Triggered by Trigger Warnings

A new study suggests that trigger warnings may actually increase student vulnerability to offensive or troubling material.


Is it possible that "trigger warnings" -- warnings to students and others that they are about to encounter potentially offensive or disturbing material -- do more harm than good? A new study suggests that may be the case.

The study, "Trigger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead," by Benjamin W.Bellet, Payton J.Jones, and Richard J.McNally, was just published online by the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. For this study, the authors presented study participants with written passages with potentially disturbing content. One group received trigger warnings, the other did not. Lo and behold, those who received the warnings were more likely to believe the material was potentially traumatizing to themselves or others than those who did not receive such warnings.

Here are portions of the abstract:

Trigger warnings notify people of the distress that written, audiovisual, or other material may evoke, and were initially used to provide for the needs of those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since their inception, trigger warnings have become more widely applied throughout contemporary culture, sparking intense controversy in academia and beyond. Some argue that they empower vulnerable individuals by allowing them to psychologically prepare for or avoid disturbing content, whereas others argue that such warnings undermine resilience to stress and increase vulnerability to psychopathology while constraining academic freedom. The objective of our experiment was to investigate the psychological effects of issuing trigger warnings. . . .

Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm. Warnings did not affect participants' implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content. . . .

Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience. Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.

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  1. That sounds like a lot of effort around engaging with a tiny, tiny number of very psychologically fragile individuals. Rather than burdening everyone in society, it seems like a better solution would be for affected individuals to work with mental health professionals to attempt to gain the ability to function in the real world.

    Designing everything in the world for the emotional comfort and security of the person with the least ability to handle any kind stress or challenge serves everyone else very poorly. It's long past time for the rest of us to say "we matter too, each just as much as this triggered person".

    1. Um, have you missed the part where professors are maligned as brutally insensitive if they fail to give trigger warnings in the *absence* of students who are diagnosed with PTSD, because someone *might* be triggered? The experimental design was elegant and the research outcome data were quite interesting: trigger warnings may predispose non-traumatized individuals to develop PTSD by encouraging them to view themselves as fragile and unable to recover from trauma.

      1. I'm not sure why the response to being "maligned" isn't something like: "thanks, your input is noted", followed by never thinking about it again.

        Why does this stuff rate any attention at all? You don't feed trolls. How do people keep failing to learn that?

        1. Because when you get "maligned" you get "reported" to the "administration" and they put a "note" in your "record" that can affect "future salary increases" or "chances of gaining tenure".

          1. Because entire organizations and the academic profession itself kept feeding the trolls over and over and eventually became subservient to them. And is now slowly being eaten alive, unable and mostly unwilling to defend itself, having long ago lost sight of their original mission to educate and spread knowledge.

            If you keep quiet, you might be able to get paid for a few years before the host dies. Good luck.

            1. Well, the students are the customers, and the customers get what they want. I blame helicopter parents, whose children expect to live under constant supervision. But the good news is that the helicopter parents are reaching old age, and will be subjected to the supervision of their helicopter children.

              1. The vast majority of the customers don't want their class materials watered down to benefit the trolls. They don't want their professors subservient to trolls. They don't want to pay extra tuition to cover administrators who only deal with a small number of trolls.

                1. The vast majority of the customers don't want their class materials watered down to benefit the trolls.

                  That would explain why conservative-controlled campuses have stopped imposing speech codes, suppressing academic freedom, teaching nonsense, enforcing old-timey conduct codes, collecting loyalty oaths, disdaining science and history to flatter superstition, engaging in viewpoint-based discriminating in everything from admissions to hiring (professors, administrators, janitors, basketball coaches), etc.

                  What makes conservatives impervious to self-awareness?

                  1. Given that the vast majority of customers don't go to "conservative-controlled campuses", how could you be dumb enough to think that was relevant?

  2. Remember the "CONTENT ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICS" warnings they put on music CDs when people still bought CDs?

    1. Music CDs were a thing of my childhood, but today Spotify labels which tracks are explicit. I rely on this heavily when playing music around the kids.

      1. Adults and children obviously use these warnings for different purposes.

    2. Yeah, those were the CDs I moved to the top of my TO BUY list.

      1. When I brought home Sergeant Pepper, my mother *liked* it. Took a lot of the fun out of it.


    My version of a trigger waning.

  4. Um, can we get a trigger warning on a post like this next time? Geez

    1. It's trigger warnings all the way down.

  5. "Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, BUT ONLY IF THEY BELIEVED THAT WORDS CAN CAUSE HARM."

    So THAT is the problem! Let's start punishing idiot Professors who tell students that words can cause harm!

    1. Isn't the notion that words cannot cause harm actually an outlier? I suggest free speech doctrine has always been that whether speech did or did not cause harm, you shouldn't let the government restrict it on that basis, because that would deliver greater harm.

      But asserting that words cannot cause harm seems plain crazy?contrary to lived experiences shared by almost everyone. It doesn't seem wise to insist on assertions which deny plain fact, just to bolster legal outcomes you prefer. If those legal outcomes actually required for their support assertions which aren't factual, wouldn't you have to question the outcomes instead?

      Much better to acknowledge the truth?speech can cause harm, but mostly, that shouldn't be a legal basis for government intervention.

      1. The question is as to the kind of harm.

        Words can be used to delude people into believing crazy or dangerous stuff.

        But it's not the simple utterance of the words in themselves which is the problem, but the effect on the listener as (s)he carries out what (s)he has been persuaded to do.

        The traditional free-speech doctrine is that if someone articulates dumb/dangerous ideas, you can defend yourself by uttering better ideas, with a view toward persuading an audience to steer clear of the dumb/dangerous ideas.

        Not to mention that the dumb/dangerous idea may have an element of truth which might not otherwise get acknowledged, and that has to be dealt with in any rebuttal.

        But the triggering people go a step further and say that the actual utterance of certain words is the equivalent of violence, allowing for the use of actual violence in "self defense."

        There's no question of trying to argue someone out of being hurt, the damage has already been done!

        1. You do well to have noticed, as your comment shows, that the "marketplace of ideas" doctrine is a reference to a particular kind of speech forum. It does not apply alike to all kinds of speech forums.

          If the marketplace of ideas works its magic too slowly to undo, or to redress, actual harms those other kinds of forums deliver, what do you say? Do you just re-assert "marketplace of ideas," again and again, while the hoped-for market remedy works its way around to, maybe, preventing future harms to different victims, leaving former victims unprotected and uncompensated? Do you think that's good enough?

          Or do you prefer to dodge the question, by asserting that because it's just words, no such victims even exist? Because (back to the beginning) mere words can't cause harm?

          1. I have some difficulty understanding exactly which question I'm dodging, or for that matter understanding the various questions you pose.

            I've mentioned fighting words, and I've mentioned private institutions with avowed policies restricting speech.

            If you're asking for more than that to protect people against offensive speech, maybe you can be a bit more specific.

      2. Isn't the notion that words cannot cause harm actually an outlier?

        I dunno; I think most people learned "Sticks and stones can break my bones..." from the time they were children.

      3. Let's define terms - just what exactly do you mean by the term "harm"? Words certainly can't break bones, cause internal bleeding, stop a heart, or open a wound. Words can't cause bleeding, bruising, or even a black eye. If all you mean by the term "harm" is "cause emotional discomfort", well then sure, I guess that words can cause certain people to feel uuncomfortable. But calling that discomfort "harm" is like referring to a teenage Lothario who steals a kiss under the bleachers a rapist. Frankly, even with true fighting words, I can consider the source and ignore someone calling me the most vile, perverted so-and-so. And if I remember that opinions can't hurt my feelings unless I respect the source, I might even find the name-calling amusing.

    2. Further, what about cases where words are chosen and uttered with the intention of causing harm? Do we simply allege that always fails?

      If advocates weaponize speech to attack, for instance, black attendance at a state university, and persist in that, and try to make it a pervasive experience there that any black person will encounter widespread spoken hostility to his right to attend, what then? If black people subjected to that treatment do conclude they are unwelcome, and cease to attend, or to apply, do we assert that isn't harm? Or assert against reason that it maybe be harm, but not harm caused by the speakers?even though it is the very result they intended?

      1. I'm not dogmatic enough to defend actual fighting words, eg, some white supremacist coming up to a black person and uttering an insult so egregious that an average, healthy (wo)man would naturally be inclined either to walk away (flight) or escalate (fight). Best to stop the fight before it starts by punishing the fighting words.

        Just so long as we don't replace the "fighting words" doctrine with some snowflakey "triggering" theory by which expressing an "incorrect" view in class discussion is considered a fighting word.

        But if the climate of hostility means constantly encountering people who articulate the social/political opinion that your race/political group/religion is dangerous and shouldn't be allowed to pollute the hallowed halls of academe - there are already students facing that situation. I don't know how far black students have to content with anti-black sentiment, but I can see how a snowflakey white student can be triggered by all the talk of toxic whiteness, f*&& white supremacy, etc., and my advice to such white students is either suck it up or go elsewhere, not to expel the misguided white-bashers (not unless it's a private university and warnings against such behavior have been published in advance together with threats of punishment). Likewise Christian or conservative students if (hypothetically speaking) they encounter hostile attitudes.

      2. "Further, what about cases where words are chosen and uttered with the intention of causing harm?"

        Right, for example, what if a Jehova's Witness who was being told by a sheriff to stop preaching responded by calling the sheriff a damned fascist? Why shouldn't the resulting arrest be upheld 9-0 by the Supreme Court?

        "If advocates weaponize speech to attack, for instance, black attendance at a state university..."

        Or what if, for example, a federal judge issued an injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing" to prevent civil rights protests, and Martin Luther King Jr. intentionally violated the injunction? Why shouldn't he be put in Birmingham jail?

        Anyone advocating for more speech repression should understand that it won't be used to help insular minorities.

      1. Parents are in the situation of not wanting their kids to become violent brawlers, juvenile delinquents, and future prison denizens. Sometimes the "solution" is to get them to ignore abuse at school in hopes they can focus on their academic work (remember that?).

        But it really depends on how bad the abuse is - like with prison, you don't want your fellow inmates - I mean students - to think you're a little bitch who can be abused at will. Which is why some parents encourage a more aggressive attitude. Really it depends on the specifics of the situation and where you try to draw the line.

  6. Key phrase: further research is needed.

  7. Seems to me that trigger warnings are a way of signaling to students that they "should" be offended or disturbed by certain things, another way of conditioning them in to "correct thinking'.

    1. Being offended or disturbed is not by itself a reason not to view things, first off. Some things clearly are in some way offensive or disturbing. For instance, many documentaries are disturbing given the subject matter. Doesn't mean one should not watch them. On the hand, notice that they "could" (a usual trigger warning) be so seems to me a fairly copacetic thing -- I generally like to know what I'm going to watch, roughly speaking.

      The fact someone might tell me that in the middle of Hogan Heroes reruns or such (as so happens) "disturbing" commercials promoting some animal welfare organizations is going to be shown doesn't really to me seem the road to "correct thinking." It is a disclosure to me about what is going to occur.

      If college students are not offended or disturbed in some fashion, anyways, I reckon they have had an incomplete education.

  8. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words hurt worse then every single white male who just waiting his chance to run you down with a Dodge Charger.

  9. The word 'trigger' triggers me: reminds me all of those times when I shot myself in the foot.

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