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Why Do Trolls Engage In Sadistic Behavior? Boredom, Says a New Study

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Why does a troll troll? What leads someone to spend their days sending hateful comments online? What makes someone into a bully? A new study posits that sadism—the acts of hurting someone for pleasure—arises in part due to the most banal reason: boredom. Meaning that trolls on the internet make our lives miserable literally because they have nothing better to do.

This new study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by researchers from Germany, Serbia, and Denmark, explains that, while we know very well what sadism is, we don’t know as well why people turn to sadism in the first place. Sadism is a unique “dark” trait in people, in that it in particular derives pleasure from the suffering of others. And the desire to engage in sadistic activities like trolling, bullying, and even playing violent video games, don’t just come out of nowhere… they come out of boredom.

“Sadistic tendencies are more pronounced among people who report chronic proneness to boredom in everyday life,” the researchers explain, showing that it’s often boredom that prompts people to engage in sadistic behavior. This doesn’t mean however that boredom can make people sadistic. “When several behavioral alternatives are available, boredom only motivates sadistic behavior among individuals with high dispositional sadism.” Translation: trolls only go at it if they are already terrible.

The idea that internet trolls (and other sadistic assholes) do what they do out of boredom isn’t new. We know that trolls do what they do because it gives them a sense of power and the thrill of hurting people, but boredom is also a factor. But that raises the question … what is boredom and what causes it? That’s tricky.

Any parent will tell you that kids who are bored don’t take suggestions for the dozens of things they can do to entertain themselves, like read a book or clean their rooms. Especially on the internet, where literally all information is available, how can anyone even get bored? Well, passively consuming information or books might not be enough for these people, especially if they already have sadist tendencies. They might need to do more … which leads to trolling.

What’s most troubling here is that the sadistic trolling behaviors of these people don’t stem from any actual belief or conviction beyond the desire to hurt people or rile them up. The idea that these jerks begin harassing and hurting people simply because they are bored is in a sense worse than if they were being terrible over something they really cared about. As we have heard in so many other contexts, for trolls, “the cruelty is the point.”

The prevalence of boredom, which often is born out of social isolation due to low “people skills,” is something that perpetuates itself. These trolls are the same kind of people who claim to be involuntarily celibate and blame women for their loneliness when they should be looking at their own terrible selves. And this isn’t just men, I’ve seen the same kind of trolling from women in fandom, whose loneliness and other unhappiness and isolation lead them to harass and hurt people.

Lonely, with no social skills, and high on the power that they can exert over others online, these people develop sadistic tendencies and also become obsessed with the rush from that sadism. It’s a terribly complex, and all these factors feed into each other. Add in all the other people who are engaging in and normalizing the same behavior and we have a disaster on our hands. So … what are we going to do here?

I’m not sure. I think dismantling the patriarchy or at least addressing toxic masculinity in a systemic way is important. But part of me just wants to say turn the internet off and start over again. There are other, smaller things to do, which would involve a lot of therapy and soul-searching for a lot of people. But I think the most important thing here is awareness.

We need to simply be aware of the complex reasons that these trolls are doing what they do. Does that mean we should heed the ancient internet maxim and “not feed the trolls?” On one hand, they may just go elsewhere for their fix, but on the other, they might run out of people to harass and finally get off their computers and do something productive … but again, that’s hard.

There are no easy answers here, but understanding how boredom factors will at least help us as we try to make things online even a bit better.

(via Andre Spicer/Twitter, image: Pexels)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.