Psychology studies the individual, and sociology studies the group. Social psychology studies the relation between the individual and the group, and for me that’s where all the action is. I study perception and the subjective organization of meaning ...

In Trolls Just Want To Have Fun, psychologists Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell, and Delroy Paulhus (2014), found relations between trolling and the Dark Triad of personality: sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. The strongest association was between trolling and sadism, and they concluded that “cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.” In 2015, an article by John Rampton titled 15 Truths About Online Trolls suggested there are many different views of trolls and many different types of trolling. Trolls are commonly classified as name-callers, grammar nazis, mean people, harassers, and haters. Trolling can entail anything from nasty comments meant to hurt people’s feelings to intensive campaigns designed to execute full-on character assassination. I will focus on the extreme side of trolling. For instance, the recent trolling debacle of Summer 2016, in which Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live star, Leslie Jones, was excoriated by an army of trolls, resulting in a climactic response and a decision to leave Twitter … for a little while.

Ultimately, I would side with Buckels, Trapnell, and Delroy, for the succinct statement that trolling is a manifestation of everyday sadism. However, I question contentions that trolling may also be associated with psychopathy and Machiavellianism. In this three-part blog series, we’ll be taking a look at the dark side of the internet as we consider the difference between trolls as everyday sadists versus trolls as psychopaths and Machiavellians.

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On February 8, 2016, there was a moment of ironic levity in the 2016 Presidential campaign when Bill Clinton decided to stand up and express his feelings regarding the litany of negative comments being left online about Hillary. “Speaking in New Hampshire on Sunday, Clinton delivered an extended rebuke of the Sanders supporters, whom he said subject people who back his wife to ‘vicious trolling.” Trolling itself is not particularly funny, and the idea of a family member expressing outrage over another family member being subject to trolling was all very easy to understand. Still, it was a bit of a strange moment. From the beginning of Bill Clinton’s Camelot-like ascendancy to the Presidency, to the painfully degrading end of it, and on through Hillary’s historic ascendancy to her own political success, the Clintons have always had an amazing resilience and endurance when it comes to braving criticism, rebukes, and scandal – but trolling is something else altogether. This is unlike any enemy the Clintons have ever faced. Ironically, the reason it was funny when he sternly announced, “this trolling has got to stop” is that it was patently obvious to everyone else who has actually been online in this century that trolling has only just begun - and you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. This coming from someone who was arguably as adroit and politically astute in his day as anyone. It shows that social pride and social humiliation have a life of their own and they may be visited upon any of us at any time. In every generation, there is something that old people stand up and angrily declare must stop, and younger people just laugh. The old man get-off-my-lawn moment. Unfortunately, and ironically, Bill Clinton actually saying “this trolling has got to stop” only guarantees that there will be even more trolls in the future because trolling is an online version of the Chinese finger trap.

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Social psychologists understand that social life is framed by pride, honor, and respect, on the one hand, and shame, degradation, and humiliation, on the other hand. We know that every society, and every social group within every society, gives rise to a normative order. At first, it happens automatically without any conscious thought or deliberation, and only later does it become fully recognized and formalized. Remember when you were a kid and you formed a club with your friends/? The very first thing you did was decide who could not be in the club – even before you decided what the club was actually going to be about. The normative order is the social group’s beliefs and values representing what is right, true, and good. The great twentieth century social psychologist, Erving Goffman, wrote extensively about pride and stigma. With the usual touch, Goffman once said that while our face may be the sense of pride and honor we have before others, the truth is that our face is only on loan to us by society. Truer words were never spoken.

Society teaches children to learn to prefer approaching pride and to prefer avoiding shame. An extreme experience of shame can lead to a state of degradation, which can leave one completely humiliated. The word human is etymologically derived from the word humus, the fertile top soil. This goes all the way back to Sanskrit. The word humiliate is also a cognate of these words. That is when someone makes a person feel like dirt.

Yet, social life is always full of paradox and strangeness. Consider the social genius who shows up at a pool party. Early on, he manages to accidentally-on-purpose fall into the swimming pool completely dressed. He creates immediate attention for himself. As he exits the pool, everybody is laughing at him, not with him, and he looks like a wet cat. But, a true social genius is undaunted by the social challenges that would mortify a normal person. In short order, our social genius makes the rounds, and one by one he stops to share moments of backslapping levity with everyone at the party. Before too long, he has bonded with everyone at the party over his moment of utter self-humiliation. Next thing you know, our genius is becoming the life of the party, and people are starting to treat him like he is a special person. Every social genius knows this little fact of social life - they love you when you’re down - and there is almost nothing that can happen to us in social life from which we cannot recover and proceed to turn to our advantage.

There is a very real sense in which our social lives are framed by an honorable quest and by a virtual dread of humiliation. The drama of social life unfolds like a reality TV show wrapped inside a Shakespearean drama. The tension between pride and humiliation is the engine of most theater and drama. Why else would we watch? It’s called schadenfreude. The German word with no English equivalent means to take pleasure in the misery of others - they love you when you’re down. The stark raving truth about social life is that we are in it full-immersion, full-on at all times. We are walking a tight rope without a net at all times. Not so far beneath the surface we all know that our face is only on loan to us by society. At the same time, the impersonal leviathan of society feeds on the unfolding drama of pride and humiliation experienced continually and perpetually by each of us. Yet, in terms of the individual, when we talk about pride and humiliation, we are talking about are matters of social life and social death.

When you are a member of a social group, the group has its norms, the things it values, the appropriate beliefs, and the expected behaviors. The only requirement for a person to experience all the pride in the world is simply to be accepted as a member in good standing of a group that person admires and respects. But, woe unto those who transgress the normative order.

-End Post 1 of 3 Post Series-


Buckels, E. E., Trapnell, P. D.&Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Trolls just want to have fun. 

Personality and individual Differences, 67, 97-102.