Researchers say online trolls are usually men who show psychopathic and sadistic tendencies and don't have much empathy. CC0 Creative Commons

When an anonymous person posts hateful comments online just to get a rise out of others, you might know more about that user than they think. According to recent research, that mean commenter is probably a male with lots of psychopathic traits and not very much empathy.

A study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences defines trolling behavior as “the deliberate provocation of others using deception and harmful behaviour on the internet, which often results in conflict, highly emotional reactions and disruption of communication in order to advance the troll’s own amusement.” But what kind of person would do something like that? The researchers examined levels of psychopathic traits like impulsive and thrill-seeking behavior as well as the levels of empathy and sadism in trolls’ personalities to see if they were solid indicators of trolling tendencies.

“Online trolling is of particular concern due to the harmful negative outcomes its victims experience,” the study says. “The increased popularity of the internet has given rise to new forms of antisocial behaviour conducted online. Victims of online antisocial behaviour experience similar psychopathological outcomes as victims of face-to-face antisocial behaviour, including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.”

Out of the more than 400 people studied, who were on average in their early 20s, the researchers found that men were more likely than women to participate in trolling behavior. Those men who were trolls also showed “higher levels of trait psychopathy and sadism” and lower levels of affective empathy.

While cognitive empathy involves understanding how other people feel, affective empathy — also known as emotional empathy — is what makes us feel what the others are feeling.

According to the study, when the male trolls show psychopathic tendencies, they “employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognizing the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions. Thus, trolls appear to be master manipulators of both cyber-settings and their victims’ emotions.”

The trolls can recognize how their targets are feeling, but they do not internalize those feelings themselves so they are not affected by them.

“This is likely a crucial aspect to trolling – if trolls empathized with their victim, perhaps they would be more likely to reduce or refrain from engaging in the behavior.”

The researchers also explain how psychopathic traits play into trolling: Psychopaths often display thrill-seeking behavior, and “creating mayhem online” can feed that desire.

Their sadistic tendencies are what give them gratification from making others feel bad, further motivating them to participate in trolling.