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The psychology of trolls

Ramit Sethi

Today we’re going to talk about something really important: The psychology of trolls.

I know, I know. The internet’s rule is “Do not reply to trolls.”

Yet I reply to every one, meaning I may have the most well-curated troll library on earth. Should I fund the Sethi Museum of Troll Psychology?

Let’s dig into my archive. Here are a few emails I’ve received. What do you notice?



LOL

Besides a clear lack of mastery of basic English, these trolls reveal a lot.

I want to show you how to handle these emails, because if you’re creating anything, eventually you’ll get comments like this.

So this post is for the creators out there. The people writing blog posts, trying to help other people with fitness or some kind of business. You’re going to get nutty emails at a certain point. It will happen!

Let’s start with an amazing back-and-forth dialogue I had with a reader named “Cliffy.”








Let’s pause for a second. What am I doing here? How do you think he’ll respond?

“I just know I’m down and out.”

OH SHIT! What do you think just happened?


Do you see how unexpected this interaction is? It’s so bizarre, it almost defies belief: Someone sends angry emails, you respond with compassion, and they instantly change. What’s happening here?

Fortunately, I have extensive data on trolls, since this is one of my hobbies (n=thousands). At this point, I can predict their behavior with 90%+ accuracy from the first 2 lines of their email (Confessions of a CEO: The 8 types of people who will never buy your product).

Of the trolls I write back to, more than 50% eventually end up saying something like Cliffy did.

“Life is not going that well.”
“I’m having a tough time.”
“I didn’t even think you were actually reading this.”

(Which raises the question: Why are you even writing back to a computer?!?)

A lot of people ask, “Ramit, why do you spend your time on this?”

First of all, I’m fascinated with human behavior. Second of all, I don’t get the chance to interact with somebody like this in real life. This is a chance to get curious.

Cliffy is one of millions of people who leave angry emails on social media and forum comments. But there is something much more interesting here than his angry rhetoric.

I want to hear from you. What do you notice about these trolls? What’s your takeaway? Leave a comment below with what surprised you. I read every comment.

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62 Comments

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  1. avatar
    Ubu

    People who are angry often have hidden needs for information, love, and compassion. People who troll don’t know why they troll, but sometimes it’s just for attention and human interaction and mental stimulation. If you do a google scholar search for human information behavior AND trolls you’ll find lots of interesting articles.

  2. avatar
    JC

    Is there a good response to "OK Boomer"? Or should I ignore it? (Apparently the commenter thinks I'm older than I am…)

    • avatar
      SD

      How about, "What does that mean, I'm not sure I understand?"

    • avatar
      NH

      I also replied but it ended up further down the page. 🙂

    • avatar
      anon 17yo

      Luckily for you, it's a stupid meme that's easily combated with a simple "no u". Honestly just forget about those people if they're trying to actually use it to harass you, they're just going along with a meme and have no idea how to properly communicate what's upsetting them.

    • avatar
      Diablo Ramierz

      I just reply: "Ok Tidepod"

  3. avatar
    jaccie fulton

    I think, when you respond with logic.
    Like you expertly did.
    They find that you are not playing their cause and effect game.
    Which is unusual in their world.
    It snaps them back into being a normal, if that is the correct word, person.
    I have encountered many trolls on sites like YouTube, Facebook and OK.
    As well as friends asking me to respond to trolls they encountered.
    If I am in the mood.
    I (jokingly) tell my friends it's as easy as putting my psychopath hat on.
    That way nothing a troll can say can effect me.
    Then,
    I respond with a constant stream of humorous replies.
    If they engage.
    The majority of the time they stop their barrage of insults and say I am funny.
    I consider it, fighting fire with fire.
    With that, I feel their are 3 ways of dealing with them.
    1: Logical responses.
    2: Humorous replies.
    3: Ignore them.
    If one does not have the time, desire or skills to respond with logic or humor.
    Then, of course, ignoring them is best.

    • avatar
      Sand-eye

      These trolls are a classic example of “I need to be heard while I stamp my feet and yell so everyone will listen.” They likely never get or got heard as children or even now as adults. They are usually down on their luck and life and in some ways want to test and see if you (the rich guru) or others (if it’s a public comment) will reply. Is someone actually reading these emails/comments/replies? And usually with negative criticisms. It makes them feel better and vindicated in some ways. Why are you wealthy? What’s makes you such an expert? See? You really are full shit and a liar! I was once semi-famous, as I affectionately refer to that time in my life. And I did what you did Ramit — engaged but I engaged too much as I,too, am fascinated with people and behaviours. I ended up getting stalked and harassed. Moral of the story? Engage if you have time with the humour or free advice as you see fit but don’t try to save these people. Teach them to fish as you’re doing Ramit and watch them prosper. 😊

  4. avatar
    NH

    'OK Boomer' is a general response to anything someone thinks is not relevant to them. It's not specific to age, though it is more likely if you're over 28 and explaining something. Similar to the expressions 'thanks for the mansplaining.' or 'whatevaaaar.' Best response is to laugh and move on. It hasn't been said to me yet but I plan to reply 'lol. You've got me.' as perhaps I was over-explaining or suggested some way for someone to change based on my personal experience rather than theirs. If the conversation is a neutral one I might add 'Is there another way I can help you?'

  5. avatar
    Jill

    Ramit’s responses were perfect – Cool, calm, collected and compassionate. I’m a nanny and this is the exact approach I take with my toddlers when they are having a tantrum or meltdown. Responding with anger only fuels the fire. Trolls are just the adult equivalent of a child’s tantrum. They want help and compassion but they don’t know how to ask for it.

    • avatar
      Diane L Allen

      Jill, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. You, Ms, are a Rock Star! Thanks for the cogent metaphor.
      Diane

  6. avatar
    Leandro Benincá

    YOU'RE AN IDIOT AND I HATE YOU!!
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    Now that I have your attention: No, I don't think any of that! Hahaha

    I'm a fan of your work and everything you say, and I'm just wondering if anybody in Brazil has ever contacted you to come down here: either to speak or just spend a couple of days.

    Any plans on that? How hard it is to make that happen?

    All the best to you, and to all your haters.

    LB

  7. avatar
    Katherine Bates

    People subconsciously always want to make others feel the way they feel. i.e. Misery loves company. It's an incredibly fascinating concept around human behavior. When we feel happy we want to see the others around us happy. When we feel down and out we want the world to wallow with us. So someone that is riding high and on top of the game (you Ramit), will be somewhat subconsciously triggering for someone who is down and out. But when someone has had ENOUGH with being down and out and starts searching for help or resources would find someone like you inspiring. It's all about mindset and where someone is at in their journey! Human behavior is wild. I LOVE it and nerd out on it too. The best mirror is your partner. Holy moly that's the biggest teacher of all. That's a whole other blog post friends! Love your work brother keep it up! :)))) <3 Xx Kat

  8. avatar
    Jessica Michelle Dupuis

    I worked in property management during a major hurricane – that many people are still recovering from. We saw an uptick in angry emails, complaints, you name it. We had one tenant in particular who was always nasty, and when we'd see his phone number on our phones, we'd all groan… and yes, we'd even stop what we were doing to listen to the poor person who'd have to take the call.

    I ended up doing their move-out inspection on a completely destroyed home and they insisted that they stay for 100% of the time, which ended up doubling the time I'd spend out there. Turns out, when they evacuated, their dog died, two cars got totaled (one of which happened because our vendor didn't tie down the tarp well enough) and one of their kids nearly died because of the mold in the house (severe allergies).

    I ended up being the only one who listened, and when they called, I always took them; they never were a problem after that.

    • avatar
      Julio Protzek

      That's a beautiful story. It totally reframes nasty behavior to me.
      I will try to remember that next time I have to deal with someone being nasty.

  9. avatar
    David

    It's fascinating how your "How can I help you?" response to his "FACK YOUUUUUU" turned him. I'd have expected that he would read that as sarcastic, implying that he was a little crazy and needed help.
    Perhaps your lack of aggressive response and your questions — "What makes you think that?" and "What makes you say it's true?" — primed him to turn because they suggested you were taking him seriously.
    A great lesson!

    • avatar
      Anita

      well put!

  10. avatar
    Vicky

    My heart hurt a little bit for a Cliffy because he’s lashing out of hurt and pain. But only a little. Cliffy seems to employ a victim mentality. I only recognize it because I struggle with it too (except I’m not a troll, lol).

  11. avatar
    Alli

    Most people who behave in such a way really just need a hug, a kind word, anything to let them know that someone out there cares, that they do indeed have value. When that kind word comes, sometimes it's hard to believe at first. Perhaps it's the first kind word they've ever had in life. When these trolls communicate via an online platform, it's very easy to emotionally distance themselves from the target. If the target is indeed a well known person, such as Ramit, the assumption is that he will never see it, or if he does, would never actually reply. When that reply does come, it is assumed that it's automated, or an assistant, so chances are the trolling will continue at first. Once it sinks in that yes, the target of the trolling is in fact responding with compassion, the dam breaks. Finally, this is what compassion feels like. The script has been flipped. Instead of channeling energy into negativity, it can be repurposed.

  12. avatar
    Mel

    I think a lot of the time trolls are frustrated but have no idea how to express it. I feel like they just want someone to listen, not necessarily, fix their problem. I think they get surprised when someone takes the time to hear them out.

    It’s hard to respond with compassion and not with equal, natural aggression. You make quite the art out of it Ramit.

  13. avatar
    Shaun

    Reciprocity!
    I think of it like this; If I’m walking down the sidewalk and someone says, “Hello!” I’m much more likely (not guaranteed) to say “Hello!” back to them. If that same person instead punched me in the face, I’d be much more likely to respond by punching them in the face. It is ridiculous to think I might respond with a friendly hello if assaulted. We often (not guaranteed) get back what we give out. We can increase the likelihood of getting back what we want by communicating that out first. Wish someone would talk to you? Start up a conversation! Want someone to calm down? Remain calm. Frustrated because someone isn’t using logic? Be like Ramit and ask them logical questions. It isn’t perfect but I’m so many cases, it is very helpful. Thanks Ramit!

  14. avatar
    Susan

    There are many good insights here. It's always easier to lash out at someone else instead of looking inwardly. I think the logic is…If I can prove that the problem is you then it can't be me. If it's not me, then I'm justified in my rage.

    Ramit's answers remind me of a tactic I've used with argumentative people. The louder they yell, the more I soften my voice while keeping my body language open and strong. There comes a point when they realize how stupid and out of control they look for yelling. That's when the real conversation can start.

  15. avatar
    Jodie

    This email couldn't have come at a better time! I upcycle furniture and make have a niche abstract sort of market. I had my first troll yesterday. I took it as a compliment 😂 I actually wish I had dread this blog a day earlier, then I would have responded to it rather then just deleting.

  16. avatar
    Tracy A Lorenz

    Tracy here! I founded my company about 3 months ago, and we have been hugely successful (70M+ in funding) and I have been happier than ever! Many things are in balance. But I found my greatest troll- my two best friends believe I am having a manic episode. So much so, that they sent comments on Facebook to my best friends, family and even my investors and employees telling them I need to be in a psych ward. Now I am dealing with a defamation of character lawsuit. These are the trolls I know and I love, but my response is boundaries- if you love me, helping is not taking me to a psych ward, because I have a therapist. You need to support me. And this way is not the way.

  17. avatar
    PG

    I agree with most of what has been written here about using compassion and logic to disarm some of these toxic comments, but I also think a small percentage of trolls actually enjoy trying to cause others to feel annoyance, stress, shame and/or pain. They love the powerful feeling and the attention it brings them, particularly on social media. I know this from talking with a few of them offline. The trick is knowing the difference, so you don't waste your time on the truly toxic ones. I'm still figuring that one out.

  18. avatar
    Anita

    I'm from the Virgin Islands, and we just don't ignore folks. Also, politics is and always has been our national sport. As a cultural group, when someone's having a meltdown — which happens (especially after two Category 5 hurricanes in a week!), we ask them how we can help or, alternatively, let them know it's okay to be upset that you just lost your house, your job and everything all at once, it's okay to be upset. And then someone, somewhere along the way, is going to help them a bit further down the road.
    Also, seeing something I thought was animal abuse, I guess I've been that "troll." Instead of asking, I assumed. I was wrong — dead wrong. It hadn't even occurred to me that I could be so wrong! But the content creator wrote a short, extremely respectful response that shut me down (because I was, again, wrong) and after which, I apologized. I was truly upset at what I thought I was seeing, and I deeply appreciated the response, even though I look like an idiot (because I was).
    So I'm glad you respond to trolls. I do as well. Virgin Islanders like to get to consensus. It's a better way to go if you can. Everyone leaves the table satisfied and better off.

  19. avatar
    Joelle Godfrey

    🤣. I'm starting to feel sorry for the trolls. You're like a troll for trolls. Thank you for my Belly Laugh today.

  20. avatar
    Ilan

    My understanding is that they are projecting all of their anger, frustration and /or insecurities onto you and your emails. When you respond with empathy and questions suddenly it's like you hold a mirror up and they are staring back at themselves (and their insecurities).

  21. avatar
    Josh

    This is fascinating. We’ve had some of these experiences, but have had many others dig in their heels.

    I’m curious as to if you’ve tried this tactic with nasty comments on social media? I would expect the dynamics to be different.

  22. avatar
    Melissa

    This is AWESOME!!

    I tend to take things very personally, so this is a bucket of cold water to the face to WAKE UP and see that when people lash out like this, it's not anything to do with ME!

    They simply just want attention, and will do anything to get it!

    Thank you so much for this!! 👌

  23. avatar
    Fortune

    You make a confusion between haters and trolls. Haters are angry at anything and everything and they write those mails and comments. Trolls on the other hand, are trying (some are successful, "successful troll is successful", some are not) to confuse you, to say idiotic things just to make a stupid point and see you try to debate their "flawed" logic. They do it "for the lulz", they don't get angry, ever. They try to make you angry. So…you have to learn more about this, normie.

  24. avatar
    Loga

    I believe the positive response is not expected by the troll and that angers them initially but gets them calm after some time because their mean comment was not fueled with another mean comment. This is maybe due to them not experiencing positive people around them in life and positive comment surprises them.

    When we are doing something we love, there are times random people try to change our focus and try to make us stray away from our objective. These trolls would not have achieved anything in life and so they want others to belong with them. But, when we respond to them in a calm, positive and a more understanding manner from their shoes, they tend to see our point. That's my takeaway.

  25. avatar
    Dan

    Reminds me of a guy I know who said he felt like a failure because he's clinically depressed and thinks that would negatively affect his toddler son somehow. A bunch of guys we were hanging out with said stuff like "No don't think that about yourself. You're not a failure" presumably to make him feel better, but I thought that wasn't helpful at all so I asked him what he thought success looks like. He said he didn't know.

    Upon reflection, I realized that his self-image was being derived from a perverse circular thought process: I can't define success, so I must not have attained it, therefore I must be a failure.

    And by the way, he's one of the most bitter people I know.

  26. avatar
    Thalassa Highbrou

    People may troll others whom they believe are more successful than them or more capable than they are. They tend to have a complex problem with their own failures in life and will attempt to inflict their anger and or disappointment towards others who appear more competent than they are just to help cover up their shame, embarrassment, self doubts, and frustration. More than anything they will tend to believe people owe them something.

  27. avatar
    Asim

    Well Ramit, coincidentally you mailed me about the "Troll" article at the right time. I am doing bachelors in architecture, and I was completely frustrated this whole month because of so Mich work and horrible feedbacks. Today I got the marklist and I was devastated! I was told about the professor's nature of having grudges with me. I don't know if that's true or not, but even if it is, your article helps me resolve the resentment.

    So yeah, thank you. Also, I am amazed by your persistence, it's a great motivator.

  28. avatar
    Davi

    Brilliant – and helpful.
    Ramit, can you say more about "At this point, I can predict their behavior with 90%+ accuracy from the first 2 lines of their email ."

  29. avatar
    Chuck

    This was a hilarious read, Ramit, it was satisfying to see you turn a troll (Cliffy) inside out like that! I think people troll because they are looking for attention as a way to cope with something in their life that is not working out they want it to be.

  30. avatar
    Katy

    I write about the damage of purity culture, so I get an interesting flavor of "troll" I think. I remember the first time someone put a spam reply on my article I felt like I had really made it. Ha.

    But I write against Christianity and the catholic church's approach to blaming women for sexuality and men's desire…so my audience are religious people who believe themselves to have the moral high ground over me.

    Usually, this results in thoughtfully phrased (but still wrong, of course) objections, occasionally tinged with silent but loud regret that they can't find a mistake in my Bible/catechism references. But occasionally, people who have thought of themselves as good people so long they haven't taken a good look in the mirror in a long time will write something more condemning or even vicious. It's a good reminder that you can never let yourself think you're "done" becoming a good person.

  31. avatar
    Isabella

    Your reactions are calm, cool, and collected. The trolls are just purely irrational and it becomes a personal attack. You have to empathize with them almost because they take zero self responsibility.

  32. avatar
    Craig

    Ramit, this is a great blog post about the mindset of trolls. What I noticed about the trolls is that their behavior is from being hurt in the past. The trolls want attention and want to either provoke, anger or disrupt.

    The takeaway is the way you respond to trolls or angry people with compassion and a careful approach. When you find out how their day is going, you find out behind the anger is a person who feels helpless and hopeless.

    What surprised me is how you answered Cliffy with kindness. Kindness to trolls can turn somebody's life around.

  33. avatar
    ed smith

    Some trolls I've replied to just want to complain. But others seem to want/need instant solutions to what's bugging them. I think what may irritate them about your low-key responses, aside from their being surprised that you'd reply, may be the hint, if not the outright suggestion, that improvement for them is possible. You're not writing them off. But improvement takes time, patience and self-discipline. If that approach doesn't sit well with them, your replies take the fun out of trolling and I imagine they go away.

  34. avatar
    Bryan

    I don't know how people expressing genuine anger (whether miss targeted or not) is considered trolling. Maybe I'm confused by what you mean by trolls because, in my experience, the people you are describing aren't trolls at all. Alas, cheers

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    Kino2

    Kino

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    Robin Jakobsson

    <3

  37. avatar
    Andrew

    What I find equally interesting is that content creators seem more likely to respond to trolls than friendly members of their audience who reach out with a question or meaningful comment. It can be disappointing when you leave a thoughtful remark that gets ignored, meanwhile the trolls get fed.

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