Internet Trolls Have Empathy Deficit and Feel Good About Themselves
Tue, April 20, 2021

Internet Trolls Have Empathy Deficit and Feel Good About Themselves


Internet trolls have been the bane of civil and rational online users. They behave like the playground bullies people would have encountered at school. They deliberately provoke fights and arguments on forums and social media, often by saying the most offensive and grossly insensitive things. These trolls are even polite and normal in real life but with the shield of anonymity, they turn out to be incredibly aggressive and may even make racist, homophobic, or sexist jokes to stir up an argument.

Digital bullies

The latest study conducted by Evita March, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the Federation University Australia, shows that trolls don’t just enjoy hurting others, they also feel good about themselves. For several studies, March has attempted to determine the psychological profile of internet trolls who harm others. In her recent study, she wanted to know if people troll because they have low self-esteem. She also explored sadism, psychopathy, and gender as predictors of engaging in trolling.

The author recruited 400 participants through social media ads. Nearly 68% of the participants were women with an average age of 25, and 43% of them were Australian. They were asked to complete a confidential and anonymous online questionnaire. The purpose of this was to assess their self-esteem and personality. The research also measured the extent to which participants engage in troll-like behaviors. For instance, the questionnaire reads, “I enjoy upsetting people I do not personally know on the internet” or “Although some people think my posts are offensive, I think they are funny.”

What the author found was that sadism, gender, and psychopathy were all-important independent predictors of malicious online trolling. For example, if you are a male, have high sadism tendencies, and have high psychopathy, you are more likely to engage in trolling behavior. By psychopathy, the author characterized it by a lack of personal responsibility, deceitfulness, and callousness. On the other hand, sadism is characterized by the enjoyment of psychologically and/or physically harming other people. Sadism is the “most powerful predictor of trolling,” March added. The more a person enjoys hurting other people, the more likely it is that they will troll on the internet.



Self-esteem and sadism

Results also show that self-esteem was not an independent predictor of trolling as it links with sadism. If an individual had high self-esteem and high levels of sadism, they were more likely to troll. March finds it unexpected because low self-esteem has long been a predictor of antisocial online behavior, including cyberbullying.

The findings have significance in how we respond to and manage to troll. Based on the results of sadism and psychopathy, we gain a better understanding that a troll is someone who enjoys causing others harm, lacks a sense of personal responsibility, and is callous.

Empathy deficit

It was also found that trolls have an empathy deficit, specifically when it comes to their ability to internalize or experience other people’s emotions. A 2017 study by March and Natalie Sest suggests that building the empathy people who engage in online trolling could be one way to modify their behavior. Yet, empathy can be separated into two major facets: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand and recognize another’s mental state while affective empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others without direct emotional stimulation to oneself.

March and Sest’s research emphasizes that people who were more likely to troll had a low level of affective empathy. Surprisingly, even if they have a high level of cognitive empathy but have psychopathic traits, they were still more likely to troll. This means that they are very good at understanding what hurts others but they simply don’t care because they have a high psychopathy level.

Targeting their low levels of affective empathy is one area that March sees as a way to change their behavior. Empathy training can help improve people’s empathy but interventions targeting clinical empathy deficits (the more severe form) and psychopathy are more complex. Most mental health experts would even say that psychopathy cannot be cured.

But does this mean we should just brush off trolls with low self-worth? March said no because their character is even more complex. Managing their behavior could be more challenging, she added. A previous study has found that troll they used to upset others may just reinforce their behavior.



“Don’t feed the trolls”

March believes in the saying, “don’t feed the trolls.” This does not mean the victim will just ignore their behavior. People who do such kind of cyber abuse still need to be accountable. What the victim of trolling can do instead is to not give the trolls the angry or hurt response they are looking for. They should not be feared because they only become powerful based on the reactions they are causing.

A YouGov poll found that over a quarter of Americans have made malicious comments online directed at somebody they dint’ know. About 12% of those admit to making deliberately controversial statements online, 23% have maliciously argued over the facts, and 23% admit to having maliciously argued an opinion with a stranger.

When US adults were asked on what topic they have seen trolling behavior on the internet, 49% said politics, 38% said religion, another 38% said it was a topic on the news or current events, 31% said a topic on celebrity, and 25% about emotional topics, such as death or a traumatic experience.



Online harassment

Pew Research Center also published the result of its survey of 4,248 US adults conducted in 2017. It found that roughly four in ten Americans have personally experienced online harassment. About 275 experienced offensive name-calling online, 22% said they experienced purposeful embarrassment, and 10% experienced physical threats. Other severe behaviors they encountered include sustained harassment (7%), stalking (7%), and sexual harassment (6%). Online harassment is also often focused on physical characteristics or political views, race, physical appearance, and gender.

While the internet supports an ecosystem of the social internet, trolls have also been steadily upping their game. There are several tips to deal with them. Unmask them, delete their offensive comments if you host the website, handle it with humor, or fight back with facts.