The Real Problem With Trigger Warnings

Alerts about classroom reading have been accused of weakening America's college students. But they might not do anything at all.

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In 2016, Onni Gust, a historian at the University of Nottingham, wrote in The Guardian about using trigger warnings to help students “stop for a moment and breathe” during class. Gust described how a slide presentation might note that the next slide references mutilation, or that the following passage includes a graphic description of sexual violence. The warnings don’t allow students to skip the class reading assignments, but instead remind students to use their coping strategies and “keep breathing,” Gust wrote.

About half of U.S. professors use trigger warnings, which are brief tags meant to alert students that certain class texts and images contain material related to racism, sexual violence, or other trauma-related topics. In an email conversation with me this week, Gust, who uses plural pronouns, told me they were still in support of the warnings. That’s despite the fact that a few studies have recently come out suggesting that trigger warnings have little impact—positive or negative—on those who see them.

In a 2018 paper, three Harvard researchers had participants either see or not see trigger warnings before reading passages that contained disturbing content, such as a gory murder scene from Crime and Punishment. The researchers found that trigger warnings actually slightly increased people’s self-reported anxiety—but only among people who believed that words can cause emotional damage. Overall, the warnings had no significant effect.

Trigger warnings are primarily intended to help people who have experienced traumatic events, such as rape. The Harvard study did not include any people who self-reported an experience of trauma, which cast doubt on how widely it could be applied to all college students. A more recent study addressed that limitation but achieved essentially the same results. Participants who were warned that they were about to watch graphic footage or read a graphic story felt just as badly as those who weren’t warned. They had a similar number of intrusive thoughts afterward. Seeing a trigger warning only slightly decreased the participants’ attempts to avoid thinking about the graphic material.

This finding—that trigger warnings made practically no difference for any of these symptoms—was true even for participants who had a history of trauma, including subjects whose type of trauma matched the nature of the content they watched. “These analyses suggest trigger warnings have trivial effects even among people for whom such warnings may be specifically intended,” the study’s authors find.

The authors argue that their research should condemn trigger warnings to the dustbin of wokeness history. They write that though it might seem like their results suggest there’s no harm in keeping the warnings, they nevertheless worry that the warnings’ widespread adoption could be part of what’s hurting college students’ mental health. “College students are increasingly anxious … and widespread adoption of trigger warnings in syllabi may promote this trend, tacitly encouraging students to turn to avoidance, thereby depriving them of opportunities to learn healthier ways to manage potential distress,” they write.

In an interview with Inside Higher Education, the study’s lead author, Mevagh Sanson, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at New Zealand’s University of Waikato, put it bluntly: “Trigger warnings don’t help.”

Payton Jones, a co-author of the 2018 trigger-warnings paper, also told me that he would be hesitant to use the warnings as a professor because there is so little evidence that they help anyone. Signaling to trauma survivors that you’re helping them when you’re actually not can be “invalidating,” he said. “It’s crazy that trigger warnings have spread so far before a single study had come out evaluating them.”

Meanwhile, some professors don’t feel that this research calls for an end to the use of trigger warnings. Gust still sees a benefit; they consider the warnings to be like a font that helps dyslexic people read. “They can be used to help with accessibility ... they help students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to access material that has a strong likelihood of triggering a mental-health crisis,” they told me. They also like that trigger warnings signal to their students that people come from different walks of life.

Kristin J. Jacobson, a professor of American literature and gender studies at Stockton University, says she’d like to see studies on trigger warnings that more closely mirror the academic experience, in which written trigger warnings are just part of a class’s overall treatment of a certain text, which might include discussion and other activities. Jacobson began using trigger warnings because of feedback from her students, and she told me that she will continue to use trigger warnings despite the recent research, because she sees them as a way to “open a conversation about how we respond to the literary arts.”

Syllabus development is not typically such a hot topic, but trigger warnings have become a flash point in the modern-day culture wars. Proponents are branded as overly sensitive snowflakes who do too much to keep their students safe. Opponents are caricatured as Quillette-reading inhabitants of the “intellectual dark web” who want everyone to toughen up already.

But all this arguing has been taking place over an intervention that hasn’t been studied very thoroughly at all. Neither of the two recent studies focused on people with PTSD, for instance, and perhaps certain kinds of trigger warnings do work for that population. The authors of the more recent study note that they could find no data directly addressing trigger warnings’ effects until the 2018 paper was published. As recently as 2017, an article on the website of the American Psychological Association found that “almost no research has directly examined classroom trigger warnings.”

In contrast, an outdated educational theory that’s much less controversial—the myth that some people are “visual” or “auditory” learners—has been studied again and again and shown to have little scientific validity. From the feedback I received after I wrote a story about the research on these so-called learning styles, professors seemed more willing to back down in the face of evidence that it’s not true. And doing so seemed to be easier for them because no one has thrown learning styles into the internet’s identity battles.

The problem with the politicization of trigger warnings is that it privileges how people feel about them over a sober analysis of their effects. To truly determine how these warnings are influencing students’ mental health, both the warnings’ proponents and their haters need to be ready to be proved wrong. You wouldn’t dramatically change your diet on the basis of one—or even two—studies, and the same should go for an entire generation’s psychology.