Ash Catton

PhD Candidate, Clinical Psychology Student

Trolling: Narcissism or Sadism?

September 30, 2017

Online trolling of social media is a phenomenon with potentially extreme consequences for its victims. Extant research suggests a relationship between trolling and the dark traits of Narcissism and Sadism, but it is not certain which can better explain the behaviour. The proposed study aims to lend support for Sadism as a more significant correlate of trolling. The secondary purpose of the study is to gather demographic data with the goal of advancing towards a more complete profile of the typical troll. The proposed study is a correlational self-report factor analysis of undergraduate students at university on measures of trolling, narcissism, and sadism. Real world implications include assisting the development of preventions and interventions, as well as policy formulation for social media platform providers.

All forms of human interaction come with the problem of aggression, and Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) is no exception. Trolling, a recent CMC phenomenon, is the act of faking sincere intentions but where the goal is provoke disruption or conflict for the amusement of the troll (Hardaker, 2010). Some research suggests that the definition of trolling may have different meanings depending on context, such as providing amusement for the audience, but the goal of disruption appears stable across many contexts (Coles & West, 2016). Trolling can have extreme consequences such as ‘doxxing’ which are cases where private details are published online, and other instances where the target has been inundated with racist comments, and even threats of death (Stein, 2016). More commonly, trolls can be seen to provoke conflict in the comment section of controversial news articles by discrediting the news media, denying the existence of rape culture, and making inflammatory cultural and racial statements (Zaleski, Gundersen, Baes, Estupinian, & Vergara, 2016).

Until recently, cyberbullying and trolling appear to have been conflated under the category of the former within the literature. Despite both behaviours being a type of aggression, cyberbullying is typically an online act committed repeatedly by an individual or group, against a defenceless individual (Smith et al., 2008) and may be governed by deindividuation (Reicher, Spears, & Postmes, 1995) rather than a motive of pleasure. This is illustrated by Christie and Dill (2016) which showed that negative evaluation of peers in the anonymity of cyberspace could be adequately explained by subjects high in self-esteem and autonomy, and low in social anxiety thus making possible an explanation from personality traits.

The attempt to reduce the negative pole of the Big Five trait of Agreeableness into distinct but overlapping components resulted in the Dark Triad constructs of Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy by Paulhus and Williams (2002). They defined Machiavellianism as the trait of manipulation, and Narcissism involves entitlement, dominance, and a sense of superiority, whereas trait Psychopathy consists of high impulsivity with low empathy and anxiety. More recently, sadism has been proposed as a distinct and irreducible factor in dark traits thus making a Dark Tetrad (E. E. Buckels, Jones, & Paulhus, 2013; Međedović & Petrović, 2015). Trait Sadism can be conceptualised as the enjoyment of the suffering of others (Paulhus & Dutton, 2016).

Research on the relationship between trolling and the Dark Tetrad shows a positive relationship between all four traits however Sadism has been shown to be the most significant factor (Erin E. Buckels, Trapnell, & Paulhus, 2014; March, Grieve, Marrington, & Jonason, 2017; van Geel, Goemans, Toprak, & Vedder, 2017). Furthermore, despite the conclusion by Craker and March (2016) supporting social reward as a motivation, the paper concedes that Sadism was significantly correlated with Facebook trolling. However, a study on sex differences in antisocial Facebook use has suggested that the tendency by males to report more antisocial motives online than females, can be explained by trait Narcissism being more commonly associated with males (Ferenczi, Marshall, & Bejanyan, 2017).

Given the severe consequences of trolling behaviour, it is evident that a psychological profile of the online troll is required. 


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