A recent study suggests that trolls prevent us all from behaving like rational human beings.
Troll encounters are simply a fact of life when it comes to the internet. Just browse around any forum or comment thread, and odds are you'll find someone making life very difficult for decent, hard-working internet users. We all know how frustrating and annoying trolls can be, but a recent scientific study suggests that they could be much worse than we originally thought. You know that feeling you get when you really want to put a troll in their place with a cutting yet witty retort? That means their comments just bypassed the part of your brain responsible for calm, rational thought. Once that happens, you're not only getting angry in the short term, you're also becoming a slightly less rational person altogether.
For the study, 1,183 participants were asked to read a blog post discussing the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. While the post itself was identical for each participant, the comment threads below varied from polite and reasoned to rude and inflammatory. When the scientists asked afterwards what their subjects thought about nanotechnology, they discovered that trolling comments had a polarizing effect. Everyone who read a rude or derogatory comment quickly became more secure in their original beliefs, dismissing the more balanced ideas laid out in the original post. Most interestingly, the troll's stated opinion had no effect on the reader's reactions; it was the hostility itself that made everyone less rational.
To scientists, this behavior bears a strong resemblance to the theory of motivated reasoning, which states that humans are emotional first and rational second. This means that if you're presented with a balanced and well-reasoned idea, you'll probably ignore the details if someone is hurling out inflammatory comments nearby. It only gets worse when discussing serious issues like climate change or Mass Effect 3, where opinions are so vitriolic that almost no one is capable of having a fully rational conversation in the first place.
So is there anything that can be done, short of never reading comment threads ever again? Here's my suggestion: before posting in any thread, inoculate yourself from hostility using cute animal pictures and videos reminding you not to be a dick. Also, as always, not feeding the trolls would be a very good idea.
Image: Ernest Scared Stupid