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For those new to the internet, trolling is an activity where one person intentionally tries to upset other members of the same community, presumably for entertainment.

This has been informally addressed in the media, normally positing that the anonymity of the internet gives rise to more extreme behaviors,

  • but is that the explanation research supports?
  • And if it is, how does the process of enabling occur?
  • And more broadly, why do people derive pleasure from the anger of others within the same group?
  • Lastly, is this behavioral phenomenon unique to the internet era, or are there historical predecessors involving similar causal mechanisms?
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Nonscientific answer –  Ben Brocka Jan 19 '12 at 23:27
    
An important distinction must be made between actual trolls and people who have something to say publicly about something they disagree with with, and who are labelled trolls by people who either don't understand their ideas or are against their ideas and accuse them of being trolls to prevent the real matter to be discussed. I believe that this second form is more common than the first. –  user2534 Nov 14 '13 at 17:42

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

There are a few references to the scientific literature on trolling in the wikipedia article

Some psychologists have suggested that flaming would be caused by deindividuation or decreased self-evaluation: the anonymity of online postings would lead to disinhibition amongst individuals (Kiesler et al, 1984). Others have suggested that although flaming and trolling is often unpleasant, it may be a form of normative behavior that expresses the social identity of a certain user group (Lea et al, 1992; Postmes et al, 1998).

References

  • Kiesler, S. , J. Siegel and T.W. McGuire (1984). "Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated communication". American Psychologist 39 (10): 1123–1134. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.39.10.1123. LINK
  • Lea, M., T. O'Shea, P. Fung and R. Spears (1992). "'Flaming' in Computer-Mediated Communication: observation, explanations, implications". Contexts of Computer-Mediated Communication: 89–112.
  • Postmes, T., Spears, R., & Lea, M. (1998). "Breaching or building social boundaries? SIDE-effects of computer-mediated communication". Communication Research (25): 689–715. FREE PDF
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Trolling is a complex subject now under serious study in science fields (e.g. sociology, psychology, social networking, etc.), but arguably it is not new behavior. Something like it has probably existed as long as humans have, even though the term "trolling" seems to originate in cyberspace. Wikipedia etymology indicates it significantly predates cyberspace. Imagine comments or cartoons left on a public bulletin board, or even graffiti could be seen as a form/type of "trolling". Anonymity/pseudonymity certainly relate to it (possibly increasing it), but of course it happens even with full identification.

Certainly cyberspace seems to possess aspects that can amplify the behavior. However, people sometimes just use the word "troll" as a derogatory epithet against people they merely don't like/disagree with, or e.g. those who are sarcastic with genuine but controversial views, so it can sometimes be really difficult to classify objectively. Somewhat like other terms such as "stalker", "sexual harassment", "sexual offender" etc., it's a "hot button" term with definition that can apparently shift significantly depending on context, and that carries high charge in cyberspace & modern era. It also ties in with an increase in social awareness/sensitivity of bullying. It also has connections to gossip.

Just ran across this new scientific paper (Feb. 2014) apparently getting major media coverage that states it's correlated with what is known as the so-called "dark tetrad" of character features.

  • Trolls just want to have fun. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, Delroy L. Paulhus:

    In two online studies (total $N = 1215$), respondents completed personality inventories and a survey of their Internet commenting styles. Overall, strong positive associations emerged among online commenting frequency, trolling enjoyment, and troll identity, pointing to a common construct underlying the measures. Both studies revealed similar patterns of relations between trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, using both enjoyment ratings and identity scores. Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior. Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism. Thus cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.

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Dark tetrad huh! Hadn't heard of that version...cool! Interesting there's no relationship with narcissism mentioned... –  Nick Stauner Mar 7 at 10:13
    
    
yes from paper, the tetrad is: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadistic personality. it adds sadism to the more standard triad (wikipedia article). "tetrad" is an apparently newer concept. –  vzn Mar 7 at 16:48

Vittorio Gallese, discoverer of the mirror neurons, says in an interview in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, that in virtual, indirect communication (as opposed to personal, face-to-face communication) there is less empathy because the mirror neurons don't get triggered as easily if we cannot witness the emotions of our conversational partners.

Paraphrase:

What worries me more than violent computer games is the we communicate more and more fequently over telephone and computer. Communities where people come together physically are becoming increasingly rare. But we know from our experiments that for empathy it is not the same wether we see a person on a monitor or eye to eye. If you communicate with your conversational partner only over email or chat, your image of him completely disappears.

If you do not face a person directly, but only listen to them on the phone or read what they write on the internet, you can no longer feel what they feel. All you can do is attempt to cognitively understand how they feel, similar to an autist. But this is much more complicated and error prone. That is why we prefer the physical company of other people, because they understand us without long explanations – simply by looking at us.

Simon Baron-Cohen, in Zero Degrees of Empathy, argues on the basis of his research that empathy erosion lies at the heart of cruelty.

In short:

Disembodied communication hinders empathy, and thus facilitates cruelty.

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Here is an article explaining trolling based on Sperber and Mercier's "argumentative theory" of human reasoning. The latter is a fascinating paper in its own right.

References

  • Mercier, H. and Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(02):57-74. FREE PDF
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From an article by the NY times.

Trolling, defined as the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums, is a problem as old as the Internet itself, although its roots go much farther back. Even in the fourth century B.C., Plato touched upon the subject of anonymity and morality in his parable of the ring of Gyges.

...

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

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This answer of course isn't scientific enough, so please don't feel obliged to up vote it. It is however a start. :) –  Steven Jeuris Jan 19 '12 at 23:35
    
I realized (at least for me) that when it comes to the vehicle it's actually seems to dissociation - I see the other drivers on the road as vehicles, not people (in fact I make comments to myself using their make/model). And I feel exceedingly awkward when I have road rage towards "someone" and then I realize I know them personally. I'm not terribly familiar with this area of research, just my own empirical evidence and possibly subjective interpretations. YMMV –  Wayne Werner Feb 1 '12 at 13:46
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@StevenJeuris I upvoted this answer due to the baseline science shown here - starting with a term for it. –  user3554 Aug 6 '13 at 9:34

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