Trolling and Flaming

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Online harassment can take a variety of forms, according to internet behavior study. Trolling, flaming, and cyberbullying are some of the most common forms of harassment reported by online users. Trolling is a practice in which an internet user intentionally seeks to disturb people by posting unpleasant messages online (Fichman & Sanfilippo, 2016). Flaming, on the other hand, occurs when internet users send offensive messages to one another as a result of a heated dispute or debate. Grote (2012) defines flaming as "displaying hostility by insulting, swearing, or using otherwise offensive language" in his study. The term "flames" refers to a series of non-constructive, angry posts that make no beneficial input to a discussion.  Betts (2016) defines cyberbullying as the harassment of colleagues, classmates or one's aquaintances through electronic means with the core intent of hurting the victim. According to Betts (2016), there is a wide range of definitions for cyberbullying, but they vary depending on how the technology is evolving. This is because as the technology evolves with time, cyberbullying behavior also tends to change. For instance, the mobile technology has evolved with time to 4G connectivity devices which have taken up the functions of computers (Betts, 2016). Consequently, the technological advancement has led to an increase in cases of trolling and flaming among the internet users.

Flaming and trolling has been associated with adverse psychological impacts among the victims. In some cases, the victims of trolling and flaming result to extreme measures including suicide. The most susceptible group of people to trolling and flaming include the pre teens and the teenagers. However, the problem is also on the rise among the other age groups. The primary reason why trolling flaming are associated with the fatal outcome on the victims is because one started, they do not necessarily stop. This is because in the modern age of information technology, people especially the younger age groups tend to spend most their time online especially in social media pages. Secondly, the modern forms of flaming and trolling tend to be preemptive in that the cyber attackers can post negative messages on the victim’s social media pages or using their user names to post such messages. The public nature of such posts tends to be more psychologically damaging compared to personalized attacks.

In a past study done in 2008, 75% of teenagers between the age of 12 and 17 have at one time, or another suffered at least one form of cyberbullying. Also, the study found that about 50% of the respondents also said that they knew the persons behind the attacks. However, in most cases, cyber bullies tend to conceal their identity from the victims as a result of the anonymity and obscurity which is provided by the internet. The following study explores the various aspects of flaming and trolling and the impact they have on psychological well-being as well as how they occur. The paper also examines the major controversies of this form of cyber bullying on the psychological dimensions.

The Psychological Dimensions of Flaming

Flaming is a hostile interaction involving obscenity, profanity, and insults which can potentially hurt the victim or the intended organization and potentially result in dire outcomes. Flaming has become more common in the modern age of information technology as people tend to hold debates frequently over the internet. The people taking part in these debates usually do not meet face to face as it is the case with normal debates. Consequently, people are likely to send each other mean personal messages and comments in case they are angry or upset. The flame war results when two internet users start to insult one another.

Online Disinhibition Effect as a Contributor to Flaming

According to some psychological studies, people who have a high level of disinhibition tend to contribute to flame war more often. Psychologists also refer to flaming as the online disinhibition effect as a result of the way in which people behave with less restraint in cyberspace (Goleman, 2007). There are several psychological factors which lead to online disinhibition. They include the anonymity of Web pseudonym, invisibility to others, the exaggerated sense of self from being alone, the time lag between sending the messages and getting feedback as well as the lack of online authority figure (Goleman, 2007). Disinhibition may take two forms: benign and flaming. Disinhibition is benign in cases where a shy person feels free to open up online. Flaming results from toxic forms of disinhibition.

The emerging field of social neuroscience which focuses on the study of what goes on in the brain, as well as the bodies of two interacting people, has offered clear insights on the neural mechanics which are involved in flaming. According to Goleman (2007), there exists a design flaw which is inherent in the interface between the social circuitry of the brain and the online world. According to these findings, face to face conversation tends to be different from online conversation due to this interface. During a face-to-face conversation, the brain is able to read a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues. Consequently, the speakers are able to use them to guide their next move in order to ensure that the encounter goes on well (Goleman, 2007). The social guidance takes place in circuitry that is centered on the orbitofrontal cortex which is the center of empathy. The cortex plays a critical role because the social scan ensures that individuals pays attention to their next move hence keeping the interaction on track. This face-to-face guidance is critical because it inhibits the impulses for actions which are likely to upset the other person. This fact is supported by findings from studies involving neurological patients who have a damaged orbitofrontal cortex. According to several studies, such patients tend to lose the ability to modulate the amygdala which is the source of unruly impulses. Such patients tend to exhibit child-like behavior such as mortifying social gaffes.

In social media channels, there are no channels for voice, facial expression or any other cues which can be used to shop what the speakers are saying. Consequently, the lack of real-time cues can be misread or interpreted the wrong way. This describes the multiple unwarranted attacks on individuals over the internet without any regard whatsoever to their feelings. Flame wars also can start through an incorrect interpretation of posts or emails sent by another party. Psychologically, one has a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the exact tone from a message received over the internet (n.a, 2006). The receivers of the messages sent over the internet unconsciously interpret them on the basis of their current mood, expectations, and stereotypes (n.a, 2006). Egocentrism plays a primary factor in how individuals interpret messages received over the internet. This is attributed to the difficulties of detaching oneself from their perspectives because they cannot imagine how the message might be understood from another person's perspective (n.a, 2006). Misinterpretation of content sent via the internet triggers flame wars as well as lots of litigation.

Deindividuation in Flaming

Apart from the online disinhibition effect, deindividuation is another argument which a section of psychologists have related to flaming. It is one of the earliest explanation given by psychologists as a behavior which predicts engagement in flame wars, especially on social media sites. According to the deindividuation theory, some groups of individuals are not seen as individuals anymore (Grote, 2012). Consequently, this behavior results in individuals behaving in a way they would not normally do. The anti-normative and uninhibited behavior is manifested through behavior such as flame wars. According to Grote (2012), flaming is associated with the feeling of not being accountable or looked at. Besides, the study suggests that deindividuation results from decreased self-awareness hence an individual loses the capacity to monitor and plan their behavior as well as evaluate actions in terms of internal standards (Grote, 2012).

There are different situational variables with which the awareness of behavior can be drawn away from an individual resulting to deindividuation (Bishop, 2013). These variables include the anonymity which comes with the use of internet connected devices, arousal, sensory input overload, unstructured situations, and the use of altering substances (Bishop, 2013). However, despite deindividuation theorists viewing flaming as an anti-normative behavior, it can also be viewed as normative behavior depending on the specific context in which it occurs (Grote, 2012).

The Psychological Dimension of Trolling

Trolling is another cyber bullying technique which is common especially on social media sites including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. According to psychologists, the primary driving factor to trolling is the privacy that comes with the practice. Anonymity frees individuals from their perceived obligations and acts in accordance with certain social norms. The fear of judgment is a powerful motivator for trolls to engage in the behavior since they do not have a one-on-one connection with the victims. There are a number of controversies involved in the trolling behavior. While the motive behind trolling is to hurt an individual or an organization, the behavior has also been found to be effective and very productive as a way of raising serious issues (Curtis, 2015). Another controversy surrounding behaviors such as trolling and flaming is whether they caused by the use of internet or it is an illumination of the underlying human tendencies. Psychologists have separate opinions on the underlying cause of such behavior with some arguing that it is a reflection of innate personal behavior which only reflects with the provocation of the internet. On the other hand, there are psychologists who hold the view that trolling and flaming behavior is only an effect resulting from the use of internet and can be unlearned (Curtis, 2015). This controversy also raises the need to carry out more research in order to find the causes of trolling as opposed to the condemnation of all forms of trolling since it can be a by-product of policy making in the real world.

The motivation of engaging in trolling is also an important factor in unearthing the root cause of the behavior. For instance, trolls may engage in this behavior due to ideological or political motivation (Curtis, 2015). However, there are individuals who engage in this behavior just to enjoy the thrill that come with psychological torture. Other psychological studies show that trolls have higher levels of psychopathy traits including guilt, empathy, responsibility for their action, sadism traits and the enjoyment of causing both physical and psychological pain to others. The atypical social rewards are a major source of motivation among the internet trolls.

Cognitive and Affective Empathy in Trolling

Cognitive empathy is defined as the ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. On the contrary, effective empathy refers to the ability to experience and also internalize other people’s emotions. Cognitive empathy focuses on the capacity to predict how others feel while effective empathy refers to the ability to share an emotional experience. According to psychological studies, trolls are less likely to have an effective empathy. Such individuals are likely to be trolls. Past studies have also indicated that it is possible to carry out interventions for trolls with high levels of nonclinical psychopathy traits. The treatment process also involves reward on every positive and prosocial behavior so as to reinforce good behavior. However, sometimes the treatment process of such individuals is difficult given that there are trolls who are motivated by the negative social reward that comes with the antisocial behavior which creates mayhem. Psychologists also argue that there is an addictive element of trolling as result of the negative nature of the rewards. Behavioral therapy is effective in cases of addictive behavior in trolling which also involves reducing addiction to the internet in order to modify behavior. Another form of therapy for the troll behavior include cognitive behavior therapy which is a talk therapy that targets the negative thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Other forms of therapy which are available for individuals with this antisocial behavior include group therapy, self-help treatment groups, and family therapy.

A major controversy pegging in the troll behavior is the persons who can exhibit the behavior. Past studies suggest that trolling behavior is only confined to the vocal and antisocial minority. However, psychologists Cheng, Bernstein, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, & Lescovec (2017) suggests that even ordinary people can engage in the trolling behavior too. According to this study, the trolling behavior results from various primary triggers such as mood and the surrounding context of the discussion (Cheng, Bernstein, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, & Lescovec, 2017). Also, the study suggests that a combination of negative mood and seeing troll posts by other significantly increase one's probability of engaging in trolling. Compared to any other individual history in trolling, mood and the context of discussion are key to predicting the troll behavior.

The management of trollers is an important topic of discussion given a large number of people reporting cases of cyber bullying. According to Herring, Job-Sluder, Scheckler, and Barab (2002), the most successful trolls and the ones responded to. And cross-posted to. Response to a troll's comments helps to massage their ego which helps in gathering more momentum to continue with the attacks. Apart from the thrill of causing psychological torture, trolls also have a desire to attract attention especially from quarters they would not have the courage to face in real life (Herring, Job-Sluder, Scheckler, & Barab, 2002). Therefore, internet users with trolls are required to either ignore the trolls or report them as opposed to responding to the attacks.


Betts, L. (2016). Cyberbullying: Approaches, Consequences and Interventions. London: Palgrave Macmillan : Palgrave Pivot.

Bishop, J. (2013). The effect of de-individuation of the Internet Troller on Criminal Procedure implementation: An interview with a Hater. International Journal of Cyber Criminology, 7(1), 28-48.

Cheng, J., Bernstein, M., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Lescovec, J. (2017). Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions. Stanford University, 1-14.

Curtis, S. (2015, November 26). Psychology of a troll: free speech or pure sadism? Retrieved from The Telegram:

Fichman, P., & Sanfilippo, M. (2016). Online trolling and its perpetrators: under the cyber-bridge. Lanham :: Rowman & Littlefield.

Goleman, D. (2007, February 20). Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior. Retrieved August 8, 2017, from

Grote, A. (2012). Flaming on Facebook. Masters Thesis, 1-38.

Herring, S., Job-Sluder, K., Scheckler, R., & Barab, S. (2002). Searching for Safety Online: Managing “Trolling” in a Feminist Forum. The information society, 18, 371-384.

n.a. (2006, February 13). The Secret Cause of Flame Wars. Retrieved August 8, 2017, from Wired Staff Science:

April 26, 2023

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