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Why are trolls so bothersome?

We don’t get a lot of trolls on this blog. When people try, I typically respond with some mixture of directness and firmness, and the trolls either give up or perhaps they recognize that I am answering questions in sincerity, which does not serve their trollish purposes.

But I’m pretty sure that my feeling is shared by many others, which is that trolls are disturbing, not just for their direct effects (they waste my time, they threaten to degrade the blog’s community) but also in themselves. As Dr. Anil Potti might put it, they’re pooping in my sandbox.

I thought of this yesterday (well, Ok, actually a few months ago) when encountering a sort of troll in real life.

I was going down the street and a clueless pedestrian walked right in front of me in the middle of the block. He wasn’t looking at all. This happens often enough, it’s no big deal, I certainly wasn’t angry or upset or even annoyed at this point, I just slowed down to let him pass. As he did so, he turns around, looks directly at me, and says, with disgust, “You’re going the wrong way. You idiot.”

I did a double take because I was actually not going the wrong way! Amsterdam Avenue in that area is a one-way street and I was going north, just like all the other traffic. So I said to him something like: “Hey, no, I’m going the right way. Look at all the cars!” He just ignored me and trudged away down the sidewalk. For some reason this really bothered me so I went back and pestered him: “Hey, you said I was going the wrong way down the street but I was going the right way!” He turned around and kinda snarled at me. It was weird, I’d thought he’d made an honest mistake and was going to reply with a sheepish “Sorry, guy,” but not at all. I suddenly thought of all the armed and crazy people in this country and decided to withdraw. But the whole episode bothered me, more than it should’ve, somehow. I’m still not quite sure why. Maybe it was the way he was so angry at me in a direct way. It seemed so personal. But of course it wasn’t personal: this guy didn’t know me, indeed he didn’t really seem to be listening to anything I was saying. So I can’t really figure out why I was so bothered, especially given that aggressive pedestrians are everywhere in this city. Maybe it was his Wegman-like refusal to admit an error?


  1. Nassim Nicholas Taleb says:

    Actually, net, net I’ve benefited from trolls. They are not going away so one should know how to use them
    There is a fellow Rahul who trolls me on all manner of websites with defective arguments who posted on this page (and on Econtalk’s) something to the effect that a strategy with infinite loss could also have infinite benefits. (It was in response to Andrew’s comment on the precautionary principle). I realized that I needed to express the point in terms of absorbing barrier. So it helped this piece become clearler.

  2. Shravan says:

    Andrew, come to Berlin (Germany, not Ohio) sometime. This will recalibrate your baseline.

  3. Paul Alper says:

    “Inside Baseball:” Just in the off-chance that the picture rings no bell: click on it, read the Wikpedia article to find out who it is and then do a search for that individual and Andrew. The trolling connection is still not obvious even after I read a definition on Wikipedia:

    “a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,[1] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[2] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion,[3] often for their own amusement.”

    The pedestrian encounter on Amsterdam Avenue is more akin to road rage even though neither was in a car (I assume Andrew was on a bike). But as Chomsky might say, there may be a “deep structure”

    to all of this that I am missing.

  4. Garnett McMillan says:

    Maybe you just have a strong, and perhaps partially subconscious, commitment to justice.

  5. antianticamper says:

    I’m very familiar with the feelings you describe. Standing back and taking a contemplative stance, I’m often mystified why I experience negative emotions of this sort when there is no _real_ threat. In short, why do we EVER get angry? Of course I can come up with all sorts of psychological explanations and rationalizations. But allowing the true weirdness to expose itself yields great fuel for meditation and refocuses attention from “out there”, where there will always be events beyond my control, to “in here”, where insight yields at least some degree of freedom.

  6. Rahul says:

    Some roads can get terribly confusing though: I remember a particular street (in Madison, WI) that was one-way for cars but both ways for bikes.

    From right to left the lanes were Dedicated Bus Lane, tiny bike lane, three car lanes, & then suddenly another tiny bike lane but in the opposite direction. To be fair, the anti-traffic bike lane was protected by a little concrete curb.

    But I remember having had to swerve on my bike to avoid accidental wrong way bikers several times.

  7. Jay says:

    As Dr. Anil Potti might put it, they’re pooping in my sandbox.

    I can’t read that name without thinking of the shtick from Life of Brian: “He has a wife, you know. You know what she’s called? She’s called… ‘Incontinentia’… Incontinentia Buttocks.”

  8. Jay says:

    OK, maybe I’m stupid, but I give up. What is the significance of Bernard Dunn’s photograph to the post?

    • Andrew says:


      As I wrote above, in my encounter with that troll on the street, I was frustrated by his Wegman-like refusal to admit an error. Wegman, is of course, the Bernard J. Dunn professor” at George Mason University, and I continue to suspect that the very accomplished Dunn would not be happy if he knew that his donation to the university went to paying the salary of a plagiarist the author of papers that bear a striking similarity to, but are worse than, Wikipedia articles.

  9. Tribeca says:

    … did you happen to notice the stated topic of this thread?

  10. curious says:

    Is it important that the troll is “wrong” ? That is, if he were right but expressed his views in an impertinent, offensive manner, would you describe him as “a troll”?

    A lot of political protests consist in a loud invasion of the public spaces. Often protesters demand attention without regard to the wishes of the audience and try to deliver their message in an emotionally charged way. It’s understandable, because getting emotional reaction it’s political marketing 101 . Would you describe it as “trolling”? What if they advocate the views you strongly agree with? The analogy here is that internet is a modern day agora, agora with somewhat lower cost of participation.

    What about “bad faith”? Obviously the charge “you don’t really believe what you are saying – because no one can possibly belive something so stupid” is a very common one in politics

    • Andrew says:


      If the guy had chewed me out for going the wrong way, and I had been going the wrong way, that would’ve been fine. What made him troll-like, in my perception, was that he continued to be very aggressive even after he must have realized he was in the wrong.

      • The Truly Curious says:

        There are a couple of interesting things here. One is Andrew’s compulsion to confront someone on a NYC street who is truly agitated and why he needed to hear an acknowledement of his ‘rightness’. Another is the reality that we cannot possibly know what this person has been through that day, week, month, decade, or lifetime and thus cannot possibly know why he did not respond contritely. Nor can we fully understand, without further exploration, Andrew’s need for an act of contrition from this man. Psychology is complex and our attempts to oversimplify it has resulted in the current replication problem so often discussed on this blog. I hope this tendency will change with the help of blogs like this and publications like Andrew’s.

        • Andrew says:


          “Need to confront someone” is a funny way to put it. I was verbally assaulted by someone and defended myself. I agree that I could’ve ignored it, but I think my reaction was normal enough! You try acting like this guy did on the street and see the reactions you get: I expect you’ll find that a lot of people will “need to confront you.”

          Just to clarify: the troll in question seemed otherwise normal: He was muttering to himself or doing the other sorts of things that we see crazy people do on the street. If he’d appeared to be a run-of-the-mill schizophrenic, the sort of person who shouts at strangers as they walk by, then, sure, I wouldn’t have replied to him at all. I guess I didn’t make it clear in my post above, that the person in question first seemed like a man in a hurry, then like an asshole, but not like a nut.

          • James C. Whanger says:


            Whether the best way to describe this reaction is as a ‘need’ is a reasonable question as one could equally describe it as the level or degree of motivation to engage in a particular response (though I personally think ‘need’ captures this type of behavior). I am also not sure everyone would label what you described as ‘verbal assault’, though perhaps tone and body language are important missing variables from your description and it could be that most would agree with your labelling.

            My hypothesis is that most New Yorkers would yell back that he was wrong, as you did, and then simply keep riding to get where they are going. If this hypothesis is correct, then the next question would be:

            What differentiates those who respond as you did, from those who respond as most would?

            Was it a temporary and momentary effect of the current situation and the reinforcement histories of the interacting dyad ( Was it something that is more reflective of a stable trait ( Or, was it a combination of environmental reinforcements and individual attitudes, values, and beliefs ( This is where much of psychology gets muddled and where the competing explanations between Skinner’s behaviorism, Allport’s Personality Theory, and Bandura’s Social Learning Theory or some variation on them are proffered.

            Each attempts to encode all of the same information as it relates to explaining past behavior. Each is modestly successful at predicting future behavior. Each differs substantially in proscriptive recommendations for managing the behavior of oneself and others that has implications for how we interact with each other. Which of these perspectives we are biased toward will likely tell us a lot about what someone believes to be ‘truth’ about people in general, appropriate causal attributions within in specific situations, and proscriptives for how we should behave in relation to each other.

            • James C. Whanger says:

              To expand a bit on assigning a causal attribution to the event described:

              1. Though a number of people might know you well enough to understand how you typically behave and would be likely to behave in a situation like this, I would venture to guess that most do not and do not have any means of assessing this in the moment.

              2. Using only the available observable information, that of your description of the interaction, can only result in a superficial assessment of the true causes of any single interaction such as this and would be entirely speculative.

      • Martha says:

        “after he must have realized he was in the wrong”

        Not everyone has the capacity to realize they are wrong when they are wrong — I am guessing that the person encountered on the street indeed did not have that capacity. Such people can be very difficult to deal with. And I would imagine that they find more normal people very difficult to deal with.

        • The Truly Curious says:


          There is also the notion of willingness. It is possible to recognize that one was in the wrong without being willing to do so.

          The number of reasons one might take this approach are quite numerous.

          • Martha says:

            Yes, I am very aware that people may recognize an error but be unwilling to admit it. My aim was to point out that there are other possibilities, so we need to be cautious in assuming that the problem is unwillingness.

        • Andrew says:


          Could be. I still wonder what was going through this guy’s head. I’m guessing that he’s encountered enough delivery guys biking the wrong way up the street that he just placed this event in that category, and that he was never listening to what I was saying. Again, what interests me is why I was so bothered by this in the first place.

          • Martha says:

            Yes, in any event it is natural to wonder what was going on in someone’s head in cases like this, and also to wonder why one is so bothered by such behavior. My guess of one possibility for the latter is that when a behavior seems so extremely irrational, it is jarring to a strong desire or expectation for the world to make sense.

          • Rahul says:

            Perhaps you were bothered by the unfairness of it? It sucks to be chastised for a mistake that you didn’t do & then to be insisted upon that you did commit the mistake?

  11. numeric says:

    I’m concerned that you weren’t carrying (restrictive New York laws, perhaps?) so you could have settled the matter then and there. When you combine the right’s insistence on arming all citizens with the left’s belief in the primacy of grievance, we could, in a few short years, settle all problems of overpopulation. Anyway, you need to revel in your offense and assert your constitutional rights so next time you can take more direct action to obtain satisfaction. I should point out that when I’m with my Smith and Wesson I’m always in a safe space.

    • jrc says:

      This suggestion is still better than spiking America’s drinking water with mood-altering light metal, just to see what happens.

      Numeric – if you can again successfully employ the phrase “Obtain Satisfaction” in another post, I’ll second it for inclusion in the unofficial blog lexicon when Andrew opens the books to put “Vexatious” in.

    • Oh sure, bait a gun-control debate in the comments that’ll keep the trolls (on both sides) out.

  12. Erik says:

    That sounds annoying, I had a similar event happen to me last autumn. BTW this also took place in Berlin ;) There was this woman who yelled at my kids (7 and 5 years) to take the bicycle lane, since they were indeed riding their bikes. But in Germany children are not allowed to take the bicycle lane until they are eight, and are additionally allowed to continue using the pedestrian lane until they are 10. So she quite unfriendly told be off for acting in accordance with traffic laws.

    • Rahul says:

      German pedestrians just seem to have a lot of repressed anger in general! :)

      • In my limited German experience, and the considerable German experience of my German stepmother, it’s quite common for Germans to walk up behind you and shove you out of their way, provided that you have made the serious error of going to slowly. We must keep the efficiency of the social machine operating at full throttle!

        • Erik says:

          Living here for my entire life, I haven’t seen this at all. Accidental collisions when trying to pass too close happen of course. What I once observed, was an old man hitting people with his walking stick in the tram, because he felt people were not letting him pass. From my observation all countries have a minority of violent old men ;)

      • Shravan says:

        This seems like as good an opportunity as any to get my repressed anger about German pedestrians and people-out-on-the-streets in general out of my system.

        Once a delivery van ran a red light, nearly running over a middle-aged woman. She yells at him, and he pulls down his window and yells back at her, Du Schlampe! (look it up). I reported him to the police (one can do it online), no idea if they followed up.

        Another time, my wife, who was pregnant at the time, was trying to get into the train, and another woman elbowed her out of the way to get in first (to grab a seat before anyone else does) and when my wife protested at being elbowed, the woman yelled at her, “are you drunk?”

        Yet another time, this time we were with our son in a Kinderwagen and trying to get out of the train, and a guy gets irritated that we are in his way as he’s trying to get in (there is no culture of waiting for people to get off the train in Berlin, you just walk through people like they don’t exist—stark contrast to Japan), and yells out that if we want to have children we should stay at home. And then he gave us the finger once he got safely inside the train and it moved off. He was smiling as the train went off.

        At my son’s school, children get hit by cars at a school crossing approximately once a year. Seems to fall in the same category as the train incidents: drive right through people.

        Wow, I could go on and on. It’s a totally wild place. There was a million-dollar campaign recently to try to make Berliners at least act nicer (had no effect I can see). By contrast, people in Potsdam tend to be much friendlier. More anecdotal evidence: I was walking in Babelsberg once (a suburb of Potsdam) and a cyclist actually thanked me for getting out of her way. It was an out-of-body experience. In Berlin, nobody would dream of thanking you if you held a door open for them or if you move out of a cyclist’s way in a *pedestrians only* pathway. I have seen a guy pull the dangerous stunt of shoving a person out of his way with his shoulder, causing them to stagger over to the edge of the road, *while* cycling.

  13. Paul says:

    Sounds like a narcissist with an aversion to cognitive dissonance to me. He was rude (cut you off), but of course he doesn’t do rude things, so you must have been in the wrong. Clearly you were walking where you shouldn’t be.

    When you tried to force him to acknowledge that no, he was in the wrong here, the only possible way forward was to interpret it as a personal attack. His version of reality is probably “I was walking down the street when some idiot going the wrong way almost collided with me, and then got all up in my face like he wanted to fight.” Anything to not have to acknowledge a minor personal foible.

    • Martha says:

      And then there are people who actually enjoy fighting. (e.g., The Donald?) Maybe the guy in the street felt like fighting, and Andrew looked like a good target.

      • Andrew says:


        No, I don’t think he wanted to fight me. I think he was confused and genuinely thought I was going the wrong way, then he got upset when I told him he was wrong. At that point he walked away from me—he might have been scared, actually—he didn’t move toward any physical confrontation.

        • Martha says:

          This gives an entirely different picture from what I assumed from your original description. Going back and rereading the original, I guess the key sentence there is “For some reason this really bothered me so I went back and pestered him,” and the question in my mind is indeed why it bothered you and you went back and pestered him. And if indeed he was scared, it also brings up the question that maybe he assumed you were one of those people who enjoy fighting. But, who can tell? Two people’s minds can interact in myriad ways — and when a third mind hears an account, well, the situation becomes even more complicated.

  14. Thomas B says:

    Having lived in NYC for years, I’ve often found myself thinking that walking on the sidewalks was more fraught with hazard than driving a car in the notoriously aggressive NYC streets. People make way more effort at defensive driving than they do defensive walking, e.g., seldom bothering to look around before stepping out blindly from a standing start or doorway. Then there’s the Russian roulette or “playing chicken” all NYers do on crowded sidewalks that involves passing others by as closely as possible without actually touching.

    However, none of this explains the behavior of the individual encountered by Andrew on Amsterdam. His behavior goes way beyond “troll” and into the actively psychotic — that lowest common denominator of NYC behavior — those rare, extreme, “in your face” screaming shit fits that give the City its reputation. One sees this on the trains where even a failure to apologize for bumping into someone will break an unspoken subway protocol and result in an eruption of rage stunning for its ferocity. The thing to bear in mind here is that nearly all of this is operating under a kind of “law of the jungle” sensibility where displays of screaming aggressivity only rarely result in actual physical violence. That said and as Andrew notes, people can and do get shot for even the most trivial offenses here. This is the cautionary note to bear in mind when dealing with the truly crazy out there on NYCs less than benign streets.

  15. jim says:

    Thomas B makes an interesting point. In Manhattan street conflicts are mostly all talk. In most other places (e.g., Texas) the mouthing off we tolerate here results in near certain violence. Anyway, I want to share this wisdom: With the ability to ignore comes a great power.

  16. Jonas says:

    It’s the most classic definition of anger, from Aristotle:

    “Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself….”

    “[S]lighting is the actively entertained opinion of something as obviously of no importance.” = Him treating you as a person of obviously no importance, done conspiciously.

    “Without justification” = You were in the right, he was in the wrong. The whole thing was quite random. No cause can be seen.

    “Impulse, accompanied by pain” = You felt the visceral need to respond.

    “Conspicuous revenge” = You didn’t know what you wanted from him, but you wanted to impose some cost on him, and you wanted it done conspicuously.

    “If this is a proper definition of anger, it must always be felt towards some particular individual, e.g. Cleon, and not “man” in general. [1378b] It must be felt because the other has done … something to him …. It must always be attended by a certain pleasure — that which arises from the expectation of revenge. For since nobody aims at what he thinks he cannot attain, the angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant.”

    The fact that he seems to be a nobody meant that you felt that your revenge was possible. Once you thought it wasn’t (he might be crazy), you were no longer angry, just disturbed/upset.

    As to exactly why people feel this way, who knows? But it’s been like this, and recognized as like this, for thousands of years already.

  17. Erin Jonaitis says:

    I kind of feel like this is the most Andrew Gelman anecdote possible.

    I met an internet troll once at a party. He flatly admitted to picking fights online because he liked to get people upset. I think he sort of didn’t understand people and it was a thing he could do that would have a predictable effect. He had no sense of shame about it either, no apparent awareness that this was not a thing most people would admit at parties – of course maybe he was trolling us in real life too.

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