Top Psychologist Says the Whole Concept of Microaggressions Isn’t Supported by Science

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By Emily Zanotti | 5:29 pm, March 17, 2017

Microaggressions are in the water these days at colleges and universities. Students across the country are now learning what they are, how to avoid them and how to respond to them.

But according to one leading psychologist, the science behind microaggressions just doesn’t add up, and we shouldn’t be using the concept as a guideline for how we treat people because the whole thing could all be in our heads.

Dr. Scott Lilienfield of Emory University has a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science that argues that microaggressions aren’t actually well-defined, that they are often dictated by the politics of a situation, and that there is a lack of concrete evidence that people suffer any long-term harm from being micro-aggressed.

Part of the problem, Lilienfield says, is that people lump “old fashioned abuse” in with small, everyday actions that are unintentionally racist and sexist. It’s not clear how small or how large an offense has to be before it moves out of the realm of “microaggression” and into the realm of actual racism or sexism —or whether there is actually any difference.

But that’s not stopping colleges from fully embracing the concept. Some students are being forced into microaggression training programs. Some schools are spending thousands on counselors, coloring books, therapy dogs, and ball pits to help students cope with an increasingly racist world.

Lilienfield says that it’s entirely possible people who suffer from microaggressions have a propensity for being offended. People who are “prone to negative emotionality” or who present as neurotic often suffer more from perceived slights. He even suggests that the term microaggression should be dropped in favor of “perceived racial slight,” since much of what makes a microaggression is in the eye of the beholder.

So it may be that Trigglypuff and her safe space-seeking collegiate brethren might still be experiencing racism and sexism, but could be that it’s at least partly because they are more accepting of the idea that microaggressions exist—and that they, themselves, encounter them.