You've undoubtedly heard the old Lord Acton quote, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Apparently, it doesn't really matter how that power is derived, and Internet trolls are drunk with it -- "it" being the power of anonymity. According to a study by the Northwestern University, anonymity affects the judgment of people similarly to alcohol intoxication and excessive power.
"Although these pathways appear to be unrelated on the surface, they all lead to disinhibited states through a common psychological and neurological mechanism," said Jacob Hirsh of the university's Kellogg School of Management. Dr. Hirsh's colleague, Professor Adam Galinsky, said the loss of inhibition causes "significant behavioral consequences" -- though, that's not necessarily good or bad in itself.
When a person is operating behind a mask such as the Internet, they're more likely to make decisions that align with their true motives or character -- be that heroism or hedonism. "This is why intoxicated individuals can be aggressive in one instant and altruistic in another," said Hirsh, and it could help explain why people tend to express such extreme views when they get behind a keyboard.
People often feel there are no repercussions for their actions online because they're not visually confronted with another person. Dr. Darryl Cross, a psychologist at Crossways Consulting, believes the anonymity of the Internet encourages split personalities. He noted that people have two personas: one driven by raw animal instinct, and another that's more conservative. The former kicks in online.
"What you've got [online] is people who are prepared to let their instinctual personality out rather than really taking a second perspective, looking at it in a different way, and then saying the second thing that comes into their mind instead of the first." Naturally, this occurs more frequently when you have an open system like ours that encourages "guest" posters, versus strictly registered commenters.
"Anything that requires personal responsibility has got to be a plus," Cross said. "Once they have to register and they're held accountable, then that's really going to be a major step forward." Worried that you're a troll? Cross suggests that you establish a method to determine the demeanor of your comment. For instance, consider what your grandparents might say about your post before submitting it.