Trigger warnings: new study says they don’t work for traumatized people

Reader Gregory called my attention to a tweet from a Ph.D. student at Harvard calling attention to a new paper that was just put on the internet. It shows that, for those who survived trauma, there’s no evidence that trigger warnings reduce anxiety, and may even be harmful.

While there’s no indication that the paper has yet been accepted for publication, preprints are increasingly appearing before they show up in professional journals, and this is one of them. You can download it by clicking on the link below:

 

While trigger warning have been promoted for creating “inclusivity” and reducing trauma, critics decry them for impeding education and instilling victimization in people, especially survivors of trauma. But the pro-trigger-warning arguments have been based on what people feel is right, not on data. In fact, as the authors conclude from a useful summary of previous work, there is no evidence that putting trigger warnings before exposure to potentially damaging material reduces anxiety at all, and some evidence that the warnings may exacerbate anxiety. (The authors’ table of relevant literature is very useful.)

These earlier studies, however, were limited to people who hadn’t experienced trauma—neglecting the very people at whom trigger warnings are aimed. After all, the goal of such warnings is to avoid re-traumatizing people by exposing them without warning to subjects that damaged them psychologically, from incidents that even gave them PTSD.

I won’t go into detail about the rather complicated methodology of the paper, which uses numerous analyses, controls, and measurements. Suffice it to say that the subjects (451 of them) were surveyed for things like degree of trauma (all had been traumatized), psychological diagnoses, nature of their trauma, various demographic variables, and so on. They were then exposed to three types of readings, with or without (control) trigger warnings: “neutral” readings (like a character description from Moby-Dick), “mildly distressing” (like a description of a battle but without gore), or “markedly distressing” (characterized as things like “graphic scenes of violence, injury or death; e.g., the murder scene from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment”). The trigger warnings that were issued half the time were these:

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 authors’ null hypothesis was that the effect of trigger warnings—effects on things like anxiety or perceived centrality of trauma in your personality—was zero.

In general, the results either supported the null hypotheses or were “ambiguous”, but almost always in the direction of trigger warnings increasing rather than reducing anxiety. This study did not replicate those from an earlier paper showing that trigger warnings actually undermined individuals’ sense of vulnerability and their sense that others were vulnerable. In other words, they didn’t support an earlier study showing that trigger warnings were harmful.

In general, then, the authors showed that there’s not much of an effect of trigger warnings one way or the other, and the “way” they work is usually counterproductive but insignificantly so. Nor did the type of trauma an individual experienced have any effect on this conclusion.

There were, however, two effects—and counterproductive ones. The first is this:

We found substantial evidence that giving trigger warnings to trauma survivors caused  them to view trauma as more central to their life narrative. This effect is a reason for worry. Some trigger warnings explicitly suggest that trauma survivors are uniquely vulnerable (e.g., ” …especially in those with a history of trauma”). Even when trigger warnings only mention content, the implicit message that trauma survivors are vulnerable remains (why else provide a warning?). These messages may reinforce the notion that trauma is invariably a watershed event that causes permanent psychological change.

And there’s also a bit of evidence that trigger warnings increase anxiety for trauma suffers who also have PTSD.

These results are clearly counterproductive to the aims of having trigger warnings. Because of these results, and mainly because there was no evidence that trigger warnings had any of the intended effects, the authors conclude that “If there is no good reason to deploy [trigger warnings] in the first place, we need not require strong evidence of harm before abandoning them.”  If they’re not helpful, and can even do some harm, as well as imbue people with a stronger victimhood narrative, then why use them? According to this paper, we shouldn’t.

Will this paper have any effect? Will colleges abandon trigger warnings? I wouldn’t count on it. Since when has evidence ever changed the mind of the woke? That said, even if the traumatized aren’t helped by such warnings, I would probably still let students know if I were showing something gory in class, like someone being beheaded. Fortunately, because I taught evolutionary biology I never had to show stuff like that, nor issue any trigger warnings.

 

23 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted July 16, 2019 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I don’t think studies like this will have any affect on the use of trigger warnings because the value of such warnings lies in the satisfaction it provides those who issue them.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 16, 2019 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      They make snowflakes think they’re being catered for and they’re just arse-covering on the part of the issuers.

      Like most ‘warning’ signs, the authorities don’t really expect anyone to obey them, but if someone ignores the sign and gets hurt the authorities can hide behind the sign.

      cr

      • Posted July 17, 2019 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        And yet, I’m quite sure that we do not have enough ‘trigger warnings’ to please everyone. I personally do not like the gun term “trigger” warning.

        Unless it was a reference to Roy Roger’s horse, then I could learn to live with it.

  2. Michael Fisher
    Posted July 16, 2019 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    This enjoyable video could be a metaphor for something or other. I give you Trigger Fish & Snowflake Lobsters with St. Attenborough supplying silken commentary:

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted July 16, 2019 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Ooooops. Forgot to mention video contains scenes of violence, amputations & horrid music.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 16, 2019 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        Yes, you forgot to warn me that damn fish was going to eat my lobster.

        I have never really understood the trigger warning thing. Its like saying be careful of breathing, you might be allergic. So okay, stop breathing. Or, we are going to be talking about slavery today in class so, if this offends you please leave and you will get an A for missing the class.

      • Posted July 16, 2019 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Death. Limb by limb. I am horrified Attenborough could be so insensitive. 🙂

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted July 16, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Props to the Foley Artist who added in the sound effects for the snapping off of crawfish antennae and legs. 🙂

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 16, 2019 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      Well that would surely call for a

      TRIGGER (FISH) WARNING

      wouldn’t it? 😉

      Actually, trigger fish are nazis. There’s a short period of the year when you can’t swim in the lagoon in Rarotonga without being attacked by trigger fish. Probably mating season. I think they’re jealously defending their ‘territory’.

      Fortunately the damn things are only 4″ to 6″ long so they can’t do serious damage, they just leave you with tiny bleeding semicircular wounds.

      cr

  3. sshort
    Posted July 16, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    More evidence trigger warnings are not for the benefit of the trauma survivors, they are virtue-signaling on the part of the group….which why they are so especially weak and cringe-inducing.

  4. Charles Sawicki
    Posted July 16, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    This will not change trigger warning policies. Even if they are useless, not issuing them will cause problems for faculty at some schools. In particular, grief will come from administrators and those students who have been taught to expect coddling.

  5. pablo
    Posted July 16, 2019 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    They were never really for traumatized people. They were for virtue signalling attention seekers, and SJWs as a means to control discourse.

  6. Posted July 16, 2019 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Instill victimization is spot on. I would go further that this whole episode in our country is distilling victimization in a generation of young people. Self-esteen and courage to face adversity are all but evaporating.

    Reminds me of when someone in a classroom vomits, inevitably others in the class will have a predilection to get sick. What we should be saying:

    “What you are about to hear will make you stronger than you were yesterday, will give you courage to face down your fears and provide the wisdom to articulate your point of view to others.”

  7. Richard Sanderson
    Posted July 16, 2019 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think “trigger warnings” are meant to actually warn people – they are a signal meant to validate the cult.

  8. Posted July 16, 2019 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post. I teach at a trauma centered therapeutic day school (K-12)and this new knowledge is valuable.

  9. Posted July 16, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I can see that.

    Okay, in Std 6 I went to Queens College in Queenstown (Which is right near Port Elizabeth). It had been sold to me as this great opportunity to learn new things, and all of that.

    The way it was sold was not the way it was. In the first and only term I spent there, I got to see another kid die – he drowned while we got a talk on being life guards.

    Later that term another kid had been caught smoking weed, and got brought up onto the stage so that the matrics could beat him up as part of “school discipline”.

    Rather than getting traumatised, I got out and ended up going to a school known for its drug culture. That second school may not have had the same air of respectability but nobody died while I was there, and the matrics weren’t playing vigilante.

    Now here’s the thing, I can write about this fairly flippantly because, well, trigger warnings weren’t a thing. We weren’t automatically considered traumatised by this sort of thing, and so we just didn’t think about it on that deeply scarring emotional level.

    It is not that this stuff didn’t impact me, a lot of my contempt for violence and imposed discipline comes from seeing how the two schools handled things differently and how much better the second’s results were, but it is not exactly a source of sleepless nights.

    I am not saying of course that there isn’t a place of sensitivity or any of that, but rather, too much consideration can make something worse than it really needs be, at least on an emotional level.

    Letting people sort their own emotional state out is an important part of letting them heal, and putting signs on things saying “this may traumatise you” is only inclusive in the most Orwellian sense.

  10. Jenny Hoffman
    Posted July 16, 2019 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    If someone warns me something is going to be awful or disgusting, my imagination can usually do a better job than whatever. But, the poor lobster being picked apart – horrors! And the damn fish had such large innocent eyes!

  11. Posted July 16, 2019 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    So this study concludes that trigger warnings are useless. Pardon my skepticism, but I have a hunch that researchers who were advocates for trigger warnings could design a study that would come up with just the opposite conclusion. My conclusion: studies about trigger warnings are useless.

    • Posted July 16, 2019 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Did you read the paper? They summarize every bit of empirical study on the effects of trigger warnings on anxiety, and nearly all those studies show either no effect or a slight exacerbation of anxiety. In fact, I mentioned exactly this in my summary. As far as I can see, the studies were not designed to find a predetermined result, but to give an objective appraisal of whether trigger warning worked.

      Pardon my skepticism of your motives, but do you have a REASON to doubt all of this work, or do you just not like the results of this study–and several others? What were the flaws in the methodology?

      It looks as if you read neither the paper or my own post.

      • Posted July 16, 2019 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        “It looks as if you read neither the paper or my own post.”

        Actually I read both, plus an article in Inside Higher Ed and a little on the background of the authors.

        I have no quarrel with the results per se, since common sense suggests that trigger warnings are silly and probably counter-productive. My skepticism derives, rather, from years of first-hand experience with researchers trying to make qualitative studies in psychology and social studies come across as more rigorous and definitive than they are—a form of what I call “physics envy.”

        Once people start referring to something called “the trigger warning debate,” as co-author McNally did in a 2016 NY Times op-ed, studies that come down on either side of the debate have about as much credence for me as conflicting “expert” testimony in a court trial. But that’s just me, and I meant it when I asked you to pardon my skepticism.

  12. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted July 16, 2019 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    “Trigger warning:

    Be afraid, be very afraid.

    Something dreadful is about to happen. You should be trembling with fear, you inadequate wimp you.

    Of course this is because you have been traumatised. Your life has been ruined. You will never recover. You are a pathetic loser. Everyone else is laughing at you. You just can’t handle everyday things without breaking down into a pathetic psychotic quivering heap.

    We suggest you just give up and go to bed and never get up again.”

    That’s not what they say, but that’s the implied message.

    cr

  13. prinzler
    Posted July 17, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    The last trigger warning you’ll ever need:

    “As you go through life, you will encounter circumstances which may cause you much distress. You may be the victim of crime without warning; natural disasters may strike at any moment; a routine doctor appointment might reveal a life-threatening illness.

    Be forewarned now: horrible things that cause you great distress may happen at any moment and without warning throughout your entire life.”

    • prinzler
      Posted July 17, 2019 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      ETA: “. . . at any time throughout your entire life.”


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