If you bottled the amount of hate and vitriol a person encounters during a single internet session – regardless if they’re perusing cat videos or are knee deep in election coverage – you’d have a batch of moonshine so potent that it would make you go blind due to the overt racism, sexism and homophobia which permeates daily existence.
Whereas a hate monger used to have to take to the streets with a megaphone and a soapbox, or parade around in white sheets to voice their disdain, the internet has proven to be a tool that is deft at completing the task while also allowing the executioner to remain nameless and faceless as if standing before a guillotine.
While it’s easy to use positive affirmations like, “don’t feed the trolls” or “they probably live in their mother’s basements,” as a means to lessen the impact of their damaging words, it may be far more useful to understand what fuels this behavior in the first place.
There are no lukewarm feelings on the internet. People, products and entities are viewed either in a positive light, or seen as something truly awful. With this lack of middle ground, negativity reigns supreme. But what is actually happening in the brain when a person gets the impulse to use horrific language and wish atrocities upon a stranger, that when said out loud, would probably send chills down their own spines?
The brain has something the scientific community refers to as a “hate circuit” which is a more digestible descriptor for elements inside a person which are activated in the frontal gyrus, right putamen, premotor cortex and medial insula when viewing/reading something that evokes a negative reaction.
Neurobiologist Semir Zeki, of University College London’s Laboratory of Neurobiology, led a study in 2008 that scanned the brains of 17 adults as they gazed at images of a person they professed to hate. Researchers found that hatred activated the aforementioned areas in the brain – especially ones associated with action – and have a decidedly different pattern than other emotions like anger, danger and fear. In other words, when we see someone we hate, our brains unconsciously start preparing for fight or flight.
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the study was that the researchers found striking similarities in the brain’s response between hatred and love. While the 1971 song, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” by the R&B group The Persuaders was a catchy title, the revelation might actually best describe contemporary internet behavior and why it’s ripe ground for controversy.
One of the most common phrases a person encounters in a comments section when the expletives begin to fly is, “if you don’t like (insert person, place or thing), then why did you click on the article?!”
Consider the aforementioned study. One participant chose to include a political figure rather than someone he/she had a personal history with as the image that they thought evoked hatred inside their brain. While hatred of an ex-spouse or family member seems like something that would be hard to purge from one’s life, surely we could lesson our emotional burden by eliminating external factors that don’t literally impact our daily lives, right?
As New York Magazine noted, “hate-reading simply makes us feel good by offering up an endless succession of ‘the emperor has no clothes’ moments with regard to our political adversaries. In this view, we specifically seek out the anti-wisdom of whoever appears dumbest and most hateful as a means of bolstering our own sense of righteousness,” said Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a media psychologist at the University of Texas San Antonio.
Most people will never have either the access or the gall to confront and admonish a person in popular culture that they choose to slander in comments section and on social media. Thus, the next best thing is to chastise their disciples. With all that odium floating around the ether perhaps we should all try a bit harder to understand the root of our malcontent…
Have you ever hated something because you couldn’t have it? Going from coveting an item to despising it may seem fairly uncomplicated, but in reality, what feels like a deep aversion may actually be envy masquerading as hate. There’s no breeding ground better for cultivating envy-born hate than hype culture, and the internet forums fans and detractors use to discuss it. The very nature of any hype item rests on its exclusivity and our knowledge that if we succeed in attaining it, we will be one of the admired few. Add to that the fact our brains are hardwired to covet the items our culture deems objects of status and you’ve got a recipe for envy and internet vitriol.
As explained in “The Science of Hype,” the first installation of this series, American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s 1943 essay, A Theory of Human Motivation, offered one of the first glimpses into what drives our basic needs, and how these motivations can be fairly easily manipulated. According to Maslow, healthy adults have specific physical and emotional requirements, including but not limited to belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Some of our more pressing needs – food, shelter, sleep, physical intimacy – have to be attended to first because they are a matter of survival.
Once these needs are met we are free to pursue our lesser desires, and in an increasingly consumerism-focused society we often use the acquisition of objects as a means to achieve this. Since the beginning of human interaction we have built cultures around placing value on acquiring material things. So the next time you see a winding line outside of a Supreme drop consider why so many people are really there.
The answer is complex yet simple: obtaining a desired item triggers the release of dopamine in the brain; dopamine being that infamous neurotransmitter that helps control the areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. When you buy something you’ve been desperately pining after it triggers an almost immediate rush of gratification, and like most things that feel good, we keep chasing that temporary high.
In the case of brands like Supreme or Palace, which occupy a very specific place in a very specific subculture, their connection to desire is two-fold. For those who are part of the skate and streetwear cultures from which both brands originated, ownership does more than just trigger dopamine; it also acts as a marker of having assimilated into a niche community. This in turn gratifies a person’s sense of belonging and esteem – two aspects that Maslow argues are essential to overall health.
On the opposite end of the spectrum there are those, who, for one reason or another, are unable to attain the items that fuel gratification and signify success. The failure to do so triggers a feeling of non-belonging that can manifest as hate, but in reality, is more likely envy.
Since the nature of envy requires an admission of insecurity we often categorize it as one of the more shameful human emotions. As such, the average person is unlikely to admit feeling envious, even to themselves. It’s far easier and more palatable to merely dismiss the unattainable with contempt than to admit to grappling with feelings of inferiority or disassociation. Of course that isn’t to say that every ardent hater of a notoriously exclusive or hyped brand is envious, but it would also be unreasonable to assume that some weren’t.
Our brains function in a similarly complex and contradictory manner when it comes to intentionally seeking out things we purport to hate. For instance, a quick perusal of Highsnobiety’s comments section will inevitably unveil this classic internet conversation:
Commenter 1: “I hate (insert something probably Kanye West related) it’s so f***ing stupid!!
Commenter 2: “If you hate it so much why’d you click the link?”
So why did commenter number one intentionally expose themselves to something they knew they disliked? Is it some sort of internet-age masochism or does it have more to do with a twisted sense of self-gratification?
If you guessed number two you’d be correct.
Take Azealia Banks’s recent passionately think-pieced social media meltdown. Like a horrific car accident, many of us could not stop spectating even while preaching how disgusting her behavior was.“Gasp, she called Zayn Malik a sand n***er,” we said, while obsessively refreshing our timelines and discussing amongst friends whether she was or was not over-hyped, and if this final outburst would kill her career.
Polarizing presidential candidate Donald Trump generates a similar outraged fascination through his intentional adoption of explosive rhetoric that pokes at America’s sensitive underbelly where hot button issues like race, gender and socioeconomic status are concerned. Many of us take a hard-line stance on such historically sensitive issues; we are uncompromising in what we do and do not agree with, and we take pleasure in fiercely denouncing those who offend our sense of propriety.
Yet by actively seeking out those we can condemn, we reveal a less noble part of our psychology, one that takes pleasure in lambasting the perceived stupidity of others. In these moments our outrage creates a sort of reverse trolling scenario in which we are gratified by our own sense of morality while smugly noting a lack of such in others. Media psychologist Mary McNaughton-Cassill’s observation in New York Magazine (also quoted in this article’s introduction), perhaps sums up the phenomenon best, “If the commentary is dumb enough, it may actually have a boomerang effect in that it reassures us that our opponents aren’t very smart is accurate.”
Perhaps that’s why when it comes to hate-reading we intentionally seek out the most flawed perspectives to dissect. Doing so boosts our sense of self-actualization, which in Maslow’s theory is defined as, “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for [the individual] to become actualized in what he/she is potentially.”
So if, for instance, you believe that you are a good, intelligent and empathetic person, it is human nature to seek out validation of this. Pointing out that someone else does not have those qualities provides reassurance that you are indeed the better person. The drawback is that by only seeking out the things that outrage us, we hinder valid discussions about differing points of views.
For example, much of Azealia Banks’s anger and sadness regarding her perception as a woman of color in the music industry and society as a whole became moot in the public eye because of her hate speech-filled rant. By adopting the language of the very people she felt had harmed her, she essentially became one of them to those who may have supported her. Similarly, Trump’s inflammatory strategies have, to many, converted the current elections into some sort of Vaudevillian tragedy rather than a forum meant to address how Trump would (if elected) lead the country.
Lastly, the faceless nature of the internet creates a hotbed for the current culture of outrage to constantly clash against the darker sides of humanity. Internet trolls in particular hide behind the veil of anonymity to sow discord. And because we are drawn to hate-reading to boost our own sense of morality and self-actualization, we inevitably respond to their jabs.
A 2014 study on self-identified internet trolls revealed that a slew of psychological factors also influence a troll’s desire to be inflammatory. Yet even still, their motivation, though slightly darker, is quite similar to those who take up verbal arms against them. Where the average person seeks validation of their decency or intelligence by combating the ignorance of a troll, trolls often display characteristics associated with the so-called “dark tetrad” – narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism.
Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, Delroy L. Paulhus Personality and Individual Differences
The associations between sadism and GAIT (Global Assessment of Internet Trolling) scores were so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists.
So in the same way Maslow’s “healthy adult” requires esteem and validation, so do trolls, they just achieve theirs through making others feel bad. Because we live in time where it’s easy for everyone to have an opinion on a troll who may not have the opportunity or power to gratify sadistic desires in everyday life can easily and anonymously do so online. And though we repeat the mantra, “don’t feed the trolls,” the reality remains that inflammatory comments trigger a visceral reaction.
Add to that our habit of retweeting and sharing the things we hate to garner the support of like-minded people, and the speed of outrage is compounded. In fact, hate-reading and trolling have an oddly symbiotic relationship. The people who engage in these behaviors are essentially doing so to satisfy psychological needs – hate-readers get to feel more moral and trolls get to feel gratified by hurting others.
In the end, it’s all just another day in the wild, wild west of the internet.
- Cowriter: Stephanie Smith-Strickland