What Is… The Psychology of Internet Trolling

The psychology of internet trolling: motivations, goals, personality traits

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is online trolling.

Of course, we all know what trolling is, and most of us have experienced it. But what underlies it from a psychological perspective?

A paper by Coles and West described trolling as “a specific type of malicious online behaviour, intended to aggravate, annoy or otherwise disrupt online interactions and communication.” The anonymity of the online world facilitates disinhibition, which can lead to deindividuation and behaviours that go against social norms.

Motivations for trolling

A study by Cook and colleagues interviewed people who’d engaged in video game trolling. They identified three broad types of triggers for trolling behaviour: social, internal, and circumstantial. Social triggers were most common, and experiencing trolling themselves was the biggest trigger. Negative mood and boredom were identified as internal triggers, and a small number of participants reported other triggers related to circumstances.

In the same study, the main goal identified was personal enjoyment. Revenge and thrill-seeking were also reported as goals of troll behaviour.

Associated personality traits

A 2014 study by Buckels and colleagues surveyed Americans recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing site. Sadism was the personality trait that had the strongest correlation with trolling. The so-called dark tetrad of sadism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy was also associated with trolling. The most common reason given for troll behaviour was enjoyment, and this was significantly correlated with sadism.

In a 2019 study by Buckels and colleagues, both sadism and trolling had an inverse relationship with enjoyment and perceived pain experienced by others. Higher enjoyment was associated with lower perceived pain, and the researchers suggested that pain was underestimated as a result of the enjoyment, perhaps in order to allay any guilt. The enjoyment was also linked to a decreased sense of culpability for the harm done. This kind of rationalization allows trolls to inflict harm while still maintaining a positive self-image.

A study by Lopes and Yu found that psychopathy was associated with trolling, and that was most likely to be directed at individuals who were perceived as popular rather than unpopular. While narcissists perceive themselves as superior to others, narcissism was not associated with increased troll behaviour in their study.

Craker and March also found that sadism and psychopathy were linked to trolling, but they observed that what was particularly important was negative social potency, meaning people “are likely to be intrinsically motivated by obtaining negative power and influence over other people as a social reward.”

March and colleagues looked at troll behaviour on Tinder, and they found that impulsivity was also a factor in trolling among people with medium to high levels of psychopathy.

So, unsurprisingly, the kinds of people who engage in troll behaviour are likely to have fairly unsavoury personalities, although this is by no means always the case. For me what really stands out from all of this is that trying to reason with a troll is very unlikely to be a productive endeavour.

Trolling and stigma

In the mental illness community on Twitter, I come across some stigma-related trollish behaviour, and I wonder if standing up for the anti-stigma cause in that context is just a waste of figurative breath in that context. I haven’t had any outright trolls stop by my blog. I refuse to engage in any back-and-forth with any trollish types, so there’s really nowhere for it to go.

Is trolling something that you’ve experienced personally? How have you handled it?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

52 thoughts on “What Is… The Psychology of Internet Trolling”

  1. Fortunately and so far, I haven’t had any experiences with trolls 🙂 But I can image the type of people who troll; they’re not happy and they don’t want you or me to be happy 🙂

Leave a Reply