Psychopaths, Sadists, and the Lure of Internet Aggression
What motivates these online chaos makers and why you should stop feeding them.
Posted Feb 07, 2017
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Don’t feed the trolls,” as it refers to online aggression. Internet trolls thrive on creating chaos, deliberately provoking arguments, and inflicting distress via inflammatory posts. Although trolling shares with cyberbullying a goal of causing emotional pain, cyberbullying is purposeful and targeted, typically toward someone known to the tormentor. In contrast, while also malicious, trolls typically seek to provoke a larger group of people who are personally unknown to them. Trolls also tend to hide behind a different identity online, with the goal of deceiving, annoying, and generating anger in their targets. Trolls are rewarded for their efforts by increased online attention and resultant feelings of personal power.
It’s estimated that 3.2 billion people use the internet on a daily basis, including those whose main purpose is exploitation and disruption. Although it may seem that trolling is less serious than face-to-face bullying, victims can suffer significant emotional distress, become depressed and anxious, and experience threats to self-esteem. And trolling is probably more common than you think: Although the data is still in its infancy, it’s estimated that more than one-fourth of Americans have engaged in some form of trolling at some point.
The Dark Tetrad: Machiavellians, Psychopaths, Narcissists and Sadists
If you read my earlier post on the Dark Tetrad, or my post on the differences and similarities between narcissists and sociopaths, you are familiar with the harmful personalities that thrive on creating chaos. These are the Machiavellians, psychopaths, narcissists, and sadists of the world. Although each personality type shares traits such as callousness, lack of empathy, a tendency toward social manipulation and exploitation, and a drive for ruthless self-advancement, their primary motivations for harming others differ.
For example, narcissists will harm others when their sense of self feels threatened (such as in the face of criticism, even if it is accurate). Machiavellians are more likely to harm others if the perceived benefits to them are sufficiently high and the personal risk seems low. Psychopaths are predatory and have a complete disregard for others; however, they are more likely to harm others when it serves a specific purpose. Sadists are quite stimulated by inflicting suffering, and so for them, both the means and the outcome are rewarding. It’s important to note that many people who meet criteria for one type of Dark Tetrad personality also have traits of the others. So, for example, it’s not unusual for a psychopath to also be sadistic, etc.
What “Feeds” the Trolls, Anyway?
As stated above, trolls seek to annoy, anger, create chaos, and generate attention. In addition, trolls appear to be motivated by “negative social potency,” or the feeling of power derived from harming or distressing others. In an effort to further understand which factors are most related to internet trolling, researchers at Federation University in Australia conducted an online survey of 396 adults, assessing Dark Tetrad personality traits, Facebook trolling behavior, and perceived social reward in terms of negative social potency.
Psychopathy, Sadism, and Negative Social Potency
What the team found was somewhat surprising: Contrary to their expectations, neither narcissism nor Machiavellianism predicted Facebook trolling. The team hypothesized that narcissists may be too self-absorbed to expend effort trolling others, and that Machiavellians, although calculating, manipulative, and cruel, are better able to exercise some degree of restraint. The team suggested that Machiavellians may thus find the conversational and fast-paced Facebook environment less than ideal for their particular type of manipulative and deceptive behaviors. Or perhaps the type of reward is simply less relevant for them.
In contrast, and as predicted, psychopathy and sadism were significantly predictive of Facebook trolling. This is likely due to psychopaths' and sadists’ predatory impulses and callousness. Psychopaths generally have a disregard for the distress they cause others, while sadists derive significant pleasure from inflicting emotional pain.
The team also found that high levels of negative social potency predicted trolling behavior. Again, trolls are motivated by the “reward” of feeling powerful as a result of negatively influencing others and inflicting pain. Finally, men were significantly more likely to troll than women.
Limitations of this study included a sample that was more than three-quarters female, as well as one that was self-selected. The study does add to the small but growing body of literature about internet trolling, however, and may be helpful in increasing the public’s awareness of trolling.
If You Only Take One Thing From This Post...
Keep in mind that because the nature of trolling is impersonal and reward-driven, one is usually better off not responding to online trolls. In the face of being ignored, trolls may initially increase their efforts at disruption, but if you stop giving them the satisfaction they seek, they will likely move on to a more rewarding target.
The bottom line: Don’t feed the trolls.
Traci Stein is an author, wellness expert, and creator of audio self-hypnosis and meditation programs aimed at enhancing self-esteem and fostering self-compassion, breaking unhealthy habits, sleeping better, achieving a healthy weight, and other topics. Her work has been featured in O Magazine, Health, Shape.com, and Woman's Day. For additional information, visit DrTraciStein.com or look for her on iTunes and Amazon.
Craker, N. & March, E. (2016). The dark side of Facebook: The Dark Tetrad, negative social potency, and trolling behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 102, 79-84.
International Telecommunication Union (2015). The world in 2015. (Retrieved February 7, 2017 from) https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2015.pdf