Who let the trolls in?

A blog asking the psychological question of what explanations we have to address the phenomena of the internet troll.

A couple of uncompromising – or just plain rude and spiteful – comments on social media and my mind is immediately wondering again about cause and effect.  What prompts someone to be the internet troll?

Out of character behaviour 

It is easy to become complacent to the troll. Lurking in the shadows or projected on a screen. A few months ago, I would have offered explanation from Carl Jung, and his archetypes. I would have been satisfied with that. The shadow parts within us that lash out because we ignore them, causing them to lurk as subconscious parts within. Parts we have repressed. Rejected persona. Carl Jung and the neo-Jungians (who develop their models still to this day) will explain how these parts occasionally break their silence and act out.

linear cause and effect

Modern day behaviourists like Stephen Ledoux, author of “What causes human behaviour – stars, selves, or contingencies” would call such Jungian theorising mystic or scientifically baseless.  And just discredit the entire discipline now standing beyond these philosophical starts.  He would look to the behaviour itself, reflect upon the knowable factors leading up to the event as cause.  The radical behaviourism which permits physiological conditions to be considered beyond the external environmental that the first in the field would have considered.  He might offer a detailed linear cause and associated effect chain of events.

Subconscious emotional response

Joseph Ledoux by contrast, a neuroscientist and author of “The emotional brain” might be a little more sympathetic to the theorising of early 20th Century psychologists. “Emotional responses are for the most part generated unconsciously. Freud was right on the mark when he described consciousness as the tip of the mental iceberg”, states Joseph Ledoux, as quoted by Rita Carter in her detailed 1998 illustrative book “Mapping the Mind” – which Joseph Ledoux offers a full page to the influences of the Limbic System over the Frontal Cortex, (ibid pp98).

External influence – chemical

In this same book, Rita Carter also highlights the impacts of neurotransmitter levels if impaired or kept artificially high. Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and noradrenaline. Recreational drug use also impacting receptor effectiveness – both at the time of use and through longer term abuse. That includes alcohol. Similar cause can be outlined from diseases and associated medications that can cause chemical or physiological alterations.

External factor – prompting hormone response

Regulation of other hormones are relevant too. Robert Sapolsky presents at some length in his lectures how the complexity of these interactions can cause short-term change to likelihood of response. He also presents the changing structures in the brain through prolonged stress or how combined factors can directly attribute to action potentials that are enacted or overridden within the Limbic System, the Cortex, or beyond. Or perhaps we are tired, and the frontal cortex becomes slower in enacting a more diplomatic response. Still acting to intervene but weaker or slower and too late because we have already pressed send on that reply.

External factor – language

In written exchanges this can be easily misinterpreted. We are all capable of ambiguity in our writing, but misunderstanding could arise from more fundamental starts. In his book “Language and Social Relationships”, Asif Agha (2007) writes extensively about the nuances of language and the implications in various forms of dialogue. “Register” for example may offer a multitude of inference but anyone of us is only capable of sounding out a few, but more adept in recognition of many more (pp147). All are lost in written form, but our tone is still sounded as we write. It may be heard quite differently by the reader.

He reflects upon cultural influence, but also dialect, sociolect, and denotational footings, all of which create differences

such differences are sometimes exploited strategically to create social partitions or boundaries within an interaction, but social boundaries can result willy-nilly too.  In multi-party encounters where multilinguals and codemixing mark off monolingual interlocutors as out-group (or non-participants) with respect to certain utterances, whether intentionally or not; social boundaries enacted in such cases may coincide with differences of propositional uptake and thus involve cognitive boundaries too.

Asif Agha 2007, pp133

External Factors – socio-cultural

Or maybe our societal psychological interactions have played a part. The compartmentalised elevated hierarchy we have earned in another social group. This group has rewarded our selfish acts, and we therefore take these lessons into groups anew. Perhaps this is behavioural Operant conditioning? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the amygdala and the hippocampus now working slightly differently because of a newly connected neural network response. Sitting above this however is our socialised understanding within the frontal cortex. Maybe this directs us to a safer experiment in this new group. It is safer to pull down a minnow, than attack the silverback we know we will never be.

So many possible explanations.  So many factors we could blame.  It could be as simple as seeking a few minutes of safe combat, or a moment of anonymous fame.  Perhaps all are offering cause.  Or perhaps it is illusory to think we have any input to offer at all. 

Know your troll

One thing I can conclude is giving more time to the response would offer a modicum of control. This I know, because this was my control tonight. For these troll-like comments – that prompted this thought – the troll comments were my own. The troll was me.

Except, I wrote them in my journal instead. Researched some of these alternative explanations. By the time I had finished those comments no longer belonged. My attitude had changed. My mindset. The responses offered all became less interesting, less funny, less necessary to make. And now they are gone. As has whatever temporary state of mind, or chemistry, or environmental impact which willed the troll along.

The ultimate control.  Time.  And my immediate behavioural response was gone.

v | b | t in action?

More visibility of my own mindset by giving it longer to be seen. More understanding from the extra learning in-between the moment and the next. Understanding increased by perspectival change. Available with more time.

My behaviour better defined.  Constraints changed by the removed deadline of time.  Still no nearer to understanding how to better control the root-cause, but proof that a control can be implemented anyway.  Even if that is just finding more time.

Trust in myself. I consider myself a diplomat at the best of times. Even so, a little more trust afforded with this time frame in a moment the diplomat, I nearly was not.

Concluding remarks

This is not my first time of stepping back to gain time. It will certainly not be my last. My journal holds many pithy remarks of similar tone. I conclude with a few below.

Calm your jets and write your thoughts.  Hedge your bets, in measured pause.  Quiet reflection not defended pride.  Will you troll beneath, or bridge both sides?

Adapted from my journal, 10th February 2020

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

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