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Internet Trolls: The Psychology Behind the Rants

A psychology professor says complaining releases stress and makes the grumbler feel physically better.

The Internet has long been a virtual playground for exercising anger, especially when it comes to consumers' relationships with businesses. Now, a psychology professor at University of the Rockies has examined the motivations of these chronic Web complainers and found a loophole in social media for companies looking to minimize damage and explore business opportunities.

Dr. David Solly at University of the Rockies, a graduate school specializing in social and behavioral sciences, says complaining -- be it on the Web or alone in front of a mirror -- releases stress and makes the grumbler feel physically better. And the Internet, with its endless assortment of social forums, gives consumers "the capability of voicing their opinions with grandeur on a global scale."

Solly says using a nonconfrontational, impersonal medium such as Twitter or Facebook broadcasts the complaint to a far-reaching audience, as opposed to face-to-face gripes that touch only those nearby. Voicing complaints on the Web also lends an air of protection and anonymity, and gives "a feeling of commanding great power and control" over the situation. "They have the perception that they are broadcasting their message to the public ... and they are."

Think about Yelp in that context of grandeur and wide audiences: aren't Yelp reviews more often than not wordy soapboxes for people to try, in overly erudite ways, to spread their frustrations and perhaps influence a company's operations? (And isn't that precisely why we make fun of the Yelp Elite?)

According to a 2011 Pew Internet survey, 65 percent of adults on the Internet are now using social media, and some even rank Facebook's role in their lives as more vital than a flushing toilet. So it's no surprise that analytics firm Webs found that 69 percent of business owners are using social media at their companies, and that of those who don't, 41 percent say they will in the next three months.

For businesses looking to soothe the relentless nitpicker, Solly suggests that engaging with them on the very playgrounds they inhabit may transform haters into company advocates. The psychological concept is that authenticating the complainer's need for power and control can create value and business connectivity. "Showing customers that the business cares about them, regardless of whether it's acknowledgement of a complaint or a compliment, provides a sense of belonging and builds loyalty," Solly writes.

But on a deeper level, chronic complaining stems from a dysfunctional sense of identity, and giving into one's desire for sympathy and emotional validation may simply feed the need and perpetuate bad behavior, according to Psychology Today. So if your company is heading under the bridge, beware: it's always a bad idea to feed the trolls.

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