The Psychology of Trolls

Updated on January 13, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) 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.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      3 weeks ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Hi Paul. The trolling blisters are everywhere. We have one who keeps turning up our HubPages community forum. Very annoying, but they have to be ignored.

    • SkyDoesMinecaft profile image

      Paul Beenis 

      3 weeks ago

      Wow! Fantastic article Rupert, very interesting. After some research I've discovered a websites where these "trolls" congregate. The website I found was named "Reddit" it seems to be some kind of forum website where users post malicious content to make other laugh. Make sure your steer clear from this website ladies and gentlemen!

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      14 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Alfred. Thanks for your informative additions to my article.

    • alfmartinez profile image


      14 months ago from Vancouver, BC V6B 3K9


      I wanted to learn more and strengthen my writing. So I ordered an essay in an online writing service on the link, and the result exceeded all my expectations. I first learned that “The most successful trolls can create tension in several communities, pushing them together and using public projections in the media to attract the attention of the general public. I was judging by the latest scenarios of the revolution "computer" or "Facebook". Trolling has already become a demanded specialization of representatives of many professions, for example, such as journalism, world politics, international economics, and some others. ” So I had to redo my written work, it’s good that it turned out before the deadline.

      "The phenomenon of trolling is associated with anonymity and is impossible in conditions other than anonymity in the implementation of network communication.

      Although the Internet has a simplified wording “Trolling is rudeness on the Internet ”, and“ according to this, a troll is a cad on the Internet. ” This does not at all reflect the depth of the problem, which will increasingly grow with time.

      It's a peaty some states have succeeded in trolling, as in cyber aggression against other countries. "

    • alfmartinez profile image


      14 months ago from Vancouver, BC V6B 3K9

      There are as many trolls on the Canadian Internet as on the United States. To better understand the peculiarities of the distribution of trolls around the world, as a social phenomenon, I asked my professor to assign me a written assignment “Causes of trolls on the Internet and their future.” Seniors students looked on my efforts with pity, but my essay was recognized as the best in the group.

      Here is a very brief summary of my essay.

      On the Internet, “trolls” refer to people who provoke emotional turmoil (most often with personnel changes), harassing other users or (less commonly) posing as other people. This word initially comes not from the name of the mythological trolls, but from the fishing term "trilling" (Eng. trolling - trolling). This consonance has taken root so that the identification of Internet hooligans with mythological trolls has become a commonplace and even a topic for jokes and cartoons. On the other hand, this word has gained popularity because of its different meaning - “trolls” as creatures mentioned in Scandinavian mythology. Mythological creatures trolls, especially in children's stories, are portrayed as ugly, unpleasant creatures designed to cause harm and create evil.

      Trolling as a form of social aggression has its characteristics.

      One of them is the possibility of the existence of trolling exclusively in virtual communities.

      The second feature is that trolling has specific mechanisms for the rapid release of avalanche-like aggression, which instantly spreads to most members of the virtual community.

      The third feature of trolling is the impossibility of a potential victim of a conflict to enter into physical or visual contact with the initiator of the conflict situation itself (the troll).

      Recently, trolling is increasingly being used as a PR technology in the commercial and political sphere. Experts argue that the use of this technology gives PR managers such advantages as creating false effects of mass character and public opinion, an opportunity to increase confidence in the source of information, as well as an increase in the coverage of the audience of information recipients. At the same time, trolling is among the “dirty” technologies.

      According to the first trolling researcher Judith Donat, trolling is “a game of fake personality, but without the consent of the majority of players who are not aware of participation in this game” Judith S. Donath. Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. - London, 2010..

    • deborah84 profile image


      14 months ago

      Great article. Today it is particularly relevant in connection with the trolling trials: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other European countries.

    • EricFarmer8x profile image

      Eric Farmer 

      2 years ago from Rockford Illinois

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

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      2 years ago from Ohio

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


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)