Why we Troll

v. trolledtroll·ingtrolls 

An internet troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. [1]


The online disinhibition effect

Ask anyone why internet trolls exist, and you’re likely to hear a range of reasons: from online anonymity and invisibility, to personality traits and lack of accountability for one’s actions [2, 3, 4].

Although these factors undoubtedly play a role in shaping our online behaviours for good or for bad (from verbal attacks and flaming to philanthropy and advice-giving) [5, 6], recent research from the University of Haifa has uncovered an altogether different factor behind online trolling [7].


3 key influences

For this particular study, psychologists Noam Lapidot-Lefler and Azy Barak asked 71 female and 71 male university students to pair up and debate a dilemma via instant online messaging.

They wanted to see whether flaming behaviours (using threats, hostile words, derogatory names, swear words and insulting comments online) would be affected by the following three factors:


• Non-anonymous pairs shared their name, gender, age, address, field of study and job title.


• Visible pairs could see a side-view of their partners via a webcam.

Lack of eye-contact

• Eye-contact pairs had a webcam mounted at eye-level.


It’s in your eyes

Contrary to widely-held belief, the researchers actually found that lack of eye-contact had the biggest impact, trumping anonymity and invisibility by a long shot.

In fact, the students who had no eye-contact with one another were twice as likely to be mean and hostile to their hidden partners than their eye-contact peers, even when the latter could only see their partner’s eyes on screen and nothing else.


In conclusion

As with many studies, it’s tricky to pin down the exact reasons behind the results.

But given that a great proportion of our communication is non-verbal [8], and that we rely heavily on facial recognition to connect with and understand one another, it may be that losing eye-contact online actually cuts out our main avenue for empathetic communication – without which we become emotionally disconnected and more predisposed towards hostile behaviour.



Want to know more?
Click here to get a personal invitation to the book launch
The Psychology of Online Persuasion




[2] Joinson, A. N. (2003). Understanding the psychology of internet behavior: Virtual worlds, real lives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Joinson, A. N. (2007). Disinhibition and the Internet. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the internet: Intrapersonal, interpersonal and transpersonal implications (2nd ed., pp. 76–92). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.

[4] Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7, 321–326.

[5] Joinson, A. N. (1998). Causes and implication of disinhibited behavior on the Internet. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the internet: Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal implications (pp. 43–60). San Diego: Academic Press.

[6] Kiesler, S., Siegel, J., & McGuire, T. W. (1984). Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated communication. American Psychologist, 39, 1123–1134.

[7] Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2012). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online disinhibition. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 434–443.

[8] Mehrabian, A. (1968). Relationship of attitude to seated posture, orientation, and distance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(1), 26-30.

The following two tabs change content below.
Best-selling author of "Webs of Influence" (Pearson). International speaker, consultant, columnist at Marketing Week.