What makes a person attack others on social media? Why are there people with this negative and hurtful disposition who have found their perfect place on the web? There are people who know their comments are direct attacks but write them because it amuses them. A research team from the Faculty of Health Sciences and Psychology of the Australian University of Mount Helen carried out a study which revealed the personality traits of this type of user: the social media troll.
These scientists looked for the traits and social skills of men and women exhibiting behavior. They found that study trolls scored significantly higher than others on two important traits: psychopathy and cognitive empathy. Let’s see what these two traits tell us about trolls.
What does the trait of psychopathy tell us about social media trolls?
Psychopathy is an antisocial personality disorder. The term is used less and less in the clinical field; we are beginning to replace it with that of “sociopath”.
It is not yet clear exactly where this personality disorder comes from. It seems to have a genetic component that could be expressed as a function of a lack of tenderness during childhood. There are also different hypotheses about certain brain alterations in the frontal lobe that are caused by a malformation, disease or brain injury.
Doctor of Psychology Robert Hare has conducted research on the study of psychopathy for more than three decades. His studies have revealed a series of common characteristics that define people with this disorder. These are people who tend to be bored, need constant stimulation, and are unable to generate long term goals. They are manipulative and want to feel that they have power, control over others. There are many narcissistic traits in them.
They also have a serious impulse control deficit and react with anger. They also present problems with respect to social and moral norms, even if they show in many cases a false social adaptation with a very superficial personal charm.
These people consider themselves to be of great value. They like to hurt others. It is a disorder that appears in both men and women, although it is found more statistically in men. These people seem to lack empathy altogether, even if they don’t exactly. We will see why.
The dark side of empathy
Affective empathy and cognitive empathy are related but distinct cognitive processes. They involve the activation of different areas of the brain. Some psychometric tests measure each specific type of empathy, such as the Basic Empathy Scale (BES), and are very effective in assessing the type and levels of empathy in subjects.
Affective empathy is further divided into two sub-genres:
- Parallel. It is the ability to know how the other person is feeling and to feel the same emotions.
- Responsive. In addition to previous abilities, those who possess it have the ability to react to its outcome, as if they were directly affected.
Both affect the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. We are talking about a “hot” empathy. The social media troll totally lacks that kind of empathy.
There is also a “cold” empathy, known as cognitive empathy, which is not as popular. This is the type of empathy that the troll has at very high levels. Cognitive empathy is the ability to know how the other is feeling, but without the affective component.
In other words, one does not feel the suffering of the other. It is through this type of empathy that the troll is able to predict and recognize the emotional suffering of its victims. He uses it to do as much harm as possible. It affects two regions of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex, both of which are involved in reasoning and decision making.
A time bomb
These two traits, when united in the same person, configure an explosive potential. Because the social media troll is a person full of venom. A venom that he needs to inoculate in others, hiding behind his anonymity. And, quite often, he succeeds.
Other similar studies have found that certain topics are particularly attractive to the troll on social media. In many cases, he doesn’t even read the posts or does so by reinterpreting their content in the sense that interests him. Unfortunately, there are no studies that tell us how to stop this phenomenon. However, not responding to attacks from trolls seems to be the best way to hinder their unwanted behavior.