Some of us get online to enjoy a sense of community with like-minded individuals. In the secular movement, in particular, many of us are not in a position to be open about our beliefs.

The upside of the internet is that it provides an environment to engage in conversation and debate. The downside is that sometimes that dialogue can turn ugly, as we know from adages like, “Never read the comments,” and “Don’t feed the trolls.”

There is a huge difference between simple disagreements, and the type of online experience that is known as trolling.

Trolls, until recently, were an understudied group. Recent research by Buckels, Trapnell and Paulhus (2014) directly examined the psychology behind Internet trolling behavior. Buckels and colleagues conducted two large correlational studies. Participants were asked about their online behavior and given a number of personality questionnaires.

If you’ve taken a psychology course in the last decade, you may know “the big five” model of personality. Students are given the mnemonic CANOE or OCEAN to remember that individuals can score high or low on conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticisms, openness to experience, and extraversion.

More recent research looks at the darker side of personality. These factors — psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism — are called the “dark triad” (or “dark tetrad” when sadism is included). The idea is that these characteristics, normally reserved for describing clinical populations, also exist along a continuum in sub-clinical populations.  A newer cross-cultural model of personality (see Ashton & Lee, 2007) incorporates an honesty-humility dimension, which includes traits such as sincerity, honesty, and fair-mindedness.  At the other end of this dimension are these socially aversive or noxious personality traits — such as callousness, manipulativeness, insincerity, and exploitation (Lee & Ashton, 2005).

In the Buckels et al. (2014) study, the goal was to look at the relationship between personality and online behavior. In particular, participants were asked to estimate how much time they spend commenting on websites, and asked, “What do you enjoy doing most on these comment sites?” (p. 98). The following choices were provided: (a) debating issues, (b) chatting with other users, (c) making new friends, (d) trolling other users, or (e) other (specify).

Over half the participants were categorized as “commenters,” who reported an average of about one hour of commenting per day.  Interestingly, 5.6% admitted that trolling other users was their preferred commenting behavior. Trolls scored higher on the personality measures that assess sadism and narcissism. These individuals were also higher on extroversion, and lower on agreeableness, compared to individuals who preferred other commenting activities.

In a follow-up study, the authors created an index of Internet Trolling. Additionally, rather than choosing a particular preferred commenting behavior, each activity (chatting, trolling, debating, making friends) was rated on a scale from 1 (not at all enjoyable) to 7 (very enjoyable). Again, the noxious elements of personality (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, but sadism in particular) were correlated with ratings of enjoyment of trolling behavior.  

For those of us who seek a sense of community online, we must remind ourselves of the vicious and vocal minority that we are likely to encounter:

“These findings provide a preliminary glimpse into the mechanism by which sadism fosters trolling behavior. Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun . . . and the Internet is their playground!” (Buckels et al., 2014, p. 101)

Although such individuals may be considered “sub-clinical” in the real world, the Internet has provided the ideal environment for anti-social and sadistic individuals to seek pleasure in causing distress. The intent behind trolling behavior is malicious, as we suspected, but we now have the research to back that up.




Ashton, M. C., & Lee, K. (2007). Empirical, theoretical, and practical advantages of the HEXACO model of personality structure. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 150-166.

Buckels, E. E., Trapnell, P. D., & Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Trolls just want to have fun. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 97-102.

Lee, K., & Ashton, M. C. (2005). Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism in the Five-Factor Model and the HEXACO model of personality structure. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1571-1582.

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