolmate is made fun of (vicarious sadism). Sadism is a form of aggression and can thus be expected to be associated with bullying. Outside school, sadism can be found in everyday situations, in behaviors such as killing bugs, online “trolling,” vandalism, sexual aggression, harming unknown persons, and others.
Study author Stefan Pfattheicher and his colleagues wanted to explore whether boredom can be a factor in the emergence of sadistic behavior in schools. Boredom occurs when people are unable to engage their attention or find meaning in what they are doing. It is an aversive experience of “wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” Boredom motivates individuals to act to change their current situation and study authors argue that sadistic actions “are surprisingly well suited to counter the aversive nature of boredom.”
To test this, they conducted two studies. The first study aimed at testing whether school students more prone to experiencing boredom in school were more likely to engage in sadistic behavior and bullying towards others. Participants were 314 final-year high school students from two public schools in Belgrade, Serbia. They were all around 18 years of age, 173 participants were female.
Participants completed assessments of sadism (the Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies scale), proneness to bullying others (the Bully Participants Behaviors Questionnaire), boredom in school (the Short Boredom Proneness Scale), and basic personality traits (the HEXACO Personality Inventory-Revised). Participants completed these assessments twice – once as self-reports, where students were reporting on their own characteristics, and then as peer-reports, i.e., reporting on the student sitting in front of them.
Participants in the second study were 725 students from three primary, two general secondary, and one vocational secondary school. Participants completed self-reports on boredom, sadism and basic personality traits, the same as in the first study, but also an assessment of proneness to psychosis.
Boredom was found to be associated with sadism. This association was confirmed both using self-reports (student reporting on him/herself) and peer-reports (student reporting on another student). When basic personality traits were taken into account, the association between boredom and sadism disappeared in assessments based on self-reports, but it remained when using peer-report-based assessments.
Bullying was found to be strongly associated with sadism. Students more prone to sadistic behavior were also more prone to bullying others.
The second study, conducted on a larger and more diverse sample, including students of different age and attending different types of schools, confirmed the main findings of the first study. Boredom was associated with sadism. Event though sadism was associated with certain basic personality traits and also proneness to psychosis, the association between boredom and sadism remained after controlling for personality. Results also showed that older students tended to report somewhat higher levels of boredom than younger students on average.
“In sum, the first study provides evidence that boredom might foster sadistic tendencies at schools,” the study authors concluded.
The study sheds light on an important psychological mechanism of interpersonal dynamics in schools. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study design does not allow any cause-and-effect conclusions to be made about the relationships between studied factors.
While it is possible that boredom inspires sadistic behavior, it is also possible that persons prone to sadistic behavior are more likely to perceive school activities as boring due to some other factor influencing both. Other types of relationships between these factors are also possible.
The paper “I enjoy hurting my classmates: On the relation of boredom and sadism in schools” was authored by Stefan Pfattheicher, Ljiljana B. Lazarević, Yngwie Asbjørn Nielsen, Erin C. Westgate, Ksenija Krstić, and Simon Schindler.