This is why trolls act the way they do

"Trolls are narcissists, psychopaths and above all, Machiavellian."

"Trolls are narcissists, psychopaths and above all, Machiavellian."

If you're reading this, then you're online and if you're online you've probably had an experience with a troll. Like Kenny G and brown lip-liner, trolls were one of the worst things to have come out of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But unlike the smooth jazz saxophonist and brick coloured lips, trolls refuse to die.

The universal law regarding these monstrous pests of the internet is - sing it with me - do not feed them. For several sound reasons, but largely because, you'll only incite further trolling. You don't want to sink to their level. If you watch two people have a fight from a distance, you can't tell which one is right. They’ll make you look bad. It's a waste of energy! You'll only get hurt. That last one is particularly valid if you happen to be female, as we tend to be subjected to systematic, violent harassment, rape and death threats more often than your average bloke.

But now there's a new reason not to feed them, and for once, it's not about us. According to two studies of over 1200 online users undertaken earlier this month, trolls are narcissists, psychopaths and above all, Machiavellian.

'Yeah, we kind of figured' said the rest of the internet.

To quote writer Matt Saccaro,'Internet comments sections are the modern-day equivalent to medieval lagoons of excrement that formed when chamber pots were emptied out into the streets.'

It might seem like a particularly graphic metaphor -- to compare comment sections to raw, flowing sewerage. But according to the researchers of both studies, these traits, (narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism) are about as repellent as it gets. There's even an umbrella term for them: the Dark Tetrad of Personality, which sounds like a demon city in World of Warcraft but is in fact at the core of the personality which derives joy from inflicting pain on others. Yah, just your garden variety sadist. No, seriously, it’s actually classified by psychologists as Everyday Sadism.

According to the researchers of the studies, "Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behaviour.”

But, hold onto your online devices, because it gets worse.

"Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” is how they described their findings. “Sadists just want to have fun ... and the Internet is their playground!"

So, if you've been the victim of trolling and you're tempted to engage, I'd like to share with you a few bullet points.


1. The troll may not realise they're a troll. This is because they are apt to see themselves as fighting for their rights! Hence the drive to cause misery, and bring you on down to their level. However, a person who trolls without conscious malicious intent but who, because they are trapped in a prison of their own ignorance, still uses abusive or denigrating language is not debating, or ‘just disagreeing’ with you; they’re trolling. Which leads us to point 2.

2. As painful as it might be to learn this, most of us, at some time or another have trolled. “More often than not, mean things get said or written by people who have strong beliefs that they think represent the truth," is how Dr Simon Rego, Director of Psychology Training at Montefiore Medical Centre explained it to Gizmodo .

 "I'd bet the people you call ‘trolls' would have good intentions, and see themselves as good people who are simply trying to help the world see things the "correct" (i.e., their) way. I would also bet that they think that other people are the ones being trolls."

3. However! If such a person has the intention of causing harm or humiliation they may be, as previously, mentally ill. Not just 'sick of this drivel', not just trying to 'stand up against the misandrists' - mentally ill. This means they likely have suffered terribly in the past, and in particular, during early childhood. This is why they feel so powerless and angry.

4. According to the research, they're more likely to be male than female. Hey, I don't make the rules for sadists. But it does explain to some degree why women are so aggressively trolled. And by ‘trolled’ I mean, you know, threatened with sexual violence, and death.

So if you don’t possess the fortitude of Professor Mary Beard, whom The New Yorker crowned 'The Troll Slayer’, because she regularly engages with, and has even befriended, some of her abusive detractors, don’t feel discouraged. Because, by not engaging, you not only cut off the toxic thrill the troll is getting by upsetting you, you're also allowing them to sit in their own juices, which may, if a troll is ready, produce some introspection.
But even if it doesn’t, the latest studies should at least reaffirm what you already know: trolling is not about the topic, (although it might trigger a latent feeling of anger in the mentally ill person). Trolling is not about you, (remember that when you’re tempted to switch on your inner goblin). Trolling is always and forever shall be about one thing: the troll.