The Psychology of Internet Trolls and the Empathy Deficit

Helen Riess, MD


December 13, 2018

Backyard bullies have always been with us. We used to be able to spot bullies from blocks away. The swagger, jeers, taunts, and looks of disdain and aggression were on full display, and often the bully could be avoided by taking a different route home, or exiting school through a different door. The pleasure they took in shaming and intimidating others made their low empathy visible to all. The victim's black eye or broken nose would provide evidence of the aggression. Fear and cries were seen and heard, and the bullying would stop.

Times have changed. In the digital age, there is a vast, invisible stage for bullying. Cyberbullying has reached epidemic proportions. Nearly half of all Internet users report being the target of some type of online mistreatment.[1] The anonymous theater of the Internet guarantees that the Internet troll will see no signs of terror he inflicts.

The Science, and Seven Keys to Empathy

The science of empathy[2,3] reveals that nonverbal communications play a dominant role in signaling distress, pain, sadness, and other negative emotions. These signals are mapped onto the brains of observers through mirror mechanisms for pain, touch, and emotions. For example, simply observing someone get a hand slammed in a car door makes us flinch, even though nothing has touched us.

The seven keys to empathy are eye contact; facial expressions; postures; tone of voice; naming the emotions of others; appreciating others as whole people who have a past, present, and future; and our physiologic responses to others.[4] Our heartbeats and physiologic responses, as measured by the galvanic skin response, all vary in response to what other people are feeling, and we can learn to become attuned to these signals.[5]

'Unfriending' someone on Facebook or 'ghosting' a relationship despite repeated outreach allows you a certain amount of cruelty without any emotional cost.

In face-to-face communication, shared experiences enhance our understanding of others. These important cues vanish when we converse through digital devices. Without actually being with others, interactions lack emotional context and richness, and our empathic capacity becomes blunted. For example, "unfriending" someone on Facebook or "ghosting" a relationship despite repeated outreach allows you a certain amount of cruelty without any emotional cost.

The human brain is wired to pick up signals of others' emotions through an elaborate neurocircuitry. Human connections are also strengthened by the release of the neuropeptide oxytocin, the bonding hormone.[6] It nurtures the first bonds between mothers and infants and is released in powerful measures in romantic relationships and friendships through eye gaze, voice tones, and touch.

The impact of increased contact through technology means that the quality of communication and the strength of human bonds may be diminishing by not receiving a caring look or getting a hug when needed. Especially after being cyberbullied.

Why Do Internet Trolls Dehumanize Others?

When attacks are hurled online, seeing the consequences of attack is not activated in the attacker's brain. Studies show that trolls do not tend to view their victims as real people. They dehumanize others, which means the person on the other end of the attack is considered to be an object and less like a feeling person. Even though their harassment can ruin lives and even drive their targets to suicide, Internet bullies do not seem to care. Bullying tends to confer an immediate sense of power to the powerless.

Who are these trolls? From studies, we know the vast majority of Internet trolls are men, and many are under the age of 30.[7] They tend to be antisocial by nature and often lack the social and emotional skills to resolve interpersonal conflicts, both online and offline. Canadian researchers cross-referenced online personality tests with trolling behavior and discovered that trolls tend to score very high for the "dark tetrad," a term that was coined to describe four overlapping personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, and a manipulative deceptiveness known as Machiavellianism.[8,9]

We know that victims of online harassment often feel depressed, anxious, and defeated from the abusive experience. Trolls also appear to pay a psychological price. If we think about these feelings as a mirror of what the cyberbully feels internally, we may get a glimpse of a person who feels powerless, anxious, and depressed and who knows no other outlet than to provoke such feelings in others. But rather than act as an outlet for pent-up frustration, trolling seems to amplify depression, loneliness, and isolation.

Emojis and Other Digital Methods to Express Emotions

What can be done? More face-to-face human interaction are needed to build interpersonal skills before we lose the human touch all together. The trolls who are causing pain may need a caring human or psychotherapist to understand their own feelings of isolation or rejection. We must be careful not to categorize all trolls as psychopaths who do not respond to treatment. Perhaps there is a role here for technology to assist.

What if emojis could actually help? In 1999, Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese economist, created the first emoji as part of a team that set out to revolutionize Japan's means of communication.[10] The repertoire quickly moved beyond facial expressions to thumbs-up, hearts, and "like buttons" that symbolize even greater nuance of thought and feeling. Now we have everything from unicorns to hashtags to short moving clips (known as GIFs) to help us reintroduce some of the intended emotions back into digital messaging. 

Our technology experts are scrambling to convey emotions that are freely expressed through the seven keys of empathy discussed above. We may need to take emojis to the next level to truly express digital empathy. The problem with the way we use emojis now is that they convey a feeling, but they are not very specific about what the person might mean, nor do they say anything about a person's emotional needs. There is no way to distinguish exactly what response you are looking for.

Some new technology is already experimenting with facial recognition software that maps the face to generate personalized emojis.[11] Some have developed the capability to customize animated messages that use your voice and reflect your facial expressions in real time.[12] Perhaps a digital face of pain may deter some cyberbullies who forget that their targets are real people.

Advances in technology reveal that people who communicate digitally continue to seek more precise ways of communicating and responding to feelings.[13] Alternatively, perhaps an emoji police car or audible siren may jolt a person's prefrontal cortex and reasoning capabilities into considering the consequences.

Another approach could be to take advantage of a trait that research has found to be intolerable among bullies: boredom. When a cyberbully's craving for a response is frustrated, it may motivate him to move on. There may be no "one size fits all" solution here, but innovation and creativity are needed to address cruelty of trolling.

Although more sophisticated emojis may help, we must take care that the real, live human experience not be sold off. Having more emotional context could spark some empathy. Focusing and caring for victims of cyberbullying is essential. To complete the circle of empathy, understanding the psychology of Internet trolls is also important, recognizing that they are also human beings who need help. Our society cannot afford to sit in judgment without seeking solutions for unintended consequences of the digital age. The Internet has made it very easy for bullies to attack and hide. At our own peril, do we fail to identify the marginalized, isolated, and forgotten members of our digital and actual communities and find solutions to help them? We all benefit from an increased dose of empathy.


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