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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 was 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 kind 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?


  • Buckels, E. E., Trapnell, P. D., Andjelovic, T., & Paulhus, D. L. (2019). Internet trolling and everyday sadism: Parallel effects on pain perception and moral judgment. Journal of personality, 87(2), 328-340.
  • Buckels, E. E., Trapnell, P. D., & Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Trolls just want to have fun. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 97-102.
  • Coles, B. A., & West, M. (2016). Trolling the trolls: Online forum users constructions of the nature and properties of trolling. Computers in Human Behavior, 60, 233-244.
  • Cook, C., Schaafsma, J., & Antheunis, M. (2018). Under the bridge: An in-depth examination of online trolling in the gaming context. New Media & Society, 20(9), 3323-3340.
  • Craker, N., & March, E. (2016). The dark side of Facebook®: The Dark Tetrad, negative social potency, and trolling behaviours. Personality and Individual Differences, 102, 79-84.
  • Lopes, B., & Yu, H. (2017). Who do you troll and Why: An investigation into the relationship between the Dark Triad Personalities and online trolling behaviours towards popular and less popular Facebook profiles. Computers in Human Behavior, 77, 69-76.
  • March, E., Grieve, R., Marrington, J., & Jonason, P. K. (2017). Trolling on Tinder® (and other dating apps): Examining the role of the Dark Tetrad and impulsivity. Personality and Individual Differences, , 139-143.
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.

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

      1. Same with people who are right wingers and promote medical misinformation you cant argue with them because they refuse to see anything that contradicts their beliefs.

          1. It doesn’t take away from my frustration but i find wth certain types they feed of the positive and reactions of others and when you just don’t acknowledge it, it empowers you and shows them their opinion doesn’t matter. Or i question their logic and do a psychological analysis of their beliefs. Lol usually that ends the conversation

            1. Pretty much thats why i dont argue with trolls or ignorance and because I’m so direct most people wont trade words with me because arguing with a person who has a psychology degree. Is basically a losing battle

            2. How are things in BC and i rewrote the parts of my book that you mentioned needed tough ups i took a peer support approach theme to it to try meet parents where they are and I’m making more therapeutic. I gotta say peer support school taught me a lot about how to approach people in a way that university didn’t cover

            3. That’s great!

              BC is doing really well. The spread of infection has slowed and public health officials have given the go-ahead for some things to open up again. I’ve been quite impressed with how the province has handled it.

  1. Wow. Very thought provoking for us, Ashley. We did not know what a “troll” was, though we’d heard the term.

    Pathology is probably a way to understand how the mind works, and the individual engaging in actions is the one who can actually try to tell us: i do this because i feel ___ (lonely, afraid, unsafe, sad, etc.). I want to feel __ (common humanity, safe, connected, better about myself, less worried, etc.).

    On the other hand, it seems easier to judge people when we label them: “troll,” “narcissist,” “dissociative,” “obsessive.” Two sides of the same coin: stigma/anti-stigma?

    We believe that every single person acts based on their needs. In that regard, we agree with Meg that even unskillful, even tragic, acts like these are technically well-intentioned.

    We are trying to remember that everyone is a person, not a label, and that there are ways people were “educated” (raised by caregivers, schooled, socialized by media, etc.). Everyone had a context that led them to this now. Trolling sounds like a tragic expression of unmet needs. We would offer skills, compassion empathy to trolls and the same to the people who feel suffering from trolls’ actions.

    Thank you

    1. In terms of labelling, if you administer a psychological test to people who engage in trolling behaviour, and those participants’ answers to the questions are consistent with the traits of psychopathy or sadism, sure, it’s a label, but is it any different from labelling someone as an introvert because their responses to a validated measure show high levels of introversion?

      And I complete agree that everyone has a context that leads them to where they are, but when it’s gotten to the point where they are acting out in the form of trolling, if they’re not asking for other people’s skills, who is it actually benefiting to offer them skills? And people may have unmet needs, but trolling is a voluntary act, not a coerced one or one that’s necessary to manoeuvre out of a challenging situation. And if an act is to be labeled well-intentioned, but the troll is going into situations intending to gain benefit for themselves at the expense of others, does that well-intentioned label really fit?

      1. We see no difference or distinction in your examples. Labels can help us try to understand via categorization. And they seem to then simultaneously obscure our individuality. And we feel like labels have the potential to perpetuate storytelling (ie inflexibility, rigidity). Example: we had not been driving much carpool for several years due to fear and stress, so we mentally assigned carpool tasks as something we cannot do and in our mind it became Spouse’s job. When we became skilled enough to contribute to some carpooling, we could not see it without T-1’s help because we had labeled ourselves “unable to drive carpool” and labeled it “Spouse’s job.” This might apply only to us. Other people might be more flexible. We are very much an “all-or-nothing” thinker. We are trying to be more flexible, to tell few stories.

        “when it’s gotten to the point where they are acting out in the form of trolling, if they’re not asking for other people’s skills, who is it actually benefiting to offer them skills?” We think everyone benefits because we believe the person with unmet needs wants those needs met. This is why they act. They don’t know how to express themselves in ways that get their true needs met.

        If they want to feel less alone or less afraid, for example, that is their actual motivation. Their self-reported purpose (to harm others) may be the only way they know how to express their intentions. Nonviolent Communication demonstrates how to help people meet their needs even when they aren’t fluent in, or even aware of, their needs. We are not skilled enough to do this. Not even with ourself yet. We will keep practicing. Thanks for listening to our ideas

  2. Yes, a few times. The worst was a very nasty man (and his creepy girlfriend) who used to be friends with me and some of the bloggers I know. We all grew tired of his aggressive comments and began to unlink him. This drove him nuts and he posted lies about us, created alternative identities to comment even worse stuff, etc. We blocked every IP he used and stopped replying to him at all in any way. Finally, he quit. You must deprive trolls of “oxygen” ~ talking to them or about them validates them.

  3. I find trolls funny in some circumstances, but in others I find them wholly inappropriate. Mental health/mental illness would be one of the latter for me.

    1. I think it also depends on who it’s directed at. When people post ridiculous things to get attention, that can be funny, and it’s a lot different if it involves attacking a specific person.

        1. Yes, I was going to say something just like this. Trolling is a spectrum as with a lot of things. There is more ‘harmless’ trolling which can be done, where somebody is just deliberately responding as if they misunderstood something, in order to provoke somebody else to reply to correct them.

          Sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference between ignorance and trolling, for example in comments on news articles such as on BBC News. Those articles are viewed and commented on by so many people, and I sometimes read the comments for entertainment, as they often get really absurd! 😆.

          1. Oh yes, so I can see why some people would troll for the thrill-seeking aspect, and given the wide range of types of trolling, I can really see being a good person being compatible with doing some trolling, and therefore that there’s potential for some trolls to be able to discuss it productively.

            But the further you go toward the severe end of the scale, of course you’d expect those to be more sadist/psychopathic.

  4. I thought it was more innocent than that but now I wonder ‘who AM I watching?’ or reading? On the other hand I applaud the internet to bring things like this more into the open. I mean, I would rather watch and learn on the internet than to meet them IRL. All those things and people are human, from the ‘best’ to the ‘worst’.

  5. I was. curious about what you’d have to say about this. And my guess is that among the people who aren’t scoring high on sadism or psychopathy, that disconnection plays a significant role. The idea of causing harm to a real individual vs. a vague person out there somewhere on the internet can be very far apart.

  6. I wrote a comment, but the internet ate it! I think there is probably a difference between the type of sadist who e.g. posts racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. comments or who defaces a memorial post for someone who died and on the other hand people who get really carried away in online debates (particularly, but not exclusively, about politics or religion) and start becoming rude and insulting. The latter probably don’t want to cause pain per se, they just don’t think about what they’re doing.

  7. Sadly my trans son Archie has been victimized by trolling on social media. He does pretty well with it. He reports and blocks them. Thankfully I haven’t experienced it.

    1. It must be so hard for “kids these days” (yup, I’m that old person who says that) to navigate the world of social media, especially if there’s even the smallest thing that singles them out as “different.”

  8. Wow. Sadism and psychopathy as connections to trolling. I mean it makes sense, but I had never thought of it specifically.

    Fear of trolling is always in the back of my mind… I’ve been spared so far. I think people in the body positivity, fat acceptance, and health at every size spaces probably get targeted a lot. 🙁

    1. The phrase ‘OK boomer’ is being thrown around a lot in comment sections, and I’d count that as trolling.

      Actually, I’m starting to think that your article could do with a definition of trolling, because where does it differ from bullying?

      The top answer on this Quora question has some relevant thoughts:

      There’s a level of bullying/trolling which is seen as acceptable amongst certain age groups. I think the more well-versed an age group is with trolling, the more of a basic level of it is accepted, because it’s understood most people won’t be negatively affected by that base level, as they understand the ‘joke’. ‘Ok boomer’ seems to be accepted to a disconcerting level. It’s such a horrendous phrase, there’s such a vacuum of empathy behind it!

      1. Sorry, you did have a definition!

        Although defining the differences between bullying and trolling is an interesting topic of discussion in itself! It does seem that bullying would be a subset of trolling.

      2. There’s often a blurring in casual usage of the terms, but there are actually a couple of key differences. Bullying is directed at the same person repeatedly over time, and it’s intended to cause harm. While an individual may engage in trolling behaviour repeatedly, it’s not focused on a specific victim, and the intent is to inflame rather than cause the level of harm intended with bullying.

        Trolling only “works” if the troll’s comments actually produce the intended inflammatory effect. If no one reacts to it, it doesn’t go anywhere.

  9. That’s so interesting! I’ve heard the words “troll” or “trolling” across the internet, but never paid that much attention (dubbing myself to “old” to understand).

    I feel bad for younger people who get hurt by this.

  10. I see this a lot on Reddit and I want to encourage those who rise to the bait of a troller to let it go because that’s what they want. Misery loves company is the way I see it.

  11. 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 🙂

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