Friday, October 1, 2021

The Trouble with Trigger Warnings

We have been reporting for some time about the trouble with trigger warnings. Link here. The notion that we must announce to students or the general public that an upcoming image or thought might hurt their feelings by triggering traumatic memories belongs to the era of hurt feelings.

It is a very maternal instinct, one that makes everyone a mother protecting a bunch of big babies from the least discouraging word. As I have noted, people get over traumas by gradual exposure and desensitization. Such has been the cognitive and behavioral approach; it has been shown to be effective. 

Anyway, law professor Jeannie Suk Gerson has brought us up to date on the research, much of which I have already reported on. (via Maggie’s Farm) She reports the conclusion that trigger warnings are not merely useless. They actively cause harm. I am impressed to see that being a law professor qualifies one to report on psychological trauma.

But, you suspected that trigger warnings were, as Gerson says, a hoax. Every time our degenerate culture gloms on to a panacea for psychological damage, you can be fairly confident that the cure will worsen the disease.

Gerson summarizes some research:

Because trigger warnings involve assumptions about emotional reactions, particularly with respect to P.T.S.D., psychology researchers have begun to study whether trigger warnings are in fact beneficial. The results of around a dozen psychological studies, published between 2018 and 2021, are remarkably consistent, and they differ from conventional wisdom: they find that trigger warnings do not seem to lessen negative reactions to disturbing material in students, trauma survivors, or those diagnosed with P.T.S.D. Indeed, some studies suggest that the opposite may be true.

The first one, conducted at Harvard by Benjamin Bellet, a Ph.D. candidate, Payton Jones, who completed his Ph.D. in 2021, and Richard McNally, a psychology professor and the author of “Remembering Trauma,” found that, among people who said they believe that words can cause harm, those who received trigger warnings reported greater anxiety in response to disturbing literary passages than those who did not. (The study found that, among those who do not strongly believe words can cause harm, trigger warnings did not significantly increase anxiety.) Most of the flurry of studies that followed found that trigger warnings had no meaningful effect, but two of them found that individuals who received trigger warnings experienced more distress than those who did not. Yet another study suggested that trigger warnings may prolong the distress of negative memories. 

Most importantly is this observation:

A large study by Jones, Bellet, and McNally found that trigger warnings reinforced the belief on the part of trauma survivors that trauma was central (rather than incidental or peripheral) to their identity. The reason that effect may be concerning is that trauma researchers have previously established that a belief that trauma is central to one’s identity predicts more severe P.T.S.D.; Bellet called this “one of the most well documented relationships in traumatology.” The perverse consequence of trigger warnings, then, may be to harm the people they are intended to protect.

The more you focus on trauma the more you persuade people that they are defined by their traumas. That is, that they are suffering victims, weak and ineffectual, incapable of doing anything to resolve their problems.

The same is true about people who make a public confession of their trauma-induced pain. When you plant the image of you being abused or harassed or assaulted in many minds, these people are going to see you as a victim. The more people treat you as a victim the more you will see yourself as a victim.

It’s one thing to deal with what happened. It’s quite another to deal with the fact that large numbers of people see you as a victim. Once that happens the trauma is much closer to defining you. 

As noted in previous posts, avoiding triggering content does not heal. It aggravates the problem:

If those suffering from P.T.S.D. were responding to trigger warnings by opting out of reading or discussing the flagged content, then, as McNally has pointed out, that would be concerning from a mental-health point of view, because the clinical consensus is that avoiding triggers worsens P.T.S.D. As McNally has written, treatment of P.T.S.D. patients involves “systematic exposure to traumatic memories until their capacity to trigger distress diminishes.” But, of course, teachers should not undertake to therapize or treat their students—nor should they act in ways that are known to be counter-therapeutic if they can avoid it. Since there isn’t evidence that trigger warnings help, and there is now some evidence that they might even increase anxiety, McNally, Jones, and Bellet do not recommend the use of trigger warnings. As Jones put it, “From a clinical lens, you should never do anything that doesn’t work, period, even if it doesn’t do harm. If it’s not actively helping, encouraging its use would essentially be engaging in clinical pseudoscience.”

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

Trigger warnings: Scare headlines...