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Research: Internet trolls are 'everyday sadists'

By Eric Adler
Kansas City Star
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Anyone who’s ever encountered Internet trolls, those vile, racist, sexist and often profane people who gorge themselves on others’ misery, might have concluded they are psychologically disturbed.

That would be correct, new research suggests.

Trolls gleefully spew their “e-bile” using smartphone apps, online comments, texts or social media sites for no other reason than cruelty.

“It happens every night,” said Darla Jaye, a radio talk show host in Kansas City whose conservative views often serve as a lightning rod for trolls. “I get stuff on the text line all the time where people swear at me and call me the foulest names. … It’s easy to throw something out there when you’re anonymous. That is the thing about the Internet, especially about trolls. Most of these people are cowards.”

Perhaps so. But, according to a recent paper by a team of Canadian researchers that has looked into the psychological underpinnings of trolls, they may be something else as well:

Sadists.

Yes, sadists. But not the psychopathic sadists who turn to actual physical torture or serial killing.

“We use the term ‘everyday sadist’ to emphasize that we are referring to sub-clinical levels of sadism, and not the more extreme forms that are seen in serial killers and criminals,” said psychologist Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and the first of three authors of the paper on troll personality in the February issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“The essential aspect of sadism,” Buckels said in an email, “is enjoyment of cruelty. Persons high in sadism gain some emotional benefit from causing or simply observing others’ suffering.”

Although researchers delineate between cyberbullies and trolls – cyberbullies torment specific individuals and are often known by their victims; trolls like to cast their hurt about – they are linked by their penchant for cruelty.

In their troll research, Buckels, Manitoba colleague Paul Trapnell and Delroy Paulhus of the University of British Columbia gathered data from 1,215 individuals – split nearly evenly, half men and half women – based on questions answered on two online surveys.

Both surveys included questions about the subjects’ Internet habits, such as “How many hours per day do you spend posting comments?” or “What do you enjoy doing most on these comment sites? Debating issues, chatting, trolling, making new friends, something other?”

They also included statements from well-known diagnostic tests of personality traits meant to detect various levels of sadism: “Hurting people is exciting” or “In video games, I like realistic blood spurts.”

Beyond sadism, the questionnaire also looked for signs and varying levels of what are known as the three other legs of the “Dark Tetrad” of personality. Those are narcissism (I have been compared to famous people); sub-clinical psychopathology (payback needs to be quick and nasty) and Machiavellianism ( it’s not wise to tell your secrets).

Conclusion: Those who rated highest on the scales for narcissism, psychopathology, Machiavellianism and sadism – highest of all for the trait of sadism – were the same people who were trolls. Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism, the researchers concluded.

“It seem like one of their great joys in life,” said Paulhus, “is to make fun of other people and to criticize their opinions.”

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