29/07/2013 14:07 BST | Updated 28/09/2013 06:12 BST

Caroline Criado-Perez and the Psychology of Cyber-Bullying and Twitter Trolling

Journalist Caroline Criado-Perez began receiving a barrage of online abuse after the Bank of England announced Jane Austen would feature on the next £10 note.

She reported receiving around "50 abusive tweets an hour" including graphic rape and death threats.

These bizarre and extremely aggressive reactions to her have so far been explained as uncovering a previously suppressed widespread hatred of women.

We think the psychology of her predicament is more complex, hinging upon what success represents to the envious and, particularly, those with low self-esteem. We also consider that a snowball effect occurred once the harassment started, and that the discomfort it caused for the victim became part of the reason for it continuing.

In order to prevent what has happened continuing in the future, it's important to understand how the various elements of the story - the bank note success being the start, but the female lead campaigner paying a key role - all combined to ignite this flammable psychological mixture.

We contend that the psychology of 'schadenfreude' - deriving enjoyment from others' misfortune - is behind an enormous amount of similar on-line behaviour.

''It is not the suffering of others that brings us joy, but rather the evidence of justice triumphing before our eyes'' is a quote from a philosopher John Portmann, which inspired a recent psychological study entitled, '''So You Wanna Be a Pop Star?'': Schadenfreude Following Another's Misfortune on TV'. which argues that schadenfreude is not only a very common and sought after experience, but is evoked when someone gets his or her comeuppance.

Envy, this new study argues, is therefore strongly linked with schadenfreude. Envy is evoked when a person lacks another's superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it, or wishes that the other lacked it. We suggest that Caroline Criado-Perez and her achievement evoked these feelings in a large number of the habitually resentful.

The study published in the journal 'Basic and Applied Social Psychology', is based on a central idea in psychology, that the most coveted experience is the enhancement of self-esteem. The protection, maintenance, or enhancement of feelings of self-worth become vital. One route to feeling good, is to compare oneself with others who seem worse off.

People who were traditionally downtrodden, starting to shake off their shackles, will be particularly provocative to those who need to compare themselves with the supposedly inferior. Caroline Criado-Perez had run a campaign that eminent women needed to be more visible, hence why Jane Austen will arrive on our money.

Those low in self-esteem have greater motivation for self-enhancement, and therefore will particularly seek downward comparisons with those they consider below them. Psychological research confirms that those who experience a recent threat to self-esteem have a greater need to restore their self-worth. This is where more schadenfreude following another's misfortune comes in.

Psychologists Wilco van Dijk, Jaap Ouwerkerk, Guido van Koningsbruggen and Yoka Wesseling, in this new study, presented volunteer participants with a very unfavourable performance of a contestant in the Dutch version of the TV show 'American Idol', and their reactions to this misfortune were assessed.

Those with prior low self-esteem experienced more schadenfreude following an unfavorable performance of a contestant on the TV show, after themselves receiving negative feedback about their intellectual ability.

The authors argue that in a ''double whammy''(low prior self-esteem and being told they had just scored badly on a test of intellect), individuals will be more motivated to restore their self-worth and, consequently, experience more pleasure at the misfortunes of others.

We believe something akin to this powerful psychological effect explains the popularity of 'Pop Idol' type TV shows, and what happened to Caroline Criado-Perez. There is a group of men with low self esteem who feel threatened by the success of women, and need to feel dominant to another group, in order to feel self confident.

Once she spoke out about her misfortune, this may have created more schadenfreude in these men, and provoked more reprehensible activity from them.

For a large group of disaffected men, resentment is compounded because they face a double whammy, as modern society requires fewer obviously male characteristics of physical strength and aggression, yet more feminine qualities of communication and emotional intelligence. Now men find that rivalry for females has been replaced by competition with women themselves. A lot of men just can't handle this.

The authors of the schadenfrade research conclude their paper with a quote from the philosopher John Portman from his book 'When bad things happen to other people': ''To the extent that a feeling of inferiority seems to invite celebration of other's woes, condemning a schadenfroh person is a bit like castigating people for not liking themselves more'' The problem is that Twitter provides an opportunity for all those who don't like themselves very much to vent, and take out their personal frustrations on others.

Another obvious reason for what happened is the relative anonymity provided by the internet. This same concealment effect applies to road rage - people behave much more aggressively on the roads than they do as pedestrians. One theory is that being encased in a metal box gives a sense of invulnerability and anonymity.

Perhaps Twitter activity feels similar.

Mob mentality may be another key driver of cyber-bullying and trolling. On-line behaviour may become more negative and offensive because it has rapidly emerged as almost a norm. This means that Twitter, in being slow to respond to the demands for a zero-tolerance policy, is colluding with an acceptance of this low standard.

The psychology of mob mentality might apply much more to on-line behaviour and Twitter trolling than internet organisations such as Twitter seem to grasp.

The 'schadenfreude' theory presents a conflict to victims - should they speak out and garner support by drawing attention to the suffering induced, or, in so doing, are they reinforcing the reason for the behaviour in the first place? They need to show they are unaffected, yet get Twitter to act. A difficult balancing act.

A bully's need for power and notoriety is also served by recruiting others to target the same victim.

Twitter, the organisation, may be slow to acknowledge that the very structure of the playground they have created, lends itself to leaders and followers. And that it implicitly encourages those who get their kicks from influencing others into joining the mob and giving some poor victim a group kicking.