© Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
What does looking into the hearts and minds of online trolls tell us?

That's the question Australian researchers tried to answer in a new study that investigates the psychological profile of trolls — that is, computer users who engage in the disturbing 21st century practice of deliberating provoking, demeaning, and threatening others online.

Researchers at Australia's Federation University used an online questionnaire to look closer at a handful of traits — psychopathy, sadism, and empathy — among those who engage in online trolling. The survey included 415 participants, approximately one-third male and two-thirds female, with a median age of 23 years. The researchers controlled the results for gender, a significant factor given that trolls dramatically skew male.

Participants were asked to engage with a range of questions gauging their levels of psychopathy, sadism and empathy. For instance, to what extent do you agree with the statement "People would enjoy hurting others if they gave it a go"?

In terms of empathy, the researchers looked at a number of different forms that trait can take. For instance, cognitive empathy is the capacity to recognize and properly identify another person's emotions. Affective empathy goes farther, referring to the ability to experience, internalize and respond to those observed emotions. Global empathy refers to the reaction one has when directly observing another's life experience.

The researchers found that trolls tend to show higher levels of trait psychopathy and sadism, as well as lower levels of affective empathy, according to the study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Interestingly, trolls scored higher than average for cognitive empathy, meaning they are aware of other people's emotions. But the researchers suggested, trolls' higher levels of psychopathy traits appear to override these tendencies.

Given that psychopaths are thrill seekers, the researchers surmised that the "thrill" of creating mayhem on the internet might provide fuel to trolls.

Researchers noticed a strategy of predicting and recognizing victims' emotional suffering, but maintaining distance from "the experience of these negative emotions." Trolls, the researchers wrote, "appear to be master manipulators of both cyber-settings and their victims' emotions."

Trolling can have a powerful effect on victims, potentially exacerbating depression and anxiety.

Academics draw a subtle distinction between trolls and cyberbullies, noting that trolls specifically aim to disrupt their victims' communications for their own amusement. In one famous example, actress Leslie Jones temporarily signed off her Twitter account after being swarmed by a coordinated campaign of trolls launching virulently racist, sexist and violent abuse her way —but she later reengaged with social media and confronted the problem head-on.

"Unfortunately I'm used to the insults. That's unfortunate. But what scared me was the injustice of a gang of people jumping against you for such a sick cause," Jones said in an interview last summer. "Like, it's so gross and mean and unnecessary."