What Makes A Troll A Troll?

Research shows that two factors predict trolling behavior.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Are there strong psychological proedictors of the sorts of people likely to become persistent trolls? A group of scientists at School of Health Science and Psychology at Federation University in Mount Helen, Australia set out to find out, and they came up with an answer. There are two main characteristics of the habitual troll:

  • psychopathy
  • cognitive empathy

How does scoring higher then average on these two traits lead to trolling?

“Results indicate that when high on trait psychopathy, trolls employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognising the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions,” the researchers wrote. They added that because psychopathy is associated with thrill-seeking and impulsivity, it’s possible that “creating mayhem online is a central motivator to troll.” They also found that trolls were likely to be high in sadism—the will to hurt others—and were more likely to be male.

So, to simplify, they’re really good at spotting what will hurt and upset others, but they feel no compassion for them, merely revelling in the discomfort and attention they generate.


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.