Shoddy Science in a Safe Space: Psychologist Slams Research on Microaggressions

Shoddy Science in a Safe Space: Psychologist Slams Research on Microaggressions
Earl Neikirk/The Bristol Herald-Courier via AP
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In 1970, Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce coined the term "microaggression" to describe seemingly minor but hurtful put-downs and dismissals inflicted upon African Americans by their non-black peers. For forty years, the term was mostly confined to the esoteric world of academia, but it has recently entered its heyday.

Just under a decade ago, in a paper published to the journal American Psychologist, Columbia University Professor of Counseling Psychology Derald Wing Sue and his collaborators introduced the modern definition of "microaggression":

"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."

According to Sue, examples of microaggressions include saying "America is a melting pot," as it implies that minorities should assimilate to the dominant culture; announcing "I believe the most qualified person should get the job," which sends the message that people of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race; asking somebody "Where are you from?" which implies that they are not American; and complimenting a person of color by saying "You are so articulate," as it implies that such quality is rare amongst minorities.

Any connected individual is undoubtedly aware that popular media, public forums, and college campuses have grown rife with discussions about trigger warnings, safe spaces, and microaggressions, inciting ire and disagreement. Such disagreement is almost entirely absent from the nascent but growing body of research on microaggressions, however. Generally, most psychologists studying the topic seem to uncritically assume that microaggressions are mentally damaging, universally interpreted as demeaning, and reflect implicit prejudice and aggression in the people who say them.

This one-sided view of microaggressions surprised Emory University Professor of Psychology Scott O. Lilienfeld, who sees a lot of problems with the term "microaggression" as well as the associated scientific work being conducted. He outlined a number of his concerns in a blistering review just published to the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Publically, Lilienfeld is best known for dispelling misconceptions about psychology in his book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. He's a vocal advocate for evidence-based treatments and methods in his field, and has frequently policed his peers, encouraging them to pursue quality research practices. It was with that noble aim in mind that he turned his attention to microaggression research.

On the whole, Lilienfeld found the sub-field to be plagued with bias and sloppy methods. He also determined the definition of "microaggression" itself to be vague, allowing "a vast number of potential behaviors, many of which hinge on highly subjective retrospective judgments." He further noted that "there is no evidence that microaggressions are statistically associated with aggression or prejudice in deliverers." Lilienfeld also discovered that studies generally featured subjects strongly predisposed to believe in microaggressions and almost exclusively relied on subjective, self-reported data.

In light of the field's sorry state, Lilienfeld suggested that a moratorium be placed on practical applications of the research. The most notable of these applications are microaggression training programs instituted across college campuses, in which incoming freshmen are taught to recognize and guard themselves against the verbal transgressions. Lilienfeld also argued that microaggressions should be relabeled as “inadvertent racial slights."

To be clear, Lilienfeld is not opposed to research on microaggressions, he simply thinks that the sub-field needs to become far more empirical. To reach that goal, Lilienfeld provided 18 recommendations, among them, recruiting subjects from various ideological groups, coming up with better ways to measure the effects of microaggressions, and examining the people inclined to deliver microaggressions. He also suggested that researchers seek scrutiny from colleagues who might not share their political views. That could be a tall task, since the social sciences suffer from an extreme liberal bias. For every social scientist who is conservative, there are eight who are liberal.

Lilienfeld hopes his colleagues will consider his advice, as he believes their research as it's currently carried out could further tarnish psychology's stained reputation.

"One likely reason for the less than stellar impression of psychology as a science among many laypersons has been our field’s troubling propensity to advance premature assertions in the absence of adequate evidence," he writes.

As Lilienfeld notes, his "tough love" review could probably be considered a microaggression.

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