New research has found a possible evolutionary reason for sexism – men who feel that they are not performing well and feel bad about themselves are most likely to be hostile and sexist towards women.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales and Miami University believe that looking at the way people behave in games is a good indicator of how people behave in real-life.
To that end, they had an experimental player participate in 163 online plays of the video game Halo 3 on Xbox Live, playing with 189 other unknown players on the internet.
Halo 3 is a first-person shooter video game on Xbox 360 where the player is a cybernetically enhanced super soldier battling enemies known as the Covenant.
In the online version of the game, players can get into teams of four and battle against another team, or they can go online as individual users and let the Xbox Live matchmaking system automatically sort them into teams with unknown users from anywhere in the world.
While playing the game, users can also talk to each other using headsets and the real-time voice channel, as well as sending other users pre-recorded audio clips.
Of the 163 game plays that the researchers watched, 147 of the players were team mates with the experimental player, while 42 users were opponents. And of the 147 individuals who chose to play in teams, 82 were women and 65 were men.
The researchers tracked the comments that the players made to each other while playing the game, and certain patterns in behaviour traits became apparent.
Men were nasty to women, but not other men doing better than them
Male players who were good at playing Halo 3 tended to react in a positive way to both male and female gamers who played the game, and even pay compliments to other gamers of both genders.
In contrast, male players who were doing badly at the game and had a lower skill, were more likely to make multiple nasty comments to the female gamers.
However, if the same male players were in a game with other male users, the male players who were doing badly behaved quite cordially to the males who were besting them at the game.
The researchers say that their results explain that female-directed aggression occurs due to evolution, whether it is on the internet or offline.
"Low-status males that have the most to lose due to a hierarchical reconfiguration are responding to the threat female competitors pose. High-status males with the least to fear were more positive, suggesting they were switching to a supportive, and potentially, mate attraction role," the researchers wrote.
"Our results are particularly important because the ecological design observed players in their natural state rather than in a laboratory or other foreign environment. The large online community of players using pseudonyms means that policing individual behaviour is almost impossible. Individuals thus generally behave expressively and honestly since there is no fear of retribution."
The paper, entitled "Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour" is published in the open access journal PLOS One.