Trolling others is a common refrain for people online. Indeed, this behavior has become so common that it is now intensively studied by psychologists. Psychologists call this behavior the ‘online disinhibition effect’. But what is it that makes people behave this way? Who are internet trolls? Are some people more likely to act like jerks online or is it something intrinsic to the internet that makes this happen?

In this post, we will explore the answers to these questions by exploring 5 of the fundamental factors causing people to be jerks on the internet.

Understanding the online disinhibition effect

  1. Dissociative Anonymity

One thing people quickly learn as they peruse the internet is that people you engage with cannot tell who you are. Whilst the technically savvy could probably detect them easily with some computer wizardry, most people only see what you choose to display. Dissociative anonymity (and the online disinhibition effect) stems from the feelings generated from this ability to become ‘anonymous’. These feelings result in people losing their inhibitions.

The disinhibiting effects of dissociative anonymity can help people to open up. They know what they say or do won’t be linked back to them in their daily lives after all. However, whilst online disinhibition can be benign, it can also be toxic.

Indeed, the history of trolling shows this. People can be encouraged to be more deviant, rude, and racist. In fact, online jerks will say all the socially inappropriate things they can think of due to the lack of consequences.

  1. Being invisible

The effects of dissociative anonymity are accentuated by the sense of invisibility online. We’re all guilty of a bit of online creeping at times. Be it to check out a potential love interest, or seeing what friends have been up to. The sense of invisibility enables us to do this. This leads to people doing things and visiting places online that they wouldn’t dream of in the real world.

The effects of invisibility in reducing inhibitions have long been known in Psychology. Indeed, psychoanalysts commonly use this technique so patients cannot see their body language and facial expressions.

By doing this, patients feel less inhibited and freer to say what they feel. With online text communication online, this sense of invisibility is enhanced. This enables internet trolls to separate their harsh words from the receiver’s response.

  1. Perceived majority positioning

When people see themselves as holding the majority position, they are more likely to express their true opinion. Conversely, if they fear their opinion is in the minority, they may fear being ostracised. This phenomenon is known as the spiral of silence theory developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Elisabeth-Noelle Neuman. The theory seeks to describe how public opinion is formed and how certain behaviors are acceptable in public or in different spaces.

This theory also explains why people may act differently on the internet to in public. For example, whilst in the office, they may not make sexist or racist comments due to the fear of social isolation as a result.

However, online they may feel these views are widespread and in the majority, making them more likely to express them. Combined with a sense of anonymity and invisibility, the perceived majority status can entrench the online disinhibition effect.

  1. Personality traits

Clearly, the functionality of the internet explains why some people behave in a disrespectful way online. However, personality traits are also likely to be a key component. Indeed, one study entitled ‘Trolls just want to have fun’ found that online trolls are more likely to be horrible people in real life.

Specifically, they wanted to see whether trolls were linked with the darkest personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. They carried out a survey of 1,200 people. This survey found that people ranking trolling as their top pastime on the internet were more likely to score highly for dark personality traits. In particular, trolls were linked with traits associated with sadism in the real world.

Unfortunately, sadistic tendencies can actually be pretty common. Combined with the online disinhibition effect, the right personality traits can turn people into unparalleled online jerks.

  1. A spiral of negativity

Although some studies show that the online disinhibition effect is linked to sadism others have shown that anyone can be a jerk online. For example, a study for Stanford and Cornell Universities found that trolling may be influenced by situational factors at least as much as the innate traits of people. This study found that the person’s mood and the tone of comments already on posts can lead to a spiral of negativity that causes trolling.

They tested this by giving a sample of 667 people an easy or difficult test. Participants were then asked to read the same article and comment underneath. However, underneath the article, people saw either neutral comments or troll-like comments. The study found that 68% of those given the harder test alongside the article with comments by trolls wrote troll-like comments themselves. Even for the easy test plus inoffensive comments group, this figure still stood at 35%.

So do some people become jerks online because of the internet or because they are jerks in real life? Well, the online disinhibition effect explains that psychological factors, personality traits, and the functionality of the internet are all to blame for this type of behavior.


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