Narcissists, psychopaths, sadists or Machiavellian? When it comes to online trolls, you can take your pick: Researchers say habitual electronic provocateurs have several of these serious personality issues.

One of the biggest studies yet into such behavior has found that Internet “trolls” — those who post deliberately provocative messages to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument — may need some intense therapy.

Mom used to wash your mouth out with soap when you said something mean; what happens when that nasty behavior happens online?

Mom used to wash your mouth out with soap when you said something mean; what happens when that nasty behavior happens online? Perhaps real therapy is needed. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Researchers said sadistic behavior was most commonly exhibited online, and that commenters’ negative traits got worse the longer the person spent online, Slate reported.

“Respondents completed personality inventories and a survey of their Internet commenting styles,” the team at the University of Manitoba said in their report.

Erin Buckels and two colleagues conducted the research via two tests, and determined “overall, strong positive associations emerged among online commenting frequency, trolling enjoyment, and troll identity, pointing to a common construct underlying the measures.”

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Buckels’ and fellow researchers found trolls had nasty personality scores. (Image source: Buckels via Slate)

Both studies revealed similar patterns of relations between trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, using both enjoyment ratings and identity scores. The Daily Mail reported:

One asked survey participants what they “enjoyed doing most” when on online comment sites, offering five options: “debating issues that are important to you,” “chatting with others,” “making new friends,” “trolling others,” and “other.”

It found only 5.6 percent of survey respondents actually enjoyed trolling. “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” the team wrote. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

Psychology Today explained Machiavelli was legendary for his duplicitous nature, and modern psychiatrists now use “Machiavellian” to describe people who are brilliantly and dangerously self-centered.
Based on this research, it’s safe to assume whether online or in person, these trolls could benefit from a few doses of humility, or a visit to the therapist.

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter.