Traits of a Troll: Research Reveals Motives of Internet Trolling

Summary: Individuals with dark triad personality traits, including narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, combined with feeling schadenfreude, taking pleasure from the misfortune of others, are more likely to indulge in internet trolling.

Source: Brigham Young University

As social media and other online networking sites have grown in usage, so too has trolling – an internet practice in which users intentionally seek to draw others into pointless and, at times, uncivil conversations.

New research from Brigham Young University recently published in the journal of Social Media and Society sheds light on the motives and personality characteristics of internet trolls.

Through an online survey completed by over 400 Reddit users, the study found that individuals with dark triad personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) combined with schadenfreude – a German word meaning that one derives pleasure from another’s misfortune – were more likely to demonstrate trolling behaviors.

“People who exhibit those traits known as the dark triad are more likely to demonstrate trolling behaviors if they derive enjoyment from passively observing others suffer,” said Dr. Pamela Brubaker, BYU public relations professor and co-author of the study. “They engage in trolling at the expense of others.”

The research, which was co-authored by BYU communications professor Dr. Scott Church and former BYU graduate Daniel Montez, found that individuals who experienced pleasure from the failures or shortcomings of others considered trolling to be acceptable online behavior. Women who participated in the survey viewed trolling as dysfunctional while men were more likely to view it as functional.

“This behavior may happen because it feels appropriate to the medium,” said Church. “So, heavy users of the platform may feel like any and all trolling is ‘functional’ simply because it’s what people do when they go on Reddit.”

The researchers say it’s important to note that those who possess schadenfreude often consider trolling to be a form of communication that enriches rather than impedes online deliberation. Because of this view, they’re not concerned with how their words or actions affect those on the other side of the screen. To them, trolling isn’t perceived as destructive but merely as a means for dialogue to take place.

This shows a man laughing at a computer screen
While trolling will continue to exist online, researchers say there’s still hope for productive online conversations. They recommend approaching online discourses with an open mind. Credit: BYU

“They are more concerned with enhancing their own online experience rather than creating a positive online experience for people who do not receive the same type of enjoyment or pleasure from such provocative discussions,” said Brubaker.

However, there’s still hope for productive online discussions. The study found no correlation between being outspoken online and trolling behavior. The findings noted that users who actively “speak out” and voice their opinions online didn’t necessarily engage in trolling behaviors. Such results are encouraging and suggest that civil online discourse is attainable.

“Remember who you are when you go online,” said Church. “It helps when we think of others online as humans, people with families and friends like you and me, people who feel deeply and sometimes suffer. When we forget their identities as actual people, seeing them instead as merely usernames or avatars, it becomes easier to engage in trolling.”

Credit: BYU

Brubaker suggests approaching online discourses with an open mind in order to understand various perspectives.

“Digital media gives us the power to connect with people who have similar and different ideas, interests, and experiences from our own. As we connect with people online, we should strive to be more respectful of others and other points of view, even when another person’s perspective may not align with our own,” she said.

“Each of us has the power to be an influence for good online. We can do this by exercising mutual respect. We can build others up and applaud the good online.”

About this personality traits research news

Source: Brigham Young University
Contact: Tyler Stahle – Brigham Young University
Image: The image is credited to BYU

Original Research: Closed access.
The Power of Schadenfreude: Predicting Behaviors and Perceptions of Trolling Among Reddit Users” by Pamela Brubaker et al. Social Media and Society


The Power of Schadenfreude: Predicting Behaviors and Perceptions of Trolling Among Reddit Users

Trolling is an uncivil behavior that is increasingly prevalent in online social interactions. This study sought to understand trolling by examining the psychological predictors that motivate trolling behaviors, as well as perceptions of trolling among 438 Reddit users.

A path analysis indicated the motivation of schadenfreude mediates the relationship between personality traits (i.e., the dark triad) and trolling. Outspokenness neither directly nor indirectly predicted trolling.

Results also showed that Reddit users motivated by schadenfreude and users who exhibit trolling behaviors view trolling as not being a dysfunctional or undesirable response to online discourse. In addition, those with schadenfreude considered the practice of trolling to be functional/comprehensible.

Those who merely observe trolling on Reddit did not consider trolling to be a functional part of online discourse.

Age, time spent on Reddit, and the dark triad did not predict functional or dysfunctional perceptions of trolling, but gender played a role.

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