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What You Should Know About Online Arguments

It turns out there is an argumentative personality type on the Internet

You’ve seen it many times before: a friend posts a news item on Facebook or some other social media site and someone they don’t know begins criticizing their point of view. The exchange quickly escalates and often ropes in bystanders. Frequently the debate spirals quickly downward into name calling or bullying. People who write incendiary posts simply to disrupt are known as “trolls.” There are also people—I call them “troll light”—who seem to enjoy debating with no intention of reaching any type of mutual understanding. There is an easy litmus test for determining if someone falls into one of these two categories: are you offended or angry when you read their comments? Here are several things you should know about disruptive posters:

1. The troll personality

In a recent article published in Personality and Individual Differences researchers asked more than 1000 people about which aspects of posting on-line they enjoy. Some enjoy chatting, others enjoy debating and still others enjoy trolling. It turns out that trolls have markedly different personality styles: they are more narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic and sadistic. To put it bluntly, they are not people you reason with. Think about that the next time you are tempted to engage such a person in an online discussion.

Personality profiles of on-line users

Equally as interesting to me is the finding that people who enjoy debating issues online showed a similar profile, albeit far less extreme. A “troll light” personality is a cousin to an actual troll in that the former group likely defends their own actions by claiming simply to be debating. In fact, many of these people view themselves as filling a crucial role by constantly critiquing posts. In both cases—trolls and troll light—there is a different personality profile than folks who simply want to chat or discuss.

2. Anonymous posting

Unlike earlier times when printing a leaflet or small book required thought and personal resources voicing an opinion over the internet has very few barriers to entry. This fact is compounded by the idea that many sites, including Psychology Today, allow for anonymous posting. There are certainly legitimate reasons why anonymity might be a reasonable way to post—whistle blowing comes to mind—but criticizing a mundane blog post is likely not one of them. Trolls sometimes enjoy the protection that anonymity affords to them and sometimes capitalize on the fact that anonymous posting can allow them to post twice: once under their own name and once under the anonymous (or fabricated) user name.

3. A cautionary note about humor

It is important to distinguish trolling from attempts to use humor that simply don’t hit the target. Occasionally, people write comments that they believe are witty without understanding that the Internet does not offer the same cues related to tone and timing that are often integral to successful humor.

In 2005 Justin Krueger and his colleagues empirically tested perceptions of humor over email. They used the once popular Jack Handy sayings from Saturday Night Live. These are short and sometimes bizarre sayings with unexpected endings that many people find humorous such as “I guess of all my uncles I liked Uncle Caveman the best. We called him Uncle Caveman because he lived in a cave, and because sometimes he’d eat one of us. Later on we found out he was a bear.”

To test people’s predictions about humor over email the researchers had participants choose a few of their favorite Jack Handy sayings and then emailed them to another participant. Each person was asked to rate how funny the saying was and to predict how funny the recipient would likely think it was. People had the tendency to overate the comedy value of their own e-mails, assigning them humor ratings that were more than twice as large as the ratings provided by the actual recipients. The researchers concluded that because individuals can “play” the joke in their head, including timing and tone, the jokes sound better than they do in email form. This is a terrific reminder for anyone wanting to use sarcasm over the Internet.

Trolls: what you can do

The simplest strategy for dealing with trolls is to ignore them. This can be easier said than done because many of their comments are outrageous or inflammatory. They sometimes single you out. Even harder is to avoid troll light individuals. They often rope in members of discussion forums under the guise of offering helpful critiques or raising interesting, albeit critical, points for discussion. Don’t be fooled. They are not looking for common ground nor are they looking for fruitful discussion. They feel they know what’s best and they are largely interested in airing that opinion.

A final tip regarding troll behavior: Don’t unwittingly cross the line yourself. A simple method for treating others well online is to swap out curiosity for criticism. Try asking questions, “Why do you believe that?” “What do other experts say?” “How widely held do you think your view is?” Treat your on-line community members the way you would treat people living in your neighborhood. If you can’t, simply ignore them.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a research and trainer. He is fascinated by the difficult aspects of human psychology and has written about these topics in his forthcoming book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound.

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