[UPDATE: Please read the comments following this article, especially if you're planning to respond with a comment yourself. I think there are some good comments that raise some interesting objections, and I responded with some added clarifications that I think people may find helpful. Plus any objections you plan on raising may have already been raised and addressed in the comments already. - T.]
For added context, I highly recommend that people read this series of posts on competitors versus cooperators, either before of after reading this current post you’re reading now: here, here, here, here, and here.
I think this video below is one of the best deconstructions of “intelligent” trolls, both the real life and the online kind.
I think a major part of trolls, or anyone who chronically courts controversy for its own sake, which people don’t realize, is that it’s someone who wants recognition, who wants acceptance, who wants love, but on some level has given up on getting it in conventional ways. So they try to troll or generate controversy, because it has at least two payoffs. First, it keeps them from being ignored. Second, since they feel on some level that they will never get the full recognition they deserve, or that people hating them is inevitable, they at least want to try to be hated on their own terms, so they can at least feel some sense of control and dominance (“See? I’m not trying to make you like me and getting rejected. I’m deliberately trying to make you hate me and it’s working! I’m in control! You’re a puppet on my string!”) It’s a form of self-handicapping.
Being an asshole on purpose is self-handicapping much like not studying and going drinking the night before a test is. When people self-handicap by not studying before a test and going out drinking, they’re afraid of themselves and others finding out they’re not smart. If they give something their all and try their hardest, holding nothing back, and still fail, they fear being exposed to themselves and others as being fundamentally defective (this is a shame issue). By not studying and going out drinking before the exam, they reserve an excuse for themselves. If they do badly, they can say “Oh, I didn’t study and I drank before the exam. If I didn’t do that, I could have done well.” If they do well, they can say “Oh, look how good I did! Can you imagine if I actually studied and didn’t drink before the exam?” And if he does study later on, it will look more impressive because of lowered standards. Someone who never usually studies buckling down and studying is far more impressive than someone who has always been an overachieving studier being seen studying yet again.
Similarly, the “asshole on purpose” guy is usually someone who has given up on being loved in a conventional way in response to a sincere, earnest, all-out effort, for whatever reason. So he self-handicaps through assholery. If he treats people like shit and they don’t like him, he can brag “Yeah, I’m such an asshole. I don’t give a fuck! I try to piss people off!” If people still like him despite his assholery, he can say “Man, look at that. I’m an asshole and people still love me. I really must be just that smart/talented/insightful. Can you imagine if I actually tried to conform to society’s norms and work within them how successful I’d be?” And because of lowered standards that come from his usual asshole ways, when he shows an effort to be nice or shows a soft, sensitive side, he gets far more props for it than a guy who is always nice and considerate. It’s like the Jerk With a Heart of Gold character trope you see in movies and TV. The jerk who does a nice thing, no matter how mundane, is so much more admired than the normally nice guy doing yet another nice thing.
I also believe this is the fantasy need some characters like Hank Moody on shows like Californication fill for viewers. I absolutely loathe Californication and the lead character Hank Moody, yet I keep finding myself hate-watching the show, because I’m always trying to figure out what the appeal is (beyond the obvious, which is the sex and nudity). One of my theories is that many people fantasize about being able to be so irresistible and intrinsically awesome that they can be utter assholes and still end up being loved for it, which to many people is a bigger sign of self-worth than being nice and being loved for it. For many shame-based people, they only act nice out of a sense of weakness, as a way to get approval and be liked. They end up viewing any form of niceness as an admission of low value, both in themselves and in other people. They only persist in being nice because they feel that’s the only option available to them to get approval, because they have such little bargaining power otherwise, maybe because they feel not attractive enough, not rich enough, not socially savvy enough, etc.
That’s why many of these same people turn into total assholes once they feel any sense of power shift in their favor in a social dynamic, like the Nice Guy who laments how his hot female friend puts him in the friend zone despite how nice he is, but becomes a jerk when he’s dealing with a fat and unattractive chick whose comparative value to him is the same as his comparative value to the hot girl friendzoning him. His niceness is totally context-dependent, coming from situations where he feels weak and unworthy. That’s also why many of these same shame-based people, both narcissists and codependents, can’t respect or reciprocate people who love them unconditionally even after knowing all their flaws or make things “too easy” for them. Because they themselves only act nice when feeling weak and out of a feeling of necessity, they project that same motivation on others who act nice and assume they must be weak and inferior too.
Anyway, returning to Californication, I think a major part of its appeal is that fantasy of having such value as to be able to afford to self-handicap via assholery. Of being able to be effortlessly cool, so naturally valuable, that even if you try to fuck things up by being an asshole and make no effort to cooperate, you still end up being loved, and when you do burn bridges it’s always on your own terms, not on anyone else’s. (I also think that’s why so many narcissists choose to be abusive to loved ones when they don’t have to. For them, being loved for being nice is something anyone can do, but being loved despite being a fuck-up or asshole is proof of being a superior being.) Also, because of the lowered standards that come from self-handicapping, any minor, mundane bit of normal humanity that Hank Moody shows is blown way out of proportion. This is because a lot of people want to be rewarded for the most token, superficial gestures, the bare minimum.
You can see a lot of these principles at play in this article about Tucker Max that came out a while back. When you look at his childhood, you can see the abandonment that came about from his mother and how that led to him to lose faith in being loved just for being him, and why he began self-handicapping with that deliberate asshole persona.
Of course the problem with any form of self-handicapping is, even though it gets you a short-term payoff that makes you feel good at first, because what you really want deep down is conventional success, once the rush from self-sabotage wears off you realize you are no closer to your real goal, or worse, are actually farther away from it. For example, the student who always self-handicaps by not going to class, not studying, and partying hard may get a series of short term ego boosts each time he self-handicaps, but for long term conventional success he’s going to have to eventually work hard and give it his all. He can’t self-handicap forever. Sooner or later he’s going to reach a challenge where his natural gifts and half-assing won’t be enough. Similarly, the deliberate asshole, if he wants the type of deeper and more fulfilling long-term social connection he’s yearning for, he’s going to have to stop self-handicapping, show some vulnerability, and be willing to give something his all and risk failing at it.
Because deep down, despite their exteriors, deliberate assholes actually want to be approved of, recognized, respected, and loved, they just fear deep down that they can’t get those things the conventional ways, and therefore must self-handicap, so that if they’re hated at least they’re hated on their own terms. This is why the moment a deliberate asshole, a controversy seeker, or a troll feels that he is being hated or rejected on what aren’t his own terms, he becomes incredibly thin-skinned, surprisingly so for someone who claims not to care what others think and actively courts controversy so much. That’s why I love the tweet below from Jay Smooth about Lisa Lampanelli:
“Please be offended please be offended please be offended please be offended” followed by “Why are you offended!!??” = the Lampanelli Cycle.
— jay smooth (@jsmooth995) February 20, 2013
Unfortunately, most people, when they rush from self-handicapping wears off and they realize they’re back where they started and still in pain, instead of giving up the defective coping strategy, instead choose to double down on it and self-handicap even more, which again gives a short-term emotional payoff, and again leads to no real long-term fulfillment and the return of the original pain they were trying to avoid in the first place, and the vicious cycle (circle?) continues.
Trolls and chronic controversy seekers want attention, recognition, love, and approval, but have just given up on getting them in conventional forms via conventional means. Unfortunately, the same faulty coping strategies they use to deal with this problem in the short run are the exact same ones guaranteed to exacerbate the problem in the long run.