New findings pose more problems for the embattled concept of the microaggression

GettyImages-843534086.jpgBy Alex Fradera

“Microaggressions” are seemingly innocuous words or behaviour that supposedly communicate a bias toward minority groups, such as asking Asian Americans where they are from, implying that they are not really part of the USA. According to advocates of the usefulness of the concept, microaggressions cause real harm, even if unintended by the perpetrator. However, the theoretical and evidential support for the concept of microaggressions is far from clear, as detailed in Scott Lilienfeld’s recent thorough critique, which recommended the term be revised or at least re-examined. Now, Craig Harper, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, has published a study as a pre-print online at PsyArXiv that, he argues, reveals a further key problem with the concept of the microaggression.

As it’s usually defined, a microaggression only counts as such when a majority group member commits an act that a minority group member perceives as a slight. The term was coined to account for slights against Black people, and has since expanded to other groups. On his Psychology Today blog, Derald Sue at Columbia University, one of the originators of the microaggression concept, states that microaggressions are “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that … target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership”. For his new study, Craig Harper’s aim was to examine whether it’s true that the experience of “being microaggressed at” really does only flow in one direction.

Harper recruited around 400 US participants online and split them into three groups according to their political beliefs: conservative, liberal, or moderate. They also answered questions about their pride in belonging to their political grouping.

The participants then read six fictional scenarios in which a professor made a contentious claim to his students. For example, in one, a male professor explained that the reason women are under-represented in certain professions is entirely due to their personal choice. A female student then responded in a frustrated manner, but was told by the professor to calm down and that this was not a place for “policy agendas.” This is a fairly typical example of what the literature considers a microaggression.

Crucially, the scenarios were balanced so only half the microaggressions targeted people who would normally be seen as victims: women, Black people, and liberals. The other three scenarios kept the topics (such as educational attainment and political diversity), but switched the social identities of the perpetrator and victim. For example, in one case, a female professor justified lower rates of men in certain professions and then showed impatience towards a male student who complained.

After reading each scenario, the participants said whether they thought the student was right to feel insulted or had been overly sensitive. They also said whether they thought the professor was bigoted.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the students’ own political orientation shaped their response. Harper found that political liberals judged the fictional professors more harshly when they targeted racial minorities, women and those on the political left, compared to other targets. The students with more conservative leanings were less bothered by the scenario content overall, but showed the opposite pattern, being more critical when majorities, men and conservatives were targeted.

Harper says this is important because it shows, contrary to the the conventional definition of the microaggression concept, that microaggressions aren’t only experienced by those who fall into certain minority political categories. Instead it seems that anyone who thinks their in-group has been slighted by an out-group member may feel as if they’ve been “microaggressed”.

Possibly relevant to one’s sensitivity to potential microaggressions, according to Harper,  is the concept of “collective narcissism” – how much we believe in the superiority of our in-group (typified by agreement with statements like “If people with my political views had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place”). Based on the participants’ ratings of their pride in their political in-group, there wasn’t any evidence this factor mattered for the liberal groups’ perception of microaggressions. For some of the conservative participants, however, it was those showing more collective narcissism who showed greater sensitivity to slighted right-wing targets.

This finding for collective narcissism is tentative at this stage. In fact, Harper’s paper has not yet been peer reviewed and there may be further interpretations of the results that Harper hasn’t considered. But it seems clear that once you are willing to put aside the lens of power to understand microaggressions, you can study the concept like other forms of motivated social cognition we understand quite well, such as, Harper says, the tendency “to shun or discredit those with whom we are ideologically opposed”. These new findings suggest that those who argue microaggressions are a societal concern specifically afflicting minorities may have to recognise that other interest groups – especially in spaces that lean left, not right, like most universities – will have a claim to play the same game.

Political Microaggressions Across the Ideological Spectrum (note this study is a preprint and has not yet been subjected to peer review)

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

16 thoughts on “New findings pose more problems for the embattled concept of the microaggression”

  1. Although I appreciate being informed about current research findings; I think highlighting findings that have yet to be peer-reviewed is unwise. What if a serious flaw with the research is found in the review process? At the very least I suggest making the fact this paper has yet to be peer-reviewed more obvious to the reader than a single mention in the last paragraph.

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    1. Hi Jeremy, thanks for your feedback. We’re currently trialling covering pre-prints as well as peer-reviewed papers. As with peer-reviewed papers we make a team decision about which findings we think justify coverage. Our motivation for trialling covering pre-prints is partly is to help facilitate the informal peer review process that is growing in importance in the scientific publishing process (pre-prints also have the advantage of being open access, allowing our coverage and the commentary that follows to feedback and inform the research). When we cover pre-prints, this is made clear on first mention (usually in the first paragraph) and a note on this is also repeated with the study link at the conclusion of our reports (and in this specific case, as you say, Alex also refers explicitly to the current status of the piece of research in his discussion).

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      1. Just to add to what Christian has written, thansk to the replication crisis we are much more aware of how questionable research practices are encouraged in part by the pressure to publish: reaching the “correct” p-values, having enough consistency and elegance between findings to achieve the required levels of “interestingness”.

        This has lead a number of open science advocates to argue that to get a better picture of the scientific literature we should actively avoid sticking only with the peer-reviewed content found on journal pages, but do better to look across all the data that’s available. For instances, meta-analyses will include unpublished as well as published work, and the presence of the former is seen as a feature.

        So it is true that interpretation of unpublished work should be done with caution and with some caveats in place. But according to these advocates, the same is true of published work, at least in the current publishing climate and system. It’s just a different set of caveats. It’s a provocative idea that for someone like me, who came up through the system of “peer-review publication as the route to truth”, but I find it hard to deny much of the logic.

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  2. “They also answered questions about their pride in belonging to their political grouping.”

    Well, according to many SJWs, the participants may have been “microaggressed-at” just by the methods of the study itself!

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  3. I’m not sure I’m convinced this study really gets at the type of everyday comments which are often described as ‘microaggressions’ – the examples here are all examples of ‘in group slights’ and one would expect that they would lead to sensitivity regardless of the direction of power. The example in your coverage here, of someone of Asian American background being asked ‘where are you really from?’, is a little different. Semantically, this statement is not a slight and so the reaction against it is less easily explained by intergroup sensitivity alone. Pragmatically, though, this statement indicates a reluctance to include Asian Americans in the broader ingroup ‘American’ and so it could be argued that the validity of a minority group member’s group membership of a dominant group is being negotiated here, in addition to any implied slight. The point made about microagressions is that there simply isn’t a direct equivalent where the power dynamic is reversed – a White American would simply never be asked the same question.

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    1. ‘The point made about microagressions is that there simply isn’t a direct equivalent where the power dynamic is reversed – a White American would simply never be asked the same question.’

      I’m not sure it’s necessarily about power, though – white Americans are (at least for the time being) still the majority, so it’s not surprising that it’s non-whites who get the question. Context is everything here – some people are bigoted, others just curious. And that’s one of the issues with microagressions – labeling _potentially_ unpleasant speech as automatically injurious even if no one is actually offended. It also implies that minorities are highly fragile, and encourages confirmation bias, which could lead to perceiving ambiguous (or even clearly benign) situations and language as prejudiced. None of which is to say that prejudice does not exist, or doesn’t matter. But the concept of microagressions seems highly problematic.

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      1. It’s open to question who exactly is a minority and who a majority. How does one apply the rule that ‘only majority members can perform micro-aggressions’ in a situation where most people belong to a group identified as minorities? I came across this conundrum some years ago when the local newspaper in a majority black region of the country reported an example of bias by a black-owned and run company against white employees and customers. It invited a spate of letters to the editor that this was an impossibility: blacks could not be racially prejudiced by definition. The next set of responses from indignant whites retorted that rudeness was rudeness regardless of the race of the people involved. A readership poll showed that a majority of blacks agreed that blacks could not by definition be racially biased, while the overwhelming majority of whites disagreed. Presumably the argument that only majorities can be biased would also imply that men (who are very slightly fewer than women because women live longer) can never be biased against women by definition; only women can be biased against men.

        Life was simpler when we referred only to good and bad manners, and didn’t wallow in deliberately ambiguous terms like micro-aggression.

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  4. My girlfriend is a black female attorney and she has numerous examples of slights, I guess they could be called microaggressions. They happen on a weekly basis and usually involve people not realizing she’s a lawyer and assuming she’s a court reporter or a witness. Usually it involves her standing next to a few white men and someone walking over and asking the men if they know where such and such attorney is, and she’s standing right there and that person doesn’t ask her if she’s the person they are looking for. They just assume they are looking for a white attorney. She actually looks at it as a positive because people underestimate her. On a few occasions, her adversary in litigation has given their whole strategy while standing right in front of her, because it never occurs to them that she’s their opposition.

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  5. Alex,I believe your last sentence contains what appears to be an obvious error: “These new findings suggest that those who argue microaggressions are a societal concern specifically afflicting minorities may have to recognise that other interest groups – especially in spaces that lean left, not right, like most universities – will have a claim to play the same game.” Don’t you mean ‘especially in spaces that lean right, not left, like most universities’?

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  6. The conclusion is confusing to me. Obviously a microagression, in so much as it’s a small (perhaps unintentional) dig at someone for being part of a specific group, could cause offense to or hurt people in priviliged groups. The issue with microagressions and opressed / disadvantaged groups is that they happen more often and their cumulative effect is damaging.

    This paper, as presented here, doesn’t call into question the effects of microagressions being more pronounced for disadvantaged groups. It doesn’t even ask that question, which is fine, I just don’t see how it’s a “problem” for the concept of microagressions.

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    1. Hi PIYB,
      The claim isn’t simply that microaggressions are more pronounced for disadvantaged groups, but that by definition it’s an experience unique to these groups. As it says in the introduction, quoting Derald Sue, “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that … target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership”. So whereas these kinds of evidence don’t disprove the phenomena, they do cause problems for the concept.

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      1. Hmmm, I’m not familiar with this sort of research/ theory so thank you for taking the time to explain.

        As I mention, with my layperson understanding, surely the issue of microagressions is that if you’re in a disadvantaged group they are more likely to pile up and have a cumultive effect. The idea that only a disadvantaged group can feel slighted by someone in a priviliged group seems pretty absurd at face value. I’m confused as to how the concept, as described, ever came about.

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  7. “If people with my political views had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place”

    How on earth could anyone answer no to this? Politics are always about making the world better, regardless of what people perceive to be the world. It could as narrow as their own home life or as wide as the entire universe through all time.

    Note that it doesn’t say: “If everyone had my political views the world would be better”. Or “If my in-group had a major say”. This statements conflates in-group with politics.

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