Here’s a quick non-rhetorical question. What do Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, Bill Maher, Lena Dunham, Bill O’Riley, John Oliver, Alex Jones, and Sean Hannity all have in common? Other than being richer, more successful, and more well-connected than you or I will ever be, what could possibly tie them together in a way that would help them get along at a barbecue?
Take all the time you need. I know this is one of those questions that’s not going to have a very satisfying answer to anybody. I also know it’s one of those questions that pisses people off, even before they answer it. This is the internet. People get pissed off for far less.
Are you done? Well, knowing full-well that I’ve already pissed off plenty of people, here it is. They’re all trolls who use the exact same tactics to make themselves successful and relevant. They may not do it overtly. They may not even admit to it, but on some levels they understand what they’re doing and why it works. Sadly, it works very well.
Now when I say they’re all trolls, I don’t mean to imply that they’re the kind of internet trolls that harass people on social media with insults, death threats, or pictures animals eating their own shit. Those kinds of trolls are a different breed. Granted, they’re annoying and should be ignored at all cost, but these professional trolls are on another level in that they make a damn good living doing what they do.
What these professional trolls do is as brilliant as it is disturbing. Pick any notable public figure who says controversial things. It can be Milo Yiannopoulos making derogatory comments about Muslims. It can be Lena Dunham saying she wished she got an abortion. Just think about any controversial thing that any controversial figure has ever said.
Whether it’s entirely planned or one of those instances where they don’t shut themselves up fast enough, the results are the same. People get outrage. Hashtags get started. Protests erupt. Venomous hate clashes with vocal support. There’s basically all this noise full of anger and passion.
As all this is going on, Milo and Lena are probably laughing to themselves at how much free publicity they just got. Anyone who has ever been in show business, media, or publishing will probably agree. The hardest part of success in Hollywood is getting publicity. There’s only so much of it to go around and people have a very finite attention span. Being able to get free publicity is like being able to play a game with cheat codes.
Now we’ve all heard there’s no such thing as bad publicity before. That sort of sentiment pre-dates the internet, going all the way back to the days when Ozzy Osborne bit the head off of a bat. Today, there’s one key difference that takes this phenomenon, gives it an unlimited supply of crystal meth, and sticks a nine-inch needle in our collective brains.
That difference is immediate access to information. From the internet, to our computers, to our phones, and into our pockets, we no longer have to wait for the evening paper to hear about these atrocious events. Thanks to social media, alerts, and annoying text messages, we can know about them mere minutes after they happen.
While this is a marvel of modern technology and communication, it does have a downside and it’s one that the professional trolls of the world have exploited to the utmost. That downside has to do with how stupid our collective brains are.
By that, I don’t mean that people themselves are stupid. I may be in a minority, but I believe that people, in general, are fairly decent and competent in their day-to-day lives. When I say our brains are stupid, I’m referring to the overall functionality of the hardware involved.
This goes beyond caveman logic, which I’ve cited many times before on this blog. This even goes beyond humans being wired for survival and reproduction rather than logic and reason. This is a byproduct of nature being too much of a blunt instrument rather than a scalpel. In this case, it makes professional trolls rich, successful, and famous.
They do this by hacking an unfortunate quirk in the human brain and using it to their advantage. It’s called “Misattribution of Arousal.” Unlike other convoluted scientific phenomena, this is exactly what it sounds like.
Have you ever been on a roller coaster? Have you ever been really scared by something? Well, if your brain is in working order, it got you extremely aroused and alert. You were afraid, excited, anxious, or euphoric. You could’ve felt any number of emotions at the time.
From your brain’s perspective, though, it’s the goddamn same thing. You’re aroused. There’s a stimulus you need to respond to. That’s all there is to it. As brilliant and complex as the human brain is, it’s still a pretty crude organ. It can’t do math worth a damn. It can easily be tricked by the David Copperfields of the world. It can, however, be tricked into getting aroused for all the wrong reasons.
This is what professional trolls do. They do or say something that gets people aroused. It’s not enough to just get their attention. I’ve already covered how attention is a big part in the “Always Be Closing” approach to success. However, attention only does so much. Adding arousal to the mix does something far greater.
When your brain is in a state of arousal, it doesn’t care much for specifics. It just knows its aroused and needs to respond to something. When you have instant access to information that upsets, angers, or thrills you in any way, that triggers arousal. That arousal, even if its the bad kind, causes the release of dopamine and this is where it gets really dangerous.
For those of you who aren’t caught up on neuroscience, you should still know what dopamine is. That’s the feel-good, everything-is-awesome chemical that our brain uses to reward us for doing things we like. Naturally, it’s a big part of our sexual response. If your brain is swimming in dopamine, that means you’ve had amazing sex.
Now the outrage/interest/arousal we fell with professional trolls doesn’t release quite that much dopamine into our brains. However, it does release some. It releases enough to get a response and due to the crude wiring of our brains, that’s more than enough.
That means that, on some levels, we like being outraged or upset by professional trolls. We like the feeling we get when we despise certain people, groups, or ideologies. Anger, hate, and fear all trigger the same arousal. Our brains enjoy that arousal to some level and thanks to modern communication, it’s far easier to get today than it has ever been in human history.
It’s uncharted territory. If these professional trolls were around 40 years ago, they would probably have a much harder time building an audience. They could say some of the most horrendously-offensive things anyone could possibly say, but it wouldn’t get a lot of attention because word would spread too slowly. The internet, along with social media, is changing that in a big way.
The professional trolls are maximizing that change to their benefit. They’re finding all sorts of ways to anger, upset, or inspire us, even if it’s stressful. Again, our brain doesn’t care. It still arouses us. It still gives us a non-trivial dose of dopamine. That’s all it takes to get people going.
It’s the hidden, unknown, unacknowledged secret that we’re just starting to understand. Whether you’re a die-hard social justice warrior or an outspoken supporter of the alt-right, you use the same methods as the professional trolls. You say and do what you need to do to get people aroused.
It doesn’t matter if it’s true or honest. You don’t even have to believe it on some levels. There are probably many figures out there who, in their private moments, know that what they’re saying is wrong or foolish. They just don’t care though because they’re not looking to say something right or uplifting. They’re trying to get people aroused and worked up.
Now I don’t know which professional trolls feel this way in private. I believe that on some level, they all really believe in what they’re doing. I also believe that on some level, they understand that some of it is misguided and flawed. There’s this vast gray area of understanding that’s hard to grasp and we’ll probably never know for sure just how much these professional trolls believe their own rhetoric.
Whatever the case, this is the world we live in now. We’re all very much at the mercy of the flaws of our collective brains. It’s hard to say where we’ll go from here. I don’t see the methods of professional trolls changing anytime soon. What they’re doing works. It’s making them money, getting them attention, and earning them fame. Until that changes, they’ll keep doing it.
There’s a lot more I can say about this topic and the science behind it. I’ll probably do a few other posts on it, if only to explore the implications for my own efforts to become a successful erotica/romance writer. Until then, I’ll leave some of the other details the brilliant people at Cracked.com.
A while back, they did a podcast on this subject. They bring up some pretty interesting/disturbing points about professional trolls. I don’t agree with their sentiment on every issue, but I do think they make some valid points. For anyone who is generally annoyed by professional trolls, those points are important to understand, if only to maintain a healthy perspective on why trolling works so damn well.
18 responses to “How Professional Trolls Hack Your Brain”
Another fascinating concept: Amygdala Hijacking, whereby emotionally potent, oversimplification redirects resources in the brain away from rational decision-making. It plays deeply into our fight, flight or freeze defense mechanisms as animals, a very subtle but powerful trick. Thanks for this post.
Thanks! I appreciate the comment.
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