Psychopathic Trolls and The Dark Tetrad

Chris Mooney at Slate reports on some actual psychological research that has been done on Internet trolls:

[R]esearch, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

The result? Definite correlations. And this is amusing as well:

What’s more, it [the research] also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the Internet.

So, if you’re a troll, maybe you’re not just a contrarian. Maybe you’re also a sadistic and Machiavellian psychopath. Just saying.

And here’s how Mooney’s article concludes:

Overall, the authors found that the relationship between sadism and trolling was the strongest, and that indeed, sadists appear to troll because they find it pleasurable. “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” they wrote. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

The study comes as websites, particularly at major media outlets, are increasingly weighing steps to rein in trollish behavior. Last year Popular Science did away with its comments sections completely, citing research on the deleterious effects of trolling, and YouTube also took measures to rein in trolling.

But study author Buckels actually isn’t sure that fix is a realistic one. “Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users),” she said by email. “Ultimately, the allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, who presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially-desirable manner.”

I wonder if whole websites can be identified, in this context, as trolling sites. I’m thinking, for example, of the intelligent design website, Uncommon Descent. Its typical post features some combination of feigned outrage, incredulity, mockery, or snark directed at mainstream science, individual scientists, or atheists designed to get a (usually unwarranted) rise out of people. The post writers tend to be shocked–shocked!–that anyone could actually take Charles Darwin and naturalism seriously. And, of course, the site’s working assumption is that, at the top of mainstream science’s food chain, are blind, corrupt, and authoritarian scientists and professors vested in keeping from the general public the truth (which is that their disciplines are in epistemic chaos because they don’t take into account all the evidence right in front of them that God exists and directs history). Uncommon Descent’s preferred rhetorical stance is thus to be incorrigible, like the Southern politician (dug in; proudly impervious to proportion or common sense; apologetically armored against all outsiders). If researchers did a study of such websites, would they find the people who started them scoring high on Dark Tetrad traits?

And then, of course, there is the trolling politician. This would be the person who doesn’t seriously believe half of what he says, but loves to put on a straight face, stand before cameras, and say things he knows will raise a shit storm. Doing this is delightful to him–it’s what he lives for–though he never shows this delight in public. Ted Cruz comes immediately to mind.

Of course, we need contrarians–thank goodness for them! And we need critical thinkers, and people who will speak up when they notice incoherence. But the troll only plays at being these people. The troll is actually in bad faith, looking for any route into an argument, however strained, that will direct pain to others. The troll is Iago-like. The pain is most important, not the truth.

To do a bit of armchair psychoanalyzing, I think the typical troll is in pain himself, and is striking back at a pain that he–and it’s usually a “he”–felt directly in childhood. The targets of a troll are people like the people who caused the troll pain. For example, my guess is that Ted Cruz felt the pain, at a young age, of a liberal who ridiculed the sort of right-wing political fundamentalism Cruz grew up in, and now, with his Harvard degree and position of power, Cruz means to use his gifts to bring pain and inconvenience to liberals everywhere, no matter how gratuitous. It’s his mission in life, and his pleasure, to get back at that childhood nemesis by being a political troll today. And obviously, there are a lot of people who share Cruz’s resentments–and know the same pain–and will cheer him on wherever he manages to turn the tables. Rush Limbaugh runs on the same troll energy.

How does one stop breeding and feeding trolls?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Psychopathic Trolls and The Dark Tetrad

  1. I troll all the time, and it’s fun. Doesn’t mean I’m a psychopath.

  2. Staffan says:

    “So, if you’re a troll, maybe you’re not just a contrarian. Maybe you’re also a sadistic and Machiavellian psychopath. Just saying.”

    It’s funny, as Bill Maher noted, that when people say stuff that they themselves feel is a bit shitty, they will follow it up with a defensive “just saying.”

    But more to the point, sadism only correlated slightly to moderately with the other “dark” traits. This is one of the takeaways from Buckel’s study, that sadism is a relatively independent factor and not just some thing within the Dark Triad.

    Another interesting fact is that this study compared sadism with the conservative trait of disgust sensitivity and found that they were unrelated. And yet your three examples of sadists are all conservative. Which makes me wonder if behind your liberal attitude lurks a little bit of that clannish Mezzogiorno, a primitive ingroup preference that is justified with an intellectual post-hoc analysis. Just saying ; )

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Ha! Though I wasn’t entirely conscious of it at the time, I’ve definitely posted in comboxes things designed to “push back” at people with opinions that annoy me, to unbalance them a bit, so I guess that would fall under the definition of “troll” as well. And even this post is a bit trollish in my snark toward conservatives. (I couldn’t think of good liberal examples.)

      But now I’ve thought of two. Jerry Coyne’s atheist blog and PZ Meyer’s blog are often trollish in their posts.

      But in a way, “troll” has always been a bit dubious because all debate has an element of aggression and testosterone to it. Passions, not just reason, get engaged. Jacob wrestles. Mouths bite.

      And the dialectic of Hegelian thesis, antithesis, and synthesis requires struggle.

      So if you genuinely disagree with someone, and you know that disagreement will shift the tone and direction of a thread to even articulate it, are you being trollish to jump in where you know everyone at that website is on a completely different page from you? I don’t think so.

      And will outspoken and aggressive people do more jumping in than the average person. Obviously. But so what?

      Generally, it’s better to let free speech ring–and even clang. People can hear things, and nobody has to read a thread. And websites that want to police threads in such a way that they maintain a particular environment is their prerogative.

  3. Longtooth says:


    Interesting post and I like Saffan’s response as well. I see a bit of myself reflected in both yours and his perspectives. The question for me though is do trolls take up a cause simply because it affords opportunity to engaging in troll behavior or do they become trolls in the service of the cause? It seems to me that many among the antievolution movement’s membership really don’t care whether evolution theory is rock solid or not. The real issue, the real cause for them is cultural supremacism. It goes back to the Scopes Monkey trial where William Jennings Bryan defended the hardcore believer’s insistence that the Bible was the indelible word of God with priority over all human knowledge including scientific knowledge. The fundamentalists are like wounded lions. The rise of evolution science has impeached the credibility and thus societal status of the Bible and biblical religion. Therefore, regardless of whether evolution is true or not, evolution science must be discredited and brought to its knees before the almighty supernatural you know who. If troll tactics are visualized as serving that end then trolls the believers will be. Entrenched on the other side of the battle line though, I sometimes think to myself why should the wedgies have all the fun? Just saying I guess.


    • Santi Tafarella says:


      What you describe is trollishness grounded in a narcissistic wound. That’s one level of trollishness (perhaps the most understandable kind).

      Then there’s that lawyer-like nihilistic trollishness–which is a darker animal.

      I think of climate change indifference as an example. You’ve got to be a serious asshole to not care what happens to sea levels 50 years from now. If people are expressing empathy and concern for future generations (and perhaps polar bears), and a troll enters a thread, rolls his eyes and says–“It will be good for the boat industry! Fuck em!”–it’s sort of funny in an absurd sort of way, I suppose, but it also breaks down human community. It’s like getting crapped on by Nietzsche.

      And you start to question: then why care about anything? And why engage with the troll on any level? The troll isn’t engaging in Dadaism with idealism behind it (like a young earth creationist might). It’s just harshness.

      Another issue is the intelligence of the troll. Some trolls have never learned how to argue outside of their group. They’re not terribly bright, but they are passionate. They jump into a thread, therefore, with the intent of posting in the enemy camp a quote from their pastor or a long rant. They’re not really listening, but they’re trying to stand up for their cause. Then those in the thread swarm the maniac with curses and the maniac then throws something else idiotic back at them. And this results in a new round of delighted pile on, and now the troll has an audience! etc.

      It’s amusing human behavior. (If we were penned in zoos, this would be the equivalent of shit throwing.) But after a while, the troll is still there, and maybe one or two non-trolls are still there, and then they start having a quieter and calmer discussion with no one around. In other words, it starts off silly, and can pretty quickly evolve into something life affirming.

      Sometimes I think people need to stay and talk with one another, and get past the storm of first energies. It depends how patient and sincere people are in wanting to really talk and listen. What starts off as troll behavior can become a conversation (people with very different worldviews trying to communicate and understand one another).

      It’s why I’m reluctant to call people trolls in any final sense, or to condemn the behavior utterly (unless, of course, they really are nihilistic psychopaths).

      • Longtooth says:


        Recent experiences have forced me to realize that regardless of ID creationism being the current frontrunner, young earth creationism (YEC) is still contributing to the antievolution movement’s grass roots membership. I think most of these people are sincere believers who fall mostly into the wounded lion category. Most of them argue in blissful ignorance although I think some have learned to take a perverse delight in slinging BS and getting away with it. It’s rationalized as a service to their faith. More to the dark side and eminently more dangerous is the intellectual mercenary. These people aren’t motivated by faith, but rather by wealth, notoriety, and status. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I think the Discovery Institute has more than its fair share of this kind lurking among its fellows. Sternberg and Meyers come to mind, but David Berlinski in particular stands out as suspect.

        Undoubtedly its healthy evolution science to keep open the question of whether all natural mechanisms or influences that give rise to dramatic changes in animal life have been identified and whether natural selection and random variation are necessarily as dominant as they are normally thought to be. However, Berlinski takes things considerably further.

        On top of it, anyone who accepts a Discovery Institute fellowship sets off flashing red lights in my book. It’s no secret that the Discovery Institute’s mission is to make a case for the supernatural. Being an outsider who claims a common viewpoint with them, Berlinski has become one of the darlings of the creationist movement.

        I haven’t read any of his books, but I’ve viewed a number of video’s where he has participated in debates or spoken in some other venue. Attached below is a link to a three part Youtube video where Berlinski outlines his sentiments about the current state of evolutionary biology. You might have already seen it. However, it identifies where I’m coming from.

        For all of his credentials his thesis against evolution theory still amounts to little more than conjecture with a good modicum of hyperbole thrown in. No data published in a peer reviewed journal to support his case. No specification of what other mechanisms or influences he might be alluding to. That’s classic ID tactics. Across the span of the videos Berlinski pretty much says exactly what the wedgies want to hear. He goes so far as to cynically paint a picture of the evolutionary biology community rampant with dishonesty and data fudging regularly going on. This has got to be music to the creationist’s ears.

        If Berlinski had stayed within the evolutionary biology mainstream, his voice would likely have been largely indistinguishable from the rest of the choir. Throwing in with the creationists has given him notoriety and status that he otherwise would not enjoy. And maybe a good bump in the pay grade too. Moreover his books now almost certainly enjoy a significant amount of circulation among the creationists which they otherwise wouldn’t. My bar is probably a bit lower than yours, but my nose smells troll.


      • Santi Tafarella says:

        My take on Berlinski is similar to yours, but I think his primary motivations are two: (1) he likes to stand up for underdogs; and (2) he has the sort of formidable intellect that he takes pleasure in taking a position that is at the edge of defensible. In other words, if he can defend a tenuous position against all comers, or revive a position long thought dead, it shows just how smart he is. Edward Feser does that with Thomism. It’s pleasing to push exactly the buttons you know you can push, and then bring those people to the mat intellectually when they respond (or lose their cool). The trick is to not show your opponents that you take pleasure in their pain, esteem from your power to hold up under a barrage of their arrows, and self-righteousness in defending the otherwise invisible.

        One other thing is that one holds the position just so far (like Berlinski). You go to the edge of woo, but always disavow the stepping off point. You arrest the reductio ad absurdum (even as others follow your logic and arguments to much more ridiculous conclusions–such as YEC).

  4. Longtooth says:

    Nice assessment. You’ve obviously pondered his motives and methods longer and more thoroughly than I. The dude is nevertheless dangerous and really shouldn’t be running around loose. 🙂

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Having said what I’ve said above, I will also say this: Berlinski is a Socratic figure as well. I don’t want him to go away. Gadflies are good even when they are largely supporting an erroneous position, or doing so with bad motives (all of our motives are bad to some degree; all of us are at least somewhat malicious). Gadflies keeps people on their toes intellectually. And every error contains elements of truth that too often get buried with the error.

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