Microaggression and political leanings

Ella Rhodes reports from the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference.

Dr Craig Harper (Nottingham Trent University) has been exploring the contentious concept of microaggressions – subtle snubs and slights against people in marginalised groups from those in a society’s majorities. Microaggressions, for example mistaking a female doctor for a nurse, have been said to indicate implicit prejudice and have become particularly influential in the USA.

However, some have criticised the concept; Scott Lilienfeld’s 2017 paper pointed to the poorly-defined, ambiguous nature of microaggressions which also lack empirical evidence. Harper said this was worrying as policies and interventions such as implicit bias training are being based on a potentially flawed concept, and have little evidence for their effectiveness in any case.

Harper focused on several of Lilienfeld’s critiques – for example that microaggressions are operationally questionable as they depend on the sensibilities of a perceiver, and that the theory lacks conceptual coherency as some people can live within majority and minority groups at the same time. Lilienfeld has also pointed to multiple issues with self-report measures in studies of microaggressions, and a lack of practical use for the theory.

The concept of microaggressions has been named a symptom in the rise of so-called 'victimhood culture'. Harper pointed out that while there is a widely held view that conservatives are more prejudiced than liberals, research has shown both are as intolerant as each other towards threatening or ideologically-different groups.

Harper wanted to explore the political and ideological underpinnings of microaggressions and whether the perception of microaggressions was limited to liberals, or if conservatives also offer these judgements. In essence, he wanted to observe whether, if the victim of a microaggression was of the same political leaning as the aggressor, they would be more likely to see a scenario as a microaggression.

His online study involved 404 Americans who were split into groups of liberals, moderates and conservatives. Within those groups each person was randomised to read one of six college-based microaggression scenarios in which a college professor answers the question of a student in what could be perceived as a microaggressive way. The victims were either men or women, right wing or left wing, or black or white. After reading these, participants were asked whether the professor was biased, and whether the student targets were being too sensitive.

When the victim groups in the professor’s microaggression were associated with the political left, there was a significant effect of participant's ideology on microaggression perception. Here, increased liberalism led to increased microaggression perception, whereas those who were conservative saw these interactions as less microaggressive. The reverse pattern, but to a lesser extent, could also be seen when victims were associated with the political right. Harper also measured collective narcissism in his participants, which describes narcissism but on an in-group level, but this did not play a role in the main interactions.

Harper said the perception of microaggressions may be ideologically-driven rather than identity driven. This could suggest why implicit bias training aimed at reducing implicit bias in majority groups does not work if majority group members do not perceive marginalised groups as victims. 

- You can read more coverage from the Annual Conference online, and in the June and July print editions

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