Troll smashes mobile phone with a hammer - illustration

The psychology of trolling: what sort of person becomes a troll, and why?

Is the so-called ‘Dark Triad’ key to understanding trolls? Here, psychologists reveal everything you need to know.

Updated on 17 August: Netflix’s Selling Sunset is impossibly easy viewing, thanks to its bingeable buffet of property porn, sun-soaked panoramas of the Los Angeles skyline, and soap opera-esque drama.

It seems that the TV show, though, has its dark side. And, sadly, this darkness swirls around its most avid fans.

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First, some context. In the concluding episodes of Selling Sunset’s third season, real estate broker Chrishell Stause is left “blindsided” when her husband, This Is Us’ Justin Hartley, leaves her apparently out of the blue and tells her he’s filed for divorce over text.

“I found out because he texted me that we were filed. Forty-five minutes later, the world knew,” she explained tearfully.

While Stause’s colleagues at the Oppenheim Group were largely supportive, Davina Potratz was shown saying that there are “two sides” to every story – and even engaged in a heated debate with Stause at Christine Quinn’s wedding, prompting her colleague to leave the event early.

Viewers were furious with Potratz for what they have described as “bullying” behaviour. However, while people are absolutely entitled to their own opinions, Potratz has since confirmed that she’s been subjected to scores of sick messages on Twitter following the release of season three.

“I got death threats,” she told Metro. “I don’t take it personally at all, but it is disheartening to see people are in such a dark place with themselves to send that to anyone. Clearly they’ve never met me, they don’t know me.”

Selling Sunset: Heather Rae Young, Mary Fitzgerald
Selling Sunset: Davina Portratz has been subjected to death threats on social media.

Jason Oppenheim, meanwhile, told the publication that the comments have left him concerned for his employee.

“It’s concerning there are people out there who hide behind that social media anonymity,” he said.

“I don’t think these people recognise, or even care, how they’re affecting people.”

And Strause, too, has posted a tweet calling for the online bullying to stop.

“I SO appreciate all the love you guys have given for #SellingSunset. Wow! That being said, some of you are attacking a certain person in defending me,” she wrote, without naming any names. 

“I appreciate the sentiment because certain things made me mad too. But I hate feeling like someone is getting bullied. [And I want] to help empower women and, if my tweet has any say at all, I just hope you can keep the passion but [lose] the vitriol.”

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Of course, Potratz is far from the only person to attract such spiteful messages on Twitter. And, sadly, we doubt she will be the last.

If you’ve ever used social media, chances are you’ve dealt with a troll. If you haven’t, you will. To be honest, with the likes of Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins continuing to prove such prominent voices in the media, everyone has witnessed trolling in some form or another.

As a digital writer, I’ve met more than my fair share of trolls. Sure, people get in touch to compliment my writing, but I’ve had people hurl insults at me on Twitter and post cruel comments underneath my Instagram posts (thank god for the ‘block’ function, eh?). Worst of all, though, is that I’ve had some send me direct messages which feel vicious at best, threatening at worst.

The internet should be a place for people to share ideas and communicate with one another. Trolls, however, have created a climate that causes more pain, and makes it unsafe to lead with vulnerability or stand out. And, in our fake news era, the issue is only growing in prominence: just look at the racism that’s stemmed from the coronavirus, if you need an example.

As reported on 13 February: keen to find out more about this digital pandemic, I decided to reach out to psychologists with the aim of building a better picture of a troll in my mind. I want to find out what sort of person takes it upon themselves to bully and berate others online? What happens inside their brains when they fire off an offensive or inflammatory comment? And, above all else, what’s the best way to respond to such people when you encounter them online?

Here’s what I found out…

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What is trolling?

We define trolling as deceptive and disruptive online behaviour, which typically involves posting inflammatory and malicious comments to deliberately provoke and upset people.

Are trolls born or made?

It depends who you ask: the nature versus nurture debate continues to rage on, and no doubt will forever. However, according to Sigmund Freud (oh he of Oedipal complex fame), the development of the unconscious personality during early childhood influences our behaviour for the rest of our lives.

Freud believes that the human develops, early in life, three aspects of their personality. These include the id, the ego and the superego (Seltzer 1995). The id is considered to be primitive, supplying unconscious drives for food and sex. The ego is formed as sort of a guide to remain aligned with societal norms. And, finally, the superego develops incorporating values and morals.

It makes sense, then, that some believe trolls to be overwhelmed by their id. However, Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari hypothesises that it’s not our ids that form who we become later in life: rather, it’s… yeah, our parents.

Laptop glowing in the dark

Citing the popular attachment theory, which emphasises the relationship with a main caregiver in the first year of life, Ben-Ari explains that there are three main attachment styles: secure, avoidant and anxious.

“Secure attachment is the optimal style, where the baby experiences a reliable, emotionally available caregiver,” she tells me. “The baby develops a sense of confidence that the ‘other’ will meet their needs, and that they are worthy of love. In other words they have a positive view on themselves and the other.”

However, there is a little-known fourth attachment style: disorganised. And it is this one which Ben-Ari believes could inspire bullying behaviour later in life.

“The disorganised style sees parents or caregivers become abusive and unpredictable towards their children,” says Ben-Ari. “I hypothesise that those people with low-self-esteem will be more prone to trolling behaviours, in order to fulfil their attachments needs.”

Understanding the ‘Dark Triad’

Trolls score high on cognitive empathy: intellectually, they understand other people’s emotions, which means that they know how to make them suffer. But they score low on affective empathy. They don’t feel others’ pain, so when they hurt you, they don’t care.

“There has been some research to understand the characteristics of online trolls,” explains Dr Linda K Kaye, who specialises in the psychology of gaming and online behaviour. “Much has focused on the ‘Dark Triad’ traits, which are ‘Psychopathy’ (callousness, remorseless behaviour); ‘Machiavellianism’ (good at manipulating others for personal gain); and ‘Narcissism’ (grandiosity and preoccupation with their own self-advancement). And, as you can imagine, these are all what we would understand as quite undesirable traits in others.”

Kaye goes on to tell me that, while those high in psychopathy are likely to engage in trolling behaviours, these traits generally tend to be associated with aspects of anti-social behaviours. This doesn’t mean, though, that all trolls are psychopaths. Far from it, in fact: one online poll saw over a quarter of Americans admit to having engaged in trolling at some point.

So what gives?

The allure of anonymity

“Basically ‘anyone’ can become a troll,” Kaye says, pointing to the chat forums in online gaming communities as an example. “The negative mood during discussions, and the context of seeing others trolling, can be enough to increase the probability of someone being influenced to troll others. So, although there are certain personality traits which may be ‘risk factors’ for people engaging in trolling behaviour, there are other situational factors when it comes to where this is taking place and how others are behaving. This can also increase the likelihood of people being trolls in that particular situation. 

Medical model highlighting different parts of the brain
The psychology of a troll: how should we respond to trolling?

Clinical psychologist Naomi Murphy, who works within the dangerous and severe personality disorder service at HMP Whitemoor, agrees.

“The anonymity and distance from actual interaction probably enables people who ordinarily would not behave aggressively to utilise quite hateful behaviour,” she says.

“Those who are able to engage in healthy debate and discussion are probably able to express themselves with less vitriol. Social media is a great vehicle for people who are passive aggressive.”

Does gender play a role?

Well, quite possibly. As Ben-Ari points out, there does tend to be a gender bias when it comes to trolls: studies have shown that men are far more likely to be online bullies than women. But why?

Well, according to one such study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, “one explanation may be that, as a result of stereotypes, characteristics such as competitiveness, assertiveness, need for achievement and dominance tend to be encouraged in the socialisation of men and punished in women.”

This, they conclude, is more likely to foster traits of narcissism.

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What do trolls get out of it, really?

I’m keen to understand why trolls lash out online, and what is it that motivates them. Is it a desire to cause harm, a need to demonstrate their power, or something very different?

Well, Ben-Ari tells me it’s actually far simpler than that. Trolls are, she says, most likely driven by a need for attention.

“Their comments often spark attention from others, so it can give the illusion of being important,” she explains. “And this sense of importance and centre of attention usually compensates for how they really feel in their life. That’s why they tend to focus their efforts where they will go most noticed – by lashing out at high-profile people.”

People reading smartphones in a crowd
The psychology of a troll: the primary motive? Attention.

This desperation to be heard feels… well, it feels almost understandable. Abundantly more so than the alternative.

“For others, in similar ways to sadism, it will be the joy of causing stress and harm to others,” says Ben-Ari. “The victim can be random, especially for highly impulsive people, although it can be based on prejudice, particularly if they had extreme/rigid parental education.”

How should we deal with trolls?

It’s the question we all want answers to: if a troll should appear on our social media feeds, how should we respond? Should we engage with them, attempt to reason with them? Or should we ignore them entirely?

Well, it all comes back to the same thing: trolls want attention. And refusing to get angry, frustrated or uncomfortable (at least publicly) is the best way to deny them this.

“You should absolutely ignore them,” says Ben-Ari, “as any reaction will give them their needed attention or pleasure. But don’t suffer in silence: contact the site manager and let them know you’re being bullied. They can report, monitor extreme reactions, or force identification for comments.”

Murphy agrees wholeheartedly. “I would say, that tempting though it is, the best way to resolve any trolling situation is refusing to engage.” 

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Main image: Getty

Article images: Andras Vas/David Matos/Robin Worrall (all obtained via Unsplash)


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