Why Trolls Start Flame Wars: Swearing and Name-Calling Shut Down the Ability to Think and Focus

George Washington's picture

Psychological studies show that swearing and name-calling in Internet discussions shut down our ability to think.

2 professors of science communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison - Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele - wrote in the New York Times last year:

In a study published online last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, we and three colleagues report on an experiment designed to measure what one might call “the nasty effect.”


We asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver. These infinitesimal silver particles, tinier than 100-billionths of a meter in any dimension, have several potential benefits (like antibacterial properties) and risks (like water contamination), the online article reported.


Then we had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the content of the article itself.


Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”


The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.


In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.


Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.


While it’s hard to quantify the distortional effects of such online nastiness, it’s bound to be quite substantial, particularly — and perhaps ironically — in the area of science news.

So why do people troll in a rude way?

Psychologists say that many of them are psychopaths, sadists and narcissists getting their jollies. It's easy to underestimate how many of these types of sickos are out there: There are millions of sociopaths in the U.S. alone.

But intelligence agencies are also intentionally disrupting political discussion on the web, and ad hominen attacks, name-calling and divide-and-conquer tactics are all well-known, frequently-used disruption techniques.

Now you know why ... flame wars polarize thinking, and stop the ability to focus on the actual topic and facts under discussion.

Indeed, this tactic is so effective that the same wiseguy may play both sides of the fight.

Postscript:  Fortunately, it's not that difficult to isolate the trolls and stop their disruption ... if we just point out what they're doing.

For example, I've found that posting something like this can be very effective:

Good Number 1!

Or this might be better if the troll is a sociopath:

Isn't that kind of "entertainment" more appropriate elsewhere?

(include the link so people can see what you’re referring to.)

The reason this is effective is that other readers will learn about the specific disruption tactic being used … in context, like seeing wildlife while holding a wildlife guide, so that one learns what it looks like “in the field”.   At the same time, you come across as humorous, light-hearted and smart ... instead of heavy-handed or overly-intense.

Try it … It works.

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jughead's picture

GW, I usually like what you write, but please...some of us just comment the same way we'd talk to you in person...and yeah, we use a lot of swear words.  If you are so consumed with how something is said rather than what is said, I think the problem is yours.  Words can't hurt you, buddy.  So please take this in the spirit in which it is intended and go fuck yourself. Thanks.

silverserfer's picture

I though this article was going to be about fonestar?

acetinker's picture

You know, it's a new kind of cool, to know that you are many miles ahead of the 'gatekeepers'.  You, and Wm can forever and for all time go fuck yourselves, artwork notwithstanding.

acetinker's picture

So, George.  When you see yourself responding responding to your fellows, but for a long time are neither up, or down voted, nor replied to, can you assume you've been banned?

I just wonder, but not much, anymore.

George Washington's picture

Yes, probably ... a mod informed me a while ago that I was "shadow banned" on Reddit.

That means that I can see my own posts and comments, but others can't.

acetinker's picture

You're a good man George.  Unfortunately, we have both been compromised.  I assume you have family.  Your offspring are your ultimate weakness if you wish to tell the truth.

Brother, if Jesus is real, he would be the only one who could 'return' and set things aright.

Amagnonx's picture

I agree with GW in the main - but swearing is not ad hom, and censoring due to swearing is the worst.


So long as there is no censorship in comments, and the ad homs and logical fallacies are responded to by pointing them out - all good.


It is natural to respond in kind when people bad mouth you, and if you dont respond then you can be made to look weak - but a strong response is probably to point out that the opponent just lost the argument by resorting to ad hom - because thats the best argument they have - meaning none.

RobM1981's picture

I don't want to be a contrarian, but if I'm trying to remove a 13mm bolt from a 2002 Mazda that is rusted SOLID you can bet that there will be swearing AND name calling.   I will call that bolt names that will make a sailor blush...


But - I'll be compltely focusd.  You can bet on it.

Braverdave's picture

A few years ago during an internet discussion someone called me an 'eagle scout' and provided this link:


I guess they thought it was a put down but for me it was a compliment and a fact as I was in scouts for many years.

The whole roster of flame warriors is here:


Good for a few laughs and even a bit of insight into trolls. If I remember right I got into trouble and called "eagle scout' for defending a particular 'troll'. Got called all sorts of names like 'troll-lover' and a few others. Eventually became friends with both the 'trolls' ;)

blindman's picture

i tried to read through this entire thread and came
up with this,
if ya have a minute ....?

The Wisp's picture

First they Ignore you, Then they Fight You, And then You Win...

   Group Mind is pretty Powerful , no wonder they want to Stifle it

Urban Redneck's picture

I missed my morning coffee, did I also miss a sarc tag, or are you saying groupthink is desirable to anyone other than "them"?

Dewey Cheatum Howe's picture


Well a bigger problem meta-messaging and we've all been guilty of this at some point but when you do it on a grand scale it creates low intelligence which is a big problem these days bad fucking language aside assholes. You see this used alot these days if you pay attention to the propaganda outlets and popular culture.


Have you noticed  people who speak meta-messages that leave victims running for escape hatches? You begin to question flaws between their lines because what you hear is not what the speaker means. How does it happen? People who lack interpersonal  intelligence, tend to use meta-messages instead of honest communications, and some even wonder why their victims bolt. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Meta-messages come from undeveloped interpersonal or linguistic intelligences, and they torpedo the very people you hoped to win. These masks also kill brainpower for future exchanges whenever meta-messages …

  • In sales, dive-bomb consumers at a business like a vulture swoops down for its kill. In response,  folks flee. Brain shut down with cortisol that comes through insincere statements such as, How are you? when you really mean, “How’s your bank account?”
  • In conflict, state meta-messages such as – All’s OK -  when it’s not, and you’re really holding a grudge about unspoken problems. Amygdalas flare, like lightning strikes iron rods, through meta-messages insincerity of words.

Where have we seen the all's ok one concerning certain statistical agencies

  • In learning, pretend you understand long before you do, and watch those you lead default back to ruts because you failed to speak sincerely, and so could not apply new facts accurately.
  • In communication, claim no feelings hurt, when emotions were literally crushed, and that meta-message sends convoluted meanings that leaves whole circles with mental regrets.



Meta-messages torpedo trust and pretense prevents open communications in many toxic workplaces.  People say what others want to hear to avoid speaking what’s really on their mind? The opposite of meta-messages, tone that communicates sincerity can build goodwill even among people who disagree. Do you observe more tone or meta-messages?


Lot of good information in the links there in where and how the brain is affected by this sort of thing.



tip e. canoe's picture

cool stuff DCH, check this:

Sadly, Hebbian thinking literally changes your brain waves. Physical and psychological changes occur in the  brain due to narrow focus and lack of stimuli that comes ideas that differ from your opinions. Over time, these changes in your dendrite brain cells make it harder to embrace change. Can you see why some people resist brilliant innovations that would improve their lives and yours?

Braverdave's picture

Super cool stuff. Thanks to you and Dewey for sharing!

rwe2late's picture

 Bertrand Russell, I believe,

once remarked that if he found himself getting irate during a debate, it was most likely due to his not having a good counter-argument.

Whenever he was prepared with good facts, answers, and arguments, he found himself much less likely to lose his temper and resort to making stupid pointless remarks.

rwe2late's picture

 GW probably need not have referenced a psychological study with a questionable methodology to make his general point about behaviors degrading the level of communication.

It has long been known that vituperative ad hominems, pointless digressions, illogical attacks on straw man arguments, thread hijacking, etc. all definitely thwart understanding and possibly potential agreement.

Given the ignorance and prejudices common to many, some of that must be expected, even I suppose, tolerated.

But I suspect much occurrence of that results from organizational designs to stifle dissent and discussion.

It has been well known and documented for some time that private (opinion-molding) organizations like Huffingtonpost will directly censor relevant and reasonably written comments they find contrary, while publishing many ad hominem, irrelevant, and self-congragulatory comments they find agreeable.  

Worse, other public relations organizations, like the Bivings Group, working under contract to organizations like Monsanto or British Petroleum, may plant comments under false identities  (astroturfing) .

NSA is definitely monitoring all the comments and emails, some sites and persons more intensively than others. Given what we now know about Pentagon propagandizing and other lobbyist organizations, astroturfing to disrupt and divert political internet comments is most likely directed at certain websites, and more than likely widespread.

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet




Braverdave's picture

I agree that " Given the ignorance and prejudices common to many, some of that must be expected, even I suppose, tolerated. But I suspect much occurrence of that results from organizational designs to stifle dissent and discussion."

And sometimes it's not even under false identities. Once upon a time, in an internet discussion far far away ... I encountered a retired military officer who freely told us who he was (he thought that depleted uranium munitions were not war crimes) and acted as if his rank in the miltary made his opinion the truth.

smacker's picture

There's a huge amount of bad language, ad hominem attacks and other abuse poured out by commenters on ZH. Dunno if its intended to shut down debate but I find it a refreshing change to many other places where people abide by politically correct brainwashing that sends me to sleep


TheReplacement's picture

That's not even remotely possible Obama.

Do you see what I did there?

Vendetta's picture

yep ... I think we have all seen enough of it to recognize it pretty quickly.  Its been an impression on me that some of the divisive type language in the commentary of various blogs (if not almost all) is done precisely to avoid intelligent discussion of the various issues facing the nation and it is highly successfully in destroying intelligent cyber discussions....ends up being a littany of commentary regarding the 'disruptor' instead of the topic folks want to discuss.

Dewey Cheatum Howe's picture

There is a difference between spirited arguing and knuckle dragging shit slinging. Adults don't get offended by bad language in spirited debates if anything it spurs the conversation. Knuckle dragging shit slinging on the other hand is just that and has no redeeming value from a conversation or debating point of view.


mogul rider's picture

I used to be a narcissist but I found my myself not being heard so I became a psychopath.

But I then found myself jamming gold pumpers which wasn't fair cause it is the responsibility of the idiot reader to check these dirtbag's fact and data and to verify their argument....

Besides gold pumpers mean well - they just want to screw you over and get you to buy the top of the trade as they escape through the back of it.

I can't wait to get to the sadist personality


Then I'll go after silver bitidiots...

janus's picture

just one more point on all this tripe...after all, i don't want to over-do it...lil ole janus just dudn't know what he'd do if'n anybody thought he'd slipped over the line...janus must remember to be gentle with so fragile a generation.

"...shuts down our ability to think and focus."

really?  whoever 'you' are, if janus were to now call 'you' a quavering pussy, and it stunted your ability to...what was it?...ah, yes, now i remember (that quavering pussy 'shut down my ability to think and focus'...something about pussy will do it every time!)...yes, if such a thing disabled your ability to think and focus, and, generally speaking, if name-calling or vitriolic and/or spirited language has that effect on you, you may know, with the most indubitable certainty, that you are in fact a quavering pussy.  if something like that stops you in your tracks, you should furthermore know that you are prey...and you will be eaten!

in other words, quit your sniveling, you bunch of worthless sissies, grow the fuck up, learn to be a man, and quit short-circuiting arguments with some manufactured guilt-complex though which i'm supposed to accommodate your insecurities.

bitchez, as to your insecurities: identify them, out-grow them, overcome them or learn to live with them. they are not my fault; and i am not your insecurities' keeper.

that is all,


kurt's picture

Thanks but all the comments are depressing, except the gorilla. 

Blue Horshoe Loves Annacott Steel's picture

Anyone who believes this is a complete moron!  Must be a democrat or insane...or some kind of tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist...or...



I was about to get my troll on.

windcatcher's picture



At times, name calling is useful, even to academics expressing their logical thought.

"Where does Obama find morons like Susan Rice and Victoria Nuland? These two belong in a kindergarten for mentally handicapped children, not in the government of a superpower where their ignorance and arrogance can start World War 3."

elwind45's picture

Just another bubble to gaze into and see ones distortions. And nothing is very much fun anymore- Roger Waters

combatsnoopy's picture

THis has been going on since the NAR and fellow PRs used the internet to censor opposition to horribly overpriced real estate and pushed it as propoganda using the internet.
Googles and Sock Monkeys' have been used for at least 2 decades for everything from pushing propoganda.

Edward Bernays and Saul Alinsky be so proud!  Especially since these bitter trolls hate their lives and have nothign to bring to the table.

GeoffreyT's picture

For fuck's sake, ZH (And Washington's Blog) - any time there is a 'psychological study', its research conclusions can be safely ignored.

Psychology as a discipline is fucking nonsense from go to whoa, and the research methodology of the average psych study is a case study in bad design and shoddy statistics.

Do you really think you can draw conclusions about broad human behaviour by gauging the responses of white middle class college students who have no incentive to focus on what the fuck you're asking?

That's who the research subjects are, almost without exception: a group (n usually small enough to invalidate most statistical tests) of 20-something college students - ergo mostly white, since the 'prestige' studies happen in Ivy League colleges. And there is no incentive for them to spend more than a second or two in responding to the sorts of pissweak "mental exercises" that folks like Kahnemann have made a career inventing.

Get 30 of your friends together and ask them a bunch of the bullshit "ZOMFG I bet you'll get the wrong answer" facile brain-teasers that "show" how humans "are wired" to make consistently wrong decisions.... if none of your friends declares "Fuck off - this is meaningless childish horse-shit", you need new friends.


I quite like Dan Ariely's presentation style, and some of the 'cognitive' stuff of folks like Kahnemann and Ariely (and other behavioural economics dudes) makes for interesting reading - but it cannot be taken as having scientific merit because the research design is so poor.

Even my beloved "Dunning-Kruger Effect", although intuitively appealing, suffers from this problem. Personally, I choose to accept the DK hypothesis as a result of a lifetime of anecdotes (i.e., interactions with retards who were overly confident in their abilities) - but that is a different notion to accepting it as 'fact' or 'science'.


TL;DR version: psychology is a load of hand-waving unverified bullshit, the main design of which is to shill for the vendors of psychotropic drugs. Fuck them.

Landrew's picture

Seems you are proving Geo's point. 

tickhound's picture

They took care of all those 'distinctions' with two words - behavioral science. Now please get back in formation before I force you to tell me who you are.

Tall Tom's picture

The problem is that people believe that they are somehow disassociated from their "Online Persona" through a psuedoanonymity.


When debating issues there will be times when I respond to an article or a post. The response is one where they question my information as valid. I then will respond with sources. Of course this eats up my time. Then afterwards, producing the sources, the respondent refuses to even validate the sources or demonstrate a flaw within the logic presented within, the source.


By this time I just become extremely agitated. They get what they want, right? Or do they?


There is no hope. The Internet has been compromised by agents of deception, paid to promote the Government agenda. I do not get paid for my time writing.


The media, as well as the Internet, has been completely coopted and, at this point, it is just time to start destroying the underlying infrastructure of deception.


There is a lack of Moral Fiber in most...every...organization. Most people are more interested in perception and not the underlying truth.


I will relish the day that it all comes crashing down on top of thier heads. Those prepared will survive it but those whom practice deception will be destroyed by the CONSEQUENCES of the very web of deceit which they have woven.


While I sharpen my cold steel...


The wages of sin is death. Notice that while Christ forgave on of the thief on a Cross being crucified with Him, that He did not call His Angels and had that thief removed from his Cross. He allowed the thief to SUFFER THE NATURAL CONSEQUENCES for his offense.


While I sharpen my cold steel...


So I teach others how to make Bombs. Who needs a Gun?


Gun Control? They are straining at gnats. Guns will be ineffective against Armored Personnel Transports and Tanks. Guns are gnats compared to that. You need Rocket Propelled Grenades.


Sooner, or later, perhaps they will act. I am capable of doing it myself. But what impact will that have?


There is far more impact in numbers.  When many others are doing it then it serves to affect a much greater and wider impact.


Furthermore teaching is not against the law. Universities teach people how to do this daily. I am just spreading the knowledge to ones that might be angry enough to use it.


If the Trolls wish to incite though thier Sadism then there is a direct and unexpected consequence. They get what they want, right?


Remember Santana High? (I was invited to leave that school in 1973 as I was disabled and being bullied. It is just Five Miles from me.)

Remember Columbine?


Those were kids. I am much older and I think on a much grander scale. Now teaching is not violating the law. I am not stupid enough to suggest that anybody does anything illegal.


I just let them know what can happen and how it can happen. They can take it as a Public Service message of a warning or an instruction manual. It is up to them.


And I have had a bellyfull. Perhaps that is what they want. They are getting what they want, right?


Trolls? Come on...Give me more incentives.


(Here is how you can make a simple Anti Personnel Bomb...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH6GpXAXmx8  Give me more incentives. Come on. I have the jones for those incentives.)

GeoffreyT's picture

The definition of irony is someone claiming to think on a "grander scale", while invoking the name of a mythical first-century Judean revolutionary with a God-complex. FFS.


Pseudonymity permits people to slough off the affectations of "tolerance" that we are indoctrinated to present when we encounter flagrant bullshit: from the cradle we are taught to nod and smile in the face of bullshitters, so that we don't "hurt their feelings" (or worse, be seen as an opinionated child).


If the world was full of folks who called bullshit - loudly and long - every time something seemed like bullshit... there would be no religion, no politics, and no war.

The internet serves as a brilliant market for ideas - and crucifies (haha) bad ideas quickly and without mercy - precisely because interactions take place without the manifold layers of pretended tolerance that we (sensibly) use in everyday interactions AFK.

jharry's picture

In his classic on logic, "Creative and Critical Thinking", Edgar V. Moore writes that there are three ways to influence decision making: self image, value system, and frame of reference.  He should have included intimidation, blackmail, murder, name calling, cursing et al.

kaiserhoff's picture

Also "Political Correctness" which uses intimidation to frame all issues, and insists that some groups can never, ever be criticized.

George Washington's picture

Political correctness is bullshit ... I'm not arguing for it.

And people are free to fucking swear to express themselves.

What I'm against are false, intentional ad  hominen attacks to try to divide and conquer, so that the serfs can't challenge the Fed or the other powers-that-be...

Urban Redneck's picture

The empire uses divide and conquer to maintain control over the serfs.

However, if the serfs want to conquer the empire they must divide the empire first (or sit around and wait until hell freezes over and the empire accidentally suicides itself).

Is there another option I'm missing?

Not even the Marquess of Queensberry played by his own rules when slugging it out with Oscar Wilde.

janus's picture

to not play by his own rules were his own rules...i up arrowed you anyway.

now let's talk about dreyfus...on second thought, let's not talk about dreyfus.

anyway, as to your overall point...i'd agree with you so affirmatively that some exaggerated number of wish-i-could up-arrows wouldn't do it justice; except, i don't know shit about what you're talkin about.

divide powers against themselves?...by the internet?...now you're just talkin crazy.

these swiss-chics have really gone to your head...heard they raised the leagal age of protitution to 18...good for the swiss -- those 16 year olds were starting to crowd out the market.  they don't really understand what they're doing till 18, anyway.

all i know is, when the swiss start doin crazy shit like banning 16 year old protitutes and smashing minarets and kicking dark sheep offa alpian edens...well, the franc/eur peg cannot be far behind.

p.s. tell oprah to pick me up a wallet next time she's in zurich...i want one of those billfolds protected in a glass case, made from the hide of something ferocious, exotic and high on everyone's endangered list...tell her to take steadman along...you know, so they'll recognize her.


Urban Redneck's picture

We'll if you're actually familiar with the Marquess of Queensberry then I'd guess you're a jock, a gay-rights advocate, an English major, or freakish statistical aberration...

As to what I was trying to convey- when has there ever been a successful and enduring slave revolt? Successful rebellions and revolutions (in the offline world) involve either dividing the elite, or gaining the support of outside elite. (I am not particularly of the mind to sit around and continue taking it up the ass and out the wallet from a fascist banker/MIC/bureaucrat oligarchy until they wear themselves out, or I expire.)

As to Oprah- you are an insightful one, but feel free to keep her on west side of the pond.

janus's picture

i'm not gay-rights advocate, but i do favor their artistic contributions; and, so long as they behave themselves, i enjoy their company (i start to get queasy after too many specifically targeted entendres).

i used to pretend to be a jock...was never a big-time college recruit or anything more than pretty good -- i would, however, love to test out the slopes in your 'neck' of the woods (give a barbaric yodle/yawp through the cantons for janus).

english majors envy me big-time...and there regarding, i'm trying to get a book published, and, at the same time, fight that maudlin industry.  so, yes, i'm sorta something of a lit-nut (and i am obsessed with the cultural/historical context from which a given artist is wrought).

returning again to your salient point (revolutions...be they slave or otherwise), well, i suppose my tone didn't come off as intended.  you couldn't be any more correct; and, my friend, there are plenty of elite who would love nothing more than a world very similar to the one we envision.  many of them live in your staggeringly beautimous land of rifles, buxom/svelt lasses, chocolates, gold bars, rabid independence and clear thinking.  oh, and, i dunno, a lil birdie tells me there's lots of em in deutch-land, too (and all the germanic lands), in france, in italy...hell, spain even.  there are even those similarly disposed here in the good ole u-s of a...which is why i stayed.  but i do not, in the least, blame you.  i often seriously consider a spell in the continent...i'm thinking the southern coast of france...but everyone of good sense gets alarmed at my fantasy...germany they say; or, barring that, belgium, or better yet, switzerland.  i'm waiting on england to get their mind right -- sadly, i may keep waiting for a long, long time (but, a lil birdie tells me, maybe, not so long). 

and goy-oh-goy...oops, i definitely meant 'boy-oh-boy'...are there ever some uber-wealth germans with vivid memories of allied 'activities' in WWII's aftermath...such things aren't soon forgotten.


sex is german for six,


Braverdave's picture

PCectedness is fucking bull shit.

I like swearing sometimes. For fun and effect.

But sometimes in a few characters I have encountered it is a distraction. One fellow I knew actually had good things to say but it was so buried in swearing that it was fucking impossible to follow what he was saying. I think a good ratio of regular words to swear words is about 10:1

Unless you are really fucking pissed off ;)

ThirdWorldDude's picture

Thanks for making that clear.

Now, for fuck's sake, include that statement in your own interpretation of the douchebags' "study" so people don't jump into conclusions.