Science

The Latest Study on Trigger Warnings Finally Convinced Me They’re Not Worth It

All the evidence suggests they don’t help and might actually hurt, which means we need to devote more attention to better forms of mental health care.

Blacked-out text with a warning sign over it.
Slate

“Trigger warnings just don’t help,” Payton Jones, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Harvard, tweeted alongside a preprint of his new paper. He further explained that the paper actually suggests that trigger warnings might even be harmful.

When I saw the tweet, my gut reaction was that Jones was wrong. I have been for trigger warnings even before the Year of the Trigger Warning, which according to Slate, was 2013. Opponents of trigger warnings tend to argue that they are an unnecessary concession that only serves to further coddle already sheltered college students. I figure they might be a good way to help people with mental injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder stay safer as they move around the world, the same way that a person with a broken leg uses crutches. But after considering Jones’ paper, and chatting with him, I’ve been convinced that we’d do better to save the minimal effort it takes to affix trigger warnings to college reading assignments or put up signs outside of theater productions and apply it to more effective efforts to care for one another.

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Research that trigger warnings might not be all that helpful has been mounting over a few studies, including the one that Jones and his colleagues published last year titled “Trigger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead.” Yes, that title is trollish, but here is what they did: They had a few hundred participants read several passages, some of which were potentially disturbing. Half received no heads up before the passages, and half got a label ahead of the iffy ones that 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.” The results suggested that trigger warnings could actually help generate anxiety, thus making them counterproductive. But there was a major limitation in that study: It didn’t focus on people who had experienced trauma. Two studies written up in the New York Times in March had similar limitations (those both concluded that trigger warnings didn’t do anything, good or bad).

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So what about people who actually might be, you know, triggered by the material? Jones’ latest paper addresses just that question. The methods are the same as the 2018 paper, but with a pool of 451 participants who had experienced trauma. (A consent form required for ethical purposes did require that participants acknowledge that they would be reading emotional material, Jones told me, which is sort of a trigger warning all on its own but a required step of the process). In this population, trigger warnings still failed to lessen the emotional distress from reading a passage. The authors also found evidence, they wrote, that trigger warnings “countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity.” Though more evidence is needed to say for sure, their research suggests that trigger warnings could be actively harmful to the very people for whom they are meant.

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I then wondered if trigger warnings might help folks simply avoid the triggering material, a sort of opt-out system for people who aren’t up for dealing with it. But the evidence on whether people actually avoid material based on trigger warnings is mixed, Jones outlines in the paper. It could be that most people who have been through trauma see trigger warnings and plow ahead regardless. If they do end up avoiding the material and the associated adverse reaction, that’s not a good thing, either. “Cognitive avoidance is really counterproductive,” psychologist Darby Saxbe told Katy Waldman for a 2016 Slate story on the then-current science of trigger warnings, a point Jones also made to me. I know this extremely well from my days avoiding public speaking: Having an anxious reaction, and living to tell the tale, is actually an important part of learning to live with one’s brain.

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That’s not to say that people who have experienced trauma should be left on their own to have that panicked response and just get over it. “Rather than issuing trigger warnings, universities can best serve students by facilitating access to effective and proven treatments for P.T.S.D. and other mental health problems,” Richard McNally, a Harvard psychologist and co-author on the paper with Jones, wrote in the New York Times in 2016. He argued that emotional reactions to assigned readings were “a signal that students need to prioritize their mental health and obtain evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies that will help them overcome P.T.S.D.” In other words, if you feel you need a trigger warning, maybe what you really need is better medical care.

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My last justification: Could trigger warnings simply be important because they signal that you are in a space where your feelings and mental health needs are going to be respected and taken seriously? “I don’t think trigger warnings are the best way to do that,” Jones told me. “Making a statement to that effect sends the same signal.” It could also help build more broadly inclusive spaces. Teachers and professors could make a general announcement about the atmosphere they are hoping to cultivate at the beginning of a class. Colleges could take requests for trigger warnings as a sign that they need to bolster access to mental health professionals. Theaters could find a way to offer people the explicit option to gracefully step out and reenter, no questions asked, for any kind of medical need.

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There are other problems with trigger warnings. Even if they did work, how would we go about issuing them for all possible triggers? Different people have different triggers, which are based on personal experiences and may or may not be connected to what the average person considers disturbing or explicit. “My experience is that the audience can do a better job than I can at figuring out what kind of content will upset them by reading the headline than I ever could randomly guessing what blog posts count as triggering,” Amanda Marcotte wrote in Slate in 2013. If you’re still wondering if a polite heads up might be in order—one that doesn’t invoke the language about anxiety that the explicit warning in Jones’ study does—then consider that we do live in a world with headlines, and book jackets, and movie previews, and graphic content advisories. The world naturally comprises signals about what we are about to experience.

Trigger warnings may have been developed under incredibly well-meaning pretenses, but they have now failed to prove useful in study after study. Like many a random supplement, trigger warnings are probably useless for most people and potentially, though not definitively, a little harmful to some. So, with no clear upside, why risk it? Perhaps because it is certainly easy to issue one and feel like you’re doing something helpful. Just remember that this might come at the expense of doing something that would actually help.

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