Trolling and rejection: Psychology students present research at annual convention

Tiffany Lawless presented her research on anonymity and perceptions of online hate-speech on Wednesday. (Peter Loganbill | Collegian Media Group)

Graduate students in psychology presented research at the 2019 Annual Graduate Research Convention on Wednesday. Topics included internet trolling, rejection and more.

Psychologically speaking, there are a few reasons trolling may occur, including the toxic online disinhibition effect, Tiffany Lawless, graduate student in social psychology, said.

“Essentially what that means is that when you’re online, especially if you’re anonymous, the normal social norms that apply when I’m speaking to you face to face don’t apply,” Lawless said. “You remove those social consequences, and it makes people feel free to say whatever they want, often terrible things.”

Past research shows sometimes anonymous people online are sometimes more honest, and sometimes less when acting as trolls, she said.

In her first study, Lawless said she used Facebook and Yik Yak to create fake accounts and post overtly racist content in mock posts. If the posts were said to be anonymous, participants in the study said the people posting were less racist, and less likely to believe what they were saying themselves.

However, participants thought the posts were racist, regardless if they were “anonymous” or “identifiable.”

For the next study, Lawless tried a different strategy.

“We included some of the really overtly racist things, but we also included things that were more ambiguous,” Lawless said. “Positive stereotypes, and also things that mentioned race, but were not offensive.”

This changed the results, and participants said the mock internet users (the fake accounts created for the study) probably believed these statements, such as “How come black people are so good at sports?”

“What that implies is that trolls are only seen as trolls when they’re extreme,” Lawless said.

All participating students presented their research at conferences around the country and Canada earlier this year. Lawless presented in Portland, Oregon, as did Tucker Jones, Ph.D candidate in psychology.

Tucker Jones presented his research on responses to rejection on Wednesday. (Peter Loganbill | Collegian Media Group)

Jones presented his master’s thesis research on rejection guided by Mark Barnett, professor of psychological sciences.

“A lot of research has shown that rejection is a very unpleasant experience,” Jones said. “We don’t like being rejected.”

Jones said very little research on the role of the rejector in our emotional responses exists. His research compared the response to rejection from significant others, friends and acquaintances. To conduct this research, 481 participants completed a an online study online.

“What we see is that when we look at the emotional responses, that when participants anticipate, or read about potentially being rejected by a significant other, they had a more intense emotional response than when they anticipated being rejected by a friend or acquaintance,” Jones said.

Although they have more emotional responses toward significant others, and more for friends than acquaintances, he said, participants said they would act more friendly toward these groups.

“Which makes sense — you kind of want to repair, try and rebuild, re-establish that relationship,” Jones said.

Participants also said they were more likely to retaliate or complain to a friend or acquaintance.

Gary Brase, professor of psychological sciences and graduate program director, said he enjoys seeing the development of graduate students.

“It’s like undergrads,” Brase said. “You’ve come in as a freshman and you discover that there’s all these things that you don’t know and that you can learn in college. Graduate school is like that, but amped up.”

I'm Pete Loganbill and I'm the News Editor for the Collegian and host of the Collegian Kultivate podcast! I spent two years at Johnson County Community College, and I am now a senior in Public Relations at K-State. I believe constant communication leads to progress, no matter how difficult a comment may be for me or anyone to hear. Contact me at