The Psychology of Trolls

Updated on November 21, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent almost half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Internet is a wonderful place. It is a storehouse of the world’s wisdom and knowledge at the fingertips of everyone with a device connected to it. And, in the estimation of some, it is being ruined by a few people with disordered minds.

Joel Stein, writing for Time Magazine in June 2016, noted that the Internet used to be a place where geeky people with noble motives pushed for the free flow of information. “Now, if you need help improving your upload speeds the web is eager to help with technical details, but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself.”


A troll is “A computer user who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question … but whose real intention is to cause disruption and/or trigger conflict for the purposes of their own amusement.”

Dr. Claire Hardaker, academic researcher

Who Are the Trolls?

Psychiatrists have looked into the thinking of people who post cruel and vicious comments. What they have found is disturbing.

Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and colleagues examined the character of trolls in 2014. Their study appeared the journal Personality and Individual Disorders.

After contacting more than 1,200 people they concluded that trolls possess a toxic stew of personality defects known as the Dark Triad.

  • They are narcissistic. This means they “are manipulative and easily angered, especially when they don’t receive the attention they consider their birthright” (Psychology Today).
  • Machiavellianism is another characteristic. They are so “focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals” (Harley Therapy).
  • And, they are psychopaths. “… those with psychopathy typically demonstrate impulsive behaviour, a … self-centered perspective, chronic violations of legal or social rules, and a lack of empathy and guilt” (Good Therapy).
  • The Canadian researchers added a fourth behavioural issue; trolls are sadistic. This means they enjoy inflicting pain, humiliation, and suffering on others.

The authors sum up the mindset of these disrupters: “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun ... and the Internet is their playground.”

Among themselves, trolls say their activity is for “lulz” (laughs). Here’s Joel Stein again, “What trolls do for the lulz ranges from clever pranks to harassment to violent threats.”


The Empathy Factor

In 2017, Australian researchers studied the trolling behaviour of more than 400 people through questionnaires.

They found that trolls display low levels of "affective" or "emotional" empathy. This is the ability feel the emotions of another person as if they are, in some way, contagious.

On the other hand, trolls score higher for cognitive empathy than is typical among the general population. Psychologist Daniel Goleman writes that this means having a clear understanding of another’s emotions “while having no sympathy whatever for their victims.”

The Australian researchers comment that “Results indicate that when high on trait psychopathy, trolls employ an empathetic strategy of predicting and recognising the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions. Thus, trolls appear to be master manipulators of both cyber-settings and their victims’ emotions.”

The Gender Gap

A 2017 study by two university teams in the United Kingdom “revealed that men reported more antisocial motives for using” social media. Women tend to use platforms such as Facebook to build relationships. This is a reflection of the increased level of narcissism among males (7.7%) versus females (4.8%).

A 2014 report in Salon noted that “People between the ages of 18 and 29 were the most likely to say they’d been harassed … Men are more likely to be ‘called names’ or be targeted by people who set out to embarrass them.” For men the trolling tends to take place in gaming situations.

“Women, on the other hand, report higher rates of more extreme abuses and related impacts … There is clearly a difference between being ‘called a name’ and being stalked or sexually harassed, sometimes for weeks, months, or years.”

Any woman in the public eye – journalist, athlete, actor, politician, etc. – will receive multiple hate messages. Most try to avoid Facebook, Twitter, and the like to preserve their sanity.

The words “trolling” or “harassment” don’t do justice to the problem. They don’t convey the devastating impact these activities can have on victims. The tormenting can and does drive some people to take their own lives.

The Disinibition Effect

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, says trolls show what’s called the “disinhibition effect – people lower their emotional guard and behave in ways they would never do face-to-face. They feel they can say anything they like to somebody.”

People display different behaviours when alone from those they exhibit in public. Here’s how Academic Earth colourfully puts it “… most people refrain from picking their nose in public, but dig with abandon when alone.”

For some people, the anonymity of the Internet confers license to behave in an antisocial manner. The fear of being judged badly that prompts most of us to control negative impulses is absent in chat rooms, comment areas, and social media.


Dealing With Trolls

The best advice is to never, ever engage with trolls. Keep silent. Say nothing.

Trolls want people to respond to them; that’s how they get their jollies. They crave confirmation that they have caused distress to someone.

It’s understandable to want to hit back at the vile creature but doing so puts you in a conflict you cannot win. Most websites have a “report abuse” function. So, document the attack, report it, and delete it.

If ignored, most trolls lose interest and move on to some other target.


Bonus Factoids

According to Freedom House (Freedom of the Net 2017), 22 of the 60 countries it investigated used outside agencies to influence online discussions. Instead of being open about involvement in conversations, these governments hide behind third parties often referred to as “troll farms.” Offenders include Bahrain, China, and Russia; especially Russia.

According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of web users surveyed in 2014 reported experiencing online harassment, such as name calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, sexual harassment, physical threats, and sustained harassment.

A 2014 poll carried out by YouGov revealed that “Although only 45% of adults have heard of the term troll, 28% of Americans admitted malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know.”

In Scandinavian mythology trolls are believed to pose a danger to humans.
In Scandinavian mythology trolls are believed to pose a danger to humans. | Source


  • “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet.” Joel Stein, Time, August 18, 2016.
  • “Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists.” Jennifer Goldbeck, Psychology Today, September 18, 2014.
  • “Why Women Get Attacked by Trolls.” Soraya Chemaly, Salon, October 23, 2014.
  • “Peering into the Psychology of Online Trolls.” Shanika Gunaratna, CBS News, July 5, 2017.
  • “Constructing the Cyber-Troll: Psychopathy, Sadism, and Empathy.” Natalie Sesta and Evita March, Personality and Individual Differences, December 2017.
  • “Over a Quarter of Americans Have Made Malicious Online Comments.” Jake Gammon, YouGov, October 20, 2014.


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    • EricFarmer8x profile image

      Eric Farmer 3 months ago from Phoenix Arizona

      An interesting article on trolls. I also wonder why some people post the things they do online.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 4 months ago from Ohio

      Nice breakdown of trolls. I do not understand this behavior. But, I'm not a sadistic individual.