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.