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Top 10 Factors That Motivate Internet Trolling

by Gary Pullman
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Trolling, the online antagonizing of others, is caused, in part, by trolls’ own personality traits, although genetics and the environment also play roles.

Thanks to a study by Brigham Young University (BYU) researchers, we now know which personality traits motivate this abusive Internet behavior. Together, these characteristics constitute a “dark triad” consisting of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Combined with schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in the misfortune of others, these traits promote trolling. Brain damage, neurobiological processes, mood and discussion context, and various other genetic and environmental factors can also contribute to trolls’ posting of insulting and aggravating online messages.[1]

One form of online trolling, cyberbullying, led to a tragic outcome in the case of Megan Meier, of Missouri, who committed suicide. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, the practice has led (rightly or wrongly depending on your understanding of natural justice) to jail sentences.[2]

Although trolling may not always cause discernible consequences that are serious, highly destructive, or long-term in nature for its victims, the activity discloses personality traits, genetic material, and external influences that could indicate that a troll has more serious psychological issues than one might otherwise suspect.

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10 Narcissism

The current (fifth edition) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), defines the “narcissistic personality disorder . . . [as involving] a long-term pattern of abnormal behaviour characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.”[3]

Narcissists use a variety of abusive tactics to achieve their ends: “verbal abuse; manipulation; emotional blackmail; gaslighting; competition; negative contrasting; sabotage; exploitation and objectification; lying; withholding [rewards]; neglect; privacy invasion; character assassination or slander; staring [coldly]; [the] silent treatment; projecting; twisting [situations and blaming the victim]; playing the victim card; and ‘Hoovering’ (‘sucking’ someone back into a relationship).”

The effects on victims of narcissistic behavior, which is described as toxic, abusive, and traumatizing, can be devastating. As a result of such treatment, victims may doubt their own sanity. Those who are subjected to narcissistic treatment may experience symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder, including “intrusive, invasive, or unwanted thoughts, flashbacks, avoidance, feelings of loneliness, isolation, and feeling extremely alert.” Permanent effects can be even worse, involving serious “cognitive difficulties,” severe “behavioral issues,” and extreme “emotional problems.”[4]

9 Machiavellianism

As it is used in psychology, Machiavellianism alludes to a personality trait characteristic of individuals who are “so focused on their own interests [that] they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals.”[5]

People whose behavior can be described as Machiavellian have little or no regard for ethics or morals and are willing to employ any means to accomplish their objectives, including telling people whatever “they want to hear,” using flattery, and even committing crimes, provided that, in doing so, they stand little or no chance of getting caught. Unlike narcissists, they need not be the center of attention, as long as they are the “puppeteers, who pull the strings.” Rather than cooperate, they compete, and they are adept at manipulation. They will even use romance as a means to their ends.

Instead of recovering from Machiavellian individuals, people might do better to cope with them by engaging in “self-care,” accepting their own limitations, being compassionate to themselves, relying on “trusted colleagues,” adopting a “mastery mindset” by striving to accomplish their own objectives rather than competing against the Machiavellian person, focusing on the actions of the Machiavellian person, refusing to attempt to “outplay them,” and being “authentic” themselves.[6]

8 Psychopathy

Psychopathy is closely related to antisocial personality disorder,[7] which is marked by “a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of other people that often manifests as hostility and/or aggression. Deceit and manipulation are also central features.”[8]

Psychopaths “’weaponize charm,’ seducing with compliments and praise to gain . . . trust.” They may be leaders. They “lie effortlessly,” are adept at acting, “prey on kindness,” “cheat,” and “gaslight.” Psychopaths are narcissists who shower victims with tokens of their supposed love. They “mirror” people, pretending to “have . . . .morals and values” like those of their intended victims. In romantic situations, their cruelty alternates with apparent kindness. They may have been traumatized in the past. Frequently, they feel “empty inside.”

To guard against psychopaths, people should watch for red flags early in a relationship and trust their own instincts.[9]

7 Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering. A universal tendency, it is seen even in reactions to minor, everyday incidents: someone’s spilling coffee on his shirt after tripping or laughing at someone else’s expense.[10]

Narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and the personality traits associated with these disorders and tendencies, which are often nasty enough in themselves, are even worse when combined. Trolls’ exaggerated self-importance; excessive need for admiration; lack of empathy; self-absorption; manipulative, deceitful, and exploitative behavior; and delight in others’ suffering often motivate them to post annoying and offensive online messages about other people.

6 Negative Social Potency

Some trolls are motivated by their negative social potency, essentially the pleasure they derive from being “cruel [and] callous, and [using] others for personal gain,” says Dar Meshi, who led a Michigan State University research team’s “study comparing the problematic use of Facebook and Snapchat.” Their research showed that some users of both social media platforms derived pleasure from the same source, being mean. One of the activities these trolls found pleasurable was embarrassing other users. They also enjoyed angering them.

Meshi believes that his team’s findings may be helpful to psychologists who seek to help trolls and their victims. For example, the study revealed that the more a person trolls, the more he or she enjoys the rewards of negative social potency and the more addicted he or she will become to trolling.[11]

5 Environment and Genetics

As we have seen, narcissism can be a basis for trolling. The renown Mayo Clinic identifies genetics as one of the causes of narcissism and home life, or environment, as another.[12]

Studies of identical twins “separated at birth and raised in different households” and of the human genome have been conducted to assess the “genetics of personality.” The former studies indicate that, despite their having “identical genes,” identical twins who were “separated at birth and raised in different households [shared] more personality traits than fraternal twins, who do not have identical genes.” This finding seems to suggest that genetics is a significant factor in the development of personality traits.

As a result of the latter studies, “scientists have begun to correlate the existence of certain gene variations with personality disorders,” the upshot of which implies that “a specific gene called tryptophan hydroxylase-2 may be implicated in the development of certain personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder.” Narcissism, it seems, is, indeed, “a common inherited trait,” although the environment also plays a role in its acquisition and development.[13]

4 Brain Damage

Narcissists have little or no empathy or concern for others. Brain damage during their formative, childhood years may account for this lack of “emotional intelligence.” The insular cortex is located inside the brain’s gray matter, or cerebral cortex. “The seat of compassion and empathy,” the insular cortex consists of “two spheres, the larger anterior insula, and the smaller posterior insula.” Just as the cerebral cortex “plays an enormous role in conscious awareness,” the insula cortex recognizes emotion, both “one’s own” and that of others.

In narcissists, both the cerebral cortex and the insular cortex are abnormal as a result of the abuse the narcissistic individuals suffered, as children, at the hands of their narcissistic parents. Damage to the hippocampus, which is “essential to learning” and memory development, and to the amygdala, wherein emotions such as “fear, guilt, envy, and shame are born,” causes these parts of the brain to be retarded. As a result of such damage, “a sincere lack of the ability to handle their own emotions, especially those of shame and guilt,” occurs, and the damage to the amygdala causes “a permanent state of fear and anxiety” that can be triggered by environmental cues that remind the narcissist of the abuse that he or she suffered at the hands of the narcissistic parent.

Such a victim of a narcissistic parent is always “alert to danger that does not exist.” These parents’ abuse of their children causes their children, in turn, to develop the same brain abnormalities as those of their parents, thus perpetuating the disorder. However, not all narcissistic parents abuse their children, and the parents’ brain abnormalities do not alone cause them to act in a narcissistic manner; environmental factors are also significant determinants in how such individuals behave.[14]

3 Neurobiology

University of Chicago Medicine psychiatrist and personality disorder specialist Royce Lee, MD, has determined that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) “is marked by increased oxidative stress in the blood and is also connected to interpersonal hypersensitivity.” His finding, he says, poses the question of which precedes the other, “the personality disorder, or the excessive oxidative stress?”

Lee’s study suggests that NPD may represent “a disorder of hypersensitivity,” which suggests that there could be a “relationship between oxidative stress and how people act on their emotions [since] levels of oxidative stress [are] related to impaired recognition or expression of shame.”

Lee’s findings also emphasize that NPD is not merely a “mental condition [in which] a person acts arrogantly, lacks empathy, needs constant attention and admiration, and has an inflated sense of self,” as many people incorrectly believe. Instead, it has a neurobiological basis. Since narcissism is a factor that motivates Internet trolling, Lee’s study not only sheds light on the neurobiological basis underlying this behavior, but it may also lead to medical treatment of narcissism, a benefit of which could be the reduction of trolling that is prompted by the hypersensitivity induced by oxidative stress.[15]

2 Mood and Discussion Context

According to the authors of a peer-reviewed journal article, a subjective state (mood) and an environmental factor (discussion context) can trigger trolling. In an “experiment simulating an online discussion,” the likelihood of the occurrence of trolling doubled when “a negative mood” was stimulated by subjects’ observation of “troll posts” others had made.

The authors concluded that “mood and discussion context together can explain trolling behavior better than an individual’s history of trolling” and that, “under the right circumstances,” anyone can act like a troll.[16]

1 Other Environmental Factors

Other “environmental factors that contribute to trolling” include the “online disinhibition effect,” in which operating behind the perceived barrier of a computer screen may impart “a false sense of security” to the troll; anonymity; tribalism, a sort of pack mentality that can ensue the feeling of being “a member of a group”; perceived threats to one’s own beliefs; and conditioning, by which people “with . . . sadistic tendencies” may feel rewarded by the aggressive and hostile comments they make while trolling.

Social support, refraining from feeding trolls, and blocking them, when possible, can help one to avoid the snide, often infantile, comments of people inclined to making annoying and offensive comments designed to provoke others.[17]

Let’s leave the list with extremely appropriate quote from the master of philosophical stoicism, Epictetus, born in the 50th year of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.” Wise words indeed. Let’s try not to allow ourselves to be angered by the words or actions of others today!

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About The Author: An English instructor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Gary L. Pullman, a regular contributor to Listverse, lives south of Area 51, which, according to his family and friends, explains “a lot.” His five-book series, An Adventure of the Old West, is available on Amazon.

fact checked by Jamie Frater