Trolling Is the Pastime of Sadists and Psychopaths

A recent ScienceDirect study made news when it revealed that most online trolls demonstrate sadistic and psychopathic tendencies. Other behavior patterns trolls exhibit include Machiavellianism and narcissism.

Grist called the grouping, “the Dark Tetrad”, interpreting the reports definitions as follows:

  • Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others)
  • Narcissism (egotism and self-obsession)
  • Psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy)
  • Sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).


Paper authors Erin Buckels, Paul D. Trapnellb, Delroy L. Paulhusc of the University of Manitoba go on to say, “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.”

So what does this mean for online personalities, brands and their community managers?

Online trolls tend to be nasty people. Take them with a grain of salt and move on as quickly as you can, just like you would in real life.

Let’s be clear, serial grief-givers aren’t the run of the mill angry customer. According to the ScienceDirect research about 5.6% of the online population enjoys trolling. You are looking at a significant minority of everyday online voices.

A key identifier is that trolls enjoy giving brands and other people a difficult time. So when a conversation leaves the realm of reasonable complaint and turns into a provocative series of shots aimed to get a person to retaliate, it’s time to detach.

Google the person’s name, and check their social feeds. Does a litany of negativity follow them? It’s hard for a troll to live long on the Internet without leaving a trail of proverbial tears.

Brands sometimes have to respond. At the same time, many businesses simply don’t, or state that they have done the best they can based on their particular process. When it’s a troll, nothing you do will be right. It’s not personal. You may as well send them onto their next encounter.

What do you think?

Image credits: Trolls from the Hobbit, originally found on One Wiki to Rule Them All. E.E. Buckels et al via Grist

This post ran originally on the Vocus blog.


  • Nice one Geoff.

    This is one of those studies where I would love to see the methodology. When I helped manage the BlogCatalog community years ago, I found most trolls to be sad, lonely, and even desperate.

    Even so, the post is a solid contribution to the recent Kelly Blazek rub up. She did seem to enjoy writing mean-sprirted emails to people who wanted to connect with her (until someone finally published one.) Anecdotal, but clearly in support of the research.


    • Absolutely, I think we see enough of this that there is a portion of the population that’s having a bad day, month, or whatever versus those that this is their character. Blazek strikes me as the latter. And in the latter case, run for the woods.

      In the prior, run for the woods, but come back later. ;) LOL!

  • Trolls are sick bullies. Plain and simple.

  • Thanks, Geoff. Its a shame that some people have no life other than to heckle, provote, insult, defame, or otherwise annoy others. It’s a cry for attention that must be lacking elsewhere in their life. I suspect the root is in their personal insecurities or lack of emotional growth. Picking on others makes them feel more important, however it only points out how pathetic they are. No one reads their stuff and says “Wow, what a smart person you are”, Instead they feel disgust, horror, revulsion at the obvious provocation. I agree with Rich Becker’s comment, that “most trolls… [are] sad, lonely and even desperate”.

    • I agree, trolls are a miserable lot, and I find myself looking at times when I vhave barked on people, and it was because I was unhappy. However, I think some people are just wired this way. They are the true sociopaths, and this is who they are. That can be even harder to accept because there is no recourse for them if that makes sense.

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