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.