Trigger warnings don’t work (in experimental settings)


This post updates an essay I wrote in 2015, which is available here.

I follow the debate over trigger warnings only loosely. Please feel free to add information in the comments.

A new meta-analysis, “A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes,” preregistered and with open data (available in preprint), fails to confirm any beneficial effect of content trigger warnings. It concludes:

Advocates of trigger warnings claim that they help people to emotionally prepare for or completely avoid distressing material (e.g., Gust, 2016). Critics argue that warnings contribute to a culture of avoidance at odds with evidence-based treatment practices or instill fear about upcoming content (e.g., Lukianoff & Haidt). Overall, we found that trigger warnings have no meaningful effect on response affect, avoidance, or educational outcomes (i.e., comprehension). However, trigger warnings reliably increased anticipatory distress prior to viewing material.

This looks like a good quality meta-analysis to me. It selected only experimental studies, most of which were themselves preregistered, with available data. Although there were only 12 studies included, they were all recent and of reasonable quality. They used either undergraduate students or MTurk samples for their experiments, which were pretty straightforward — they randomized whether they offered a trigger warning before exposing the subjects to disturbing material of various kinds. The only consistent effect of the trigger warnings was to increase the distress of subjects.

Content warnings are widely used and recommended by the powers that be on campus (e.g., here, here, and here). They are often used in ways that are different from those in the experiments considered in the new paper, however — for example, in a syllabus at the start of a semester. In that context, they may still be effective if done right. In the essay below, no revised, I offer a perspective on how some “impending discourse notifications” might be useful.

In what I see, the debate over trigger warnings is hampered by ill-defined terms and unhelpful hyperbole. I want to give a very basic description of what I think should be a relatively simple approach to the issue, call out a gender problem, and then offer my own example.

Impending discourse

There are three kinds of relevant warnings that I would group together under the category of “impending discourse notification.” That is, warnings that take the form: something is about to be discussed or displayed. Keeping these three things straight would be really helpful.

1. Warnings of content likely to be disturbing to many people in the audience.

For example, graphic images of violence during a regular TV news program, descriptions of rape on NPR’s Morning Edition, or sociology classroom lectures that contain images of Black people being lynched. In these cases, a warning of the impending discourse is something like common courtesy. It says, “we are about to see or hear something important enough to risk disturbing the audience, and potentially disturbing enough that you should gird yourself.” In these discrete cases warnings are not controversial in principle, though of course individual applications may be off target or offensive. Many settings carry an implied warning: A horror film can be expected to surprise you with specific acts of violence, but you know something bad is coming; a sociology class on racial inequality should be expected to include discussions of lynching, though some students have no idea about lynching; a history documentary on war is expected to show people being killed. Warnings in these cases seem optional.

2. Warnings of content that may trigger post-traumatic stress responses.

I am not expert on this, obviously, but my understanding (from, e.g., here) is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was included in the DSM III in 1980, partly based on the experience of Vietnam War veterans. The condition was understood to involve reliving memories of trauma, avoiding reminders of trauma, and hyperarousal that can lead to high levels of distress. There are many kinds of traumas that can lead to PTSD, but some are much more common than others, especially violence, sexual abuse, and existential threats.

There isn’t much experimental evidence of whether trigger warnings help prevent PTSD survivors from experience stressful reactions to content. However, one large, preregistered study of 451 trauma survivors in 2019 concluded:

We found no evidence that trigger warnings were helpful for trauma survivors, for those who self-reported a PTSD diagnosis, or for those who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors’ trauma matched the passages’ content. We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity. Regarding replication hypotheses, the evidence was either ambiguous or substantially favored the hypothesis that trigger warnings have no effect.

Based on the current evidence, I recommend not using trigger warnings for PTSD survivors in class, attached to specific discussions or readings. The movement toward universal content warnings in college courses does not seem to have been justified by evidence of their effectiveness, especially in light of possible downsides. We can’t have a democratic discourse without mentioning bad things, sometimes spontaneously. I don’t agree with an Oberlin essayist who says trigger warnings should be treated as disability accommodations, “as common as wheelchair ramps.” (Of course, I would make an accommodation for a specific student — and I have — who asks to opt out of a specific class session based on the topic). We just don’t have an evidence base to justify such an approach (which we do for wheelchair ramps). Blanket notifications of course content still seem like common courtesy and inclusivity — but I say that without empirical evidence, so it’s tentative.

3. Warnings of obnoxious, offensive, disagreeable, or dangerous ideas.

These warnings are unnecessary and wrong. If someone wants to say the problem of campus rape is exaggerated, that Black men are genetically aggressive, the Holocaust is a myth, Creationists are stupid, or letting transgender adolescents transition is immoral — let them. Correct them in class. Hand out flyers or picket at their talk, discredit them in the Q&A, denounce them on Twitter, or ignore them. If they are receiving honorary degrees or other accolades (or money) from governments or universities, that’s political fair game to protest. But protecting people from hearing bad ideas is a bad idea (outside of incitement to violence). On campus or in the classroom, exposure to bad ideas is essential to critical intellectual development. If you’re never offended in college you aren’t learning enough.

A gender problem

I have complained elsewhere that the non-criminal procedure for responding to campus rape “downgrades sexual violence from a real crime to a women’s issue.” Something similar is going on with trigger warnings. Although PTSD-type responses can be triggered by many kinds of experiences, sexual violence is a main arena of debate over campus trigger warnings. Why? This should not be reduced to a “women’s issue.” I don’t like demands for special protection — from discourse — for women. Women are in fact more likely to experience PTSD than men, but that’s only partly because they are more likely to be sexually assaulted. Men are more likely to experience other potentially traumatic events, including accidents, nonsexual assaults, combat, or witnessing violence, all of which can lead to PTSD. People with sensitivity to trauma-related triggering deserve respect and sensitivity. But women — like any subordinate group — need to exert leadership in the discourse surrounding that inequality, and that doesn’t come from avoiding the topic or silencing their opponents. If the only people discussing rape are people who have never been raped, the dialogue is likely to be male-dominated. We have to work on maintaining the line between offensive and unpleasant on the one hand and truly trauma-inducing on the other. If it’s necessary to avoid the latter, it’s all the more important for those who are able to engage the former.

How I do it addendum

I think we can learn a lot from these discussions. They have raised the question, “What if we acted like sexual assault is actually common?” That reality is hard to grasp — for people who are victims or not — because the experience is so often private. In the chapter in my book about family violence and abuse, I didn’t include an impending discourse notification, but — after opening with a detailed story of violent abuse — I raised the issue of how discussing the topic might affect students:

The subject of family violence and abuse is personal and painful. Instructors and students should pause at this point to consider the possible effects of discussing these topics, especially for those who have experienced abuse in their own lives. Because this kind of victimization still is so common in the United States, most of us will know someone who has been touched by it in one way or another. However, because families often are protected by a cultural—and sometimes legal—expectation of privacy and a shroud of secrecy, those who suffer usually do so in isolation. That leaves us with the complexity of a problem that is widespread but experienced alone and often invisibly. Such isolation can make the experience of abuse even worse. One benefit of addressing the issue in this book is that we can help pierce that isolation and encourage victims to realize that they are not alone.

I think advising people in the classroom to “pause to consider” before launching into the topic is reasonable — it’s a common experience with a known risk of traumatic effects. But I didn’t write that just to protect people who might have a traumatic reaction to the topic, I did it because it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.

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