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Troll psychology: Internet and laptop
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Inside the mind of a troll

Ever wondered what spurs Internet trolls to behave the way they do? What are the driving forces and elements that make up their psyche? We were curious to answer to that as well. So we decided to scour for studies, and we stumbled on some interesting ones that have systematically tried to dissect the mind of an Internet troll. Here’s what we found.

Defining Internet trolls

There’s some ambiguity over the word ‘troll’ so let’s that get that out of our way. ‘Troll’ has two meanings. Oxford dictionaries has two definitions for the word:

  1. A person who makes a deliberately offensive or provocative online post.
  2. A deliberately offensive or provocative online post.

While these two definitions certainly give us the idea of who and what a troll is, it can be expanded to include 3Ds that give us a better definition. This study [1] defines trolling as a “practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.”

Note the three Ds: deceptive, destructive, and disruptive.

Psyche of a troll

There are several studies that have tried to take a peek into the mind of a troller. Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting ones, starting with the concept of deindividuation.

Understanding deindividuation

It is the state of mind where all restraints are lost — the ability to regulate behaviors is lost. A study [2] says, “feelings of deindividuation are known to weaken a person’s ability to regulate behaviour, resulting in them engaging in rational, long-term planning to target others where they are less likely to care what others think of their behavior. Deindividuation is an important part of depersonalization, which is characterized by a decreased sense of self-identity, self-awareness, and lower level of self-control.”

It says users often tend lost their ability judge others and their information when information is supplied through visual and auditory cues. And, in such a state, “they are both more likely to engage in antisocial behavior, such as trolling, and to misinterpret the meaning intended by others.”

The ability to take on multiple personalities has also meant that there is decreased sense of self-identity, self-awareness, and lower level of self-control.

The cover of anonymity that Internet provides also plays a key role. Research suggests that anonymity may affect a person’s self-esteem. We are more prone to project our ideal version of ourselves than our real versions in a bid to improve our self-esteem. We project an identity that we’d like to others to see, which in turn would reflect in the way we think about ourselves. Here’s more on self-representation and the Internet.

Trolling linked to dark tetrad of personality

Any antisocial behavior online has its roots in the ‘real-world’. A study [1] sought to find links between the dark tetrad of personality – narcissism, machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadistic personality – and trolling behavior. A look at what each of these terms mean:

Narcissism

Psychology Today has provided a simple definition. It describes it as a “condition is characterized by a lack of ability to empathize with others and a desire to keep the focus on themselves at all times.”  There is an inflated sense of self-importance, a deep need for admiration of the self.

Machiavellianism

It is the belief that effectiveness, and not ethics or morality, counts in a social, political or strategic interaction.  

Psychopathy

It can be defined as the manifestation of mental disorders in the form of antisocial behaviors. Lack of empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited behavior are also pointers of psychopathy.

Sadistic personality

It is characterized by lack of empathy, cruelty, aggression. These manifest in the form of behaviors that tend to humiliate, belittle, demean others’ action. For people diagnosed with such personality, even inflicting pain and seeing others’ suffering is a source of amusement.

Now, to the results of the studies. The findings have been listed in an order, in no particular sequence of importance.

Understanding the troll and trolling behavior

Trolls derive satisfaction by harming others

On the reasons for flame trolling — the act of posting defamatory personal information about others on web sites to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour in order to harm an individual or group — it found that people who indulge in such behavior derive a lot of satisfaction and gratification from harming others.

Trolls manipulate others

Another key characteristic of a troll is their manipulations to try to get their victim to go down a particular path so they can abuse them. Next time, you are confronted with a troll, remember that the more you react to the provocations, the more power you give him/her to control you.

Trolls lack confidence

Hate trollers lack confidence. And, this results in them treating others badly, to compensate for the apparent lack of confidence in themselves.

Trolls are sadists

Among the dark tetrad of personality, it was found that sadism had the “most robust associations.” The study [1] said, “when controlling for enjoyment, sadism’s impact on trolling was cut nearly in half; and the indirect effect of sadism through enjoyment was substantial, significant, and remained significant when controlling for overlap with the Dark Triad scores.” What they mean is that sadists derive enjoyment off trolling others. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!” it added.

Picture shows the influence of each of the dark personality:

Dark tetrad traits
Photo: Trolls just want to have fun. Personality and Individual Differences (2014)

Trolls are impulsive

Trolls are impulsive. Impulsivity is defined as “acting on the spur of the moment in response to immediate stimuli; acting on a momentary basis without a plan or consideration of outcomes; difficulty establishing and following plans.” Here is an excerpt from the study [2] that attempted to interview a troll that establishes how impulsivity is common among trolls.

“In one instance he said, “you are a worthless little man, with a sense of false importance. Get a job and do something for society’s benefit, not just your own, you selfish mentalist.” This reinforces the fact that Haters dislike others who feel important, when they lack such self-importance due to unrealistic expectations. Their reference to “doing something for society’s benefit” seems to be a rote statement, as this troller seems to think working for someone else’s firm is greater contribution, which is likely to be them defending their lack of confidence to depend on their own efforts.”

“The impulsivity also took the form of the Hater trying to puff themselves up due to lack of accomplishment of the things they deem important which their target has but they do not. This Hater said, “I was unconditionally offered a PhD (sic) placement, but instead choose to contribute to society, rather than masturbate my life away on deluded mentalist follies. But hey, to each his own. Shine on you crazy diamond!”

Reference(s):

  1. Buckels, E. E., et al. Trolls just want to have fun. Personality and Individual Differences (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ j.paid.2014.01.016
  2. Bishop – The effect of de-individuation of the Internet Troller on Criminal Procedure implementation: An interview with a Hater

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