New Study: Why Do Trolls Troll?

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I have quite a bit of experience with trolls, and by “trolls” I mean both people who dedicate a significant portion of their lives to stalking and trying to harass and threaten me, and the small plastic figurines with wild hair that get popular every ten years or so

I’ve definitely spent some time examining what type of person does this — harasses strangers online, not collecting troll dolls. I know what kind of person collects troll dolls — nerdy 11-year old girls. But the type of person who harasses strangers on the internet, that’s more complicated. Are they narcissistic (having a distorted sense of superiority)? Are they Machiavellian (manipulative)? Are they psychopathic (lacking empathy for others)? Past research has suggested that they are all these things (known as the “Dark Triad” of personality traits as they predict a lot of shitty behavior), plus sadistic (finding joy in harming others), but a new study suggests that it’s not enough for people who have those traits to become internet trolls. There’s no relationship between dark triad traits and trolling, until you add one more ingredient that makes trolls troll: schadenfreude.

As you probably know, “schadenfreude” is the German word for a feeling of delight one might get when passively observing bad things happening to other people. Two things about this definition: one is that *I* always think of it as joy at seeing bad things happen to bad people, but that’s not necessary. Apparently there are people who get that feeling of happiness from seeing bad things happen to, well, anyone who isn’t them. Which…is kind of even more messed up than what I was thinking.

A second thing to note is that the researchers take pains to highlight the “passive” part of this definition: schadenfreude is finding joy in watching someone experience misfortune, NOT finding joy in causing someone to experience misfortune. Which is interesting because this is a study on people who do, in fact, cause people to experience misfortune.

So, okay, this was all based on a survey given to 438 Redditors, about half men and half women. And let me say up front that this was not pre-registered, meaning the results may just be a bit of statistical noise, so more research needs to be done in the future to replicate and expand upon this.

The researchers asked the subjects about their own posting habits on Reddit, including whether or not they engaged in trolling (which the researchers confirmed meant intentionally provoking or harassing others to garner attention or a reaction). Then they were evaluated for “dark triad” traits. Finally, they were quizzed on two different potential mitigating factors: “outspokenness,” which is the inclination to express an opinion publicly, and schadenfreude. Outspokenness wasn’t found to play any part, but schadenfreude plus dark triad traits turned your average psycho into a troll.

To determine schadenfreude, researchers asked subjects to say how much they agree or disagree with a variety of statements that touch on a number of different kinds of ways to feel schadenfreude, like “I laugh when I see others put in their place by other commenters online,” “I make fun of other Reddit users so they know I am in control,” “I mock other Reddit users because it is funny to see them get upset,” and “I want to hurt Reddit users who irritate me.” 

Sure enough, schadenfreude predicted trolling behaviors, which the researchers point out can be simplified to “the lulz.” I found all this particularly interesting, especially when the researchers report that the people who engaged in trolling didn’t see it as dysfunctional, but as a vital communication tool that actually stimulates discourse. I found that a bit odd considering how much harassment seems determined to scare critics into silence, but the researchers point to this previous paper that found a number of people think trolling is acceptable behavior especially when it’s used against trolls themselves.

That’s the point where it hit me: this paper isn’t just about the people who troll me — it’s also about me.

While I don’t score high on any dark triad traits, I DO get a lot of joy from schadenfreude. Remember earlier when I said I tend to define it as “when bad things happen to bad people?” Well, there it is. I may not get joy from seeing random people experience misfortune, like the average troll might, but I do get joy from seeing bad things happen to people I think are awful. And that might be why I’m so good at what I do — being an outspoken woman online attracts a lot of trolls, and they do tend to drive a lot of other women (and other marginalized people) away from their platforms. But while it wasn’t the easiest thing to deal with at first, I did learn pretty quickly that I am relatively good at living with the abuse and also fighting back against the abuse, by trolling the trolls. 

I get an intense amount of joy from sending screenshots of rape threats to the families of the men who sent them. In the early days of Game of Thrones when people still cared about that show, I would reply to DMs by spoiling what was going to happen because I had read the books. I’m that asshole that quote retweets harassing Tweets so that everyone who follows me can see my devastating reply. 

And I guess this is why! I have all the love of schadenfreude with none of the apathy, manipulativeness, superiority, anger, or sadism that the professional trolls possess. I’m like Angel in Buffy. Or in Angel, I guess. I may be a vampire, but at least I have enough of a soul to only murder bad people and then feel a bit bad about it when I do.

It’s easy to imagine trolls as being completely unsalvageable losers, but reading through this study reminded me that it’s always going to be more complicated than that. We all have weak and strong traits that can be used for good or evil. Maybe if my childhood had been just a bit sadder I would be the one harassing social justice activists for the lulz. The lulz, of course, now being an official scientific term.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Thanks for sharing this study!
    But, thanks even more for wearing a “Sick Sad World” T-shirt while you shared.

  2. I learned a new word the other day, because I went to go looking for a way to describe the inversion of schadenfreude, where people can’t stand to see other people enjoy themselves. You know, the people who see you walking down the street reading your phone and absolutely have to come over and tell you why phones are anti-social, or dangerous, or whatever made-up reason they have for disturbing your peace. Gluckschmertz is the word, and I think it’s marvelous. The difference is subtle – when is someone trolling because they like to see you uncomfortable, and when are they doing it because they hate to see you comfortable and want to disturb it – but I think there could well be a solid chunk of gluckschmertz in some trolls. If only because I find it hard to believe some trolls experience joy in any form, even at the expense of others, but it’s easy for me to imagine them angry.

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