How to Detect a Digital Aggressor

New research examines the personality traits of digitally aggressive people.

Posted Apr 01, 2020

Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

It's always a good idea to exercise caution when interacting with someone new. When it comes to online interactions, it is even more important.

New research forthcoming in the Journal of Research in Personality identifies some of the more prominent personality traits found in digitally aggressive people. Specifically, the researchers report that people high in the traits of extraversion and neuroticism and low in the traits of conscientiousness and agreeableness are most likely to exhibit digitally aggressive behaviors.

"Digital aggression is generally defined as the use of communication technologies to harm others," state the researchers, led by Mikayla Kim of Michigan State University. "These aggressive acts range from sending disparaging emails or texts, spreading rumors online, posting insulting or threatening messages or pictures, or taking an embarrassing photo or video and sharing it without permission."

Digital aggression is not uncommon. By some estimates, up to 65% of people have been victims. While it's not easy to predict who might engage in digitally aggressive behaviors, it's not impossible either: Previous research has found digital aggression to be associated with impulsivity and intolerance.   

The current research went a step further — examining precisely how digital aggression overlapped with the Big Five personality traits on Twitter and in an online gaming environment. The researchers found a high degree of consistency in the personality traits of digitally aggressive people across different modes of communication (Twitter, chat, etc.), suggesting that the psychological profile of a digital aggressor does not differ based on mode of communication. Rather, digitally aggressive people seem to share a common set of personality traits, including:

  • Low conscientiousness (perhaps because they are less likely to consider the consequences of their actions).

  • High emotional instability (which is associated with antisocial behaviors and a general disregard for other people).

  • High intellect/imagination (theorized to be a way in which digital aggressors gain social influence).

  • High expressiveness (a trait that can help draw victims in).

  • Low agreeableness (reflecting a tendency to mistreat others).

What's next for research on digital aggression? The researchers write, "Future research should analyze digital aggression on other digital platforms, such as Snapchat and Facebook, as the Twitter results may not extend and generalize to other social networking forums. Given higher incidences of self-reported digital aggression are reported on Twitter when compared to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, our sample may be biased towards more aggressive individuals."

The researchers would also like to see increased research funding in this area, as digital aggression has been shown to produce a range of negative psychological effects, such as anxiety, depression, and even suicidality.


Kim, M., Clark, S. L., Donnellan, M. B., & Burt, S. A. (2020). A multi-method investigation of the personality correlates of digital aggression. Journal of Research in Personality, 85, 103923.