Trolls = Sadists?

I don’t have time to dissect or expand on this, and I don’t have the original paper, but I thought it worth noting:

Trolls just want to have fun
Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, Delroy L. Paulhus


In two online studies (total N = 1215), respondents completed personality inventories and a survey of their Internet commenting styles. Overall, strong positive associations emerged among online commenting frequency, trolling enjoyment, and troll identity, pointing to a common construct underlying the measures. Both studies revealed similar patterns of relations between trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, using both enjoyment ratings and identity scores. Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior. Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism. Thus cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.

Sadism; Dark Tetrad; Dark Triad; Trolling; Cyber-trolls; Antisocial Internet behavior; Personality



  1. #1 jane
    February 12, 2014

    Shouldn’t a tetrad include four items? But I sure wish I could use “Dark Triad” as a keyword in publications.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    February 12, 2014

    According to one source, “sadism is a distinct aspect of personality that joins with three others – psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism – to form a “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits. ” So it is sadism plus the dark triad = dark tetrad.

    I can’t believe how much sense this is making.

  3. #3 Dunc
    February 12, 2014

    The missing element of the “dark tetrad” is narcissism.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    February 12, 2014

    You are just saying that so people will pay attention to you.

  5. #5 G
    February 13, 2014

    Greg, I’ve noticed a correlation between two trends. One, a rise in online sociopathic behaviors such as trolling and cyber-bullying, and real-world sociopathic behaviors such as large-scale fraud. Two, a rise in popular alarmism and even overt pseudoscience (such as anti-vaccination conspiracy theory) about autism.

    People with autism and Asperger’s are noted for their inability to lie; people with antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder are noted for their ability to lie with ease and “charm.” The autistic spectrum disorders are almost the mirror opposites of antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders. The one thing they have in common is an absence of understanding the emotions of others. But whereas the person on the autistic spectrum is puzzled and at a loss, persons with personality disorders are predisposed toward detached manipulativeness.

    I’m inclined to believe there’s an undeclared and largely implicit “culture war” between the autistic/Asperger’s culture, and the narcissistic/sociopathic culture. The narcissists and sociopaths benefit from popular attention being on autism & Asperger’s, because this keeps the attention off their own manipulative and sadistic behaviors. Whereas in fact, sociopathy and its variants have a much higher cost to society, and usually have direct victims.

    The most important psychiatric pandemics in our culture are sociopathy and narcissism.

    Wondering what you think of this.

  6. #6 phillydoug
    February 13, 2014


    Interesting thoughts.

    Another aspect- autism is characterized by an inability to form a ‘theory of mind’ of others, impairing understanding of the feelings, perspectives and intentions of others. This is why folks with PDD can be hyper-literal, not recognizing irony, and missing basic social cues conveyed in tone of voice, gesture and facial expression.

    Sociopaths appear to be better than most people at ascertaining the mental states of others, reading their vulnerabilites and preferences, and accurately predicting their intentions and likely emotional responses. These ‘skills’ are what allow sociopaths to be ‘effective’ at exploiting others for their own pleasure and profit. They also lack an aversion to causing pain (emotional or physical) in others, and do not respond with ‘sympathetic pain’, fear or sadness in the presence of others in distress; these are attributes that most humans possess from early childhood (I suspect this is true of primates generally, but I’ll defer to Greg on that).

    To add the concept ‘sadism’ to sociopathy is a bit redundant, or rather sadism should be viewed as a feature of sociopathy. Accordingly, the more sadism someone displays (for instance, in trolling), the greater the likelihood they would score highly on measures of sociopathy.

    “The most important psychiatric pandemics in our culture are sociopathy and narcissism.”

    G., let me invert this formulation– what if there are aspects of our culture (much of human culture, throughout our history), that cultivate and amplify sociopathy and narcissism?

    It appears to me that the political, business and celebrity cultures, and the social frameworks and institutions that maintain and facilitate them, reward and celebrate socipathy and narcissism. Think of Lance Armstrong, or Al Davis, the late owner of the Oakland Raiders (just win); or our neighbors enriching themselves at Goldman Sacks; or Nixon and his disciples. Consider the bizarre spectacle of ‘reality television’, or the voyeuristic fascination of the intimate details of the lives of celebrities (which makes ‘paparazzi’ a viable profession). And on and on.

    The pathology is located not simply within the individual, its etiology is cultural.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    February 13, 2014

    What I’m going to suggest here in no way refutes what you guys are saying, but I want to add it as a factor to consider. There are more people and an increasing proportion of that growing number are on line. Also, it has become more “normal” to spend a lot of time on line. For a good part of the population, the meatspace-nonmeatspace boundary is gone.

  8. #8 phillydoug
    February 13, 2014


    ” it has become more “normal” to spend a lot of time on line.”

    And there is research that suggests the anonymity and depersonalized nature of on-line communication naturally provides a context where others are objectified, and seems to evoke and intensify anti-social impulses, thus making us all a little less empathetic, a little more narcissistic and sociopathic.

  9. #9 Angela
    February 13, 2014

    My Facebook feed is always full of comments by trolls or people making posts about trolls. I even get friend requests from fake profiles created for trolling! They’re everywhere. Now that the term is so relevant do my daily Internet activity and engagement, I really do enjoy reading about the actual meaning behind these annoyances living online.

    One of my co-workers just published a Q&A with Erin Buckels – definitely worth a read if you liked her study!

  10. #10 jane
    February 13, 2014

    Even before the Internet, estimated rates of sociopathy in America were ten times what they are in some cultures. If you glorify selfishness, you’ll get more of it.

    G, I think you make a couple of good points, though your first paragraph seems to suggest that anti-vax hysterics are secretly sociopaths, which is unsupported and would be a fairly blatant ad hominem. Me, I suppose I am the opposite of one of those hysterics, because I am very suspicious of the modern American tendency to label the least popular kid in every classroom as “Asperger’s.”

  11. #11 G
    February 13, 2014

    Phillydoug @ 6: Email and other online communication exacerbates this issue; in the first days of the internet we used to say “humor doesn’t do well in email,” and this led to the rise of smilies etc. to denote irony. The technology itself produced an effect similar to that of impaired perception of emotions. Why a similar effect wasn’t noticed for typewritten letters via postal mail, I don’t know.

    Sadism & sociopathy: agreed. There’s a cultural confound in that “sadism” is also used as a word for consenting-adult sex play involving pain, so some members of the general public may not understand its original meaning or importance. IMHO we need a new word for sociopathic violence that is not subject to any confusion. In law enforcement, the word “psychopath” is used to refer to someone who is a sadist in the sense that we’re using the word in this blog, but that usage is specific to LE and not used in American psychiatry. Worse, in the UK, the term “psychopath” is used to mean what we in the USA mean by “sociopath.” All of these terms & definitions need to be standardized internationally.

    See my next post re. the rest of your #6.

    Greg @ 7 and Phillydoug @ 8: More time online, and also: a) Online communications are becoming more and more abbreviated: first there was email, then chat, then texting, now tweets. I joke that the next step will be chimp-like “oop-oop and eep-eep,” and grunts. b) Expert opinion on this one (I’m a telecoms engineer), that cellphone audio compression (“G.729”) radically attenuates the elements of speech that carry emotional cues, as compared to landline audio (“G.711”). I could go on at length about how cellphones and VOIP are affecting the emotional content of communication if anyone’s interested.

    Jane @ 10: I should have been more clear about this: Most anti-vaxers are not sociopaths, merely under-educated in science and with a tendency toward paranoia and conspiracy theorizing. But it would serve the interests of sociopaths to promote anything that keeps the public distracted by autism while sociopaths have free run.

  12. #12 G
    February 13, 2014

    More about Phillydoug @6, and notes on a route to medical treatment of sociopathy.

    Phillydoug @ 6 cont’d:

    “…what if there are aspects of our culture (much of human culture, throughout our history), that cultivate and amplify sociopathy and narcissism?” YES, definitely, and your examples make the point (though, Nixon was clearly not a sociopath; he suffered from a classic persecution complex and used projection & reaction-formation defenses; with modern anti-anxiety meds he probably would not have gone down the wrong path).

    A few specific cases: Tom DeLay, sociopathic. Newt Gingrich, narcissistic, absolute textbook case. Loyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs), sociopathic. Wall Street became (and probably still is) totally infested with sociopaths, who robbed investors, destroyed markets, and crashed the economy. The most brazen example was when they demanded multi-million-dollar “retention bonuses” of taxpayer bailout money, “or else.” What they deserved was long prison sentences. The fact that they got away with it set an atrocious example.

    Potential route to medical treatment:

    Psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin, who is known for his work developing entactogens (drugs that induce heightened empathy), also developed a compound that mimics the key subjective symptom of sociopathy: acute painful boredom, the emotional flat-line state that is responsible for sociopaths’ tendency toward extreme risk-taking behavior and lack of emotional responses to others. At the time, Shulgin dismissed that compound as having no further clinical value. Then I discussed this with him at some length about 10-15 years ago as a possible medical model for studying sociopathy. He agreed and quickly described a research program that could be used to ascertain the mechanism of action of the compound and then develop another drug to counteract that mechanism. The second drug would then be evaluated for use alleviating the emotional flat-line state experienced by sociopaths. With medical intervention in childhood (e.g. children who exhibit the signs of compulsive lying, cruelty to animals, and bullying), there would be a possibility of preventing development of adult antisocial personality disorder.

    I won’t mention the name of the first drug in public forums because it could have serious potential for abuse as a “criminal enculturation” drug. But if anyone reading this is interested in pursuing legitimate research along these lines, say so and we’ll find a way to get in touch via email, and I’ll disclose the name of the compound to anyone with a valid university or big pharma email address.

    Needless to say, a drug that could be prescribed to restore normal emotional functioning in sociopaths would be an enormous breakthrough for psychiatry. As anyone in psych knows, sociopathy is refractory to all presently-known methods of treatment. The potential for making it treatable could save lives and prevent other crimes on a large scale.

  13. #13 phillydoug
    February 14, 2014

    G.: “drug that could be prescribed to restore normal emotional functioning in sociopaths would be an enormous breakthrough for psychiatry. As anyone in psych knows, sociopathy is refractory to all presently-known methods of treatment.”

    I agree a drug that could induce empathy would be a breakthrough, but the claims of the effectiveness of psychotropics have historically been overstated.

    My prejudice when it comes to psychopathology is to look for psychological interventions; and when (as is the case with sociopathy), the problem is at least as much a matter of early development, social environment and culture as it is genetic or neurological (this appears to be the case with almost all the conditions we diagnose as mental illness), then I would want to focus attention and resources on changing the society and culture that breeds sociopaths, rather than medicate masses of people in the hopes they become capable of caring and altruism. But that’s just me.

  14. #14 Sylvester B
    February 14, 2014

    Politics seems to attract strange characters. Sociopaths, perhaps. Narcissists, certainly. I recall reading a biography of LBJ, a famous Texan of Box 99 fame, which noted that he was very adept at sensing the needs of others and how to (seem to) be empathetic. Subservience when it helped him get the support of powerful individuals. How does that fit into the analytical framework?


  15. #15 adelady
    February 14, 2014

    How does that fit into the analytical framework?

    Pretty readily, I’d have thought. These people are very adept at perceiving others’ attitudes and preferences. And they really, truly, are prepared to do whatever it takes to get what they want from that individual. Whether it’s getting them to buy a product or a service or allowing them to think that they’re admired or respected or anything in between.

    They will say or do anything in any given relationship, conversation, transaction or passing moment to get whatever they think would be an advantage to themselves.

  16. #16 phillydoug
    February 15, 2014

    adelady: “They will say or do anything in any given relationship, conversation, transaction or passing moment to get whatever they think would be an advantage to themselves.”

    Perfectly stated.

    And unfortunately, we are subject to a culture, to political and economic insitutions, that actively cultivate, celebrate and reward just this appoach to interpersonal (and international) relations.

    The narcissists and sociopaths aren’t just tolerated, the get medals and accolades for being the best narcissists and sociopaths. Those who aren’t, in our culture, are poor saps, livestock, or roadkill (and if you listen to a disciple of Ayn Rand, they’ll tell you deservedly so).

  17. […] 2014/02/12: GLaden: Trolls = Sadists? […]

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