The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author

Synagogue Walls Desecrated With Anti-Semitic Graffiti
Items filed as microassaults – supposedly one form of microaggression – include racial slurs and swastika graffiti, but Scott Lilienfeld argues there is nothing “micro” about these

By Alex Fradera

Racism and prejudice are sometimes blatant, but often manifest in subtle ways. The current emblem of these subtle slights is the “microaggression”, a concept that has generated a large programme of research and launched itself into the popular consciousness – prompting last month’s decision by Merriam-Webster to add it to their dictionary. However, a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University argues that core empirical and conceptual questions about microaggressions remain unaddressed, meaning the struggle against them takes place on a confusing battlefield, one where it’s hard to tell between friend and foe.

So what exactly is a microaggression? First coined in the 1970s but rejuvenated in 2007 in a paper in the American Psychologist by Derald Wing Sue and colleagues, it originally referred only to racism but has expanded to a range of commonplace slights or hostility towards an oppressed group. The definition includes microinvalidations, such as being told that a negative interaction couldn’t have been due to racist motives, and microinsults, such as a teacher avoiding calling on you in class due to your gender, as well as a third class of microassaults. The prototypical microaggression hides the offence within apparently innocent words or actions, which places those on the receiving end into a catch-22: swallow the indignity, or respond and risk being accused of overreaction?

This seems coherent on its face, but Lilienfeld argues there is an elastic nature to the definition, for example allowing Sue to assert that “the fact that psychological research has continued to inadequately address race and ethnicity…is in itself a microaggression.” In addition, items filed as microassaults include racial slurs and swastika graffiti; Lilienfeld argues that there is nothing micro about these events, so including them alongside the other examples muddies the waters and could spuriously make microaggressions appear culpable for harm, when the responsible party was old-fashioned abuse.

It’s not just that the edges of microaggression are poorly defined: ambiguity is baked into the entire concept. Advocates see this as a key feature, and claim that more ambiguous acts of prejudice are the most damaging, because they are the hardest to deal with – that aforementioned catch-22. (Sue again: “The invisibility of racial microaggressions may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the covert and deliberate acts of White supremacists such as the Klan and Skinheads.”) Ambiguity can have its uses but the risk is that the concept becomes overly subjective.

For example, it could be that the experience of microaggressions is at least partially explained by a propensity to see fault or attack in statements. It could also be that the apparent impact of microaggressions on health or wellbeing is because people prone to negative emotionality (they score high on the trait of neuroticism) are more likely both to perceive microaggressions and to experience poorer health. One study did find an effect of microaggressions on negative moods and physical symptoms even after controlling for trait neuroticism, but the personality scale used in this study didn’t include any items related to proneness to feeling victimised, which seems an oversight.

Personality having a hand in microaggression experience would also explain why some people from minority groups report no microaggressions when canvassed. The (limited) evidence that more ambiguous slights lead to more negative outcomes could also reflect the established psychological fact that in “weak” situations with no clear guidelines for action, people’s personality – in this case, their negative emotionality – tends to assert itself to fill in the interpretive gaps.

Lilienfeld raises a lot of other issues we simply don’t have space for here: political assumptions, no measurement of base rates of everyday slights, inclusion criteria that limits participants to those who already buy into the concept to begin with, and the need to address whether people who commit microaggressions show other signs of a prejudicial mindset (something that research into the Implicit Affect test has also struggled to demonstrate). But he stresses that while he is not here to praise research into microaggression, nor is he here to bury it. He emphasises that many of these issues could be addressed by joining the microaggression field more closely with other more established areas of psychological research, and he offers a number of steps researchers could take to strengthen their research base.

Lilienfeld also suggests we all consider putting aside the word microaggression in favour of “perceived racial slight” – because we don’t yet understand the role of interpretation due to personality, and because it simply isn’t clear that those using microaggressions are showing aggression as we usually understand the word. Putting aside the charged term, together with the “victim and perpetrator” parlance used by advocates and researchers, would allow us to affirm that these ambiguous events have a reality of their own, while recognising that the nature of that reality needs further investigation to be understood.

Microaggressions Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence

Image via

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

27 thoughts on “The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author”

  1. Interesting article, though I’d prefer it if the image accompanying it did not include a swastika and Hebrew that translates to “death to the Jews.” While a thorough reading of the article offers a more complete perspective, including specifically stating that “”there is nothing micro about these events,” the combination of the title and image seems to suggest that this photo provides an example of a microaggression. Swastikas, particularly when accompanied by graffiti calling for violence against Jews, are explicitly threatening.

    1. Have to agree with this.

      Also, my interpretation of microaggressions is that they’re often committed by well-meaning people with unacknowleged biases and prejudices (“Oh yeah, that makes sense because you’re [insert race, which had nothing to do with whatever the person was saying]) who are trying to say something positive, but failing. Defacing property with racial slurs and symbols, or using racial slurs in conversation is not a microaggression, it is openly racist. The person using racial slurs or symbols almost always knows what they mean. Calling someone out

      1. That’s the point of the image…
        To exemplify there’s a clear difference.

  2. I really agree with the overall thesis – the problem with the terms micro-aggression/assaults (I confess I’d never heard of the term this is the first time) is a strong implication of intended aggressive behaviour. A perceived racial slight might sound slightly victim-blamey but summarizes what is happening more accurately.

    One of the huge problems with prejudice, stigma, inequality of all kinds is the vast majority of people do not wake up in the morning thinking about how they are going to commit discrimination today – more accurately most people make unintentional potential slights against others due to their cognitive biases and learning history – we all do it, even the most altruistic of us. The problem with claiming micro-aggression, or any sort of ism is that people then become defensive and rather than being opening minded about their interactions, attempt to defend their behaviour.

      1. While I agree with the risk, I disagree that the risk is equal. Furthermore a completely neutral statement such as ‘politically incorrect’ often leads people to believe that the concern itself is also neutral. Hidden racism/sexism whatever does effect the victim from their perspective so we don’t want to lose that.

        Or more succinctly:

        Micro-aggression: definitively labels the originator as an aggressive wrong-doer

        Perceived slight: some people might target the ‘perceived’ as being victim-blaming but no-where near as definitive as saying the originator committed a micro-aggression.

        (P.S. I am also referring to the stuff that is clearly ‘micro’ There is nothing micro about grafitti swastikas)

  3. What does the terminology matter, if we are referring to the same thing? Of course it’s “perceived”- what isn’t? Stop treating people like soft-headed children, and maybe they will stop acting like such. Never swallow it. ALWAYS risk overreacting. What’s the risk in overreacting? There is none. If accused of overreacting, then you explain your perception and allow dialog towards truth. Too often subtle aggression is real, but people too concerned with how they might appear to others choose to maintain their “cool” and ignore their instincts, instead of reacting as their minds and bodies are telling them to react. Develop your reasoning power and you can trust it more fully. Listen and observe, and react according to reason, not according to how you think you are “supposed” to react. How you think you are supposed to react is a fantasy anyway- something you made up. Be authentic. The worst thing that could happen is that you might learn something. Trust yourself, and don’t believe that you must always be correct. Your self-respect demands it. Likewise, don’t expect that others should always be correct either. Be quick to forgive yourself and others, and you will be quick to learn.

    1. Who is “we”? I’ve certainly never used this ridiculous LiberalSpeak term. I’ve laughed derisively at people who do, though! And since the backlash you people created by spewing this and other equally ridiculous terms like “cultural appropriation”, “cis-gender” and “safe-space” was strong enough to elect Trump, I guess I should thank you! Hope you’re enjoying yourselves like I am, libtards! Otherwise you can always move to that liberal utopia, North Korea!

      1. I hope that absurd and irrelevant rant has got something off your chest!

    2. I once suffered from that as a man of color in Germany from a person I percieved to be a friend. She had treated me with a strereotype of that person of color always need offers of help from the benevolent host community, despite being a professional, and she was doing me a favour as a friend.It is not easy to tell what a person means by the words they use and it takes time to really understand what is going on and lots of doubts.I remember asking her to talk and discuss that what she kept saying was hurtful but she thought I was crazy and should “live my life” instead of complaining and she “didnt see color”.I even started thinking that I was actually crazy and couldnt understand why I kept overreacting .I had experienced lots of overt racism in Russia including knife attacks and verbal monkey and banana insults but psychologically took only a few minutes to get over, but microaggressions take months to understand and get over.

      1. Presumably it is because we often suffer microaggressions from those who are supposedly friends or acquaintances. We don’t want to accept that there is actually some hostility, however subtle.

        As a woman I suffered this a good deal with male friends, when they would make comments that I perceived as inappropriately sexual, but were ambiguous enough to deny that reality. I would question my own perception, but I would also back off from that person because they had made me feel uncomfortable and disrespected.

  4. Another White author arguing for how we should and should not discuss racism. Shocker. No wonder the framework of microaggressions is misrepresented, People of Color are blamed for their experiences, and “perceived racial insult” is offered in distinction to “actual” racial insult, because those are the only ones that are valid. Welp, got my daily dose of crap. I will move on now.

    1. Microaggressions don’t just apply to racism. I assume the article mainly focuses on racism because of Sue’s work, but it can equally be applied to other groups. To my mind a microaggression serves those who do not want to be exposed as having any kind of problem with a particular group (and indeed may not be aware of their issues), but gives them an outlet where they can deny deny deny. I expect the workplace is a hotbed of this kind of behaviour.

  5. Interesting that the comments on this almost all displayed prejudices (all insults are real? Then there is no such thing as paranoia)and political agendas (North Korea is liberal? Not in this universe), when the original article was about the scientific evidence in favour of the concept. Still, at least it has prompted me to go and read the original.

  6. I wonder where certain types of jokes fall in with microaggressions and macroaggressions. When people pretend to be joking when they actually do believe what they say, it is another form of deniability. It is also a form of testing.

    I used to hitchhike a lot and one thing became clear very quickly – other white people about half the time would make a racist ‘joke’ to test my reaction (occasionally there would be homophobia or sexism, but not nearly as much). Being a captive audience I was put in a difficult position. It was the biggest negative of hitchhiking, much worse than the waits and the rain!

    I can see that the terms and definitions are problematic, and for those who want psychology to be properly respected even more so, but it does not alter the reality that they happen all the time as a part of passive/ aggressive behaviour (or do we need to drop that term too?).

  7. Microaggressions are biased crap that minorities and women put up with because they aren’t big enough to justify lawsuits, calling police, fistfights, or even screaming at people, but are still annoying and frequent. Perhaps the author should talk to some women about how men treat them.

  8. I don’t think there is a single answer to the problems discussed here, or a single correct viewpoint.

    There are worlds of subjectivity behind both the speaker and the hearer of a microagression. It would be best to agree that all things could be true in one case or another. Certainly some people are racist or sexist or “X-phobic”, and express hostility with an intention to harm, in a way that they might get away with. Sometimes no slight is intended, but the speaker’s ignorance or poor articulation or insensitivity produces a comment that would make most everyone cringe. Sometimes people are extremely sensitive and hear insults that are not intended, even when other members of the same group do not hear them. I don’t believe it is realistic to deny any of these possibilities. But this says little about the general state of things, which is what most people like to argue about.

    Lilienfeld is well-known as a by-the-book advocate of hard science and the debunker of psychological tropes. He is asking for better means by which to define and understand these events. I doubt that he would ever say that these slights are not “real” or do not exist, or should not matter to the hearer regardless of the intent of the speaker. However, as a psychological scientist, his goal in this study is not one of social justice in the wider world. It is to nail slippery concepts and phenomena down within the study of psychology. I think that has value.

    At the same time, for some people, I understand that his would be an unjustifiable position because his analysis seems to weaken their campaign for justice. For these people, many of whom will have seriously suffered from various sorts of discrimination, by failing to directly be part of their solution, Lilienfeld seems to be part of the problem. I thank those who share their personal stories here, for helping us to understand what it has been like for them. I can empathize that it would be so hard to hear from someone who seems to diminish their painful experience.

Comments are closed.