Study Finds That Online Harassers Really Are Losers

Men's aggression to women correlates with their own poor performance. Mike Focus/Shutterstock.

Sometimes science proves the things that you have always wanted to believe, but suspected were too perfect to be true. Exhibit A: Men who engage in online misogynistic abuse are probably bad at the computer games. The finding backs up the theory that harassment is a reflection of these men's own sense of failure.

The Internet can be a scary place for anyone who gets a profile for something remotely controversial, but women, particularly young women, often experience far more serious abuse online than men. In gaming spaces a woman is four times as likely to receive negative comments as a man behaving identically.

Michael Kasumovic of the University of New South Wales and Jeffrey Kuznekoff of Miami University decided to investigate what is driving this rage. In PLOS ONE they note, “Although there is much research dedicated to understanding sexist behavior, we have almost no insight into what triggers this behavior and the individuals that initiate it.”

The topic may be far too broad to cover in a single study, but the pair set out to test the hypothesis that sexism is driven by men trying to hold onto traditionally male spaces that they perceive women to be invading. Kasumovic and Kuznekoff considered an evolutionary hypothesis that men at the bottom of a hierarchy will be the most hostile to new arrivals, as they are the most vulnerable to loss of status if women come to rank higher than them in the subculture's pecking order. They contrast this with social constructivist theories that sexism is unrelated to positions within a hierarchy.

The pair observed what happened when an experimental player joined the online shooter game Halo 3, and particularly contrasted the responses when the player used a male or female voice.

“We show that lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario,” the study notes. Moreover, the worse a player was doing, the more likely they were to become abusive towards women, although most of the derogatory comments were not explicitly sexist.

From 163 games, 189 players, all of them men, spoke up during the games, experimental player aside.

When their voice was female, experimental players got mostly praise from the teammates that were playing well, and mostly abuse from those doing worse than them. The picture was more mixed for male players, depending on the measure used, but male players received fewer comments overall, and nothing like the same abuse from their poorly performing teammates.

The authors suggest that hostile comments are both designed to encourage women to leave the space, and a form of “negging” to try to lower the woman's confidence so that she overlooks the poor performance of the man making the comment.

The authors hope that experience being outplayed by women might reduce hostility. On the other hand, if the study gets enough publicity, potential harassers might become a little less keen to advertise their limited talent.

[H/T: Washington Post]

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