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Sadism Drives Internet Trolling – New Study Reveals Underlying Motivations

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In a recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers from Guizhou Normal University have delved into the psychological mechanisms behind internet trolling, particularly focusing on the role of sadism. The study examines how anonymity and the pleasure derived from causing others’ distress contribute to this prevalent online behaviour.

The advent of social media has provided fertile ground for Internet trolling, a behaviour where individuals deliberately provoke negative emotional reactions in others. While previous research has established a correlation between sadism and trolling, the new study explores the causal relationships and intrinsic motivations that drive this behaviour. The findings highlight the significant role of Internet anonymity and the sadistic pleasure derived from others’ suffering.

A significant predictor of internet trolling is sadism, a personality trait that involves taking pleasure in other people’s suffering. Unlike other dark personality traits such as psychopathy and narcissism, sadism is uniquely associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in trolling. This study builds on previous research by examining how environmental factors, specifically Internet anonymity, interact with sadistic tendencies to foster trolling behaviour.

The study was conducted in two parts. Study 1 focused on the relationship between sadism, anonymity, and Internet trolling, while Study 2 investigated the sources of pleasure that drive sadistic Internet trolling through a series of sub-studies.

In Study 1, the researchers hypothesised that Internet anonymity would enhance the likelihood of sadistic individuals engaging in trolling. Participants with varying levels of sadism were asked to comment on a controversial social event under anonymous and real-name conditions. The results confirmed that individuals with high levels of sadism were more likely to post aggressive and inflammatory comments when they were anonymous, supporting the theory that anonymity reduces social constraints and encourages antisocial behaviour.

Study 2 further explored the sources of pleasure in sadistic trolling. It consisted of three sub-studies.

Participants posted comments with varying levels of verbal aggression. The study found that high sadists experienced greater pleasure from making aggressive comments, regardless of the aggression level, indicating that the act of trolling itself is a source of pleasure for sadists.

This sub-study examined the impact of viewing others’ negative emotional reactions. Participants were shown photos of distressed individuals after making aggressive comments. The results revealed that high sadists derived more pleasure from seeing others’ pain, reinforcing the idea that the suffering of others is a significant source of sadistic pleasure.

The final sub-study investigated whether the pleasure derived from causing distress influenced the frequency of subsequent trolling. While high sadists were more likely to engage in repeated trolling after experiencing pleasure from their initial actions, the study did not find a significant difference between high and low pleasure conditions, suggesting that other factors may also play a role.

The study’s findings offer critical insights into the motivations behind Internet trolling. The interaction between sadism and anonymity creates a conducive environment for trolling, as anonymity allows individuals to act without fear of social repercussions. Furthermore, the pleasure derived from others’ suffering serves as a powerful motivator for sadistic individuals to engage in and continue trolling.

These findings have important implications for managing and mitigating trolling behaviour on social media platforms. Understanding that anonymity and the pleasure of causing distress drive trolling can help in developing strategies to curb this behaviour. For instance, reducing anonymity by implementing stricter identification processes and fostering positive online interactions may reduce the incidence of trolling.

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