A paper published today by Evita March, a senior lecturer and researcher of psychology at Federation University Australia, examines the psychology of Internet Trolling. Dr. March concludes that Internet trolling is a disruptive, antisocial online behaviour that can cause significant distress. Her study attempts to include all previous significant predictors of Internet trolling in one model; specifically the utility of gender, primary psychopathy, sadism (direct and vicarious), affective empathy, cognitive empathy, negative social potency in predicting Internet trolling. Further, if the Vulnerable Dark Triad traits (i.e., secondary psychopathy, vulnerable narcissism, and borderline personality traits) could predict additional variance. The sample comprised of 733 participants (70.5% women and 29.5% men) who completed an online questionnaire. Results indicated that primary psychopathy, direct sadism, vicarious sadism, and negative social potency were all significant positive predictors of Internet trolling.
In regard to this study it is important to consider the difference between affective and cognitive empathy:
- Affective empathy is sometimes referred to as emotional empathy. It describes an individual's capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's mental states. It is based on one's ability to empathise emotionally with the other's emotional or arousal state.
- Cognitive empathy, also known as 'perspective-taking' is quite a different skill, even though it is also referred to as a form of empathy. Basically it is the ability to put one's self into another's place, and see their perspective.
Cognitive empathy is not really what most of us would consider as empathy. It is a skill that can be useful to people who participate in negotiations. However it can also be used in a malicious manner to manipulate the other's emotional responses. Psychopaths and sociopaths usually rate very highly on the cognitive empathy scale whilst being almost completely devoid of emotional empathy. Disturbingly, Dr. March concludes that Internet Trolls also fall into this category. This makes them more dangerous and malevolent than the popular perception which tends to regard trolls as dull-witted and mindless.
The paper was published by Pergamon.