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I can claim to have been assaulted by micro-aggressions. I find myself profoundly hurt when people in my presence say “Intelligence – whatever that is”. They do it to vex me, which is beastly of them. Other aggressive behaviours include people in conversation denouncing anyone who holds a particular political opinion, without considering that I might be one of them, and without using the polite English circumlocution “present company excepted”. They assume that I cannot possibly be in agreement with the policy in question, by which they intend, I surmise, to cow me into submission. As for radio broadcasts, they assume I must be lectured to about the perils of lack of compassion, or that I will share their interpretation of world events. As the late Kenneth Williams exclaimed: “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.”
Now the British Psychological Society Research Digest reports that Scott Lilienfeld has had a look at the concept of micro-aggression, and finds it lacking. I agree. I had always thought the concept could be dismissed in one line: small slights are small, and in the eye of the beholder. (None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts.)
Microaggressions. Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence Scott O. Lilienfeld January 11, 2017 Perspectives on Social Science.
Perspectives on Psychological Science http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1745691616659391
Lilienfeld has gone deeper, questioning whether microaggressions:
(1) are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation; (2) are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members; (3) reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives; (4) can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports; and (5) exert an adverse impact on recipients’ mental health. A review of the literature reveals negligible support for all five suppositions.
Dropping the whole notion seems a good policy: micro-aggressions turn out to be too micro, and not distinguishable from nothing. Phlogiston. Lilienfeld asks that micro-aggression sensitivity training be dropped till some supportive evidence can be found, and helpfully suggests that 18 points could be addressed to test the hypothesis more fully. Good. One should be kind to hypotheses, harsh to supposed proofs. Lilienfeld does not deny that people can be slighted, or that such things do not happen.
Of even more importance, in my view, is his call that this silo of weak research needs to be connected with well-established methods in wider psychology. It is a permissive feature of the cottage industry of psychology that such researchers feel no compulsion to meet methodological standards, and no need to link their findings to relevant research areas. Richard Feynman bemoaned such laissez faire in psychological research decades ago. When a measurement error is detected in Physics, everything has to stop till the problem is sorted: in psychology all flowers bloom, particularly the imaginary ones.
For the benefit of those who regard methodology as boring, as I did in my youth, when it was mostly about Latin square designs, here are the main points Lilienfeld makes.
I focus on the (a) logical clarity and coherence of the microaggression construct, (b) reliability of microaggression measures, (c) criterion-related validity of microaggression measures, (d) incremental validity of microaggression measures above and beyond measures of overt prejudice, and (e) extent to which microaggression findings have been replicated across diverse information sources, especially independent observers.
The micro-aggression concept was firmly based on black/white relations in the USA.
The term microaggression was coined by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe seemingly minor but damaging put-downs and indignities experienced by African Americans. Pierce wrote that “every Black must recognize the offensive mechanisms used by the collective White society, usually by means of cumulative pro-racist micro-aggressions, which keep him psychologically accepting of the disenfranchised state” (Pierce, 1970, p. 472).
Derald Sue et al. took this up in 2007 (Sue et al., 2007). They defined 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” (p. 271). According to Sue et al., micro-aggressions necessarily lie in the eye of the beholder.
As a matter of evidence, I find it hard to accept that the person who feels himself to be offended becomes the judge of the presumed offence. This goes against the presumption of innocence, the golden thread of jurisprudence. It also enshrines a particular definition of prejudice, in that even well-founded criticism is no defence. For example, I feel myself offended when people talk of the collect guilt of white people for African slavery. I have not kept slaves, and neither did my ancestors, as far as I can trace them, which is not far. I am not aware of having got any ancestral benefits from slavery. I can claim to be closer in my attitudes to the Clapham Sect than to a Bristol plantation owner. However, irritated as I may be at the imputation of collective racial guilt, if someone could show that I was in fact a beneficiary of slavery, I could not accuse them of aggression, but would grant that they were making a valid point. Facts matter.
For an example of a purported micro-aggression advanced by Sue et al., consider a university teacher who is surprised that an African American gets full marks on a University test. In the US it is more surprising to find a bright Black man than a bright White man, because given a 1 standard deviation mean difference in intelligence, equal 15-point standard deviations and assuming equal population size, it is 17 times more probable that a white man is IQ 130+ than a black man is. If you do the calculation assuming the Black standard deviation is 14 rather than 15, the ratio is 35 to 1. Assume the Black standard deviation is in fact 13, as seems to be the case on historical data, and the ratio is 85 to 1. Adjust for population size with African Americans being 12.3% of the US population and the likelihood of a professor finding that a IQ130+ student is black is a further 8 times as low. It is still rude to say to any student that you are surprised that they have done well on a test, and to say that to a Black student is grossly insensitive, but the surprise could be based on a validated judgment, not a malevolent pre-judgment.
The “eye of the beholder” assumption implicit in the micro-aggression research generates other logical quandaries. In particular, it is unclear whether any verbal or nonverbal action that a certain proportion of minority individuals perceive as upsetting or offensive would constitute a microaggression. Nor is it apparent what level of agreement among minority group members would be needed to regard a given act as a microaggression. As a consequence, one is left to wonder which actions might fall under the capacious microaggression umbrella. Would a discussion of race differences in personality, intelligence, or mental illness in an undergraduate psychology course count? Or a dinner-table conversation regarding the societal pros and cons of affirmative action? What about news coverage of higher crime rates among certain minority populations than among majority populations? It is likely that some or all of these admittedly uncomfortable topics would elicit pronounced negative emotional reactions among at least some minority group members.
A valid counter-argument to a supposedly aggressive slight is to reply that a slight was not intended, and that the hearer has misinterpreted what was said, or has been hyper-sensitive about it. If those counter-arguments are deemed inadmissible in evidence, then the concept is untestable. It gives the complainant carte blanche to yell “Fire” even if no fire proves to be present. Ultimately, accepting this nonsense on stilts gives the complainant power to determine what is real on the basis of their hurt feelings. The evil eye. As Lilienfeld says, it implies that the complainant is a mind reader, better able to understand their interlocutor than the speaker himself.
Lilienfeld’s essay is a long one, raising many methodological points, and to my mind he has been kinder to the concept than the evidence warrants. Indeed, he has no doubts that such aggressive slights happen. Is it ever possible to collect reliable data on this point? There must be recordings of conversations somewhere which could be studied applying some agreed measures of aggression. How do they compare with macro-aggressions, in which the insult is obvious? Nonetheless, as he himself muses, some might see his essay as a micro-aggression itself. Unfair. However, on the basis that a judgment of aggression is valid even though it is in the eye of the beholder, none of us can gainsay a person who claims to be offended.
Just as important, advocates of the micro-aggression research have not conducted correlational or factor-analytic work to demonstrate that microaggressions cohere with other indicators of deliverer prejudice, whether they be implicit, explicit, or both. Most research has revealed only small or at best moderate correlations between indices of implicit prejudice, such as the IAT, and those of explicit prejudice (Hofmann, Gawronski, Gschwendner, Le, & Schmitt, 2005), so it may be unrealistic to anticipate correlations of high magnitude, at least with measures of explicit prejudice. Still, at a minimum it is incumbent on micro-aggression research proponents to demonstrate that ostensible microaggressions are statistically associated with at least some other well-validated indicators of deliverer prejudice. If they cannot do so, it would raise questions regarding the interpretation of many, let alone all, purported microaggressions as prejudicial in nature and challenge a bedrock presupposition undergirding the micro-aggression research.
In sum, Lilienfeld’s essay does not support the concept, but shows how it might be better tested. Offence can be taken where none was intended, but offence can be intended in sly remarks. Elevating snide comments to the status of an assault is disproportionate. If you fell offended, reply in kind. Finding validated methods for investigating the subtleties of attitude and opinion is a worthwhile endeavour (if you like that sort of thing). Brings to mind that polite British rejoinder to an assertion with which the listener disagrees: “If you say so”.
Should there be training sessions for the hyper-sensitive, teaching them to be more relaxed and evidence based? I would not bother with any of these sermons. People should just get back to work.