The Dubious Science of Microaggressions
Putting the "Micro" in Microaggressions
If one were to read much of the psychological literature on microaggressions uncritically, one would come away with the conclusion that they are a serious problem. For example, prominent microaggression advocate MonnicaWilliams recently declared, “Data from academic institutions and the general public highly suggests that microaggressions are common.” Such a claim is common. But a closer look at the evidence on which such claims are made paints a different picture.
A microaggression is some sort of subtle racial insult, plausibly deniable as not racist. But people are treated badly all the time. The day I wrote this, I had to wait for a ridiculous amount of time to pay $13 for a small, desiccated hamburger at an airport.
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Interestingly, this is exactly the type of incident that Sue et al (2007, p. 275) highlighted as an example of a microaggression: "When a Latino couple is given poor service at a restaurant..." Nadal (2011) used this item to assess people's experiences with microaggressions: "I received substandard service in stores compared to customers of other racial groups."
As per Nadal (2011), if I believed customers of other races were given better service, I should consider this a microaggression. Nonetheless, I am pretty sure my long wait for a bad burger was not a microaggression. And I am pretty sure it would not have been a microaggression if the burger shop provided the same overpriced, undersized, desiccated burger to a person of color (POC), notwithstanding Sue et al's analysis or Nadal's implication that if I attributed it to race it would be a microaggression.
When Is Bad Treatment a Microaggression?
What makes some sort of bad treatment a microaggression versus just another form of people treating each other badly sometimes? Racism (or some other form of bigotry). The treatment needs to be motivated by, express, and reinforce racism. Long waits for bad burgers could be a microaggression—if, say, the burger joint made POC wait longer to order. But if everyone has a long wait for bad overpriced burgers, there is no racism involved, so no microaggression.
But how can one tell whether any particular insult or mean-spirited act or statement is a microaggression or just a person acting badly that has nothing to do with race (or any other identity)? One definition of microaggressions (Sue et al., 2007) is “…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.” Did they literally mean “daily,” or is it just a figure of speech? Sue et al. (2008, p. 278) clarify: minorities don’t “just occasionally experience racial microaggressions.” Rather, “they are a constant, continuing, and cumulative experience” in their lives. They are, supposedly, disturbingly common racial slights.
Another more recent definition is that these are “…deniable acts of racism that reinforce pathological stereotypes and inequitable social norms” (Williams, 2020).
As a political statement, this is fine. In politics, anything one says to advance one’s agenda is fair game. As Sarah Haider has recently pointed out, it is almost impossible for activist goals to square with truthseeking goals, because flagrant disregard for facts, truth, and evidence is often useful for advancing activist goals
But Williams’ (2020) statement was published in a scientific psychology journal. As a scientific statement, its a douzy. It states that microaggressions are racist, but deniable as not racist. They have clear causal effects—reinforcing pathological stereotypes and inequitable social norms. This would seem to require researchers to do the following:
Establish that an insult/slight is motivated by racism.
Identify stereotypes that the insult/slight reinforces.
Empirically establish the “pathology” of the stereotype. Many stereotypes are simply accurate – on average, men are taller than women, Asian Americans have higher academic achievement than other groups, liberals are more likely to support abortion rights than are conservatives. Even wrong stereotypes are not necessarily pathological – one survey found that most liberals' believe that the police kill at least 100 unarmed Black people per year and almost 40% believe the number is 1000 or more (the real number in recent years is about 20, depending on how one counts and the year). This level of inaccuracy may be colloquially describable as “nuts” but it is not “pathological” in any serious psychological sense. So if not all stereotypes are pathological, one cannot
presume pathology in any particular stereotype; it requires evidence.
Show that the microaggression actually strengthens those particular pathological stereotypes.
Identify relevant inequitable social norms.
Show that the microaggression reinforces those norms.
Given that all of this is in Williams’s definition of microaggressions, to take this seriously scientifically, one would expect all of this to be empirically established for a particular slight before it would be labeled a microaggression.
Instead, the reverse occurs—some act is labeled a “microaggression” by one or more scholars, then all of the ills attributed to microaggressions are presumed rather than demonstrated. Then the act is triumphantly paraded as scientific evidence of a microaggression.
The academic legerdemain by which the ills of microaggressions are implicitly imported or declared by fiat rather than actually empirically demonstrated has been exposed in each of the following articles (titles shown; all fully referenced at the end):
Macrononsense in Multiculturalism
Microaggressions: Strong Claims and Inadequate Evidence
Microaggressions, Questionable Science, and Free Speech
For example, Lilienfeld (2017) concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support any of these major claims by microaggression advocates:
They are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation.
They are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members.
They reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives.
They can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports.
They exert an adverse impact on recipients’ mental health.
The "Best" Studies
Some of the “best” studies often held up by microaggression advocates as establishing the validity of these main claims fail to do so. For example, in defending the microaggression concept in light of Lilienfeld’s critique, Williams (2020, p. 12) invoked a study by Kanter et al. (2017): it provides “important empirical support for something that diversity researchers knew all along—microaggressive acts are rooted in racist beliefs...” This was a small-scale study, including only 33 Black and 118 white students, all from a single university. These numbers are so small and so unrepresentative of any population that the entire study should be viewed as little more than question-raising, regardless of other limitations, of which there are many, as we elucidated in Cantu and Jussim (2022).
Williams (2020, p. 13) also extolled “Another important measure of microaggression frequency—the Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (Nadal, 2011), which was validated with a large sample of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and multiracial participants.” Whether anyone should take Nadal’s scale seriously, given its numerous limitations, is, however, another issue. For example. consider the item “someone avoided walking near me on the street because of my race.” This requires mindreading. Ever since Bem’s ESP article helped trigger psychology’s replication crisis, mindreading has been widely recognized as impossible.
However, one does not need to criticize the methods to understand how damaging Nadal’s study was for claims extolling the frequency with which POC experience microaggressions. Respondents were provided with supposed examples of microaggressions and were then asked how frequently they had experienced such discrimination in the prior six months. For a vast majority of the items, most respondents reported that they either had not experienced the supposed microaggression in the past six months at all or, if they had, did so one to three times. In light of this result, it’s difficult to characterize microaggressions as constituting a major social ailment. And that comes from taking his results at face value, which is probably not warranted.
Perhaps because we (Cantu and Jussim, 2022) highlighted the strange state of affairs whereby an article extolled as testifying to the importance of microaggressions actually found just the opposite, Williams recently highlighted a study (Anderson et al., 2022) as demonstrating that microaggressions are experienced very frequently by medical students. That is indeed what the authors claimed to have found: “Our first major finding was that medical students frequently experience microaggressions.” (p. 303).
Unfortunately, the authors’ claims notwithstanding, they did not assess “microaggressions.” They assessed variations on “How often do you think has someone been mean to you?” Here are just two items:
People trivialize my ideas in classroom discussions.
I am made to feel unwelcome in a group.
There is nothing about race or racism here (or in their other questions). These types of experiences have probably happened to everyone. To be sure, though, I have no doubt that people are subject to subtle insults, and that sometimes, these are racially motivated. But if one wishes to know "how often?" one cannot possibly obtain much of an answer from even the supposedly best published psychological science on the topic.
And that, gentle reader, is how peer-reviewed social science creates myths (much as it has about stereotype threat and implicit bias) about the power of problems that it has not actually established to exist to any substantial degree.
Anderson, N., Lett, E., Asabor, E. N., Hernandez, A. L., Nguemeni Tiako, M. J., Johnson, C., ... & Boatright, D. (2022). The association of microaggressions with depressive symptoms and institutional satisfaction among a national cohort of medical students. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 37(2), 298-307.
Cantu, E., & Jussim, L. (2021). Microaggressions, Questionable Science, and Free Speech. Texas Review of Law & Politics, 26, 217-267.
Kanter, J. W., Williams, M. T., Kuczynski, A. M., Manbeck, K., Debreaux, M., & Rosen, D. (2017). A preliminary report on the relationship between microaggressions against Blacks and racism among White college students. Race and Social Problems, 9, 291–299.
Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Microaggressions: Strong claims, inadequate evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(1), 138-169.
Nadal, K. L. (2011). The Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (REMS): construction, reliability, and validity. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(4), 470.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Nadal, K. L., & Torino, G. C. (2008). Racial microaggressions and the power to define reality. American Psychologist, 63(4), 277–279.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271– 286.
Thomas, K. R. (2008). Macrononsense in multiculturalism. American Psychologist, 63, 274-275.
Williams, M. T. (2020). Microaggressions: Clarification, evidence, and impact. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(1), 3-26.
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I find it useful to say, "perceived microaggressions" when somebody tries to talk to me about this stuff. The implication here is that a "microaggression" is real, but what I really mean is mildly aggressive people exist and it's usually more to do with them than you.
I have no background in anything, I just like reading these blogs because the world is upside down right now.
If you find a flaw in what I'm saying, I'd prefer to learn.
Thank you for this article. I have been searching for academics/ professionals who have not lost their minds...looks like I have found one!
I find it terrifying at what looks like world-wide consensus on ideas that perpetuate darkness, destruction and poisonous thinking.
As someone who thanks Cognitive Behavior Therapy for saving my life, saving my self-agency...for giving me back the power I forgot I had: the power to decide mindset, perspectives ..the power to let go of mind-monsters that hold me back from being the best version of myself, etc, etc...I cannot comprehend how all this focus on FEEDING negativity we perceive from OTHERS..how does this HELP anyone? No one has power over OTHERS, we only have control of ourselves- of our own thinking.
As a child- when I DECIDED to stop taking everything so personally, when I started to have a sense of humor about myself, when I stopped always focusing inward and looked outward on how to be kind to others, to know myself ....most of the teasing, bullying stopped. The few who persisted no longer affected me, because I had the tools to not give them power anymore.
How can these new ideologies actually help people deal with life in a positive way?
Rhetorical question, b/c I already know they can't. It really feels like very dark times we are in.
Anyway- I enjoy your newsletters!