A magisterial new paper by Emory University psychologist Dr. Scott Lilienfeld sheds extensive light on the conceptual incoherence, evidentiary lapses, and methodological flaws of the ‘micro-aggression research program’.
On an early afternoon last November, I was at work in my cubicle during a pre-Thanksgiving office potluck. Not far from my desk, colleagues were sampling dishes and gabbing away in convivial tête-ȃ-têtes or water-cooler chats, while I chose to remain at my desk and finish an assignment. Though the hubbub of office festivities was audible, I was distant enough from the action, in my corner cubicle, that snippets of sundry conversations blended together to create a hushed babel of white noise.
It was not as ideal as being nestled in a quiet alcove where people in circumambient cubicles are focused exclusively on work, but it was better than mingling with colleagues and enduring the ‘small talk’ of obligatory pleasantries, lame jokes, and awkward pauses in conversation. Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m not terribly interested in hearing about whether you have exciting plans for the holiday weekend, or where you plan to shop on Black Friday, or how you stayed up all night to cook a dish. I want to do my job and go home. This does not mean I shun all discourse with colleagues that is not strictly related to work. I like to trade ideas about trends in financial markets. I don’t mind occasional repartee about sports. I have even been known to speculate on the odds that Trump will be impeached and that his administration will implode. But pleasantries and filler conversations bore me to death.
I am an introvert. I am inclined to speculate that the dread I feel at the prospect of engaging in small talk during an office potluck is familiar to any introvert reading this article. Introverts get a bad rap, but at least since Jonathan Rauch wrote his well-received article ‘Caring for Your Introvert’ more than a decade ago, I also get the sense that introverts have become vocal in their eagerness to expose the bigotry and intolerance commonly exhibited toward the habits of their interior personalities.
Often seen as aloof malcontents who rudely or awkwardly eschew active participation in social occasions, introverts would like it to be known that there is a difference between shyness and introversion; that they are not averse to social interaction; that they like to have fun too; that they are agreeable people who tend to prefer smaller groups or one-on-one interactions; and that they simply tire more quickly from the sensual stimulation of a crowd. They are not subhuman. They are not mute. They are not reclusive hermits. But their brains are wired differently than the brains of extroverts.
It is no wonder, then, that introverts feel slighted when their pensive mien is mistaken for an aloof, chilly personality. The stereotype that they are anti-social is even more insidious because it makes an introvert feel like an irritable outcast or gauche wallflower. Not only do extroverts hog all the attention, but introverts are most likely a minority in the overall population. One estimate puts them at somewhere between sixteen and fifty percent of the population. But whether they constitute half the population or less, they tend to recede into the periphery of social gatherings given their demure demeanor. Extroverts command the social scene, and to the extent extroverts effectively ostracize introverts by failing to appreciate and respect their unique personality traits, introverts can feel like a disempowered minority rebuffed by a mainstream culture that rewards clamor over reticence.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that introverts have yet to make common cause with the armies of social justice warriors who have leaped on a bandwagon driven by research psychologists who have introduced the notion of ‘micro-aggressions’ into the national conversation about prejudice against minority groups in American society. First coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970, ‘micro-aggression’ has become a staple item of discussion in the culture wars of the twenty-first century. Indeed, it is difficult to escape hearing about micro-aggressions if you have spent time on college campuses, scrolled through social media feeds, read about diversity-training programs that have become increasingly prevalent on college campuses or in the corporate workplace, or explored the rhetoric of the alt-right.
‘Micro-aggression’ was anointed the top word of 2015 by the Global Language Monitor, eight years after gaining prominence with the 2007 publication of a seminal paper entitled ‘Racial Micro-aggressions in Everyday Life’, a paper that drew a connection between micro-aggressions and the psychological impairment of people allegedly victimized by micro-aggressions. Defining micro-aggressions as ‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color,’ the paper spawned a cottage industry of academic research and elevated the term into the mainstream conversation about race and discrimination. The use of ‘trigger warnings’ and creation of ‘safe spaces’ on university campuses are conspicuous legacies of the micro-aggression research paradigm.
This paradigm was born when psychologist Derald Wing Sue and colleagues in the Teachers College at Columbia University published their pioneering 2007 paper on the topic of racial micro-aggressions in a clinical setting. Defining micro-aggressions as ‘brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group,’ the paper divides micro-aggressions into three categories: (1) micro-assaults, or ‘explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions’ (e.g. referring to someone as ‘colored’); (2) micro-insults, or ‘communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity,’ in the form of ‘subtle snubs, frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but [which] clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient of color’ (e.g. asking an employee of color ‘how did you get your job?’); and (3) micro-invalidations, or ‘communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color’ (e.g. when a black person is told that ‘I don’t see color’).
It’s hard to overstate how groundbreaking the paper has been in terms of its influence on the cultural map in America. In 2015, a group identifying itself as Black Students at Emory University called for undergraduate course evaluations to include two ‘open-ended questions’ asking students whether professors have ‘made any micro-aggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, and/or other identity,’ which they believed ‘would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors.’ At Occidental College, faculty moved to vote on the implementation of a formal policy to allow students to report professors who commit micro-aggressions. Universities and workplaces have also incorporated micro-aggression awareness into diversity-training programs. The micro-aggression paradigm helped fuel the drive for ‘cultural competency’ training for new students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has also given rise to university actions that would border on the silly if they were not so insidious a threat to free speech—-e.g. the Inclusive Excellence Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recently added ‘politically correct’ as a micro-aggressive ‘dismissive term’. Over at the University of California, university president (and former Secretary of Homeland Security) Janet Napolitano has urged deans and department chairs to participate in a ‘Fostering Inclusive Excellence’ training seminar which, among other things, considers the phrases ‘America is the land of opportunity’ and ‘America is a melting pot’ to be micro-aggressions.
In January 2017, Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of psychology at Emory University, entered the conversation with the publication of a devastating new paper in the Journal of Perspectives on Psychological Science. The paper is not just a blockbuster but a myth-buster, calling into question the prevailing assumption that the concept of micro-aggression is a ‘psychologically meaningful construct’.
In the paper, he analyzes the ‘conceptual and empirical foundations’ of what he calls the micro-aggression research program (MRP) and finds that the concept of micro-aggression, given the current state of research, is not conceptually coherent or methodologically robust. Though the term has spawned many mentions in the literature (according to Dr. Lilienfeld, a ‘Google Scholar search from 2007 to the present reveals 3,090 manuscripts containing the term “micro-aggression”, 2,030 of them since 2012 alone’), Dr. Lilienfeld finds that ‘the conceptual and methodological status of the MRP has received scant scientific attention.’ Of the few literature reviews that have been conducted, none has ‘challenged the central assumption that micro-aggressions, as currently conceptualized, comprise a psychologically meaningful construct.’ Instead, the literature on micro-aggressions is rife with ambiguity and, in the words of Andrew Ferguson at the Weekly Standard, susceptible to ‘all the methodological flaws that we have come to expect from politically motivated social science: small sample sizes, self-selected nonrandom samples, self-reporting of results, the embedded bias of researchers, the lack of an agreed-upon terminology and system of measurement, and an inadequate use of control groups.’
In short, the micro-aggression research program has a lot of work to do. Until research can progress beyond its ‘premature state of scientific development’, Dr. Lilienfeld calls for a ‘moratorium on micro-aggression training, the widespread distribution of micro-aggression lists on college campuses, and other practical implementations of the MRP (e.g., the insertion of micro-aggression questions on student course evaluations), at least until the MRP can take heed of many or most of the research recommendations listed here.’
Dr. Lilienfeld does not deny that ‘[r]acial and cultural insensitivities persist in contemporary America, including college campuses.’ He insists there should not ‘be any doubt that prejudice at times manifests itself in subtle and indirect ways that have until recently received short shrift in psychological research.’ But ‘there is insufficient justification for concluding that the potential benefits of micro-aggression training programs outweigh their potential risks, including a substantial increase in the number of false-positive identifications of statements as micro-aggressions.’ This does not mean we should scrap the research, as ‘[t]he MRP has generated a plethora of theoretically and socially significant questions that merit thoughtful examination in coming decades.’ But, he goes on, ‘it is not close to being ready for widespread real-world application.’
Dr. Lilienfeld has done a great service in navigating the literature and calling our attention to the need for a more careful evaluation of the micro-aggression heuristic. Indeed, I remain skeptical that the virtues of micro-aggression training programs are untainted by the danger of arbitrary and irresponsible application of an open-ended heuristic to complex, unique situations. Like Dr. Lilienfeld, I am not in denial about the persistence of racism in America, nor do I deny that racism can be perniciously subliminal, leading to racial insensitivities that escape the attention of those who perpetrate them. But I have grown increasingly concerned that many of the claims about micro-aggressions, about their prevalence and their effects on psychological health, are dubious, or at least tenuous.
So tenuous, in fact, that given the open-ended nature of the micro-aggression heuristic, I recently found myself applying the semantics of the micro-aggression paradigm to my own situation as an (white heterosexual male) introvert. While discussion of micro-aggressions typically refers to inter-racial interaction, Sue and his colleagues write, at the end of their paper, that ‘[w]e have purposely chosen to concentrate on racial micro-aggressions, but it is important to acknowledge other types of micro-aggressions as well. Gender, sexual orientation, and disability micro-aggressions may have equally powerful and potentially detrimental effects on women, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and disability groups. Further, racial micro-aggressions are not limited to White–Black, White–Latino, or White–Person of Color interactions. Interethnic racial micro-aggressions occur between people of color as well.’
Given the open-ended nature of the concept, it occurred to me that I have been victimized by a lifetime of discriminatory conduct in the form of (using the words of the Sue paper) subtle snubs, dismissive looks, gestures, and tones delivered by extroverts, often unconsciously, when they talk with other extroverts about how introverts do not know how to have fun. As an introvert, I am all too aware of the pitfalls of being an introvert in an extrovert’s world. Thus, while I was sitting at my desk during an office potluck on a recent November afternoon, I cringed when I heard the familiar voice of a supervisory economist suddenly rise above the din and urge an employee sitting in a cubicle closer to the action to ‘come out and socialize a little.’
This is a common refrain that can be infuriating to introverts because it immediately places the introvert in a bind. He acknowledges that the remark is likely not intended to malign the character of an introvert, and is instead meant to be inviting, even if delivered in a tone that places the burden on the introvert to prove he is not unfriendly and is, in fact, amenable to active participation in a social event. But he feels hurt by the implication that his more reserved demeanor is a sign of diffidence rather than poise. Call it a ‘micro-invalidation’ which (again, using the words of the Sue paper) excludes, negates, or nullifies the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of an introvert.
The introvert thus finds himself in a catch-22, wondering if he should take offense or let the remark slide lest he overreact to what may be an innocuous invitation from an extrovert to join the fun. As the Sue paper writes when discussing the effect of this catch-22 a victim’s psyche: ‘[t]he immediate reaction might be a series of questions: Did what I think happened, really happen? Was this a deliberate act or an unintentional slight? How should I respond? Sit and stew on it or confront the person? If I bring the topic up, how do I prove it? Is it really worth the effort? Should I just drop the matter?’ In my situation, had the supervisory economist tried to strong-arm me into joining the klatch, I would have felt pressured to come up with a passable excuse to explain why I was not participating without coming across as a killjoy or, worse, an aloof malcontent, especially since it was a supervisory economist extending the invitation. It would have felt stiff and awkward to flatly state that I am an introvert who does not easily switch from ‘work mode’ to ‘social mode’ and back to ‘work mode’ and that I thus preferred to remain in ‘work mode’ to optimize my productivity. I would not have felt empowered to alert her that her exhortation to join the fun was detrimental to my psychic health.
But alas, I am an economist who works in a government agency with other economists. If introverts are a minority in the larger population, they are not a minority among economists (if my experience is any indication). If anyone would understand, it should be economists, right? Perhaps, though the indignity of being shamed by extroverts is so common that I have ceased to expect a fair hearing even among friends. Second-guessing the validities of his experience is an inherent encumbrance to the life of an introvert—the result, perhaps, of a lifetime suffering from the ‘micro-invalidations’ committed by extroverts.
At this point, however, a skeptic like Dr. Lilienfeld might be tempted to question my narrative about the trials and tribulations of introversion. After all, the narrative does not account for the possibilities that the supervisory economist is herself an introvert; that the people in my office are amiable and evenhanded; and that I am not giving my colleagues a fair hearing because I am inherently averse to social festivities while on the clock. My tendency to internalize the supervisor’s remark as a potential affront, or micro-aggression, quite possibly constitutes a ‘false-positive’ in which my perception of a micro-aggression does not accord with the reality of a friendly invitation.
A skeptic might say I have succumbed to an application of the representativeness heuristic, according to which one gives short shrift to the full context of a situation by paying attention only to representative details easily shoehorned into a ready-made framework of interpretation, or heuristic. One risk of relying on heuristics is that one may ignore the so-called ‘base rate’ at which a detail of experience belongs in the conceptual category in which it has been pigeon-holed. For example, I may have erroneously assumed the supervisory economist is an extrovert because she made a remark that I typically associate with extroverts, thus ignoring the so-called ‘base rate’ at which an extrovert (or introvert) may, in fact, utter such a remark. The ‘representativeness heuristic’ is straight out of a Bayesian framework in which we would ask ourselves: what is the probability that the supervisory economist is an extrovert given that she audibly invited a person sitting at his desk to ‘come out and socialize a little’? The probability that she is an extrovert (or introvert) is known as the ‘base rate’. Both an introvert and extrovert could potentially extend this invitation. One might surmise that an extrovert is more likely to extend the invitation. But immediately assuming the invitation is made by an extrovert ignores the possibility that it is made by an introvert. In the context of micro-aggression analysis, an introvert might take umbrage with the intrusive invitation because he mistakenly assumes it is made by an extrovert, when in fact it might have been offered by an introvert who understands the plight of introverts and merely wants the person to feel welcome to join the party. That is, he mistakes a friendly invitation for a snub, however inadvertent, by an extrovert.
A skeptic like Dr. Lilienfeld might also point out that base rates are not the only factor I have failed to consider. It is also possible my reaction to office potlucks reflects not the preference of an introvert for a quiet space in which to work and think, but what psychologists call ‘negative emotionality’. It is possible, in other words, that I am just a grumpy curmudgeon, and that I would invoke lame excuses to a supervisory economist imploring me to participate because I know it would be exceedingly impolitic to tell the truth—that I do not enjoy office potlucks, not only because I am an introvert, but because social graces are not my forte; because I am contemptuous of small talk; and because I am bored by conversations that center on your plans for the holiday weekend. In other words, I may be an introvert, but some might say I also have a prickly personality.
According to Dr. Lilienfeld, negative emotionality (NE) ‘is a pervasive temperamental disposition to experience aversive emotions of many kinds, including anxiety, worry, moodiness, guilt, shame, hostility, irritability, and perceived victimization. Individuals with elevated levels of NE tend to be critical and judgmental of both themselves and others, vulnerable to distress and emotional maladjustment, and inclined to focus on the negative aspects of life.’ Failing to account for negative emotionality is an example of omitted-variable bias, whereby analytical models fixate on one potential cause of psychological distress (e.g. an alleged micro-aggression) while ignoring alternative factors that may explain distress (e.g. a propensity to see the worst in people). I may take umbrage with the supervisor because I am an introvert, or because I am a curmudgeon, or because I am both an introvert and a curmudgeon.
Base-rate neglect and negative emotionality are two examples of the analytical shortsightedness infecting the literature on micro-aggressions. But Dr. Lilienfeld begins his analysis of the literature by highlighting the incoherence of a concept whose soundness has apparently ‘received little critical scrutiny’. First, the term ‘micro-aggression’ is an oxymoron. In the social psychological and personality literatures, Dr. Lilienfeld writes, definitions of aggression universally ‘propose or at least strongly imply’ an intent to harm. Yet advocates of the micro-aggression research program posit that micro-aggressions are typically unintentional, at least with respect to micro-insults and micro-invalidations.
The literature on micro-assaults, however, claims that micro-aggressions may include calling a woman a ‘bitch’ or a ‘whore’, or calling an Asian American a ‘Jap’ or a ‘Chink’. ‘Virtually all of us can agree,’ Dr. Lilienfeld writes, ‘that such statements and behaviors are grossly offensive, if not patently racist.’ Labelling them as micro-aggressions ‘risks trivializing overt acts of racism by labeling them as “micro” rather than as “macro” and by combining them in the same overarching class as micro-insults and micro-invalidations, which tend to be considerably subtler in content.’ To the extent that the definition of a micro-aggression has gained traction, Dr. Lilienfeld notes that the literature seems to take for granted that the definition and meaning of an alleged micro-aggression lies ‘in the eye of the beholder.’ But an aggressive action ‘implies at least some degree of consensus, ideally across independent observers, regarding its nature and intent.’ Relying exclusively only on the eye of the beholder does nothing to ameliorate the concern that the concept of a micro-aggression is, at heart, an oxymoron.
Not only is the concept of a micro-aggression logically incoherent. It is also open-ended. Subjective assessment lies at the heart of most lists of micro-aggressions, and it is not ‘apparent what level of agreement among minority group members would be needed to regard a given act as a microaggression.’ This can give rise to absurdities that undermine credence in the claims of the micro-aggression research program. For example, some micro-aggression researchers have suggested that inadequate psychological research on race and ethnicity constitutes a micro-aggression. ‘Although few would dispute that the field of psychology should accord greater emphasis to certain scientific questions bearing on prejudice and discrimination,’ Dr. Lilienfeld writes, ‘the rationale for conceptualizing this insufficient attention as a micro-aggression appears flimsy.’
Given the ‘open’ nature of the micro-aggression concept, there is little consensus on the universe of statements that constitute micro-aggressions. As one discussion of Dr. Lilienfeld’s paper writes, ‘micro-aggressions can be just about anything.’ Regardless of whether one agrees about an alleged micro-aggression, it seems clear that different people can have different opinions about whether a statement or action constitutes a micro-aggression, including those at whom the micro-aggression is directed. For example, Dr. Lilienfeld writes that ‘the subjectification of micro-aggressions leads to potential logical contradictions. If Minority Group Member A interprets an ambiguous statement directed toward her—such as “I realize that you didn’t have the same educational opportunities as most Whites, so I can understand why the first year of college has been challenging for you”—as patronizing or indirectly hostile, whereas Minority Group Member B interprets it as supportive or helpful, should it be classified as a micro-aggression? The MRP literature offers scant guidance in this regard.’
Despite the astounding degree of ambiguity in the basic concept, researchers have exerted great effort trying to discern the ‘implicit message’ of micro-aggressions. For example, claiming that America is a melting pot exemplifies a ‘color blindness’ theme that allegedly implies one must assimilate to the dominant culture. Dr. Lilienfeld observes, however, that ‘there is no research evidence that the micro-aggressions identified by Sue et al. are linked, either probabilistically or inexorably, to these negative messages, as there are no data on what proportions of minority individuals interpret each micro-aggression in accord with the purported message.’ Much of the inference relies instead on researcher ‘mind-reading’, which is the tendency to assume rather than prove that individuals infer the meaning of an alleged micro-aggression in the way the researchers believe.
In yet another deficiency of the research, this implicit messaging flies in the face of ‘cognitive-transactional models’ of coping behavior. The micro-aggression research program relies on an outmoded stimulus-response model, according to which ‘certain stimuli, such as racially tinged statements, directly trigger negative psychological reactions.’ By contrast, in cognitive-transactional models, ‘individual differences shape people’s subjective reactions to potentially stressful events.’ Thus, the notion that certain micro-aggressions usually or always impart specific implicit messages to respondents, which is a core presumption of the MRP, is exceedingly doubtful.’
Nevertheless, lists of micro-aggressions and their implied meaning have ‘been adopted or adapted by numerous colleges and universities in training programs to warn faculty members and students against potential micro-aggressions.’ These lists take for granted that the psychological research has largely validated the lists. But this is simply not the case. Even the basic three-pronged breakdown of micro-aggressions into micro-assaults, micro-insults, and micro-invalidations is not impervious to scrutiny: having been developed in ‘armchair’ fashion, it is ‘based not on systematic data but on observation and consultation with the descriptive literature on prejudice.’ It should come as no surprise, then, that ‘concept-creep’ has potentially led to many incorrect identifications of alleged micro-aggressions.
The incoherence of the micro-aggression concept may be severe, but it is only the beginning of the analytical shortcomings prevalent in the micro-aggression research program. Base rate neglect is one example, as is the discovery by Dr. Lilienfeld that the micro-aggression research program ‘has all but ignored the potentially crucial role of negative emotionality’ in attempting to explain why some people may take offense to alleged micro-aggressions, or unintentional remarks that are, at best, mildly offensive (in my own case, it may be that my own negative emotionality explains, at least in part, my aversion to potlucks).
In addition to base rate neglect and the failure to account for negative emotionality, the research also suffers from embedded political bias (e.g. the tendency to view claims about meritocracy, like ‘anyone can succeed if he works hard enough’, as micro-aggressions ignores the research on culture-dependent cognition which ‘suggests that individuals vary along a dimension of individualism-communitarianism, with highly individualistic people believing that people should generally look out for themselves and strive for independence,’ and thus may endorse these views ‘without necessarily doing so out of prejudice’); the attribution of hostile intent in alleged perpetrators of micro-aggressions despite ‘no evidence that micro-aggressions are statistically associated with aggression or prejudice’ in perpetrators; self-report bias which ignores the principle of ‘critical multiplism’ (i.e. ‘examining a research question from diverse methodological vantage points’ to ‘obtain a more complete picture of the robustness of one’s research program, including its boundary conditions’); priming focus groups with a priori beliefs about the nature and prevalence of micro-aggressions; a tendency to equate correlation with causation when drawing a causal connection between alleged micro-aggressions and psychological harm (despite ‘the inherently correlational nature of the data linking micro-aggressions to mental and physical health outcomes and the dearth of longitudinal data linking micro-aggressions to such outcomes’); confirmation bias; and a host of other problems.
None of this is not to say, as Dr. Lilienfeld nicely quips, that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. In fact, Dr. Lilienfeld himself says in an interview that ‘the micro-aggression concept almost surely contains a kernel of truth’, and in his paper stresses that he does not ‘contend micro-aggressions do not exist, if by microaggressions one means subtle slights and insults directed toward minorities,’ nor does he dispute that ‘subtle forms of prejudice exist and may be becoming more prevalent in American society,’ nor does he attempt to criticize the ‘validity of implicit measures of prejudice.’ Explaining that ‘[t]he existence of such indignities is undeniable,’ he argues ‘that the microaggression concept is probably worth retaining in some form, although conjectures regarding its scientific future would be premature.’
But we need to think far more carefully, and conduct far more research, before we conclude that micro-aggressions are as endemic or pervasive as many believe, and before we begin to include the micro-aggression concept into diversity training programs. Indeed, in calling for a moratorium on micro-aggression training programs, Dr. Lilienfeld emphatically states that the micro-aggression research program itself ‘should continue without interruption, albeit in substantially modified form.’
The research on micro-aggressions has received much attention, but little scrutiny. It would do well to make sure it can withstand the scrutiny.
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