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The Psychology of Online Trolls

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If you have been online on any social media, you will have seen trolling. What motivates the trolls? Why are they so toxic? What goes on in their heads that makes them think that it is anything other than harmful to behave as they do? What is the twisted psychology of trolling?

What is a troll? Someone who posts deliberately toxic messages, with the intention of hurting, damaging or otherwise causing harm to their target. Throughout history there have been toxic people; those who take joy in denigrating, undermining, belittling, or abusing others. Their mindset seems to be: “I can feel good if I make others feel bad.”

Trolls have been around forever, even though it is fairly recently that a name was devised for them. Every generation in history has had a small percentage of toxic people. The name “troll” comes from the Nordic literature of the 19th Century. They were unpleasant creatures that caused trouble for good people.

Now, people who would have been toxic in any era, have been emboldened by the creation of the internet. They can abuse others from the safety of their keyboard, without having to do so face-to-face.

Prior to the internet their toxic behaviour was socially regulated, and subjected to moderating voices. Now, with the ability to publish anything, instantly to the world, with no one looking over their shoulder, and no moderating voice in their presence, their full toxicity, is displayed, unfiltered, to the world. They take trolling seriously; they go to extraordinary lengths to cause as much harm as possible.

What motivates such toxic behaviour? There seem to be several categories of trolls.

Jealous trolls

Many trolls have dismal lives and know they do, usually of their own making. They have few if any friends, and are socially repulsive. Would you want to be friends or work with someone who was trolling others online? Would you want to hire them? Of course not. That is why they have sad lives; the same behaviour that leads to trolling makes others want to stay well clear of them, socially and professionally. Their toxic jealousy drives their trolling.

Machiavellian trolls

Machiavellian trolls seek to achieve a particular, usually nefarious end. They are the most cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous of all the trolls. They seek to undermine or discredit someone for a reason. Perhaps they need to discredit someone who has uncovered their wrongdoing so that the person exposing them is not believed.
Machiavellian trolls can quite often play the role of victim, to garner support. Of course, they are not victims, they are the perpetrators and hope that if they can make themselves look like the victim, they can cause enough confusion that they may get away with their wrongdoing.


Some trolls attack others for personal amusement. That takes us into the territory of the narcissist, sociopath and psychopath trolls.

Sociopath trolls

Those who have a personality disorder that manifests itself in extreme antisocial beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Most people sense that it is wrong to make personal attacks on others based on characteristics about which the troll’s target can do nothing. Trolls ignore or are devoid of the moral sense that others have.

Sociopaths typically lie to take advantage, or manipulate others, including to cause emotional pain. Trolls do exactly that and more. Sociopath trolls are not sensitive to or respectful of, the needs of others. They tend to have a sense of superiority and are extremely opinionated. They rarely if ever, consider alternative views or interpretations to their own. Given the array of horror symptoms of their mental dysfunction, it will come as no surprise that sociopath trolls have little capacity for intimacy, mutuality, or reciprocity.

Narcissist trolls

Narcissist trolls have a slightly different range of dysfunctional characteristics. As with all narcissists they have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. Trolling others online gives them that sense of self-importance. For narcissist trolls, it is all about “me, me, me.” They need and seek vast amounts of attention. By attacking prominent figures, they hope to get the attention they seek.

Narcissist trolls live in a mental world that is all about right and wrong, superior inferior, good and evil. In their deluded world, they are right, and anyone who disagrees with them, is not just wrong; they are bad, evil and inferior. With an awareness of that mindset, it is easy to see how denigrating others helps narcissist trolls feel good about themselves; it may even be necessary for them to lash out in order to maintain their delusional self-esteem and worldview.

This next characteristic of narcissistic trolls surprises people, given their typically toxic behaviour: they want people to admire them. Of course, for normal, well-adjusted people, attacking others online is not something to be admired. That may give a measure of just how deranged many narcissists are; they think that trolling others will bring them admiration.

People with narcissistic personality disorder seem to lack the ability to understand or care about the feelings, views or beliefs of others. Narcissist trolls never take self-responsibility. Problems are always blamed on someone, anyone, or everyone else. They cannot accept that their behaviour is in any way flawed.

That, of course, explains why they have never learned how to treat others, with whom they disagree, with respect and dignity; if they are never wrong, what can
there possibly be to learn?

That also explains why they don’t feel any guilt about abusing others online: if they are never wrong, what is there to be guilty about?

Psychopath trolls

Worst of all. Psychopaths combine the worse traits of all those mentioned above. Their levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and toxicity are “off the scale”. They are right, and you are wrong, even if you are verifiably right. Antisocial behaviour is their default setting, and trolling people online gives an outlet for them. Most people would agree that online trolling reveals a complete lack of empathy. Psychopath trolls either experience no empathy or suppresses any that they have. They feel free to attack others in all sorts of ways, video, audio, on websites…

Most normal people would feel guilty if they behaved in such a way. Guilt comes from knowing that one has done something wrong, and feeling bad about it, based on empathy. If someone is never wrong and has no empathy, there can be no internal self-regulation of behaviour, there can be no self-moderation steered by healthy guilt.

Are online trolls mentally unwell? Perhaps not to the extent that they have to be detained in a secure facility to protect the public from them, although some people would argue that is exactly how they should be dealt with.

It seems that most trolls have the kind of low level of mental disturbance that leads to a life of misery for them and everyone they come in contact with. They damage everyone around them except for one category: fellow trolls.

You, too, have probably seen groups of trolls working together to harm their targets. Trolls can find each other quickly and easily online, and once linked, they validate and reinforce each other’s warped view of the world in a variation of groupthink. In their minds, having found support further legitimises their trolling. Some are “so far gone” that they seem to see themselves as doing a kind of public service.

Legitimate concern

Where is the line between online trolling, and expressing legitimate concerns? People who raise legitimate concerns do not engage in personal attacks, they talk about systems, policies, practices and procedures, not individuals. In fact, normal, well-balanced people go to considerable lengths to depersonalise their concerns so as not to cause personal distress. Trolls, by comparison, have no regard for the emotional welfare of those they attack.

Will online trolls always exist? There is one key factor to consider on route to answering that question: freedom of speech.

In well-functioning societies, people must have the right to express their concerns. Most people will do so in a way that is appropriate. Alas, there will always be those people who will abuse freedom of speech as a cover or pretext to attack others.

What is the best way to deal with online trolls? It is best expressed in two words: ignore them. They are seeking attention or self-validation. They want to cause harm and to know they have caused harm.

If you respond to them, you give them the attention they crave, and you confirm that they have “got to you.” If your social media service allows it, simply block them from your feed. The best way to protect yourself from toxic people generally, and trolls specifically, is to get any that you know personally out of your life ASAP and remove those that appear on your screen by blocking them.

If a social media provider does not allow you to get trolls out of your screen, there are many others that do. A mass exodus of customers has a way of persuading social media companies to do what they should have already done, to deal with online trolls.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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