Mar 17 2017


microaggressions2I have to say, from the first time I heard the term “microaggression” I didn’t like it. Something deeply bothered me about the concept, but I kept an open mind as I tried to understand how it was being defined and used.

A recent article by Scott Lilienfield (who is a friend of mine and has written for SBM) put into technical terms much of my vague discomfort with the concept.

Here is how one article supportive of the concept defines microaggressions:

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.

They give some specific examples:

• A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.).

• A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. (Hidden message: Women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles. Women are less capable than men).

• Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality. (Hidden message: Same-sex displays of affection are abnormal and offensive. Keep it private and to yourselves.)

OK, I get the concept. There is definitely something here. What has always bothered me, however, is that the concept is premised on the subtlety of the act. This makes the concept vague and ambiguous. Scott now makes the point that, even in the psychological literature, the term is vague and ambiguous.

I argue that the microaggression research program (MRP) rests on five core premises, namely, that 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.


Although the MRP has been fruitful in drawing the field’s attention to subtle forms of prejudice, it is far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application.

I think Scott nails it on the head. There are subtle forms of prejudice. I have had many women doctor colleagues who quickly grew tired of being called “nurse” by almost every older patient. Of course, I have friends and family who are nurses who wonder why someone would find that assumption so insulting (is that a microaggresion?). Regardless, this is clearly a prejudice resulting from a time when doctors were men and nurses were women, with very few exceptions. Society has changed and that is no longer the case.

I have seen patients make that assumption, and then get embarrassed when corrected. My assessment was that they were not overtly sexist, and were completely accepting and appreciative of their woman doctor. They may even prefer a woman doctor. They just fell into an assumption based upon the reality that existed for much of their life.

I have also had patients who were clearly sexist, did not trust a woman doctor, ignored or patronized them, and would treat a male medical student as superior to their female attending.

To put Scott’s conclusion into a more everyday context – the term “microaggression” carries with it many assumptions about the person making the alleged microaggression and its affect on the recipient, while downplaying the fact that there is a large component of subjective interpretation. The reality is that social interactions are complex webs of dynamic influences. The term “microaggression” too easily cuts through all this complexity and assumes that the act or words had a specific aggressive purpose.

Scott further makes an excellent point about a poorly understood psychological concept being adopted by the broader culture. Such adoption has a very sketchy history. I would go even further and say that in some contexts the term “microaggression” has been “weaponized.” What do I mean by this?

When one person accuses another person of a “microaggression” it marshals the appearance of psychological legitimacy for one perhaps narrow interpretation of what is likely a more complex behavior. It automatically puts the accuser in the role of victim and the alleged “microaggressor” in the position of being a perpetrator.

Further, because the very concept of microaggression requires inference (otherwise the act is simply an aggression) there is an unavoidable subjectivity to it. At worst, tenuous inferences requiring multiple cognitive steps can be invoked to interpret someone’s innocent actions as a microaggression.

That is probably what has bothered me about the concept the most. It takes a vague psychological concept, turns it into a pop-psychology simplistic concept, which then is used to cut through the complexities of human interaction to create a simplistic narrative of victim and perpetrator, with the alleged victim deciding on the subtle motives and inferences of the alleged perpetrator.

This is a recipe for motivated reasoning, bias, and seeing the world through a narrative filter.

The concept also encourages the fundamental attribution error. This is a well-established psychological phenomenon in which people tend to assume internal rather than external factors as causing or influencing the behavior of others (while simultaneously emphasizing external factors to explain their own behavior). Inferring a microaggression, it seems to me, cannot avoid the fundamental attribution error.

What if the woman who clutches her purse was recently the victim of a purse-snatching. She may clutch her purse whenever any young man, of any race, walks by. Whether or not you think this is a likely explanation is irrelevant to my point – she is an individual, not a statistic.

This has, in fact, become a common sit-com trope – the protagonist gets caught in an act that seems like it is bigoted, but we the viewers know they were just a victim of circumstance. We watch laughing as they try to correct the wrong inference, but only dig themselves in deeper.

To be clear – often times perceived microaggressions are, in fact, based in prejudice, or some other negative motivation. Most of us probably have someone in our lives who is known for making comments that are clearly meant to put down another person, while cloaking themselves in the plausible deniability of vagueness. You are left wondering, “Was I just insulted?”

We are emotional psychological creatures, and there is a lot of hidden meaning to our words and actions.  But it does often take time to get to know someone, and see the pattern in their behavior, before we can confidently interpret individual actions. Even then, when we get to know them further we may discover that they have hidden fears, personality quirks, or event in their history that influence their actions. We may become more understanding of the person as a whole and able to put their negative behavior into a more thorough context.

And some people are just assholes. Others are genuine bigots.

So, I do think that microaggressions are real. Inferring a microaggression, however, can be complicated. It should not be done lightly, or simplistically, but carefully and thoughtfully. It should not be used as a rhetorical weapon.

Scott recommends that the term not be used in public discourse, and instead the term “perceived slight” be used, which is a good idea (although I think that ship has sailed). That is a generally good rule – to communicate to someone else what you perceive, rather than what you assume they meant to do. You can’t read their mind, you can only say how what they did made you feel.

Again, at its worst there is also a smugness to the use of the term, which can be used to showcase your ability to make subtle inferences to implicit bias. If, however, you allow yourself to freely invoke a chain of subtle inferences, you can turn almost anything, no matter how innocent, into an apparent slight.

That is another way in which easy use of the term becomes counterproductive. It is no longer providing insight into implicit psychological processes, but serving as a mental straightjacket. If anything you say can be three cognitive steps away from a bigoted comment, then you can’t say anything. People need the elbow room to speak freely without constantly worrying that they are subtly betraying a hidden bias. We should strive to be aware of our implicit biases, of course, but we need to balance this against the necessary comfort to feel we can speak at all.

Where to draw the line takes a lot of judgment. My primary fear is that the term microaggression replaces this judgement with what has become simplistic pop-psychology.

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