Do Trigger Warnings Actually Work?

Researchers are divided over whether warnings about sensitive content help or harm people who have experienced trauma.

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May 9 2019, 7:39pm

Jovan Jovanovic / Stocksy

There is currently a cultural battle raging over the effectiveness of “trigger warnings”—prefaces to talks or materials which alert audiences that they contain elements some may find distressing. On one side, advocates argue trigger warnings are easy acts of consideration that may be vital for those prone to the psychological aftereffects of trauma. On the other, detractors argue they offer little help, and may even harm our collective mental health and the spirit of open discourse.

The only thing both sides seem to agree upon at times is the fact that their counterparts on the other side of the debate are inconsiderate, ignorant, or even dangerous. As The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan recently summed it up: “Proponents are branded as overly sensitive snowflakes who do too much to keep their students safe,” coddling their minds, leaving them sheltered and frail. “Opponents are caricatured as Quillette-reading inhabitants of the ‘intellectual dark web’ who want everyone to toughen up already” without a thought for the experiences of those coping with trauma.

With such a stark division of opinion, it would be nice to be able to turn to scientific data to figure out which side is right about trigger warnings. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much solid research on them, says Payton Jones, a Harvard psychology researcher who co-authored one of the first major (yet still limited) studies on the topic last year. (This paucity likely boils down to the fact that the popularization of trigger warnings is a fairly recent phenomenon and it takes academics a few years to get the hose of research flowing on any new topic.) That lack of firm information leaves many experts skeptical, at best, about their utility.

What is a trigger warning?

Although trigger warnings only entered mainstream culture in 2011—and exploded into popular consciousness between 2013 and 2015—they’ve existed in some form for decades. Some of their earliest iterations developed on internet message boards, especially those focused on feminist or self-help issues. At the time, the intention wasn’t to warn people that the contents of a post might make them feel sad or angry, says Elizabeth Thorpe, a communications specialist at the State University of New York. Instead, they were meant to help people who’d experienced trauma prepare to engage with material that could be relevant to their experience, she says. After seeing a trigger warning, people could read the material feeling ready and acknowledged, or they could disengage if they suspected the content would cause a major response, such as a panic attack.

Since then, however, the meaning and role of the trigger warning has broadened in popular discourse to include prefaces to content that some might find uncomfortable or distasteful—such as a discussion on the history of racism in America—explains Guy Boysan, a psychology professor at McKendree University who has written on this topic. Some culture critics seem to think that the broadening usage and prevalence of trigger warnings is indicative of, or contributing to, the increasing frailty of the American public. However it’s so hard to measure the broad and ill-defined concept of social sensitivity, much less changes in it over time, that these arguments are incredibly speculative and usually tied to a particular critic’s cultural lens or pet theories.

As a result of this evolution, people debating the usefulness of trigger warnings aren’t always referring to the same things in terms of their usage or intent, he adds. And that’s a problem for meaningful dialogue and analysis.


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Do trigger warnings help survivors of trauma?

The notion that trigger warnings can help people who have experienced trauma was inspired by research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which about 10 percent of people who experience trauma develop. Many people with PTSD can re-experience elements of the pain and distress of a past event by encountering certain stimuli related to it. If trigger warnings can help these people avoid serious pain, either through self-preparation or through conscious disengagement, the thinking goes, it’s worth a simple and otherwise inconsequential heads-up. That notice can also act as a powerful reminder to others engaging with the material, or acknowledgement from those delivering it, that the topics it discusses affect many people deeply. Taken together, the logic runs, trigger warnings help trauma survivors and can enhance and deepen public discussions.

Critics, however, respond to this argument by noting that studies on PTSD show that avoiding triggers and memories of trauma just reinforces its hold over people. Because discussions of sensitive topics like sexual violence, for instance, are unlikely to be followed by actual violence, engaging with that material might actually help people process trauma. But this argument doesn’t necessarily hold up: For starters, Thorpe says, it assumes that a trigger warning will lead to automatic disengagement, whereas she argues the intent is to maximize—not minimizepotential engagement. (One small study published late last year suggested that people who believe in the protective power of trigger warnings may be more likely to disengage from content prefaced with them. However, this is not a universal response, this study was not definitive, and it is overall hard to know how many people might react that way.)

Experts also doubt that classrooms and other public forums are the right settings to process past trauma. A more appropriate venue would be a controlled setting with a trusted trauma expert who can help them to process negative experiences like panic attacks or flashbacks. If that’s the case, trigger warnings may give people the chance to leave and get help if it’s needed, rather than have something traumatic sprung on them in an uncontrolled context. “Trigger warnings may be a positive thing for [someone] with a mental disorder if the disorder is so severe that they will not be able to function if exposed to a feared object,” Boysan says.

The problem is that triggers are often unpredictable. Movies and books often present PTSD as, for example, someone hearing a loud noise and reliving a gunshot from their past. Yet often flashbacks, panic attacks, and similar negative reactions are tied to seemingly innocuous stimuli that preceded a trauma, not the experience itself. That’s why many experts aren’t convinced that reading about assault in a book or newspaper, for instance, would be especially likely inspire an adverse reaction in someone with related trauma. “We can be as sympathetic and inclusive as possible,” Thorpe says, “and still not predict what will trigger everyone.”

Thorpe adds, however, that no speaker or performer is wrong for trying to help audiences manage what they know could be triggering material. So what’s the harm in trying?

Not everyone buys the idea that trigger warnings are innocuous. Jones and his colleagues’ research suggested that trigger warnings can cause people who don’t have PTSD—or who have not experienced any trauma relevant to the warning—to feel more vulnerable in the future. A study published earlier this year also noted that subjects who saw trigger warnings experienced a drop in their mood. This falls in line with longstanding concerns that trigger warnings could cause some people to feel more anxiety about warning-labeled material than they would have otherwise, at least in the short-term. The effect might be something like a dentist prefacing a procedure by describing the pain and telling you to brace yourself, says Robert Whitley, a McGill University psychologist who has been critical of trigger warnings. (Another study published earlier this year found no such negative effect—but it also concluded that trigger warnings were only “trivially helpful” for most people, at best.)

Boysan and other researchers note that while existing research has looked mainly at people who have not experienced trauma, the same thing might happen with people who have PTSD or other mental issues. A warning that suggests how they should process the material could make their reaction more severe than it would have been otherwise.

Thorpe acknowledges that when we warn people about troubling material, we’re setting up a situation in which people expect to be troubled—and inevitably, many are. She maintains, though, that the goal of trigger warnings was never to remove discomfort, but to help traumatized people prepare for problematic material.

“One might argue that some material deserves to be treated gingerly,” Thorpe says. Ultimately, Thorpe believes the risk of priming people to feel uncomfortable likely won’t do anyone any real harm. Jones agrees, adding that we might be better off with a little more openness to discomfort in our lives. But this response doesn’t seem to account for the added discomfort trauma victims may feel, despite the fact that many hold that the goal of trigger warnings is to help them mitigate or navigate discomfort. We also don’t yet know how lasting or major the effects of this added discomfort may be for anyone, trauma survivors or otherwise.

“Trigger warnings may be a way of showing those who have had difficult experiences that their experiences are recognized and that they are not forgotten,” says Harvard psychologist Benjamin Bellet, who worked with Jones on his research. “[Yet] however well-intentioned trigger warnings may be, they still may have unintended psychological effects.” All of these arguments, Boysan cautions, are purely speculation at this point. All the studies conducted on this subject to date have severe limitations in their sample characteristics and sizes, the way they measured study participant reactions, or the way they defined and delivered trigger warnings. Jones stresses that while there are signs of possible benefits or harms, we know nothing for sure.

Beyond the science of trigger warnings’ potential effects on people with or without histories of trauma, though, Whitley worries they will add to the stigmatization of mental illness. The concept and terminology, he argues, “plays to the stereotype that mentally ill people are just these simple Pavlovian dogs who react instinctively to stimuli, when humans are much more complex than rats or dogs and things are constantly re-interpreted and re-evaluated.”

He also fears that trigger warnings could become a rote box-ticking exercise for many teachers, content creators, or presenters, absolving them of efforts to build more robust mental health systems, or be more conscientious in general. “A professor who is otherwise clumsy in their words and lazy in their methods of teaching,” he says, “could say, ‘oh, I gave a trigger warning and students still ran out of the room crying or made a scene; I don’t understand it.’”

And it’s easy to see how, without clear indications of who trigger warnings work for—if anyone—they could easily be over-applied, cheapening their impact or meaning. They could also be weaponized, used to try to claim that something one finds politically offensive is triggering and traumatic. Conservative college campuses have already seen efforts to use trigger warnings against queer materials.

Where should trigger warnings be used?

Still, there’s not enough information on trigger warnings and their effects to scrap them. For now, research and debate on the topic should continue. “I have taken the stance that trigger warnings should be approached like other accommodations in higher education,” Boysan says, in which students ask for a modification to a rule or assignment, offer documentation demonstrating their need for it, then work with teachers to build a solution. This seems to gel with Thorpe’s position that trigger warnings should never be required by administrators in a setting like a classroom or other public venue, given the fact that one can never truly predict what will be a trigger.

Boysan also thinks that some people might choose to use trigger warnings, even if they prove to have little or no value as a mental health tool, as a form of advocacy—important in a way that is separate from their effectiveness in preventing distress. However it may be wise to hold back on overtly political uses of trigger warnings until we understand how much of an impact that could have on the way people perceive them and thus on their potential mental health value.

Definitive findings on the merits or demerits of trigger warnings will take years, if not decades, to emerge. In the meantime, while people figure out whether to use trigger warnings on a case-by-case basis, we do know that we could use greater mental health resources, awareness, and training in America. If resources and awarenesses become more widespread, even if people do experience distress because a trigger warning wasn’t there when it was actually needed—or because it was there—they would be able to find help and acceptance much more easily than many do today.