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Online trolls are narcissists, sadists and psychopaths, says study

Recently published research from Canada suggests trolls have something wrong with them. Well, a lot. But don't we all?

Not for nothing are those who create disturbance on the Web called trolls. TheFearChamber/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Web culture has enjoyed putting new names to things.

It makes Web people feel like their not merely re-inventing the world but actually inventing it.

And so the word "troll" was born. This was the supposedly new phenomenon of people who appeared online -- most often anonymously -- to annoy, terrorize, insult, defame and generally nauseate.

It wasn't long, therefore, before academics needed to label these beings with a scientific-sounding name. I'm grateful, therefore, to Psychology Today for pointing me to a piece of research from the University of Manitoba in Canada.

After two dainty analyses among 1,200 people on the Web, the results were summated under the title "Trolls Just Want To Have Fun."

The researchers sought to discover whether trolls were, in layman's terms, a touch nuts. Specifically, did they evoke aspects of narcissism, sadism, psychopathy and even that greatest of corporate traits, Machiavellianism.

You will be stunned into commenting with words of many syllables when I tell you that those who claimed that Web trolling was their favorite activity (there are, allegedly, people like this) showed the most of the above tendencies.

The trolls evinced aspects of all the so-called Dark Tetrad of personality. But the worst trolls turned out to be the most extreme sadists.

The researchers even ventured to suggest: "Online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists." And you thought it was bosses. But have you ever checked whether your boss is, in fact, an online troll? Ask the nice bearded man in IT. He'll find out for you.

At the heart of trolling is the idea of making you feel terrible about yourself so that they can feel better. Naturally, in order for them to feel fully better, they need to know that you feel terrible about yourself. Therefore, your reactions must play a part in their pleasure.

Yes, trolling is just like sex. Well, somewhat.

You might feel better when I tell you that the research also said that there was no relationship between normal online chatting or debating and sadism.

I, though, want to tell you about my personal philosopher. He's a short, gray-haired man, a martial arts master and an eager student of nuclear physics. I turn to him once a week for guidance. He's cheaper than a shrink and the wine's better.

He has one phrase to sum life up: "You can never fight human nature."

My own research, therefore, offers this sad thought about online trolls: they say and do what quite a few more people think. They enact many of the feelings that fester inside those who fight those feelings on a daily basis -- or at least articulating those thoughts.

This is not to defend them. They manage to emit daily ugliness with all the insecure glee of the bully and the misplaced chest-pumping of the drunk who's just tipped over a garbage can at three in the morning.

They hurt gratuitously and take pleasure in it. In doing so, though, they offer up their own essential emptiness.

The good people are the ones who know that they're not all that good but try to be most of time. Trolls just can't be bothered. Well, most trolls. Some actually do claim they're doing good.