Trigger Warnings: Public Service or Fallacious Fad?

January 6, 2013

I recently read two interesting blogs and articles by women challenging the validity and usefulness of "trigger warnings," disclaimers before discussions and descriptions of potentially traumatic events in articles and blogs.

I posted a link to one of them on my Facebook page, noting that it was an interesting and skeptical look at the topic. It was soon criticized for being snarky and superficial, lacking in scholarly analysis. I never suggested it was an excellent example of in-depth analysis on the subject, just that it offered a critique that I hadn't seen before, and one that (agree or disagree) merited discussion.

It's not clear why trigger warnings have been framed by some people as a feminist issue; traumatic events happen to both men and women. Many common events can be emotionally traumatic, including physical and sexual assault, a loved one dying, war, accidents, tragedies, and so on. Neither trauma nor traumatic memories or feelings are uniquely female. The issue is, as far as I can tell, one of psychology, not feminism.

I have done basically no research on trigger warnings and have no real opinion formed on whether or not they are useful or valid. I don't really have the time or energy to research it, but I am curious to learn more about it, and what the evidence and assumptions are behind it. Several commenters seemed similarly curious to find out more about the topic, and here I offer a brief outline of how I would approach the subject.


1) Define the terms operationally. What, exactly, is meant by "trigger warning"? What could be potentially triggered by words or descriptions? Uneasy feelings? Repressed memories? Vivid flashbacks? Does it only apply to people diagnosed with PTSD, or anyone who might have experienced any trauma? Is there some way to distinguish traumas that might be re-experienced or triggered by an article or form of media from other common psychological traumas?

2) Find out where the term comes from. Is this a recognized medical term, or a pop psychology phrase? Who created the term? Was it first used by a practicing psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health professional? Or was it first used by a layperson blogger with no expertise or background in psychology? Where did they get it, and did they offer any evidence supporting it?

3) Find out what the published, peer-reviewed literature says about it. Is there a body of psychological literature on trigger warnings? Have any studies been done showing that trigger warnings are necessary or useful? Have they been shown to reduce psychological trauma to anyone by emotionally preparing them to read something that otherwise would have harmed them? What experts have published on it, and what do they say?

4) If the validity or usefulness of trigger warnings are not founded in psychology but instead in journalism or blogging as a service to readers, what sort of materials are candidates for trigger warnings? Any written, audio, or visual depiction or description of any potentially traumatic event, including homicide, suicide, warfare, assault, etc.? In other words, assuming the premise(s) underlying trigger warnings are valid, what is harmful and what is not? Obviously merely seeing the word "rape" or "murder" is unlikely to trigger bad memories or flashbacks in previously-traumatized individuals, but what about seeing a short newscast description? Or a re-enactment of a real event, or a fictionalized depiction using actors in a film or TV show? How similar to the triggered experience does the media need to be to evoke a bad feeling or flashback? Would those who are potentially traumatized by such depictions seek them out, or avoid them in the first place, thus making the warnings moot? For that matter, might support groups for sufferers of traumatic events do more harm than good? If merely hearing about another person's struggle with alcoholism, homicide, suicide, domestic violence, physical or sexual assault, etc. is enough to re-traumatize victims, is it ethical (or even dangerous) to suggest or require people to join such support groups? Do support groups begin each session with a blanket warning that anything the participants hear might trigger unpleasant memories or feelings?


Some reasons that suggest that trigger warnings may be valid:

From my background in psychology, I know that it is certainly true that memories, both good and bad, can be evoked (or "triggered") through any number of experiences. Old songs, smells and scents, tastes, sounds, old photographs, and countless other things can bring back memories that we weren't expecting to experience. This is a common phenomenon, and one that is (as far as I know) well-recognized by psychology and science. It makes sense that seeing a graphic depiction of a traumatic event could potentially bring back memories of a similar event from the person's own experience-and that writers and bloggers might assume that what they write is so powerful and evocative that sensitive readers should be pre-warned. Trigger warnings (like all warnings) surely do no specific harm, and the argument could be made that even if they don't help, there's little reason not to use them if the writer wants to.

Some reasons that suggest that trigger warnings may not be valid:

Pop psychology is flooded with myths, mistakes, and misunderstandings about how the mind works. I have personally researched many of them, from repressed memories to using 10% of the brain to trauma effects to multiple personality disorder (for an excellent survey, see Scott Lilienfeld's book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology and Tall Tales About the Mind and Brain, edited by Sergio Della Sala). I am always cautious when I hear people who have no background in psychology make assertions about psychology without referencing published work or studies. It also seems odd that, if trigger warnings are truly useful and valid, they would have emerged only in the past few years, and (apparently) from the blogosphere instead of the published psychological literature. A review of books in my library about trauma and memory (e.g., Loftus 1980, 1996; Sabbagh 2009; Neath 1998; Terr 1990; Pendergrast 1995) show little or no mention of memory triggers (or memories suddenly and unexpectedly being triggered by reading or seeing something related to the memory). In fact virtually all mentions of "triggered memories" are discussed within the context of the skeptically-discredited repressed memory movement (i.e., Pendergrast 1995). As discussed above, because memory triggers are individual, idiosyncratic, and context-specific (a particular scent, song, sound, taste, etc. evokes a particular memory or feeling for a particular person), it seems unlikely that a generic description of a traumatic event that did not happen to them (as described by a stranger) would be a serious emotional threat to many people.


I welcome anyone who has time and interest in interviewing experts and researching the published literature to shed light on evidence for or against the utility and validity of trigger warnings. If the premises behind trigger warnings are valid, it would do trauma victims, mental health professionals, and others a real service to establish the evidence for it. On the other hand, if the phenomenon is merely a journalistic fad based on pop psychology myths, the public deserves to know that as well. As Thomas Paine wrote, "It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry."

 


References

Neath, Ian. 1998. Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory. Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Loftus, Elizabeth. 1980. Memory: Surprising New Insights Into How We Remember and Why We Forget. Addison-Wesley.

Loftus, Elizabeth. 1996. Eyewitness Testimony. Harvard University Press.

Pendergrast, Mark. 1995. Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. Upper Access.

Sabbagh, Karl. 2009. Remembering Our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us. Oxford University Press.

Terr, Lenore. 1990. Too Scared to Cry: Psychic Trauma in Childhood. Harper & Row.

 

 

Comments:

#1 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Monday January 07, 2013 at 12:35am

I’m rarely triggered in the sense of actually having an acute distressful reaction to something overwhelmingly horrible (to me). I’m very fortunate that way.

But even so: I appreciate the trigger warnings when I see them because they give me notice that I need to get my emotional guard up before continuing. I can survive without it, but I still appreciate being given a head’s up.

So I don’t think we need to delve into psychology to establish if the usage is fair or not. It’s always struck me as a polite warning that the topic is about to get into high-stakes topics. That’s justification enough, in my view. If it also helps people avoid being emotionally crushed by triggering language then that is a very, very good and considerate bonus, of course. But I don’t consider that a core requirement.

#2 ArtCrawl on Monday January 07, 2013 at 7:28am

I am speaking as an individual, and not as a scholar of triggers or trigger warnings.

I rarely have a negative reaction to words, but images of torture, death, rape etc…are things I tend to avoid because I cannot unsee them and will have trouble trying to forget them.  And movies with rape I avoid (Although I had no problem with the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” movies).

That being said, for me personally, most posts I am about to read tend to have enough information in the title that I would know if the content has a chance to trigger me.  These posts may say NSFW (not safe for work) and then it is my job as an individual if I want to read further.  It is possible that a writer will not give a second thought about including possibly offensive or upsetting images or text, but I don’t see that often on sites that are not in the business of trying to get a reaction out of their readers. (i.e. 4chan, Ebaums, Fark)

I have seen trigger warnings overused as of late.  There are even added before linking to youtubes if the speaker is not liked by some of the community.

Additionally, a writer cannot allow for every possible trigger that might affect a person.  This website (http://privilege101.tumblr.com/triggers.html) has a long list of triggers.  I think one can ignore most of them and still be a responsible poster.  This example may be over the top, but I guarantee there are people that advocate what this website does.

My takeaway is that as long as authors have a title that conveys what they will be discussing, it is up to the reader to make the best decision for themselves.

#3 oolon (Guest) on Monday January 07, 2013 at 7:31am

Even if there was no valid psychological basis for saying real mental harm is done to people by what they read they serve a useful purpose. I’d say exactly the same as warnings before TV shows such as “This show contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing”.

On the more extreme end would be first hand accounts of people who experience PTSD triggering as a very real phenomenon. I have no reason to doubt their testimony given PTSD seems a well established fact as is the possibility that being confronted by similar experience(s) to those that traumatised you could result in that person being “triggered”.

#4 oolon on Monday January 07, 2013 at 7:33am

Oops forgot to login - link to example for that post above. [TW!]
http://superopinionated.com/2012/09/17/let-this-be-a-lesson/

#5 Dorion on Monday January 07, 2013 at 9:31am

As an avid blog reader, I have some suspicion that the recent rise in the practice is sometimes as a way of saying “look how edgy we are, watch us take on the tough ones.”

While it may seem essentially harmless, I’m concerned that the abundance of “trigger warnings” on predominantly feminist sites suggests that women need more “protection” from reading materials.

#6 Jay (Guest) on Monday January 07, 2013 at 9:59am

Breslin doesn’t mention it, but on many feminist blogs some of the major uses for trigger warnings is to police speech, dog whistle, call for a pile-on, and in general provide clues as to how the author wishes the content to be viewed, and wishes dissent to be handled.

[Trigger Warning: rape]

As Breslin says, this sensationalizes the content, but it also alerts readers this is serious business, and criticism and dissent will not, cannot be tolerated.

Because to deny the topic or thesis IS TRIGGERING YOU ##$%#$###! MRA!1!

When you see a Trigger Warning, just stop and notice how commenters and dissent is handled.

#7 Ben Radford on Monday January 07, 2013 at 10:10am

Interesting comments so far, thanks!

#8 oolon on Monday January 07, 2013 at 11:57am

To respond to Jay I’d be careful about criticising the amount of “debate” and “dissent” in feminist comment sections discussing TW worthy subjects such as rape. Or for that matter any comment section which is discussing a sensitive subject - Sandy Hook for example. I had an argument with a commenter complaining about an evilz feminist blog where a rape survivor refused to give him a calm rational response to his polite enquiries about the subject and got “emotional” and “rude”. It really doesn’t matter that you want to “debate” rape stats or whatever in some of these forums, the effect on say a rape survivor will trump your right to say what you want. Even if you are polite.

For the “free speech!1!!” brigade that is not any sort of infringement as you have no right to speak on someone’s private platform. They set the rules, not you. This seemed to blow the mind of the “sceptic” in my example above and he felt it was a tactic to “win” the argument. Such empathy!

#9 SkepticReport on Tuesday January 08, 2013 at 12:03am

If “trigger warnings” worked, they would be used with any article about the things we fear the most: Public speaking, spiders, heights, open spaces, enclosed spaces, and so on. Heck, it would probably be mandatory, if we had seen waves of mental breakdowns each time a news story broke.

I have yet to see one single newspaper or tv station anywhere in the world use “trigger warnings” about any subject. They may warn about graphic content, violent content, but not to warn people that their particular phobia or mental problem might be “triggered”.

As they have been used lately, they are nothing but a “trigger warning” for inflated self-importance of the writers.

We can test this: Will the “trigger warnings” become a staple from now on on those blogs they have appeared on? If they disappear, we know they were just a fad, with no real concern for those who could be “triggered”.

Time will tell.

#10 Nick (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 10:08am

To the degree that the trigger warning is meant as a courtesy, it doesn’t matter whether it’s “effectiveness” is proven; as in all etiquette, what matters is intent.

Such intent can be undermined or even inverted, but again, as in all etiquette, this isn’t a problem with courtesy, but rather with those immune to it, namely, assholes.

#11 Dorion on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 12:21pm

Speaking of etiquette, I was with you right up to the end there, Nick. It’s okay to try to make a point without name-calling. I promise.

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