Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Why do internet trolls seem so very different to us?

Online trolling is the practice of behaving in a deceptive or disruptive manner on the internet with no apparent instrumental purpose (Buckels, Trapnell and Paulhus, 2014). The term internet troll undoubtedly has different meanings to different people. However, the portrayal of trolls in the mass media provides a good demonstration of the “horn effect” in social psychology. According to Bishop (2014) your average tabloid troll resembles the archetypal Disney villain, meaning that their antisocial behavior i.e. trolling, is associated with a host of other negative characteristics. Interestingly, a survey of 1215 Canadian Psychology students (Buckels et al., 2014), found that trolling behaviors were positively correlated with psychopathy and Machiavellianism, facets of the so called “dark triad” a constellation of unfavorable personality variables (Furnham, Richards and Paulhus, 2013). This of course means that for many people trolling behavior may be indicative of a more global presentation of antisocial behavior, so perhaps the media were right all along.
Conversely, the media representation of trolls may reflect a propaganda technique, known as demonization of the enemy in which the “enemy” is presented as a threatening and evil aggressor with who has only malevolent objectives (Bond, 2007). The conventional advice of the internet is characterized by the phrase “don’t feed the trolls”, meaning that online troublemakers should be ignored rather than argued with (see, Binns, 2012). The merits of this approach are, of course debatable and infringe upon our desire for retribution (see, Cialdini, 2009). However, research has shown time and again, that by legitimizing the dehumanization of particular groups (regardless of their crimes), we run the risk of inciting acts of aggression and violence (Zimbardo, 2003).
Self-serving biases, such as the better-than-average effect mean that few of us regard ourselves as online trolls, and any behavior that would indicate otherwise is conveniently forgotten or remembered only hazily (see, Alicke and Govorun, 2005; Kouchaki and Gino, 2016). Anonymous polls suggest that more than ¼ of Americans have engaged in trolling behavior, although the true figure is likely to be higher (Gammon, 2014). There is no way to defend the actions of online trolls, that is not the aim of this post, I simply suggest that we examine some of our attitudes towards trolls and reflect on the psychological processes that might be at play.


Alicke, M. D., & Govorun, O. (2005). The better-than-average effect. The self in social judgment, 1, 85-106.
Binns, A. (2012). DON'T FEED THE TROLLS! Managing troublemakers in magazines' online communities. Journalism Practice, 6(4), 547-562.
Bishop, J. (2014). Representations of ‘trolls’ in mass media communication: a review of media-texts and moral panics relating to ‘internet trolling’. International Journal of Web Based Communities, 10(1), 7-24.
Bond, M. (2007). The Most Dangerous Animal: Human nature and the origins of war. New Scientist, 195(2619), 51.
Buckels, E. E., Trapnell, P. D., & Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Trolls just want to have fun. Personality and individual Differences, 67, 97-102.
Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.
Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The Dark Triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(3), 199-216.
Gammon, A. 2014. Over a quarter of Americans have made malicious online comments. YouGov, October 20, 2014.
Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). A situationist perspective on the psychology of evil: Understanding how good people are transformed into perpetrators. In A. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil (pp. 21–50) New York: Guilford.

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