The Psychology Behind “Trolling”

woman looking down at laptop

In her book Shrill, writer Lindy West describes a day in 2013 when she received a Twitter message from Paul West. Of course, this was impossible — Paul West was her father, and he had recently died of cancer. The impersonator’s message was cruel (the bio alone read “embarrassed father of an idiot”), and while West was no stranger to cruel comments from strangers on the internet, this, she said on an episode of NPR podcast This American Life, “was the meanest thing anyone’s ever done to me.”

The internet age has made everything more available, more accessible, more visible. For many reasons this is an incredibly positive thing — think of how much more information is at our fingertips! The ability to learn is now as fast as your WiFi speed. Not only that, but our personal and professional lives are exposed to many more people. These current strangers might be able to follow our lives, hire us for jobs, and keep up with our recent vacations.

But with more exposure to all of the good that digital connections bring, also comes more exposure to the bad. The willingness to put oneself “out there” for praise and encouragement also means we are making ourselves subject to criticism and ridicule, too. Being open with people in the real world is scary enough, but online, our critics are granted anonymity that can empower a feeling of honesty that can verge on the downright cruel. Sometimes, intentionally so.

And thus, the concept of “trolling” was born.

What Is Trolling?

Pre-internet, the word “troll,” when used as a verb, meant “to fish by trailing a lure or baited hook from a moving boat,” according to Merriam-Webster.

Today, the word has nothing to do with fishing but a lot to do with “baiting.” According to Urban Dictionary, trolling “is the deliberate act…of making random, unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument.” These comments often look a lot like bullying.

They can run the gamut from leaving negative comments about someone’s appearance, to insulting someone’s work, to writing hateful, politically charged, or even threatening messages to someone — as Lindy West received from the person impersonating her late father on Twitter.

These comments are designed to make you feel bad about yourself. The results can even be fatal, as evidenced by the instances in which trolling drove vulnerable young people to suicide. Even when the consequences aren’t as serious as suicide, the results of trolling can look similar to those of bullying, which often induces depression, social anxiety, and a decrease in self-esteem.

Who Trolls?

About 5.6% of internet users self-identify as trolls, according to AsapSCIENCE, meaning they actually enjoy trying to get a rise out of others through their messages and comments. There is a reason for this, however.

An Australian study published in 2017 surveyed more than 400 individuals to identify patterns in personality that correlate with trolling behaviors. The study found that men were more likely than women to troll others online; it also linked these behaviors to higher scores in traits of psychopathology and sadism on the personality questionnaire. The researchers wrote, according to a Quartz article, that “results indicate that when high on trait psychopathy, trolls employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognizing the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions.”

In short, they wrote, “creating mayhem online is a central motivator to troll.”

How to Out-Troll a Troll

When it comes down to it, we can’t prevent trolls from trolling, but if you find yourself the victim of a troll, there are a few ways you can nip it in the bud. The first rule of thumb is to never, ever, ever “feed” the trolls — meaning, don’t respond to a troll’s comment, even with logic.

Second, report or flag the troll’s comment if you can, whether that’s by reporting the person to the moderator (if the message is on an online forum) or flagging it for a social media site. This may not get the troll banned from posting ever again, but it may hide the comment so that you and others don’t have to see their hateful words.

And finally, try not to let perpetrators of trolling get to you. This may be the hardest thing to do, because while their comments may seem personal, they would have said the same thing to anyone else. Trolls get their kicks in knowing that they’ve really gotten to someone, so it’s best not to let them know that their plan worked. In these instances, it helps to talk to someone you trust, whether that’s a romantic partner, a friend, or a therapist.

Trolling doesn’t have to stop you from putting yourself out there online. For every troll that exists on the web, there are dozens more kind and caring people like yourself. Take a technology break if you feel overwhelmed, then dust yourself off, and get back to enjoying all of the good that the internet has to offer.

Published by

Melissa Stanger

Contributor