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Research Shows What Makes Trolls Tick on Mobile Dating Apps

Survey says psychopathy, sadism & dysfunctional impulsivity.

I came of age before Tinder hit the scene, using now old-fashioned slow response time desktop dating services. In spite of a few informative relationships of different sorts, I met my partner the old-fashioned way, at a mutual friend's social event. Online dating always felt partly artificial, and transition from that to a "real" relationship sketchy. On social media platforms, especially with professional colleagues where we have a lot of common ground to begin with (and might meet "in the real world" at a conference or something), it's more likely to lead to something more enduring.

I was interested in online dating for a lot of different reasons. In the 80's, I was an early adopter of computers and such, and had started social media life hosting a bulletin board, named the Scarlet Fever BB because I set it up when I was home sick. Connecting required a hardwired modem—the origin of that iconic sound so popular in movies when machines make that initial screeching handshake with one another. I had a solid Hayes Micromodem (what's a "baud", anyway?), and it was blazing fast. Unlike the modem in the movie WarGames, this one was super-advanced—it plugged into the back of a computer, and directly into the phone jack on the wall. Even back then, I interacted with people online—even met a friend from a neighboring town I wouldn't have met otherwise, who was into Black Flag. From traveling abroad a lot as a child and adolescent, I learned I liked meeting people from all over the place, generally a fun and enriching thing to do. Bulletin boards felt like a kind of traveling, but even then there were some obnoxious characters who, looking back, were kind of "proto-trolls". Of course, there are always bullies, online or off, always someone looking to take their stuff out on others.

WarGames, 1983
Source: WarGames, 1983

So when I started online dating, it was only sort of for romantic reasons. It was also an interesting way to meet people I never would have met otherwise, an anthropological experiment, and a bit of a compulsion for a couple of years, looking for something which didn't seem to be there. I did something similar with Tinder a couple of years ago, got an account and signed up, noted I wasn't available romantically on my profile (kind of weird), and spent a few weeks getting a first-person sense of what the experience was like, as a professional curiosity. The closest I came to meeting anyone in person was someone who wanted to be interviewed about Tinder dating, and then ghosted. Apps like that go at the accelerated pace of texting, or faster.

The addictive feeling was more compelling than desktop online dating. Immediate gratification, swipe swipe swipe, one photo after the next, a bit of autobiographical information, evocative photos of often vague significance...the quintessential overwhelming too-muchness of excessive choice. Each momentary scan of the other's profile becomes a micro relationship all in itself, a rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts. A feeding frenzy for internet trolls, perhaps.

Even though traditional online dating sites remain more popular than LBRTD (location-based real-time dating, the technical term for services like Tinder, Grindr and Blendr), the use of LBRTD's is on the rise. According to Pew Research, as of February 2016, 22% of 18-24 year olds reported using a mobile based app, up from 5% in 2013. In that same age group, 27% reported using online dating, up from 10% over the same timespan. Overall, 9% of all adults report using a mobile dating app at that time, versus 3% in 2013.

Online dating is generally becoming more popular, though it isn't universally successful, to say the least—it's hard enough to have a good in-person first date, though some folks do find lasting love (if that's what they want) online. LBRTD's are well-suited for finding just-in-time hook ups, though, and while that can work great for some folks, it can be challenging to find a real connection, and exposes people to various risks if they aren't being careful. One reader commented on a recent post the following painful first-hand account:

Online dating is like looking through a garbage dump for the least broken, disgusting, dirty thing you can find. Online dating sites are like the sewer of humanity, it's where the worst of society gathers to unleash their bulls#*t onto others. It's just a vacuous cesspool of hell and misery.

It's a shame that people have such terrible experiences, and while no doubt much of it has to do with being taken advantage of by mal-intentioned or troubled people who we end up dating for various reasons (often against our better judgment), some of it has to do with trolling. LBRTD's have their own share of trolls along with online dating sites, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets.

Because research on social media has not examined trolling on mobile dating apps, and such behavior is predictably a problem given how it crops up on other social media, researchers March and colleagues (2017) sought to identify factors which would predict trolling behavior. They sought to understand the relationship among the components of the Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy), sadism (which when added to the Dark Triad is called the Dark Tetrad), and dysfunctional impulsivity.

They defined trolling as: "communication online with intention of being provocative, offensive or menacing, in an attempt to trigger conflict and cause victims distress for the trolls own amusement". They surveyed 357 adults aged 18-60 years old, 71% women and 29% men.

Measures (in addition to demographics) included:

  • the Short Dark Triad Scale e.g. "I insist on getting the respect I deserve", "I like to use clever manipulation to get my way", and "People who mess with me always regret it";
  • the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale e.g. "People would like hurting others if they gave it a go";
  • the Dickman Impulsivity Inventory e.g. "I frequently make appointments without thinking about whether I will be able to keep them";
  • the Global Assessment of Internet Trolling Scale (modified) e.g. “I have sent people on the App shock comments for the lulz [laughs]”, “I like to troll people on the app" and "I enjoy griefing other people who use the app".

They found that, in this sample, men and women were equal on trolling and dysfunctional impulsivity, although men scored overall higher on the Dark Tetrad. Psychopathy and sadism were correlated with trolling behavior, as was dysfunctional impulsivity, but on deeper analysis narcissism and Machiavellianism did not. Interestingly, dysfunctional impulsivity predicted trolling only with higher levels of psychopathy, pointing to a possible interaction between the two factors, which are known to be related.

It is of note that women scored similarly to men on trolling behavior, the study authors note, because this has not typically been the case in prior research on social media. They were not able to account for this finding based on their data, however. While one explanation could be that women in this sample were higher on psychoticism and sadism (typically higher in men), in this sample men and women scored the same. This finding, if it proves out, may be because users of LBRTD apps have different characteristics than other social media users and/or because of the characteristics of LBRTDs. For instances, users may be more prone to express whatever sadistic impulses they have on an app like Tinder, which is more immediate and potentially anonymous. It would be interesting to ask respondents in future surveys if their profiles were more or less self-revealing—I'd guess that being able to hide behind a veil of anonymity would increase trolling.

March and colleagues conclude:

The current study provides information regarding the role of the
dark personality traits of psychopathy and sadismin trolling behaviour
on contemporary online dating platforms (i.e., LBRTD apps). The dating app troll, like the online troll, is sadistic, psychopathic, and
dysfunctionally impulsive. Interestingly, unlikely the general online
troll, the current results show that dating apps are equally likely to be
male or female. As online harassment has the same psychological outcomes as harassment offline, including increased depression and
lowered self-esteem, understanding the predictors of trolling behaviour is important. Results of the current study have implications for individuals who administrate and monitor LBRTD apps, as this information may assist these individuals in developing strategies to decrease trolling behaviour on these apps.

So beware of the trolls and the predators, and if you choose to use online dating, approach it lightly and stay safe emotionally and otherwise. If people say things that make you question their motives or feel wrong, there's nothing constructive there (unless maybe if you're researching internet trolls). If you are someone who likes to engage in trolling, pause to reflect and perhaps choose differently—learning to control some of those dysfunctional impulses may serve you well.

Twitter: @GrantHBrennerMD




Pew Research Center (2016 February). 15% of American adults have used online dating sites
or mobile dating sites. Downloaded from… on 4/23/2017

March E, Grieve R, Marrington J, Jonason PK. (2017). Trolling on Tinder® (and other dating apps): Examining the role of the Dark Tetrad and impulsivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 110, 139-143.