Trigger Warnings

May 3rd, 2019

Content warning(s): none.

Last year, an study titled "Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead" was published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, and it was heralded almost immediately by those who had been decrying trigger warnings as the ridiculous liberal agenda of "special snowflakes." Articles went up claiming that trigger warnings were actually harmful and don't help, and the right wing section of the internet promptly crowed loudly about it to anyone and everyone.

Before we proceed, you may notice that here on CSSN, we prefer "content warning" to "trigger warning." There are a few reasons for that, the main one being that "trigger," "triggered," and "trigger warning" have been so mocked and abused online that they've become jokes for some. Upon seeing the words "trigger warning," one never knows if you're going to get a respectful warning of potentially upsetting content or a "lol liberal snowflakes" comment. Beyond that, individuals may want to avoid certain content even if they're not going to triggered in a psychological sense. For example, I don't like viewing media that has animal cruelty or death, but it doesn't put me into a dissociative state or retraumatize me; it just makes me sad. Since the study uses the term "trigger warning" that is what I will be using for the remainder of the article.

Going back to the study, let's first focus on statistical weaknesses in the experimental design. (Although beyond the scope of this article, those familiar with statistics have pointed out the weak significance values associated with the results. For more information on p values, this article may help.) The experiment had 270 participants, about half (137) of whom read a "trigger warning" before reading passages that were rated "distressing" in a previous study. The warning read:

TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma.

One thing worth noting is that none of the participants had a history of trauma. Anyone meeting that criterion was excluded from the study. This would be like testing a drug to treat heart disease on people who don't actually have heart disease. And to be perfectly clear—I'm not saying they had a control group of people without trauma to compare to people with a history of trauma. They simply randomly divided up the participants into two groups.

In addition, the average age of the participants in this experiment was thirty-seven (37). So when the Daily Wire declared that "'Trigger Warnings' Are Harmful To College Students" they're either indicating that they didn't fully read the article or they're creating a false headline to get clicks. The study did not focus on college students or even just college-aged individuals. Current scientific data indicates that the brain doesn't fully mature until around age 25 or so.

The participants then read passages from literature and were asked to rate their own emotions (including anxiety) before and after reading. One of the authors specifically states, "In this study, we found that trigger warnings occasionally harm." What harm are they referring to?

In the "highlights" of the study, they claim:

  • Trigger warnings increase peoples' perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma.
  • Trigger warnings increase peoples' belief that trauma survivors are vulnerable.
  • Trigger warnings increase anxiety to written material perceived as harmful.

Let's focus first on the third point—their claim that trigger warnings increase anxiety upon viewing media with sensitive content. The author cited above states that trigger warnings "did not significantly affect immediate anxiety response" although they claim individuals who reported they believed "words can harm" did showed a 5% increase in anxiety. There's no evidence that the participants suffered long-lasting effects from the study (the author specifically says exposure to the trigger warning "did not significantly affect anxiety at follow-up"). So the "harm" the authors are claiming is that, for a short time after reading a "distressing" passage, individuals who were warned it may be distressing were slightly more anxious than those who didn't.

This could be a result of demand characteristics of the study. Simply put, if you imply to your participants that they may get anxious by, I don't know, putting "may trigger an anxiety response" in your trigger warning, you might induce your participants to indicate that they felt anxiety, whether or not they actually did. The participants don't lie out of malice; they may not realize they're doing it or think they're helping you by providing the answer they think you want.

But even if it's not, the point is that the participants in the study aren't the people that trigger warnings are supposed to help. This study doesn't indicate if trigger warnings could help those dealing with trauma avoid being retraumatized. All this particular finding might indicate is that non-traumatized individuals who read a trigger warning might feel slightly anxious immediately after reading it.

So what about the other points? Essentially, they say that after reading trigger warnings, participants were 5% more likely to believe they could be vulnerable to trauma and 5% more likely to believe that trauma survivors are vulnerable. Is that harmful?

No. No, it's not.

If true, this finding reveals that individuals who have not been through trauma gain a slightly better understanding of the facts that they—like everyone—could be vulnerable to trauma and that those who experience trauma are vulnerable as a result. That's ... good. It sounds a lot like rejecting the fallacy of the Just World Hypothesis and understanding that trauma can have a serious impact on people.

But this isn't the message being put out by the authors of the study, one of whom wrote in 2016 that trigger warnings are "coddling by [...] helicopter parents." (Thus indicating pre-existing bias against the use of trigger warnings.) He argued that trigger warnings "encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains P.T.S.D." so therefore, trigger warnings are useless and schools should just focus on improving psychological resources for those dealing with PTSD.

This presents a false dichotomy—either schools give trigger warnings OR they spend money/time on creating resources for those with mental health issues. It also ignores the fact that those who have been through trauma may not be able to afford treatment, may be receiving sub-standard treatment, or may be in a place where they don't feel they can go get help. Even in a utopia where everyone who needs mental health treatment feels comfortable seeking it out and has no worries about it being affordable, trigger warnings can serve a purpose.

Effective trigger warnings don't have to be intrusive or bombastic; they're best done when they simply note that the medium contains something that might be disturbing to some, as our content warnings do before our articles. That way, if someone knows that reading about a child murder or seeing a scene portraying a rape will upset them, they can choose to not continue. In an academic setting, a student may be able to request an alternate assignment. At the very least, they can go into the medium/assignment prepared.

Which brings us to a key purpose of trigger warnings—they let people pass on media if they think it would be distressing. The participants in the study weren't given the option to just not read the passages. One of the authors claimed that trigger warnings "compound" the message that "words can cause harm." The simple fact is that words can cause harm. Harassment, abuse, and bigotry can cause injury even if the target is never physically assaulted. We see numerous stories every year of individuals committing suicide because of online and in real life bullying. Trigger warnings remind people of this, which is perhaps why so many balk at them. Maybe they don't want to acknowledge that their words could have a serious impact on another. They're just "joking" or "trolling" and anyway, it's the internet, so if you're going to be on it, you just have to deal with it, right?


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