Breaking the Silence: The Psychology Behind Trolls

By Nicole Beaver


We see it in the media every day: there was another act of violence. There was yet another school shooting, another black man killed by police, another celebrity accused of committing heinous acts against women. On Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit–wherever there is a platform–people flock over. In droves they comment, expressing their opinions, picking up their figurative microphones and declaring their thoughts to the world. Sometimes these opinions can be offensive depending on what your personal beliefs are, or whether or not you were a witness to a particular situation, being directly exposed to what actually happened. Online wars break out between individuals who have never met each other before. Furthermore, there are people out there who advocate for the senseless crimes they see. In the online world, these people are called “trolls.”


Trolls are, of course, everyday people who seem to gain satisfaction from making people angry. They’ll do anything to bring their adversaries down. Actually, I was recently targeted by a troll who made false accusations about me; I had made a comment in support of transgender women, and this troll accused me of assaulting her. It was ridiculous, but they got what they wanted: attention. So what is the psychology behind these annoying little scabs? Psychology Today actually has some insight into this that I found extremely interesting. The article I am referencing mentions a study done from Science Direct, humorously titled “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun.” It states the following: “trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism…of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior.” I am briefly going to explain the basics of sadism/psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.


Let’s go over the difference between sadism and psychopathy. Psychopaths are rare, making up 1% of the human population. They are also frequently associated with Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Psychopaths are, in fact, rarely serial killers, though pop culture depicts them otherwise. Nowadays, “psychopathy” is an outdated term, more commonly called Antisocial Personality Disorder. Sadism, on the other hand, is formally known as Sadomasochism. It is “the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.” As the scientific study demonstrated, sadism is more common than you may realize. Sadistic Personality Disorder is a very real thing, but it is important to realize that it is just that–a personality disorder. Individuals who are sadistic tend to display recurrent aggression and cruel behavior. Sadism can also include the use of emotional cruelty, purposefully manipulating others through the use of fear, and a preoccupation with violence.


As for the third personality disorder? Prior to doing research for this article, I had never even heard of “Machiavellianism.” It is a part of a group consisting of three personality types that psychologists have dubbed “The Dark Tetrad.” Very fitting. Machiavellianism is a personality trait which sees a person so focused on their own interests that they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals. Narcissism, on the other hand, is associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. With this disorder, an individual is callous and has exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.


All three of these sound very nasty. Psychology Today confirms this in their article: “trolls truly enjoy making you feel bad… Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun…and the Internet is their playground!”  


So what can we do? In this day and age, with so many of us reliant on our devices, we cannot realistically completely avoid the Dark Tetrad. However, the understanding that these individuals are sick and rarely receiving treatment makes them seem a little more pitiful. Also keep in mind that not every single person in the Dark Tetrad will troll someone. The best thing we can do about those who do is to ignore them. This can be extremely frustrating, don’t get me wrong. I’ve fallen prey to them constantly! But they feed upon inflicting pain. If they are ignored, they will either up their game or go away. They are human. Eventually, their fixation will die or they will be drowned out.

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