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Who Are Internet Trolls? Psychologists Build a Profile

Psychopathy and sadism play a prominent role among those who choose to take it up. 

The dangers of becoming the target of an internet troll are worrying. Besides the uncomfortable aspects one might shake off, internet trolls spread spurious accusations, ruin reputations, and have even caused cases of suicide. It’s important to understand the phenomenon of trolling and those who perpetrate it, as some research suggests it may be more pervasive and cause longer lasting damage than traditional antisocial behaviors.  


Surprisingly, little research has gone into the phenomenon. Trolling and cyber bullying are somewhat related. Trolls glorify in their own worldview. As such, they bait others of different bends on social media in order to mock and abuse them. They're motivated by a need for attention, by boredom, by a flash of excitement due to causing others pain, or by exacting revenge. 

With trolling, the attack must captivate an audience, whereas with cyber bullying it may not be required. Without the shock and attention of others, trolls quickly get bored and move on to the next platform to begin baiting other unsuspecting victims.

One facet of social media that’s given space for trolls to thrive is the “online disinhibiton effect.” This is the idea that one can remain anonymous online and so not experience any of the negative social impacts that similar face-to-face encounters elicit. Though psychologists have done a good job at explaining the forces which gave birth to the troll, they don’t really know who these people are and what drives them.


Bullying on and offline is often perpetrated by those with similar personality traits. Getty Images.

Two Australian researchers, in a study recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, now give us fresh insight into this disturbing trend. These psychologists set out to describe the personality profile of your average, internet troll.

Natalie Sest and Evita March at Federation University in Australia conducted the study. They developed an online questionnaire out of a number of other psychological metrics. It quantified their personality traits and what kind of behaviors they displayed online. First, researchers looked at the Global Assessment of Internet Trolling (GAIT). This was originally a four question assessment. Sest and March added four more items, and now suggest that the original may not be sufficient.

Items included statements like, “Although some people think my posts/comments are offensive, I think they are funny.” Respondents answer somewhere along a five point scale, where 1 = Strongly Disagree and 5 = Strongly Agree. Sadism was measured through the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale. Qualifying statements included, “Payback needs to be quick and nasty” and “People would enjoy hurting others if they gave it a go.” Respondents answered using the same five-point scale.

Lastly, empathy was measured using the Empathy Quotient. This test includes a four-point scale, where 1 = Strongly Disagree and 4 = Strongly Agree. Items include, “I am good at predicting how someone will feel,” and “I get upset if I see people suffering on news programs.” It also evaluates social skills with items like, “I find it hard to know what to do in a social situation.”


Many trolls have poor social skills and act out as a form of revenge. Pexels.

415 participants took the assessment. 36% were men and 63% women. Their average age was 23. What they found was that men were far more likely to become trolls. They had higher levels of psychopathy and sadism, which is what ultimately predicted trolling. Trolls aren’t necessarily devoid of empathy. Instead, they have high levels of cognitive empathy, or understanding the emotions of others, but far less affective empathy, or internalizing those emotions, sort of feeling them for yourself.

Their psychopathic tendencies tended to outweigh total empathy. Trolls usually had poor social skills, too. Rather than act as an outlet for pent-up frustration, researchers found that trolling actually ended in negative psychological outcomes for the troll, even though they were the perpetrator.

Researchers wrote that, “Trolls 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.”

Could an online reputation system curb trolling? To learn more, click here: 

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
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  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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