February 23, 2020

The Science Is In. Trigger Warnings Don't Work.

““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.

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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