Internet trolls are powerless without anonymity: By obscuring their identities behind random screen names, they can engage in hateful exchanges and prey on complete strangers without fear of retaliation. In doing so, they illustrate one troubling characteristic of humankind: People are shitty to people they don’t know.

Fortunately, curbing this tendency is extremely straightforward, scientists report in a new study.

In a new paper to be published in Science Advances, a team of scientists reveal a simple solution for getting people to cooperate: “Removing the cloak of anonymity seems to go a long way towards making people more thoughtful about their actions,” Hokkaido University biophysicist and economist Marko Jusup, Ph.D., a co-author on the study, tells Inverse in an e-mail.

This conclusion may seem like a no-brainer, but in fact it’s not always clear what factors lead people to cooperate rather than engage in conflict.

Internet trolling
Trolling: Easy to do when people can't see your face.

To investigate what makes people choose conflict over peace, he and his colleagues from China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University ran a slightly modified version of the classic social cooperation experiment called the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” The setup was simple: Pairs of strangers in mock court are told they’ll get a prize by testifying against the other but that they’ll both get fined if both of them do so. If they both remain silent, however, they’ll both walk free. The idea is that ratting on your partner gives you a better reward than cooperating with them, so it’s expected that most rational-thinking people won’t play nice. In their experiments, Jusup and his colleagues modified this concept slightly to see whether people would play nice if they weren’t strangers.

Their 154 participants had “prior knowledge of each other” and were roughly the same age and had the same interests,” Jusup says. They were given the option to maintain or revoke their anonymity during the game, which lasted multiple rounds. The scientists found that when participants knew each other, they were much more likely to cooperate with each other than if they were total strangers. “This paid out very well for all - so, winners play nice,” he said in a statement.

story continues below

The central question in studying social cooperation, Jusup says, is this: What do prospective cooperators know about each other? The research shows that mutual recognition — even just seeing a familiar face — forces people to act more thoughtfully.

The power of mutual recognition was illustrated in famous ferry scene in The Dark Knight, which showed a much more sinister version of the same Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the scene, the Joker traps two groups of Gotham citizens in separate ferries; both ferries are lined with explosives, and each group has a detonator to blow the other up and set itself free in the next 30 minutes. If neither group triggers the detonator, the Joker will blow them both up. The Joker, of course, thinks that both groups, comprising complete strangers in an evil town who owe each other nothing, should have no problem blowing up the other. But the captives, amid their deliberations, come to an important realization: They’re not strangers but together are Gothamites, and thus they share a set of beliefs of morals that binds them.

Ultimately, recognizing similarities involves exchanging details about identity, and this in turn builds trust. Jusup thinks we can apply the findings from his study to pretty much any situation that requires cooperation. “It would seem that people should take a little time to exchange information about one another before getting down to ‘business’,” he says. “Such an exchange, according to our results, should put people into a more cooperative frame of mind.”

As for dealing with internet trolls, he thinks it’s much more likely that online conversations will stop de-volving “towards the point where participants simply insult one another” if users are forced to share some personal information for others to see, like a simple profile or a photo.

But even niceness has its limits, Jusup found: Cycles of conflict and retaliation began when one participant punished the other for screwing them over previously. He and his colleagues thought that punishment might lead a participant to wise up and act more cooperatively the next time around, but the results suggest social cooperation isn’t that straightforward. “This high level of onymity bears a question: To what extent could onymity be lowered and still promote cooperation?” Jusup asks, noting that his follow-up work will address this question. While there’s little doubt that forcing anonymous trolls to reveal themselves will reduce their hatefulness, it remains to be seen how to deal with trolls you know.

Photos via Flickr / theps.net, Flickr / dustball