Prof calls for 'moratorium on microaggression training'

An Emory College professor is calling for “abandonment of the term ‘microaggression’” and “a moratorium on microaggression training programs” in a new research study.

The peer-reviewed study by psychology professor Scott O. Lilienfeld, titled Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence was published earlier this week in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Intrigued by the attention that the concept has received of late on college campuses and in the business world, Lilienfeld identifies “five core premises” of microaggression theory (or, as he refers to it, “the microaggression research program”), but concludes that there is “negligible support” for any of those underlying assumptions.

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One of the core premises of microaggression theory, for example, is the idea that unintentional slights “exert an adverse impact on recipients’ mental health,” but Lilienfeld argues that it is “premature to advance strong causal assertions regarding the ties between microaggressions and mental health” because research into that question has historically neglected the impact of confounding factors.

Lilienfeld also called into question the belief that microaggressions “are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members.”

“There is no systematic research support for this hypothesis,” he points out. “[Microaggression theory] largely overlooks the possibility—indeed, the probability—that individual differences color recipients’ interpretations of, and reactions to, microaggressions.”

Additionally, despite the belief that microaggressions reflect “implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives,” Lilienfeld counters that “there is no evidence that microaggressions are correlated with indicators of either prejudice or aggression in deliverers.”

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Lilienfeld told Campus Reform that he became interested in microaggressions after he discovered that some colleges were telling students that statements such as “I believe that American is a land of opportunity” and “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job” constituted microaggressions.

“I came to the conclusion that although the microaggression concept almost surely contains a kernel of truth, it is highly problematic on numerous grounds and is not close to being ready for real-world application” he explained. “We’ve learned from decades of psychological research that even well-intentioned interventions that appear to be plausible on their face sometimes turn out to be ineffective or downright harmful.”

Lilienfeld also expressed concerns “that sensitizing individuals to subtle signs of potential anger might inadvertently end up making many of them ‘perceive’ slights even when they are not present” and that microaggression theory “might inadvertently exacerbate racial tensions at colleges.”

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Given the uncertainties surrounding the concept, he contended that it is “more than prudent to call for a moratorium on microaggression training, the widespread distribution of microaggression lists on college campuses, and other practical implementations of [microaggression theory]” on campus.

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