Gina Mei
Updated Jul 24, 2015 @ 6:08 am

It’s no secret that online harassment is a major problem. According to the Pew Research Center, about 40% of people have experienced it; and women are disproportionately more likely than men to experience “severe types” of it. About 25% of young women have been the victim of online sexual harassment — and 26% of young women have been stalked online. Last year, #GamerGate brought to light just how bad sex-based harassment can be, particularly in the gamer community. And now, science has discovered the one thing these harassers have in common: They’re “losers.” Literally.

In a new study published in PLOS One this month, researchers Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey Kuznekoff sought to answer one of the great questions of life: What causes sexist behavior?

“Although social constructionist theory argues that sexism is a response towards women entering a male dominated arena, this perspective doesn’t explain why only a subset of males behave in this way,” the study’s abstract reads. “We hypothesized that female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behavior from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status.”

In order to prove this, the two monitored how players interacted over the course of 163 games of Halo 3 — a popular first-person shooter game that “removes signals of dominance but provides information on gender, individual performance, and skill.” According to the study, individual performance and its perceived effect on social standing caused poorly-performing male players to be “significantly more hostile towards females.” These same players also demonstrated “submissive behavior” towards their superior male teammates. (For comparison, the study found that male players were predominantly cordial with other male players, and highly-skilled male players were predominantly cordial with everyone.)

“We thus argue that our results best support an evolutionary explanation of female-directed aggression,” the study reads. “Low-status males that have the most to lose due to a hierarchical reconfiguration are responding to the threat female competitors pose.”

As Kasumovic told The Washington Post, three important factors made Halo 3 a good medium for the study: Player anonymity; lack of accountability (since players only encounter one another “a few times in passing” throughout the game); and the fact that “the sex-ratio of players is biased pretty heavily towards men.” While the study focuses on male behavior towards women while playing Halo 3, however, the study’s authors argue that their findings apply to other situations, as well.

“Low-status and low-performing males have the most to lose as a consequence of the hierarchical reconfiguration due to the entry of a competitive woman,” the study concludes. “As men often rely on aggression to maintain their dominant social status, 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.”

Unfortunately, the study doesn’t seem to offer any solutions to fix this — but it’s well worth a read in its entirety right here.

(Image via Shutterstock.)