Cyber Psychology Part II – Dealing With The Dark Minds of Internet Trolls

In a bid to develop tools to recognize and filter out trolling or other negative messages, research has been gradually developing strategies to detect and predict trolls, from use of poor punctuation and spelling to negative content.

Delving deeper, scientific research is providing a glimpse into the psyche of the elusive cyber beast known as the Internet troll, and importantly, identifying effective ways to deal with them.

Defining trolls and trolling

Trolling, in some countries, is considered criminal. In the UK for example, the equivalent of five trolls per day were convicted in 2014, 155 of them are even doing jail time for online trolling abuse. The UK law states that it is a crime to send an online message or other material that is:

grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character

Basically, trolling is where posts that are unpleasant, offensive or inappropriate are used to upset and provoke responses from other users, targeting a whole community, or focusing on a sole individual. This is closely related to and overlaps with cyberbullying, which more directly concerns generating negative attention towards their victims via shaming and intimidation.

While some may think that one man’s troll is another man’s freedom of expression on social media, there are real life problems for victims of trolls. There are many online accounts of the disruption of online weddings and other events, to the disruption of both online and offline lives.

Finding #1: Trolls have dark online personalities

A study published in Personality and Individual Differences compared the personality profiles of 1,215 test subjects with surveys assessing their internet commenting styles. They found evidence linking trolls with the “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism.

Dark Tetrad scores, commenting frequency and degree of trolling enjoyment were highest among people with the strongest troll identities. Sadism, i.e. a sense of gratification obtained from the infliction of physical or mental pain on others, was found to have the most robust associations with trolling.

How to deal with a troll lesson #1: It’s not unusual to see messages on social platforms like “don’t feed the troll.” In relation to sadistic personalities, this simple advice makes a whole lot of sense. Seeing that their comment has gotten a response simply validates that they are getting a rise out of someone and may feed their sadistic self-gratification.

How to deal with a troll lesson #2: An inherent part of many dark personality profiles is narcissistic attention seeking, which is certainly true for trolls. Interestingly, research has found that viewing online trolls as seeking conflict or attention was associated with a decrease in individuals’ negative affect around previous trolling incidents. Simply by adopting the perception that trolls are attention seekers was more protective against the negative emotions induced by trolling than other strategies, such as considering them as having low self-confidence, or being vicious, uneducated, or trolling for amusement.

Finding #2: Some online trolls may not be offline trolls

The results of the previously mentioned study promoted authors to suggest that:

…the associations between sadism and GAIT (Global Assessment of Internet Trolling) scores were so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists.

Trolls have been pegged as sadists through and through. However, research by PhD student Andrew Devin indicates that this might not always be the case. Around 22% of trolls in a study of 408 participants had a 42% average increase in psychopathy online than offline (psycopathy being antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and dis-inhibited or bold behavior).

This 22% subset of trolls, despite their offline personality being indicative of more reputable offline behavior, they still had tendencies towards online misconduct (from trolling to fraud and vandalism). The internet let their inner troll run free. Various studies suggest that:

…the higher average scores of psychopathy online may be reflective of the cumulative effort of anonymity, normlessness, lack of non – verbal cues, and asynchronicity on the internet to create further psychological distance between internet users and foster reduced empathy and amoral decision making.

That being said, results from the vast majority of trolls are indicative of psycopathy both online and offline.

This (hopefully) makes sense in conjunction with other data, such as US-based statistics from YouGov, where 25% of survey respondents admitted to having trolled in the past. Surely a whole quarter of the US don’t have sadistically dark personalities both offline AND online!?

How to deal with a troll lesson #3: Trolls who have more pleasant offline personalities should theoretically have the capacity to improve their empathetic responses online. This is presumably because their psychopathy is heavily influenced by cyberspace characteristics that are permitting a more dark e-personality than their offline personality. The authors suggest developing strategies that foster empathy and emphasize the humanity of online users, while also emphasizing the realness of cyberspace and the existence of the real people with real feelings behind the user names.

Stay tuned for the next article in this Internet Psychology blog series that reveals how to use Internet psychology research to target or indeed become a key influencer…


Aboujaoude, E. (2012). Virtually you: The dangerous powers of the e-personality. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Buckels, E., Trapnell, P., & Paulhus, D. (2014). Trolls just want to have fun Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 97-102 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.016

Maltby, J., Day, L., Hatcher, R., Tazzyman, S., Flowe, H., Palmer, E., Frosch, C., O’Reilly, M., Jones, C., Buckley, C., Knieps, M., & Cutts, K. (2015). Implicit theories of online trolling: Evidence that attention-seeking conceptions are associated with increased psychological resilience British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12154

Nevin, A.d. (2015). Cyber-Psychopathy: Examining the Relationship between Dark E-Personality and Online Misconduct. Online thesis accessed 9 May 2016.

Image via StartupStockPhotos/Pixabay.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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