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beautifulbobby193's avatar

Is there a term for a person who takes pleasure from torturing animals and why is it that a surprising amount of children experiment in this?

Asked by beautifulbobby193 (1699points) May 19th, 2010

Does it form part of child experimentation, or is it a knock on effect of abuse in the life of the child. And is this something that continues through adulthood for some people and is there a term for such a person?

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36 Answers

marinelife's avatar

It is not normal for a child to experiment with torturing animals, and I disagree that a lot of children do it.

reverie's avatar

In my personal view, it was experimentation (I wasn’t abused). I didn’t kill or injure anything, but I do vividly remember doing one particularly cruel thing to our cat (who I loved dearly, by the way). I remember feeling a strange sense of detachment, which is why it really did feel experimental, more of a “let’s see what happens if I do this”, rather than getting any “pleasure” from my acts. It was more of a curiosity thing. I was probably around 5 or 6 at the time.

Speaking more generally, I’m sure there isn’t really a dichotomous answer, and there’s probably a whole load of different factors that are involved. For some people, like me, it’s probably just experimental, for other people, it might be related to abuse they experienced, for some it might be an act of aggression… there’s so many casual factors that could come into play here, just like with any behaviour really.

beautifulbobby193's avatar

I didn’t say a lot of children do it, I just said that a surprising number have experimented in it. I would imagine that the number of people whom have engaged in this in their childhood at some point is far higher than the number of people whom have engaged in it during their adulthood.

beautifulbobby193's avatar

Great answer reverie. And do you think that repeat child offenders are “evil” children or is this like you say a relatively innocent act of experimentation, aggression or something arisen from abuse suffered. And do you think many children would go on to grow out of this and be a perfectly normal person?

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

Sociopaths. It’s part of the Macdonald triad, along with wetting the bed long after most children have stopped and pyromania.

-Note: There is a rather large difference between children who are trying to learn about animals and in doing so, accidentally hurt them (such as a 4 year old tugging on a cats tail to understand what it does) and setting out to injure an animal by breaking bones and setting it on fire because the child derives pleasure from inflicting that pain onto the animal.

reverie's avatar

@beautifulbobby193 It’s a really interesting question. I really have no proper scientific knowledge to base my views on, just my own experience, intuition and things I’ve picked up from conversations with other people. I don’t actually believe in “evil” people at all, let alone “evil” children (I guess that is a whole different question thread!), but no, I don’t think it’s an evil act when done by a fairly young child, certainly not if it is an experimental thing, and even if it is done in a somewhat sadistic way. I think for something to be really cruel, the person committing the act has to have a full appreciation of the mental state of the creature they are doing the act to (i.e., a theory of mind), and go on to do it anyway. In many children, the theory of mind is still developing at the time they do these sort of behaviours, and I would intuitively say that in so many cases, the child doesn’t really construe their behaviour as cruel, even if to an adult, it is. Like you, I do think that quite a lot of children (however we want to quantify that) do perform behaviours that are “cruel” towards animals, and for many of them, I would imagine it is an experimental act. I would also imagine that the majority of those people grow out of it and become “normal” adults (however you want to define that!), although again, I’m not basing that on anything scientific, just anecdotes from friends and people who I have heard do similar things.

@papayalily I don’t really want to describe what I did to the cat (as an adult I feel quite a sense of shame when I think about it), but it definitely wasn’t accidental, and it did definitely cause the animal distress (although it did not injure it). I still maintain that I didn’t deliberately set out to be cruel, and I didn’t derive pleasure from it. I think there’s a shade of grey in between the two types of behaviours that you describe, in between a child who causes accidental harm and one who gets pleasure from infliciting pain, and I think that’s where I feel my experience lay. It’s really interesting, but I also think it’s very complicated.

jaytkay's avatar

It’s a common trait among budding serial killers and sociopaths

Silhouette's avatar

I call them mean creepy sobs. I can only think of two children I have ever know including all the children I grew up with who even came close. One burned an ant with a magnifying glass while the rest of us were feeding our ants sugar cubes. The other one tied a string around one of his chickens neck and flew it around in circles, broke it’s neck. This little weirdo, was one of the kids my eldest son knew. All the other kids picked up their marbles and went home. It’s not normal and kids know this.

CMaz's avatar


iwillwearyouasahat's avatar

Once when I was a kid I was at a river and there were tons of these little tiny frogs. I would pick them up and hit them across the river with a stick baseball style. It was pretty horrible, but I’m not a serial killer. I’m a pacifist now and I love animals. I think to a certain extent it is just experimentation. Kids want to interact with animals and see a reaction. Not many other interactions provide such a direct observable response as inflicting pain. They grow out of it.

reverie's avatar

@Silhouette, I disagree.

I think calling children who injure or kill animals “mean creepy sobs” or “little weirdos” is an understandable emotional and reactionary response to an emotionally evocative situation, but it doesn’t really do anything to explain why children do perform these sorts of behaviours. Children do perform these sorts of acts, and not too infrequently by the sounds of things (several people in this thread seem to be speaking from experience, you included). Sure, we may not construe it as a “normal” behaviour, but “abnormal” isn’t just a blanket term people should use for weird stuff that they find distasteful and don’t understand. If anything, I think people should try to do more to understand the things they find unpleasant, rather than just leaving their train of thought at their initial disgusted, repulsed or disturbed reaction.

Speaking from personal experience and the experience of people I know, many people who have done this sort of thing in the past are perfectly “normal” adults and were perfectly “normal” children, who are in no way cruel, mean-spirited or sadistic.

Clearly this whole topic is something where there are are a lot of unanswered questions, and I think rather than handling it with tongs, or ceasing to give it any thought beyond how repulsive and mean it is, it would be more constructive to seriously consider why these sorts of behaviours occur, rather than just labelling those who perform these acts as evil/mean/creepy and not explaining it any further.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@reverie So then why did you do it? Can you explain this gray area in more depth please?

beautifulbobby193's avatar

I have done things like this myself when I was a child. And I know others whom have done similar – some things not as bad, some things worse. I would guess that this sort of thing is more common in deprived areas. I don’t know why I or anybody else did anything like this – possibly to rebel and become the ruler as opposed to being ruled by your parents? Possibly to try make others laugh, for attention or to try to come across as being tough? I don’t fully understand it myself, but as an adult I don’t think either I nor any of my childhood friends are a danger to animals or humans.

Silhouette's avatar

@reverie I didn’t really expect you to agree with me. If I had to guess, and I do, I’d say children who do this are slow to empathize, the ones who go on to become normal people are lucky.

You can give it more thought if you like I’m pretty satisfied and comfortable with my reactions to this issue, it’s served me well. All the little creepies I’ve known, have grown into big creepies

dpworkin's avatar

It is part of a trait called “callous/unemotional” and it tends to suggest a very bad prognosis for children, who may be on a path toward Oppositional Defiant Disorder, through the more serious Conduct Disorder, to the Adult Antisocial Personality Disorder. The setting of fires is also a serious danger sign. Both together constitute the worst prognosis. It used to be thought that these two syndromes formed a triad with enuresis, but this is no longer thought to be the case. Enuresis alone is not really indicative of psycopathy, and in the presence of fire-setting and mistreatment of small animals, is not a necessary addition to form the diagnosis.

reverie's avatar

@papayalily Sure thing, although obviously I’m remembering as an adult something I did many years ago as a young child, so I can’t say with total certainty that my memory isn’t unbiased in any way.

As I recall it, my main motivation was entirely just to see what would happen. As I mentioned in the post above, it really was an experimental thing, so I suppose I was just exploring opportunities in my own behaviour, interacting with the environment, and seeing what various things would do, and what reactions would occur. I don’t remember it being an emotional situation at all (it was only as an older child and as an adult that I look back and think “ouch, that was mean”), and don’t recall feeling any distress at the time. So what I meant in reply to your message above, is that I didn’t “accidently” hurt our cat (because I think I knew what I was going to do wasn’t “nice” to the animal), but nor did I derive any sort of entertainment or sadistic pleasure from it. It really was just an experimental thing, which I didn’t feel fitted into either of the options you put above, which is what I meant by my reply. I hope that makes sense!

beautifulbobby193's avatar

@dpworkin I am sure that many people simply grow out of this type of behaviour and engaged in it mostly out of curiosity, boredom and some of the other reasons I mentioned above. I think I would be a different (and possibly more disturbed) person today if I felt my behaviour as a child was so far away from the norm that it resulted in a disorder diagnosis, therapy, and/or medication.

reverie's avatar

@Silhouette I’m interpreting your comment about children who have hurt animals developing into adults who are “slow to empathise” as an indirect way of saying you don’t expect me to understand you, because having committed an act of animal cruelty in childhood, I’m a poor empathiser and won’t understand your point of view.

Obviously, if that is what you meant, I wouldn’t agree with that. I would also add that I don’t think it’s that I fail to understand you, it’s that I just disagree with your point of view. If you didn’t meant to make that insinuation, I apologise for my misinterpretation.

Of course, if thinking about this topic in terms of creepies and weirdos works for you, then stick with that. I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer and that your point of view is wrong, it’s just not something that works for me, and isn’t something I would find helpful.

Whilst I might be completely wrong here (I’m just going on text off a screen after all), the tone of your response makes me feel as though my message irked you, which wasn’t my intention at all – I’m not trying to be offensive or attack you personally because I don’t identify with your viewpoint. I think this is an interesting and understandably quite emotional topic, and I enjoy the mental challenge of thinking about it in depth.

Siren's avatar

Like many above me have said, I second the term sociopath. If you read Dr. Martha Stout’s book “The Sociopath Next Door” she describes how many individuals start off in life displaying lack of compassion for small animals, intentionally (and repeatedly) harming them, and then move on to other non-social behavior.

@beautifulbobby193: Doing this once in your life and/or greatly expressing remorse demonstrates one does not fit the bill of a sociopath. The very fact that you deeply regret your behavior to your cat to me signifies you would never be classified as one.

If a child persists in that behavior, they are exhibiting the beginnings of sociopathy. If left unchecked, you are creating a monster who will be a predator on society and live a non-fulfilling life devoid of understanding of love and compassion for others.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I call them sociopaths. As far as children go, they don’t yet have an appreciation for life and animals and must be taught this like anything else. I do not even let my toddler stomp on a dead bug that the cats killed.

reverie's avatar

@Siren I think what you say about repeated acts of harm is a really key point in this discussion.

Whilst one-off incidents could be explained by young children simply not appreciating the viewpoint of the animal involved and understanding that it is being caused pain and/or psychological distress (as I mentioned above, maybe their theory of mind is not fully developed if they are a fairly young child), that explanation wouldn’t really work for repeated incidents, because the child would be able to see the negative effects of its behaviour on the animal, and some learning would take place. If the child persisted with those sorts of behaviours with the knowledge that their actions were causing severe pain or distress, then I would consider that a little worrying, in developmental psychological terms.

Silhouette's avatar

@reverie No, that’s not what I meant. What I mean is, I think children who do this thing are slow to empathize and the ones who grow into normal adults learn to empathize. I’m certain you can understand my point and I am equally sure you don’t agree with my point of view. Like I said, I’m comfortable with my stance and I am in no, way shape or form irked that you have one that is different from my own. If there was a “tone” it was not intentional. You might be surprised, but just because I have hung a label on this behavior doesn’t mean I’m a judgemental jag off. This has been my experience with this kind of child that’s all. The topic is fairly void of an emotional investment for me it’s not something that has impacted my life.

CMaz's avatar

I think (in some cases) it is a throwback to our days of being hunter gatherers.
Beat it with a stick and eat it.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@reverie I actually did mean doing it even though you know you shouldn’t (for the first option). When I was 4, I tugged on my aunt’s cat’s tail a few times after I’d been told not to because it hurt the cat both to see what would happen and because I was trying to understand what this strange new appendage was – all bendy but not floppy, what the what??? I was just so overwhelmed by curiosity. I didn’t, however, think “oh, I want to hurt the cat and make it feel pain” and set out to do that.

dpworkin's avatar

@beautifulbobby193 I agree that an experiment or two is fairly normative. When it becomes a pattern it is a sign that intervention is required.

El_Cadejo's avatar

I used to kill a lot of bugs and sometimes frogs and things of that nature as a small child. I cant really say why I did it, other than I was a little boy and didnt really understand the significance of life. I never derived any sort of pleasure from it, but it was just something i did from time to time cause i was bored/experimenting.

As I grew older I realized all life is meaningful no matter how large or small, and I make it a point to never kill/harm any other creatures.

LeotCol's avatar

I remember when I was a kid a few of us found a frog. This other kid kept throwing it around and into buckets of water. It was alive for a long time during this. At the time I was completely sickened by this and begged him to stop.

If I were to look back at a kid doing what he did now I would say there was something very wrong with that child.

It seemed that he was experimenting and deriving pleasure from this act. He laughed as he did it and then was fascinated by it at the same time inspecting the frog after each throw.
But I know this person now. They are probably one of the most normal of people I know.

I can see there being more examples of this.

dpworkin's avatar

It’s partly developmental – most of us learn empathy. The ones who don’t are the dangerous ones. Everyone misbehaves.

Silhouette's avatar

I think we have all probably squished a bug or two or maybe left the fire flies in the jar too long but for me the key words in the question were “a person who takes pleasure from torturing animals” The kids who do it because it makes them feel good are missing some crucial part of their mental physique.

beautifulbobby193's avatar

What about people who hunt? Surely this is chasing a similar thrill, the thrill of the hunt and the kill, even if it results in a quick, but needless death for the animal? Do leisure hunters like this fall into a similar category if person I.e. People who take it beyond curious experimentation?

dpworkin's avatar

Hunters often have a great deal of empathy for the game they hunt. It is a very complex dynamic, and very different from torturing animals for pleasure.

ubersiren's avatar

I hurt an animal once as a child. I won’t go into it because I’m ashamed, sad, embarrassed, and sorry about it. I have no serious behavioral problems as an adult. I, like the person who mentioned it above, felt detached and was curious about what would happen. I don’t know what actually drove me to do it. It took about ten seconds for me to regret it, and I’ve been absolutely sick about it my whole life. That was probably 22 years ago or so.

It’s my opinion that if the incidents are repeated, it’s worse than just “experimenting.” Children are curious about everything in life because they’ve experienced very little. This includes pain and death. I’m not suggesting it’s normal, but probably some kids are more inclined to actually inflict the pain. The difference, I think, is whether the child feels pleasure or something else afterward and whether he decides to continue.

dpworkin's avatar

@ubersiren I think you hit the nail right on the head. I would be afraid of you if you hadn’t gone on to develop the shame and the understanding that it was wrong. I’m not afraid of you because you did something bad once or twice or even several times.

Draconess25's avatar

I think kids do it to feel power over another being. It’s sick & wrong.

Siren's avatar

I think when a child’s behavior becomes a habit AND goes unpunished/unchecked AND/OR the child continues to persist in the behavior, then you are dealing with the beginnings of sociopathic behavior. Sociopaths are able to live in our society unchecked because they have found ways of manipulating our social systems and not getting caught (or rarely).

When a child does something they are not supposed to, or recognizes it is wrong, but is not disciplined or supervised, they realize there is very little consequences for their behavior if they are not caught and there is the added thrill of getting away with it each time. So I think early childhood guidance is pretty important, if one argues that you can steer a child away from being a sociopath, as opposed to inherently being born that way.

I think that is another definition of a sociopath: getting away with it, because to them, life is really a game. I think that is more sociopathic behavior, but depending on the individual child, perhaps some go on to become socipathic adults and maybe some don’t.

I have also read that well-supervised children who appear outwardly normal in all behavioral respects have become sociopaths as well. I guess the only recourse is to be able to recognize a “sociopath in training” as a child (ie repeatedly displaying lack of remorse in mistreating animals) and not be able to do much once the behavior has been recognized.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit did an episode where a sociopathic child kills another child, who’s father is a psychiatrist and recognizes (too late) the behavioral symptoms (lack of remorse):

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