The Trouble With Trigger Warnings
Trigger warnings, like so much in life, began with the best of intentions but quickly devolved into the absurd. First used in online discussions of sexual violence, they expanded exponentially and now include warnings about everything from racism to classism, as well as books such as The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This isn’t merely amusing. These warnings have real-world consequences. Rather than risk censure, some professors are simply eliminating any sensitive material from the classroom.
I am not reflexively opposed to trigger warnings. They are, as I said, well-intentioned, designed to prevent harm by allowing someone to “emotionally prepare” before being exposed to material that might reactivate a past trauma. Again, it sounds good. If I had, say, been brutally attacked by a Doberman as a child, I’d like to know if my new next-door neighbors own a large dog, especially if it happens to be a Doberman. But a growing body of evidence strongly suggests trigger warnings don’t work — and, in fact, do more harm than good.
In the latest study, published in the journal Memory, some 200 participants were asked to recall a negative event that took place within the past two weeks. They were then separated into two groups: one which was warned that this negative memory task would be distressing, and one which was not given a warning. All the participants were then asked to recall the negative event again.
The results are sobering. The group that was given a trigger warning were no less disturbed by the bad memory. In fact, by one measure, they were more upset than the non-triggered group. This suggests, the researchers say, that the warnings “hampered the healing nature of time.” Even more troubling, the study found that imagining a trigger warning was “just as anxiety provoking as imagining encountering trauma-related content.” In other words, thinking of a trigger warning was itself triggering. What’s going on?
It’s really quite simple. Trigger warnings are only helpful if the recipient is able to muster helpful coping strategies. I might, for instance, do a breathing exercise before encountering a Doberman. or be sure to keep my distance. Most trigger warnings don’t…