Microaggressions: A Critique of the Research

Psychology's debunker-in-chief puts microaggressions under the microscope.

Posted May 25, 2018

Scott Lilienfeld is a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. He's widely recognized as one of our discipline's most talented debunkers because he has a knack for exposing pseudoscientific claims.

In 2012, Lilienfeld co-authored a paper titled "Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience in School Psychology." Two years later, he co-authored a paper titled "The Persistence of Fad Interventions in the Face of Negative Scientific Evidence: Facilitated Communication for Autism as a Case Example." In 2017, Lilienfeld turned his attention to microaggressions, a topic that is popular on college campuses but controversial among social scientists. The result? A paper in the highly-regarded journal Perspectives on Psychological Science titled "Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence."

Lilienfeld's paper is a thorough critique of the so-called Microaggression Research Program, which has found a link between exposure to microaggressions and poor mental health outcomes. His thought-provoking paper deserves to be read in its entirety, but here are three interesting points he makes:

1. Subtle insults occur—and some of them are surely motivated by racial prejudice—but choosing to call these slights "microaggressions" was a mistake. Why? Because definitions of "aggression" almost always include the notion of intentionality. The person who inadvertently steps on your foot is not being aggressive, but the person who intentionally stomps on your foot is.

Microaggression researchers claim that microaggressions are subtle snubs and slights directed toward minorities that are expressed unconsciously. But unconscious acts, by definition, are not intentional. If we accept the standard definition of aggression, a slight expressed unconsciously can be hurtful but not aggressive per se. Lilienfeld recommends that researchers, campus administrators, and others replace the term "microaggression" with something more appropriate like "inadvertent racial slight."

Does it matter what we call the phenomenon? Lilienfeld says it does. If I hear someone say something and label it a microaggression, I will probably feel morally justified in calling out and punishing the "aggressor" because that's what we do to people who harm us intentionally.

2. It's proven difficult to achieve consensus about whether a particular act is a microaggression or not. For example, one author "identified a student's calling a professor by his or her first name" as a microaggression" (Lilienfeld, 2017, p. 151).

At the college where I teach, most students call professors by their first names—and most professors don't mind. A few do mind, but their response to being addressed informally probably says more about them than it does about their students.  

In studies, some minority individuals report they have experienced a large number and wide variety of microaggressions, yet other minority individuals report they have experienced few, if any. Conflicting reports like these are confusing because experiencing one microaggression doesn't necessarily increase the likelihood of experiencing another.

The individual differences in these reports may indicate that some people are "primed" (perceptually ready) to see microaggressions while others are not. If microaggressions are highly subjective and exist largely "in the eye of the beholder," researchers must develop measures that are more objective. Third-party observer ratings, for example.

3. Finally, Lilienfeld says microaggression researchers have largely ignored the role of negative emotionality. Negative emotionality (NE) is "a pervasive temperamental disposition to experience aversive emotions of many kinds, including anxiety ... hostility, irritability, and perceived victimization" (Lilienfeld, 2017, p. 153). Persons with high levels of NE tend to be vigilant, judgmental, and prone to interpreting ambiguous stimuli in a negative light.

As mentioned earlier, several studies have found that high scores on self-report microaggression measures are associated with poor mental health. Microaggression researchers have interpreted this finding as evidence that repeated exposure to microaggressions leads to adverse mental health outcomes, but Lilienfeld suggests another possibility: He says individuals who possess high levels of NE are more likely to interpret ambiguous acts as microaggressions. These same persons are also more likely to experience poor mental health. Instead of microaggressions causing poor mental health, Lilienfeld says a third variable--negative emotionality--can account for some (but probably not all) of the observed relationship between microaggression indices and poor mental health.

fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Lilienfeld doesn't deny the reality of racially-based slights and insults, but believes most studies of microaggression to date have been limited by conceptual and methodological shortcomings. He then goes on to recommend specific improvements. Lilienfeld, like his predecessor Stephen Jay Gould, sees debunking as a positive intellectual endeavor because it protects the public from pseudo-scientific claims and promotes good science.

References

Lilienfeld, S. O., Ammirati, R., & David, M. (2012). Distinguishing science from pseudoscience in school psychology: Science and scientific thinking as safeguards against human error. Journal of School Psychology50(1), 7-36.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Marshall, J., Todd, J. T., & Shane, H. C. (2014). The persistence of fad interventions in the face of negative scientific evidence: Facilitated communication for autism as a case example. Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention8(2), 62-101.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Microaggressions: Strong claims, inadequate evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science12(1), 138-169.

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