In new research findings that surprises no one: The men most likely to harass women online are also most likely to have their own problems. Photo: Stocksy
Here's a research finding that should surprise no one: The men most likely to harass women online … are the men most likely to have their own problems.
That bit of validation comes courtesy Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey Kuznekoff, researchers at the University of New South Wales and Miami University, respectively. For their latest study, published in the journal PLOS One last week, the duo watched how men treated women during 163 plays of the video game Halo 3.
As they watched the games play out and tracked the comments that players made to each other, the researchers observed that — no matter their skill level, or how the game went — men tended to be pretty cordial to each other. Male players who were good at the game also tended to pay compliments to other male and female players.
Some male players, however — the ones who were less-skilled at the game, and performing worse relative their peers — made frequent, nasty comments to the female gamers. In other words, sexist dudes are literally losers.
In today's online environment, alas, this is not an idle observation. According to a recent Pew report, 40 per cent of Internet users have personally experienced harassment. While both genders are frequent victims of this abuse, women tend to get the worst of it: They are "particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and stalking," Pew said.
I asked Kasumovic, the lead author on the study, how applicable his findings were in other online or offline settings. In other words, how much of this derives from human nature, and how much of it relates to the unique demands of first-person shooters?
Kasumovic argues that video games actually make incredible proxies for studying real-life behavior — Halo 3, especially.
There are three things you should know about the game, for the purpose of understanding this study: (1) players are anonymous, and the possibility of "policing individual behavior is almost impossible"; (2) they only encounter each other a few times in passing — it's very possible to hurl an expletive at another player, and never "see" him or her again; and (3) finally, and perhaps predictably, the sex-ratio of players is biased pretty heavily toward men. (A 2014 survey of gender ratios on Reddit found that r/halo was over 95 per cent male.)
That should sound a whole lot like a lot of other, frequently sexist online spaces: Think Twitter. Or Reddit. Or 4chan.
A chart from the Halo study that shows how nice male gamers were to other males (dotted line) and females (solid line) during gameplay. Men always treat each other about the same. But the better a player gets, the more likely he is to be nice to ladies. (Kasumovic et al)
In each of these environments, Kasumovic suggests, a recent influx of female participants has disrupted a pre-existing social hierarchy. That's okay for the guys at the top — but for the guys at the bottom, who stand to lose more status, that's very threatening. (It's also in keeping with the evolutionary framework on anti-lady hostility, which suggests sexism is a kind of Neanderthal defense mechanism for low-status, non-dominant men trying to maintain a shaky grip on their particular cave's supply of women.)
"As men often rely on aggression to maintain their dominant social status," Kasumovic writes, "the increase in hostility towards a woman by lower-status males may be an attempt to disregard a female's performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy to retain their social rank."
In other words, like your mother always said, bullies just feel bad about themselves.
This does not, alas, suggest any solutions for on- or offline sexism, or any hope that it will ever really end.