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Results suggests trolls aren't seeking praise or wanting to manipulate; other studies indicate they may breed more

While it's important to preface what is to follow with a reminder that correlation doth not causation make, a new study has found seemingly clear ties between internet trolling and a person's likelihood of being predisposed to the "Dark Tetrad".  But more interestingly it finds that only one particular negative personality trait is stroked by trollish behavior -- and its findings suggest trolls may be breeding.

I. Wait, What's a "Dark Tetrad"?

Psychologists have long sought to quantify what personality traits make a person unlikeable and viewed by their peers as a "bad person".  

Perhaps the best-accepted term to describes these traits originates in a 2002 paper by graduate researcher Kevin M. Williams, and Dr. Delroy L. Paulhus of the Univ. of British Columbia.  Published in the J. Research on Personality, the paper identifies what it calls the "Dark Triad" of traits.  These personality variables -- commonly considered undesirable -- include Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism, and subclinical psychopathy.
The dark triad
The paper's critical finding was that the "Dark Triad" of personality traits were often correlated, or in other words someone who was narcissistic would be more likely to be psychopathic, and so on, statistically speaking.

The "subclinical" tag attached to some of these symptoms means that they are not directly indicative of an underlying disease.  Unlike more serious symptoms of clinical psychopathy and/or narcissism, which can be used to form a diagonosis, some would argue that these symptoms may simply be a person's natural personality and not symptomatic of a true mental illness.

What do these personality variables mean?  Here's a brief definition from Dr. Paulhus's original work
  • Machiavellianism:
    • "the manipulative personality"
    • cold
    • manipulative
  • subclinical or ‘normal’ narcissism
    • grandiosity
    • entitlement
    • dominance
    • superiority
  • subclinical psychopathy
    • high impulsivity
    • thrill-seeking
    • low empathy
    • anxiety
    • anti-social behavior
Since the 2002 paper by Dr. Paulhus, the buzzword "Dark Triad" has been embraced as research shorthand for these undesirable personality variables.  Dr. Natalène Séjourné, a psychology professor and researcher at the Université de Toulouse (University of Toulouse), France in a 2009 paper suggested the sadism be added to the so-called "Dark Triad".  She and her colleagues wrote:

As in the studies by Paulhus and Williams’ study (2002) and Vaughn et al. (2008), psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian traits were moderately correlated. Furthermore, they correlated moderately with sadistic traits in our study. This suggests that all four of these constructs are overlapping but distinct. We propose calling the association of psychopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian and sadistic traits the ‘Dark Tetrad’ of personality traits.

50 shades handcuffed
Recent work ties sadism to the Dark Triad. [Image Source: After-Set]

The term "Dark Tetrad" has also gained growing acceptance as subclinical sadism has been confirmed to be correlated to the members of the Dark Triad.

II. Send in the Trolls

The new work -- published in the peer-reviewed psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences -- examines how so-called internet "trolls" -- as well as other internet denizens -- rank when it comes to the Dark Tetrad.

Dr. Paulhus is the paper's senior author, while Erin E. Buckels -- a graduate researcher at the University of Manitoba -- gets the first author credit.  Also on the paper is Dr. Paul Trapnell, a personality researcher at the University of Winnipeg (Winnipeg is the capital of Manitoba, Canada).

Professor Del Roy, et al.
Professor Delroy Paulhus (right, front) is seen here with his lab in 2009.

The authors first surveyed 418 people (42 percent female) via an online survey target only U.S. users.  The survey participants were paid 50 cents via Amazon.com, Inc.'s (AMZN) Mechanical Turk (MTurk) service, which matches up people willing to answer surveys for pay to those looking to ask questions.  The first survey gave people a basic personality test to determine whether they showed strong signs of any of the Dark Tetrad traits, then they were asked to pick their favorite activity on sites from: non-commenter, chatting, debating, trolling, making friends/other.

Using the first personality test, the study looked at correlation among various preferred activities and the four traits of the Dark Tetrad, dividing subclinical sadism into two categories -- "vicarious sadism" (those who enjoy observing others suffer or experience discomfort at the hands of others) and "direct sadism" (those who looks to personally make others suffer or experience discomfort).

Mechanical Turk
Both surveys use Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

A second survey used 609 American participants via MTurk and 188 Canadian psychology student.  One key difference in the second study was that it differentiated direct sadism into two categories -- verbal and physical.  The study also allowed users to rank how much they like each of the aforementioned activities (e.g. lurking on a site without commenting, chatting, etc.) versus the first study which only allowed a single "favorite" response.

III. What a Troll Wants, What a Troll Needs

Unsurprisingly, both studies found that older users spent less time commenting on the internet, generally than young folks.  Men spent, on average 52 minutes a day commenting on the internet, while women spent only 29 minutes a day commenting, on average.

One good piece of news is that the study suggests trolls are in the minority on the internet, as noisy as they are.  In the first study, only about 1 in 20 individuals (5.6 percent) identified trolling others as their preferred internet activitity.  The most popular active activities were debating issues (23.8 percent) and chatting with other users (21.3 percent) -- each of which appealed most to roughly 1 in 5 users.  And of course the very most popular activity of all was passive -- internet lurking.  Roughly 2 in 5 users (41.3 percent) reported not commenting on internet articles and forums.

Trolling v. Dark Tetrad
Trolls show the highest rates of sadism, much higher than those who prefer other activities. [Image Source: Personality and Individual Differences]

Generally non-commenters and those who used the net for "other" reasons (e.g. friendship) had the lowest rates of negative personality traits, but they were more predisposed to narcissism.

The most common personality flaw among the chatty Cathys (those who preferred chatting) was vicarious sadism, but perhaps predictably those who debate issues saw much higher scores for most of the personality flaws.  While their vicarious sadism correlation was roughly the same as the chatters, their most common Dark Tetrad trait was Machiavellianism.  Both groups saw relatively low rates of narcissism.

When it comes to narcissism of commenters versus non-commenters, non-commenters with a correlation to at least one Dark Tetrad trait were more likely to be narcissitic than the chatters/debaters with at least one of the negative traits.  However, when you include those with no correlation to any of the Dark Tetrad traits, you see more narcissistic chatters/debaters than lurkers.  So you could make a compelling argument that either group is the bigger egotist.

Troll Doll
[Image Source: Word of the Nerd]

Turning finally to the trolls, they were by far the most out of control, showing dramatically higher rates of sadism and the rest of the Dark Tetrad (even narcissism).  Interestingly, they narrowly preferred watching others flame each other (vicarious sadism) than engaging in flaming themself (direct sadism).  In other words, trolls love to see trolling even more than they like to do it themselves (although they also like to do it themselves).

IV. Pleasure-Seeking Sadists

The second study found some additional information via first looking at the user's ranking of how they felt about trolling and then comparing this with survey quesitions which would seemingly identify a troll -- a so-called Global Assessment of Internet Trolling (GAIT).

Most internet narcisissist are actually non-trolls.  Of all the Dark Tetrad, it was the weakest correlated (-0.09 w/ those who like trolling on the enjoying rating scale; 0.18 w/ GAIT).  By contrast, subclinical sadism (0.52 w/ enjoying rating 0.68 w/ GAIT) followed by psychopathy (0.38 w/ enjoying rating, but 0.55 w/ GAIT) were the strongest correlations.  The correlation between Machavellianism and trolling was also rather weak (0.37 w/ enjoying rating; 0.34  w/ GAIT).
Troll typing

Perhaps most interestingly the enjoyment ratings showed that those who enjoy trolling somewhat, but also enjoy other activities (e.g. chatting or debating) were skewing those groups to appear more strongly correlated to the Dark Tetrad than they really were.  And when it came to the Dark Tetrad the correlation to other personality flaws -- psychopathy, Machavellianism, and narcissism -- appeared to be driven by the fact that people with sadism tend to be some of those other things.  However, analysis indicated that trolling only appeared to be an enjoyable outlet for one Dark Tetrad trait -- sadism.

It seemed that trolls most enjoyed direct physical sadism, followed by direct verbal sadism.  Performing other forms of analysis, researchers concluded that those who identify as trolls appear to do so largely because it offers them a pleasurable outlet for the sadistic side -- a premise that led to the paper's title -- "Trolls Just Want to Have Fun".

The authors write:

In fact, the associations between sadism and GAIT scores were so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists.... Our research suggests that, for those with sadistic personalities, that ideal self may be a villain of chaos and mayhem – the online Trickster we fear, envy, and love to hate: the cyber-troll.

They add that when you remove those who enjoy a mix of trolling and other activities, virtually none of the people involved in other activities were inclined to sadism.  In other words, the study indicates that if you're a troll you're probably a mild sadist (at least) and if you're a mild sadist (at least) you'd probably become a troll, if given the opportunity.

The Sadist
[Image Source: VHS Movies]

On the other hand, the studies indicate that while those enjoy trolling tend to be predisposed to manipulative behavior (Machavellianism) and subclinical psychopathy, they don't really enjoy doing those things when trolling.  Trolls appear disinterested in manipulating their marks (Machavellianism), winning their adoration (narcissism), or creating chaos for chaos's sake (psychopathy).  They troll to express one Dark Tetrad trait and one alone -- sadism, the desire to hurt others and/or make them uncomfortable.

V. Other Studies, Combined With This Work Suggest Trolls May be Breeding at an Alarming Rate

The paper said that one major question left unresolved was whether the internet was making people score higher on the Dark Tetrad (and hence more anti-social) or whether it was simply letting people be themselves -- including those inclined to sadism (the trolls) or other forms of antisocial behavior.

The good news if you're a troll, and the bad news for the generally internet audience who suffers their presence is that it turns out the Dark Tetrad isn't wholly negative.  Other studies -- including a 2009 study by Dr. Peter K. Jonason (was then at New Mexico State University) and Dr. David P. Schmitt (Bradley University) shows that those with the Dark Triad of traits tend to be more likely to breed.  

A 2006 analysis by Victor Nell suggested similar advantages might be confered upon the sadist, writing:

Cruelty has fitness beneits in solving problems of survival and reproduction in forager, pastoral, and urban societies.

Troll baby
Trolls' sadistic cruelty may be genetics: studies suggest cruelty and sadism improve reproduction chances. And that means more baby trolls. [Image Source: NeithTK/DeviantArt]

In other words, trolls will survive, as long as they know how to troll that's how they will survive, and they got all their life to live, and all their love to give (and will likely get more opportunities to give it).

While they may be less likely to be able to form stable relationships, trolls' potential advantage in achieving temporary, permiscuous one night stands leads to a startling potential conclusion -- the trolls are breeding, and may be favored over non-trolls by natural selection.

Source: Personality and Individual Differences



Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By inperfectdarkness on 6/22/2014 9:23:42 AM , Rating: 2
True. For me, the most obvious delineation has to do with ad hominem attacks. If a poster is presenting his/her opinions/views and challenges the existing/prevailing/status quo--that's not trolling.

On the other hand, if a poster uses the Ron White defense ("Oh yeah? Well F-You!")--then we're talking about trolling.

My online experience has been that a LARGE percentage of those I interact with online (read: English speaking Americans)--have difficulty with having their norms challenged--no matter how correct or factual the challenge may be. Ad Hominem attacks are a natural response mechanism for Troglodytes of all walks of life--having no other rebuttal to fall back on.

Additionally, the public at large LOVES dirty laundry (Don Henley wrote a fantastic song about it--with the same title). Celebrity gossip--for example--is a huge part of American culture, with numerous magazines, TV shows, websites, etc--all dedicated to it. Something in the minds of lower-echelon people tends to rejoice a bit when the well-to-do are cut down a few pegs. This same psychological mechanism is--I assert--present in internet trolls as well. So in that vein, the article is quite correct that sadism is an ever-present facet of the human condition.

P.S.
This is all the more ironic due to westernized culture being very altruistic in many regards. The dichotomy between that philosophy and behavior manifested are sometimes drastically different.

I myself prefer Objectivism over either of the aforementioned two; a healthy middle-ground between them. Of course, that doesn't keep BOTH sides from ridiculing me for it....


By Spuke on 6/23/2014 12:11:44 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
My online experience has been that a LARGE percentage of those I interact with online (read: English speaking Americans)
How do you know the people you are talking to are Americans?


By Solandri on 6/23/2014 1:19:43 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
True. For me, the most obvious delineation has to do with ad hominem attacks. If a poster is presenting his/her opinions/views and challenges the existing/prevailing/status quo--that's not trolling.

I disagree. Ad hominem attacks have more to do with politeness and temper, than trolling. While they're frequently used by trolls, they're not necessary. I've run across polite trolls. Ad hominems are also frequently used by people who aren't trolling but just get emotionally involved in a debate

If I were to define a troll, I'd say it's someone who posts something with the intent to elicit an emotional response from the reader(s). That is, the troll's intent is not to debate something or to make a point. It's to generate a response from others. It's that community response that gives them a sense of empowerment and triggers the satisfaction/pleasure center of their brain. The more people who respond and the more vociferously they respond, the more pleasure the troll gets. Ad hominmens are one way to elicit that response, but not the only way.

In that respect, I don't really consider Tony Swash a troll (for the most part). He's a fanboy - blindly obsessed with Apple, but he mostly just defends them and repeats puff-pieces about them. Only occasionally does he post stuff deliberately intended to rile up people who don't worship Apple.

Another way to think of it is that since the troll craves the community response, ignoring them is poison to them. It deprives them of the satisfaction they crave, they lose interest, and go elsewhere. If everyone ignored Tony, I'm pretty sure he'd still support Apple and post comments saying as much. That makes him not-a-troll in my book. A real troll is opportunistic, and would have no problem posting pro-Apple comments on Android forums, and pro-Android comments on Apple forums.


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