Finally, psychological insight into something we’ve long suspected! Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell and Delroy Paulhus surveyed almost 800 people, collecting measures of trolling behavior and psychological make-up. tl;dr = trolls are sadists and do it for the lulz.
The survey asked people how much they enjoyed debating, chatting, and trolling in online communities. It also collected measures of “Dark Tetrad” personality variables – narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and both vicarious and direct sadism.
Both sadism and Machiavellianism were predictors of how much someone enjoyed trolling. Narcissism was negatively associated with enjoying trolling (the narcissists seemed to enjoy debating more) and psychopathy was unrelated to trolling enjoyment.
Sadists troll because they enjoy it. As the authors mention,
Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!
I wonder too whether the negative correlation with narcissism tells us something useful. Perhaps trolls aren’t showing off (narcissistic behavior) but instead are simply entertaining themselves. Trolls don’t necessarily feel the need to boast about their conquests or gain troll points in some perverse ranking system. This suggests that requiring real usernames or at least persistent pseudonyms isn’t going to stop trolling behavior. YouTube’s recent reworking of their comments section proved that; trolls continued to be trolls despite the lack of anonymity.
Instead, as the Anonymity pattern suggests, if you want to limit the effect of trolls you need clearly established rules and an environment that makes it harder for people to feel disinhibited. And the biggest takeaway is that if there’s no fun to be had in your online community, the trolls will most likely go somewhere else. So, the old advice is still the best: don’t feed the trolls.