Playing chess with pigeons

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

When it comes to online media (including the online version of this very column), what’s your commenting style, and what does what you get up to “below the line” say about you?

Do you mainly (a) debate issues that matter to you, (b) chat with others, (c) make new friends or (d) troll other users?

 A recent Canadian study investigated this issue by putting the question above to over a thousand dedicated commenters (who spent, on average, over an hour a day in various online comments sections). The study found that participants who selected the latter option tended to score more highly on measures of extraversion and, unsurprisingly, lower on agreeableness (though they did not differ from non-trolls on conscientiousness, neuroticism or openness). More disconcertingly, self-confessed trolls scored higher than non-trolls on measures of the so-called “dark tetrad” of personality: machiavellianism (the tendency to manipulate others), narcissism (excessive self-esteem), sadism (the enjoyment of inflicting pain on others) and psychopathy (characterized by selfishness and a lack of empathy and remorse). Ouch!

This leaves just one mystery: Does “troll” (in this sense) rhyme with “roll” or “doll”. If you’re reading the magazine, you might like to debate this with your breakfast partner. If you’re reading online, answers in the comments please. But play nice.

A fully referenced version of this article is available at Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at

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