Bryan Caplan  

The Psychology of Trolling

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Last week on Facebook, I asked: "Trolls: bored or malevolent?"  Today I discovered some relevant research.  According to Buckels, Trapnell, and Paulhus, "Trolls Just Want to Have Fun" (Personality and Individual Differences, 2014) "malevolent" is the main answer.  Indeed, it's unclear why the article isn't called, "Trolls Just Want to Hurt People." 

BTP combines questions about internet usage with a range of control variables, plus standard measures of the so-called "Dark Tetrad" - the personality traits of psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism.  What they find:

A total of 23.8% of participants expressed a preference for debating issues, 21.3% preferred chatting, 2.1% said they especially enjoy making friends, 5.6% reported enjoying trolling other users, and 5.8% specified another activity. The remaining 41.3% of participants were non-commenters. Because of low endorsement rates of the "making friends" option, we combined that category with the "other" category in the following analyses.

A multivariate analysis on the Dark Tetrad revealed a significant effect of activity preference: Wilks' λ = 0.97, F(20, 1646.00) = 1.65, p = .03. Inspection of the pattern depicted in Fig. 1 confirmed that, as expected, the Dark Tetrad scores were highest among those who selected trolling as the most enjoyable activity.
That Figure 1:
troll.jpg

Furthermore:
...Dark Tetrad associations were largely due to overlap with sadism. When their unique contributions were assessed in a multiple regression, only sadism predicted trolling on both measures (trolling enjoyment and GAIT scores). In contrast, when controlling for sadism and the other Dark Tetrad measures, narcissism was actually negatively related to trolling enjoyment.
Please control your Dark Tetrad in the comments.


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (14 to date)
Curt Doolittle writes:

Frustrating.

Or we could just adopt the strategy of analyzing incentives, and continue the longstanding criticism of psychology as a pseudoscience. And that all use of psychological criticism is merely 'Critique' (Gossip for the purpose of shaming and rallying.) It is a sophisticated deceit, but a deceit none the less.

Trolls want attention. They found a way to get attention. They vent frustration. It's not complicated. Why is it that they aren't getting attention. And how can we provide negative incentives for their behavior?

(And how can we keep Putin's foot soldiers in St Petersburg off the internet entirely.)

Jon Murphy writes:

Maybe I'm being dim-witted today, but I don't understand what's going on in the chart. Could someone help me out?

Emily writes:

Jon-
People who reported their favorite activity is trolling have the average level of vicarious sadism that is shown by the height of the blue bar above the word "trolling". By contrast, people who reported their favorite activity was chatting have the average level of vicarious sadism that is shown by the height of the blue bar above the word "chatting." (Obviously, to understand the actual implications of this, we'd want to be able to put the heights in some sort of context and figure out how these people were recruited and whatnot.) A more intuitive way would have been to group by trait as opposed to by favorite activity.

Jon Murphy writes:

Ah thank you Emily! I guess Day 2 of no coffee isn't going well for me :-)

Jeff writes:

What's the difference between direct and indirect sadism? Is indirect sadism kind of like schadenfreude?

Urstoff writes:

So the internet just gave an outlet to sadists that were otherwise too introverted to hurt other people in person before the internet?

Hasdrubal writes:

So, how did they structure their information gathering so that they didn't get trolled with outlandish answers themselves?

Andrew writes:

So far, we have trolls want to have fun, want to hurt/harm people, and trolls want attention.

My experience on many of the economic blogs is that trolls are people that disagree with the consensus of the majority. The majority then takes this "troll" and immediately becomes the sadists trying to do everything that is being accused of the trolls in this article.

We all know who the accused trolls are. Some are even credentialed and published economists themselves.

Many people blame the trolls for ruining the internet but the troll enforcers can be even worse. Especially when the troll seems to have a legitimate argument.

Carl writes:

In 10 years this graph will be seen as perfectly meaningless.

IVV writes:

Jeff,
Direct sadism is enjoying making others suffer. Indirect sadism is enjoying watching others suffer, even though one had no hand in their suffering. Yes, schadenfreude is an example of indirect sadism.

Carl,
Why in ten years?

Graham Peterson writes:

Everyone enjoys punishing people. So everybody enjoys punishing "trolls" on the internet. And people enjoy it even more when they're in groups. See: holocaust and any internet pile on.

How much people enjoy punishing others probably varies across a distribution. So no doubt, internet trolls enjoy punishing people more than others, but should we call that sadism?

Psychiatry's pathologizing terms are really senseless, precisely because they resort to positing that some behavior is definitionally irrational and senseless. I doubt it. The idea that some people have social-context-free precognitive impulses to harm others, date abusers, shoot heroin, etc. seems like an intellectual cop out and official/medical/authoritative sounding way to justify ostracizing deviants.

But trolling as pathology is absurd. Trolls don't just arbitrarily pick targets; they coalesce around issues. And it usually goes both ways.

So some right tail of jezebel.com commenters gets off on cruising the internet looking for men to mock and other feminists to police, while some right tail of men's rights bloggers does the reverse.

All moral debate has always invoked (at least as a subtext) the (implied) threat of punishment, ostracization, and violence. So it's difficult to distinguish between people who want to conscientiously persuade others and those who want to simply mock and punish and ostracize.

It gets even more complicated when we consider that in interaction with one another, groups themselves produce their trolls by ganging up on individuals and backing them into a corner. What radical feminist wouldn't get defensive when she's being threatened with rape by a swarm?

Investigating trolling as some kind of inherent personality characteristic misses the opportunity to understand how we construct moral deviance in discourse. It isn't anything new; it's just become particularly salient because more people are discoursing more often as the internet has made it cheaper to do so.

Pathologizing one another and creating a new category of legitimate ad hominem undermines the opportunity to promote tolerance and free thought.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I agree Andrew. Almost anytime I see someone called a troll, I've been more interested in the "troll's" comment than those of the troll hunter. Those on the lookout for trolls are usually those with very closed minds. I stay away from blogs with strong troll hunting commentators.

Ryan Murphy writes:

There is a continuum of trolling - on one end you have someone figuring out someone's real life address and swatting them.

But the other end is what Tyler Cowen does when he posts his "Tyrone" blogs. There is a huge grey area in between.

I think we should be careful. Being a gadfly isn't motivated by sadism. Much of the grey area isn't motivated by sadism. Most trolls are the type of people who would refer to themselves as being sarcastic back when doing so was slightly fashionable, but given a cloak of anonymity.

Anonymous Person writes:

The "making friends" part I want you to clarify.
Do you mean in person in the offline world, or do you mean in the online world?
If you mean the latter, maybe the trolls (along with an increasing amount of the rest of us non-trolls) realize that an increasing amount of people have fake accounts pretending to be people they're not, so it's safer to not accept their online friend requests when they're actually enemies pretending to be friends.

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