Internet Psychology 101:  Swearing and Name-Calling Shut Down the Ability to Think and Focus


Psychological studies show that swearing and name-calling in Internet discussions shut down our ability to think.

Twi professors of science communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison – Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele – wrote in the New York Times last year:

In a study published online last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, we and three colleagues report on an experiment designed to measure what one might call “the nasty effect.”

We asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver. These infinitesimal silver particles, tinier than 100-billionths of a meter in any dimension, have several potential benefits (like antibacterial properties) and risks (like water contamination), the online article reported.

Then we had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the content of the article itself.

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

While it’s hard to quantify the distortional effects of such online nastiness, it’s bound to be quite substantial, particularly — and perhaps ironically — in the area of science news.

So why do people troll in a rude way?

Psychologists say that many Internet trolls are psychopaths, sadists and narcissists getting their jollies. It’s easy to underestimate how many of these types of sickos are out there: There are millions of sociopaths in the U.S. alone.

But intelligence agencies are also intentionally disrupting political discussion on the web, and ad hominen attacks, name-calling and divide-and-conquer tactics are all well-known, frequently-used disruption techniques.

Now you know why … flame wars polarize thinking, and stop the ability to focus on the actual topic and facts under discussion.

Indeed, this tactic is so effective that the same wiseguy may play both sides of the fight.

Postscript:  Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to isolate the trolls and stop their disruption … if we just point out what they’re doing.

For example, I’ve found that posting something like this can be very effective:

Good Number 1!

Or this might be better if the troll is a sociopath:

Isn’t that kind of “entertainment” more appropriate elsewhere?

(include the link so people can see what you’re referring to.)

The reason this is effective is that other readers will learn about the specific disruption tactic being used … in context, like seeing wildlife while holding a wildlife guide, so that one learns what it looks like “in the field”.   At the same time, you come across as humorous, light-hearted and smart … instead of heavy-handed or overly-intense.

Try it … it works.

Category: Psychology, Think Tank

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

3 Responses to “Why Trolls Start Flame Wars . . .”

  1. Mr.Tuxedo says:

    I have the luxury of giving no credibility, nay acknowledgement of anything written by the offending party…… be ignored is a fate the sadist doth not well endure.
    One thing I do like to do is to write opinion pieces in paradoxical subtle code with a humorous Zen with a non-judgmental air. People try to say too much and preclude any possibility that anything other than the sum total of all of their life ego thoughts have led them to correct thought. Hmph.
    Not in the same blog post or even on the same day, but when my content is well reasoned and humourous, (see The Art of Creativity by Koestler) it will be read by the troubled eyes that I do not see. The unresponded to (for eternity) negative comments slow to a trickle, and often one can see their name mentioned by the afflicted, which can be telling in its own right.
    Alan Watts body of work has been helpful to me in waterproofing my personality from time consuming
    Badspeak and giving me some measure of imperviousness:

    “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”
    ― Alan Wilson Watts

  2. nofoulsontheplayground says:

    De-escalation is often an effective weapon in many circumstances, including message board problems, relationships, and customer service conversations with people in Manila or Bangalore.

    Maybe we’d be better at managing message board trolls if we all just watched Patrick Swayze (Dalton character name) training the crew at the Double Deuce in the movie, “Roadhouse.” His main tool was de-escalation (and, apparently, his bare chest. Maybe that’s where Putin learned it).

    On another note, when Dalton says, “Pain don’t hurt” as he is getting stitches, I imagine it’s difficult to keep the brains of any sane person from exploding from the illogic of that statement.

    The Dow still needs to make a new high, and I think it will catch up soon.

  3. rj chicago says:

    Much less have a discussion – totally agree with the title of this article.

    Barry – this returns us to your post of several years ago called “How to have a rational discussion” with the link herewith:

    Me thinks the twitter verse, face bookies and others could well learn a bit of wisdom from the chart. I still use this chart to this day when entering ANY discussion.

    Thanks Barry!!
    rj chicago