Monday, March 25, 2019

The Trigger Warning Hoax

With all due deference to your oh-so-delicate thin-skinned sensibility we have been told that we must preface every potentially traumatizing utterance or even image with what is called a trigger warning.

The concept arose from the depths of American academic stupidity. It attempted to raise consciousness of the psychological damaged suffered by American college students. It pretended to offer a cure. The cure: trigger warnings. It is one small step before our psycho overlords tell us that triggering words and images must be forbidden.

In the era of hurt feelings, trigger warnings were supposed to protect you against pending psycho calamity. They were supposed to be therapeutic, because, forewarned is forearmed, or some such.

Now, the New York Times reports on academic studies of the effect of trigger warnings. The results of the study: trigger warnings make no difference whatever in your reaction to potentially traumatic stimuli. The author of the story, Niraj Chokshi has done an excellent job. I am happy to bring his story to your attention.

The Times story opens:

For years, trigger warnings have been the subject of impassioned academic debate: Do they protect people from distress or encourage fragility?

The warnings, which alert individuals to disturbing material, have been talked about, used and promoted on college campuses and elsewhere for more than a decade, but little was known about how well they work. Now, a pair of recent studies suggest that they may have little effect at all.

“Although people were distressed by the negative materials we showed them, they were no more or less distressed if they’d seen a trigger warning first,” said Mevagh Sanson of the University of Waikato in New Zealand, the lead author of one of the studies, published this month in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Consider the first statement. Do trigger warnings serve to protect those of us who have unusually thin skin or do they encourage us all to define ourselves as fragile. What good is a trigger warning if you have not suffered enough traumas to be sensitive to triggers? And if you have not, are you presumably lying to us or lying to yourself?

The good news, or the bad news, depending on your trigger sensitivity, is that these warnings do not work. They serve no useful purpose. Telling someone that he is about to watch a simulated homicide will not have any effect on how he reacts… even if in a past life he saw just such a homicide.

One more therapeutic nostrum discredited.

The bad news is that someone somewhere is going to take this research and say that, since trigger warnings do not work, we must ban all potentially traumatizing images. We must purge the airways and public discourse— or, whatever is left of it— of anything that might plausibly be expected to hurt someone’s feelings. Once you head off down that road, you never stop. 

The study does not explain that if we ban all such words and images the result will be that those who have suffered traumas will become increasingly sensitive to them. They will have been deprived of an opportunity to process the traumas, to face their fears and to learn how to become desensitized. A brief reminder: when someone is phobic about, say, spiders, the correct treatment does not remove all images of spiders, or even the word spider, from his force field. It involves gradual desensitization by exposure to images of spiders and even to real spiders. 

As for the experiments, the Times describes them clearly:

In a series of experiments, Dr. Sanson and her colleagues presented hundreds of students and others recruited online with short stories or video clips, all of which featured negative themes, like child abuse, murder, a car accident or physical abuse. Some participants were presented with trigger warnings and some were not. Some also reported having experienced past trauma, like domestic abuse or witnessing a very bad accident.

In each case, the researchers asked participants about their mood before and after reading the passages or watching the clips. They also measured the distressing effects of the material in several other ways, including how it interfered with the participants’ ability to read and understand a subsequent neutral passage.

What the authors found was that trigger warnings had little effect on participants’ mood, how negatively they rated the material or their ability to later read the neutral passage.

As for the debate, trigger warnings send the message that the trauma survivor, as they are now called, is incapable of dealing with the trauma. This contrasts starkly with what should be the therapeutic goal—to help people to overcome their traumas. 

Besides, opponents of trigger warnings suggest that they coddle students. Who would have guessed such a thing:

Opponents of the idea say that trigger warnings coddle students and allow them to avoid discomforting perspectives. Proponents disagree, arguing that they can help those with a history of trauma avoid potentially disturbing material without banning it outright or brace themselves for it.

One problem is simple. A trauma victim might recollect a trauma because he is exposed to, someone who has the same hair color or the same tee shirt as the person who traumatized him. Since triggers can be highly individualized, the chances for covering all of them are nil.

But triggers can come in many forms, including those that may not be predictable, Dr. Wright of the American Psychological Association said. In some cases, a smell or sensation can trigger a traumatic experience even while a depiction of a similar episode won’t.

“Sometimes it’s not even the actual trauma act itself,” she said. “Triggers can be really personalized.”

It gets worse. Emphasizing trigger warnings tells trauma survivors that their trauma defines their lives. Admittedly, this is a standard psycho therapeutic theory, but we should by now have gotten over it:

… researchers at Harvard University recruited a few hundred online participants to read potentially disturbing literary passages, with some receiving a trigger warning and some not.

What they found was that those who received the warnings and strongly believed that words can cause harm reported greater anxiety after reading the distressing passage. The findings also indicated, albeit weakly, that trigger warnings boosted a stigma around trauma: People who saw the warnings were more likely to perceive themselves and others as particularly vulnerable to traumatic events.

The authors also argued that trigger warnings could be counterproductive, encouraging those who have faced trauma to avoid further exposure to it — an effective treatment — and promoting the idea that their trauma is central to who they are.

“If I’m constantly being reminded about how material in my everyday environment relates to my trauma, we may be reinforcing the centrality of that traumatic event to that person’s narrative, driving symptoms up as a result,” said Benjamin Bellet, the lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student at Harvard.

Trigger warnings make us more sensitive to potentially traumatizing experiences. They make it more likely that we will have an anxiety response. And, as noted above, the mania about trigger warnings tells people not to face their fears, but to run screaming into the night.


sestamibi said...

57% of college undergrads are female. Connect the dots.

Sam L. said...

This article may be hazardous to your mental health. You can SUCK IT UP, BUTTERCUP, or you can leave now and retain your ignorance.

Trigger Warning: Don't mess with Roy Rogers! His horse Trigger will bite and/or stomp on you.

Oh, sestimibi! You BAD boy!

UbuMaccabee said...

Sestamibi, LOL, double LOL. enough said. LOL