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How Science Changed My View on Trigger Warnings

Recent findings suggest the controversy about safe spaces is misguided.

Key points

  • Adding trigger warnings to course materials for students is sometimes criticized for enabling trauma avoidance symptoms.
  • Several studies show that providing trigger warnings on classroom content can make anxious students even more anxious.
  • Research shows that trigger warnings can motivate some students to explore emotionally provocative material.

Across six continents, 70.4% of adults experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, including combat-exposed veterans, those who observed the death of friends and family, and sexual assault survivors. Certain sights, sounds, and words in the external world can trigger the reliving of panic-inducing memories, wrenching trauma survivors out of the present moment.

With data suggesting an epidemic of increasing anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidality among our nation's youth, universities offer some semblance of protection to trauma survivors from further harm. A wave of administrators has created “safe spaces” (physical environments on campus or devoted time in classes) where students can speak freely knowing that what they say will not be criticized or judged.

The rationale for safe spaces is built on a foundation of compassion and care —harsh criticism, or really any feeling of rejection, can amplify student anxiety. In course materials, professors offered warnings before introducing emotionally provocative topics or images. If something might upset readers or listeners, using a trigger warning can prevent students from being exposed to something such as a conversation about race or a book passage depicting violence that might produce intense physiological or emotional reactions.

Seems rather benign to remind students that something coming next might be unsettling. But there is strong opposition to the idea of trigger warnings. You will commonly hear: Youth of today are psychologically weaker and more fragile than prior generations.

Trigger Warnings Are Not the Cure

Avoiding trauma-related triggers is a coping strategy that might reduce short-term anxiety but in the long run prevents people from returning to living a rich, meaningful existence. Decades of scientific evidence demonstrate that the "gold standard" intervention for emotional disturbances is to gently, gradually expose people to what they are afraid of while modifying their assumptions about danger in the world, and building up their sense of agency and tolerance of distress so that they can pursue important goals no matter what they feel.

Knowing avoidance is a symptom of the problem, experts pointed to the ironic effects of trigger warnings. Several studies show that providing explicit alerts to students that upcoming class content might induce unpleasant reactions offers little to no benefit, and often backfire (only making the anxious more anxious).

A more recent study asked the question of whether students respond to a trigger warning with the intended effect: They get to leave uncomfortable situations, escape the pain, and feel safe and secure. What researchers found is that given an opportunity to choose between two book passages, one with a trigger warning that says herein lies explicit, provocative, emotionally intense content versus a safer alternative, students do what music producers have known for years: stick a “parental advisory explicit content” label on a record/tape/CD and watch sales skyrocket.

Let’s get deep into the data. Of 319 students asked if they want to read a book passage after being warned that a sexual assault will be detailed, 305 (95.6%) read it instead of a "safer" alternative. You might be asking, so what? What about anxious students with a history of sexual trauma?

Glad you asked. Of those students who met the criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, 97.6% ignored the trigger warning and read on. Maybe it is not our youth that is fragile, but it is us—the parents, teachers, and adults enlisted with the hard task of guiding them to be stronger, flexible, and resilient to the trials and challenges that await them.

Reframing Trigger Warnings as Mile Markers

The data are convincing that trigger warnings serve to ironically increase anxiety and motivate students to explore emotionally provocative material. I could use these data to justify my old thinking on this topic: Trigger warnings are an idea that should be retired. But here’s the thing: My view has changed. With the science of trigger warnings at least partially resolved, we can move to a more interesting question—is there anything useful about trigger warnings? I think the answer is an overwhelming yes.

For me, the results show that the costs of trigger warnings are near-zero whereas there is no discussion about additional benefits. Let us not underestimate how well youth and adults learn when they feel a sense of belonging in the presence of someone educating them, feel a sense of autonomy to leave a conversation if desired, and feel competent when given opportunities to carefully work through what trials lie ahead (for more on psychological need satisfaction, read this recent article).

I would reframe trigger warnings as nothing more than a highway mile marker. If we return to the literature of best practices for treating emotional disturbances, exposure to what is feared is not conducted as a surprise. A therapist offers guidance and explains what mentally demanding trial is coming up including why the task will be useful and why it would be useful to sit with the discomfort (focusing less of what is felt and more on what aims are sufficiently worthwhile to endure even if unwanted emotions and thoughts arise). Therapists show compassion by warning captive clients of what emotional challenges await them. Why wouldn't educators do the same?

Each of us faces a daily onslaught of traumatic events in the media (including widely shared videotaped footage of innocent adults being killed). In hopes of training critical thinkers in the classroom, it is valuable to discuss provocative issues and in doing so, essential to capture a wide range of different views from different people (not just varying in race, sex, age, and sexual orientation, but countries lived in, belief systems, personality, and temperament). It is foolish to think everyone in a group will respond to emotionally provocative content the same way. I don’t have to use trigger warnings to protect students. I could, however, use content warnings as a low-cost, extremely quick intervention with at least three purposes:

  • By contemplating how they might feel in the future, I show compassion.
  • By acknowledging that different people react to content differently, I engage in perspective-taking.
  • By signaling that I care about their well-being, I build healthy social relationships.

In my classes, I started using nonchalant, brief statements that resonate, “Trigger warning! What you are about to hear is provocative, if you’re open to it, let’s dive in.” I let them know on the first day of class that I will say this periodically as a mile marker where they can stay, leave, or do whatever they want with no consequences. We discuss this thoroughly in the first week and the first time it comes up. With the culture set, we use this mile marker throughout our time together and everyone understands their freedom is supported. Always compassionate, often playful.

It also helps with transitions and topic switches. From the new research on trigger warnings, I know mile markers are more likely to trigger student curiosity and increase a propensity to explore exactly what might produce short-term emotional distress. I am using the science that "disproves" the benefits of trigger warnings to remind them that rather than a dictatorship, the classroom is for dialogue and productive conflict. It's also worthwhile to return to the science of exposure therapy - an evidence-based approach to helping people deal with their discomfort with gentle guidance as opposed to surprising pushes. Leaning on greater compassion and relationship building will aid the greatest number of students to work through difficult material, and maximize learning.

We teach to impart knowledge and wisdom. Mile markers help them know where they are on the journey.

For more ideas and tips from the science of well-being, along with other intriguing stuff, I launched a newsletter called Provoked. Don't miss an issue by signing up here.

References

Kashdan, T.B. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment. New York, NY: Hudson/Penguin.

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