Study: Internet Trolls are the "Prototypical Everyday Sadists"
June 21, 2014 12:32 AM
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 "
". 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
Dr. Delroy L. Paulhus
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 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
"the manipulative personality"
subclinical or ‘normal’ narcissism
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.
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 --
the peer-reviewed psychology journal P
ersonality 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 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 (
(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,
, 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).
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.
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.
[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).
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.
[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
Dr. Peter K. Jonason
(was then at
New Mexico State University
Dr. David P. Schmitt
) shows that those with the Dark Triad of traits tend to be more likely to breed.
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.
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.
Personality and Individual Differences
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