The Psychology of Internet Trolls

Portrait of a Troll: Q&A with Dr. Erin Buckels

Internet trolls are everywhere, but what is it that makes them tick? From the pesky people starting a full blown battle on your blog posts to the naive friends who “feed the trolls” in a comment thread, there’s no denying trolls are a vibrant part of most internet communities.  Until now, little formal research has been conducted to understand what motivates people to engage in this type of behavior. An aptly named new study, “Trolls just want to have fun,” explores the personality traits of an Internet troll. Dr. Erin Buckels and her colleagues examined the specific relationship between personality traits and various online commenting behaviors (e.g., chatting, debating, trolling).

An Internet troll is someone who deliberately and enthusiastically sows discord in comment threads, chat rooms, and other open communication environments. Generally, trolls enjoy provoking emotional responses from other commenters or otherwise making them appear foolish. Perhaps even you yourself are a perpetrator of trolling cyberspace (*finger wag*)!

Buckels et al.  specifically examined some of the “darker” personality traits - often referred to as the Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy). They expanded the analysis to also include subclinical sadism (thus measuring the Dark Tetrad). Previous research has tied heavy Internet use to individuals lower in agreeableness and conscientiousness. This new study was the first of its kind to specifically target trolling behavior as well the more maladaptive personality traits of the Dark Tetrad.  

The study revealed trolls are more likely to be younger, male, and lower in agreeableness and conscientiousness. All of the darker personality traits predicted online trolling. Particularly strong was the relationship between everyday sadism and trolling. Sadists are people who enjoy inflicting (whether directly or indirectly) pain, humiliation, or harm to other individuals. These people spend a considerable amount of time online and in environments which are conducive to trolling opportunities.


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When asked about the implications of these findings, Dr. Erin Buckels provided some great insight around what went into the research effort.

Carson Sandy: What was the most interesting and/or surprising finding you found from exploring the personality traits of Internet trolls?
EB: “Most surprising were the large correlations between self-reported time spent commenting online and dark personality traits, like sadism and psychopathy. I think that many people have, at one time or another, wondered why online comments tend to be so nasty. Our findings suggest that online nastiness is a function of the personality profile typical of online commenters. (Perhaps especially, their sadistic qualities.)”


CS: What do you see as the primary implications of your findings?
EB: “One important implication pertains to the concept of "everyday sadism." It is our view that enjoyment of cruelty is experienced in various degrees by non-disordered, everyday people. In other words, sadism is a personality trait. Our previous research provided behavioral confirmation of sadism in the laboratory. This study extends those results by demonstrating that sadism is also consequential outside the laboratory: it is closely linked to online trolling behaviors.

We also demonstrated that sadism's unique role in trolling cannot be explained by related personality traits, which again supports the view of sadism as a trait that is interesting in its own right.”


CS: What was your inspiration for conducting this research?
EB: “I have been interested in online trolling and Internet subcultures for quite some time. Successful trolling seems to require a keen sense of what makes people mad: what pushes their buttons. It is more complicated than it appears. Some people even call it an art! That's why I find it fascinating.

This particular study, however, was inspired by a result that the second author (Paul Trapnell) found while exploring archives of unpublished data collected with undergrads. He found a consistent trend of psychopathic and sadistic personality traits correlating positively (albeit, weakly) with self-reported Facebook use. This led us to wonder why they were using Facebook so much? What kinds of online activities do dark personalities enjoy? Trolling seemed an obvious candidate.”

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With the advent and proliferation of individuals’ presence in online environments like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Reddit, and online communities such as Wikipedia, we are seeing unprecedented opportunities for people’s personalities to manifest themselves. For good or for bad, the footprints left behind in the virtual world offer a previously obfuscated view into the behavioral patterns of different personality traits - particularly the darker traits like sadism. So keep in mind, when you feed the trolls you are likely feeding the needs of your everyday sadists.


 The Psychology of the Internet Troll

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Posted by Carson Sandy on Feb 12, 2014

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