The dark psychology of Internet trolls

There’s an area of forensic (having to do with legal or criminal cases) psychology that is known as “Dark Psychology.” And it just might help us better understand Internet trolls — people who feel the need to use the Internet to victimize and bully others.

Dark Psychology has to do with the study of people who prey on other people. These can be bullies, spouse beaters, thieves or any type of lawbreaker who seeks out victims. These are not people who park illegally, are sex workers, or cheat on their taxes. These people seek out victims for the thrill it gives them to act against them.

Many people who prey on others manifest the Dark Tetrad. The Dark Tetrad is defined as psychopathy, sadism, Machiavellanism and narcissism. And those components are made up of others.

Internet troll via Shutterstock

Internet troll via Shutterstock

What they break down to is a person who enjoys inflicting pain on others, who shows no remorse, who is callous, who is antisocial, enjoys manipulating others to his own ends, who feels quite self-important, has an over-inflated ego, and someone who derives pleasure from hurting someone else either directly or vicariously. He also shows disinhibited, bold behavior, often wanting to call attention to himself and his acts.

This is a rough description of someone who identifies and uses people that he chooses to be his victims. I’m sure that most of us can visualize who these people are. There are some who come to my mind immediately: mass murderers, politicians, businessmen, etc. And several movies also come to mind, where one of the lead characters was almost exactly like this, such as “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.” Though Baby Jane may have had additional psychological issues beyond just the Dark Tetrad.

What does this have to do with Internet trolls?

A recent paper argues that Internet trolls seem to fulfill at least three (some fulfill all) of the Dark Tetrad. And sadism seems to be the overriding component.

The researchers, Buckels, Trapnell and Paulhus, writing in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences, looked at Internet trolls and how they are formed psychologically. Their research, and that of others, shows that sadism is at the forefront. Trolls enjoy hurting people, they get a thrill and positive reinforcement from causing pain to others. Though some sadists tend to prefer causing pain in person and directly observing the results, much like Baby Jane, others seem to enjoy causing pain to others at random. This latter group seems to be the one that the typical Internet troll enjoys.

Let’s take a look at what the typical Internet troll does.

This is based on the above paper, plus some previous work by Buckels, et al., and other researchers. The troll decides to post. He selects a site and a topic. These are often chosen based on his belief system. For example, someone who is strongly religious may troll on atheist sites. Or, sometimes, the troll may strike in a more random manner while reading an blog, for example — some topic or comment may catch his eye and he’ll post.

His objects are to hurt people and attract attention to himself. He may post something wildly inflammatory to the other comments on the site or in direct opposition to the theme of the article. It may be a logically structured and well-written post or just a string of obscenities. Whatever he chooses, he gets some gratification just from posting, knowing that people will be hurt and upset by his post. But he gets more gratification when he gets a reply. Now he knows that someone is upset. This is a victory. Some trolls will then just sit back and watch other comments get posted by readers or authors whom he has enraged. Other trolls, will continue to post, sometimes hundreds of posts on the same thread, to further incite the readers into more replies. The more replies, the more criticisms and denunciations, the more gratification he gets.

Some trolls feel safer carrying out these attacks online, rather than in person. They feel that they are anonymous and relatively safe from being discovered. Had they done bullying like this in person, their identities would be known and they could face physical, psychological, financial and/or legal consequences. Even though they may be tracked and identified through the Internet, that usually isn’t done, so the troll feels invulnerable and continues to post.

The recommendation to decrease trolling is to decrease the gratification that the troll gets. That is, he enjoys stirring up the hornets’ nest. The more sound and fury he generates, the more he enjoys it. Therefore, the best way to limit trolling is to totally ignore the troll. Let him know that he’s not worth replying to, that the readers know him to be trolling and trying to provoke a response.

The less feedback the troll gets, the less likely he is to post to that particular site. After all, why post to Site X, where the troll gets no replies even to the most outrageous comments, when he can post to Site Y and enjoy everyone fighting back?

The lesson here? Please don’t feed the trolls.


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Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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