Monday, May 2, 2022

The Trigger Warning Illusion

You might have guessed it already, but trigger warnings do not work. When our pseudo-intellectuals glom on to a fashionable idea, especially one that makes them feel virtuous, you can be fairly confident that it is bogus nonsense.

In their war against trauma thinkers have happily touted the notion of trigger warnings. It has been based on the notion that people who have undergone trauma can be triggered by being exposed to the wrong images or words or ideas. And thus, that said wrong images or words or ideas cause distress. And we certainly cannot have that.

Thus, media figures and teachers and even public speakers have been instructed to preface their remarks or their assignments with trigger warnings. This would prepare those who are hypersensitive to run and hide. 

We have already commented on this silliness in the past. To summarize, we have followed the science and have argued that people who want to become desensitized to potentially traumatic stimuli need to be exposed to them, not to avoid them. Such is the treatment mode used by cognitive and behavioral therapists when dealing with trauma victims.

So, limiting exposure would tend to render victims more, not less sensitive. Considering the idiocy that infects public discourse, this should not come as a surprise.

PsyPost reports on the latest research, for your edification:

Trigger warnings, which are statements intended to warn people about being exposed to potentially upsetting material, have garnered much debate as to their effectiveness at protecting people from emotional distress. New research published in PLos ONE suggests that reading about triggering traumatic material did not result in an increase in trauma symptoms in both people who did and people who did not have PTSD symptoms.

Some of the arguments against the use of trigger warnings are focused on the potential adverse, rather than beneficial, effects they have on people. “While a trigger warning may allow individuals to benefit from avoiding potentially distressing material, arguably they also preclude coping with their trauma, potentially adding to their psychological distress,” wrote study author Matthew Kimble and colleagues. “In addition, theory related to expectancy effects and self-fulfilling prophecies suggests that trigger warnings may make individuals more likely to respond poorly to upsetting material or lead them to interpret normal, brief, and appropriate distress as pathological.”

Some research on this topic supports this notion and suggests that receiving a trigger warning might actually increase feelings of vulnerability and anxiety when compared to people who do not receive trigger warnings. Some research even shows that trigger warnings have little effect at all, positive or negative.

As I noted, and as the research has shown, protecting people from exposure to traumatic material makes it more difficult for them to cope with trauma.

And, when you give students the choice between reading and not reading a potentially triggering passage, most choose to read it, trauma or no trauma.

Even if it produces an initial feeling of distress, this wears off in a short period of time. It sounds like exposure therapy, doesn’t it?

Results show most participants (over 96%) opted to read the triggering passage even if they had exposure to traumatic events or scored high on the PTSD checklist. Those higher on the PTSD checklist experienced more emotional responses to the trigger passage than those with lower scores. Further, participants in the trigger passage condition reported feeling significantly more distressed than those in the control condition, but only on the first day of the study. This difference was not seen in the later measurements indicating the distress was not long-lasting.


rotator said...

Even PBS is putting trigger warnings on some of their programs, eg last Sunday's Bring on the Midwife where the trigger was a new bill allowing abortion in the UK.

Gibson Block said...

Trigger warnings seem foolish when they warn people of things that we don't consider to be that upsetting. However,I think that warnings of graphic images in the news make sense. I remember seeing a picture sent out by the head-choppers many years ago and it certainly shocked and upset me. That was before the idea of trigger warnings became popular and I wished that I'd had one.

Steve said...

Now all of the folks that read the article and DIDN'T understand it....will be commenting.
I don't mean to be mean (is that a trigger warning or is it placed too deep in my answer?), but come on folks; grow up. There will be things in your lives that will be upsetting. Deal with it. Also, it's not my job to determine what it is that triggers folks.