We should have all learned by now that psychological research shows that trigger warnings do not do what they were intended to do:—protect the mental health of people with PTSD. In fact, as the article in Persuasion below reiterates, they simply keep people traumatized. Or they could even increase trauma.
To the contrary, psychologists and therapists recommend that controlled exposure to a traumatic subject is the way to help cure people of extreme PTSD.
Amna Khalid, who wrote the article at hand, is an Associate Professor of history at Carleton College and has a Substack site, Banished. Her piece below includes links to the data about the ineffectiveness of trigger warnings, so remember to cite these data when people are arguing for trigger warnings.
(You may remember that Khalid, a Muslim, wrote a strong piece in the Chronicles of Higher Education criticizing the dismissal of an instructor at Hamline University for showing an ancient painting of Muhammad that depicted his face. And that instructor even issued several trigger warnings.)
Click below to read Khalid’s piece; its thesis is summarized in the title:
Let me say that, presumably like Khalid, I’m not opposed to every single “content warning”, as they’re now called. If I’m going to post a video that has gruesome stuff in it that might revolt a lot of people, like beheadings, dead bodies, and the like, I will warn people, for a lot of people prefer to avoid such images. They don’t have PTSD or phobias, but find some stuff pretty revolting. The kind of trigger warning that both Khalid and I oppose are those that single out stuff that most people wouldn’t find offensive at all, or that might turn them away from something they need to see or hear, especially in art or literature. One example is putting trigger warnings on books because they contain the n-word, or have violence in them, or depict any aspect of life that at least one reader would find offensive.
I’ve divided her piece into three parts (this is my own take, and I’ve put headings in bold. For each I’ll give an indented quote from her article.
a.) The inanity of many trigger warnings.
Just days into the new year, Scottish papers reported that the University of Aberdeen had slapped a trigger warning on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a classic children’s novel about a place where nobody ever grows up. The reason: the book’s “odd perspectives on gender” may prove “emotionally challenging” to some adult undergraduates, even though it contains “no objectionable material.”
Yes, you read that right—a children’s book now comes with a trigger warning for adults. What’s more, Peter Pan is not the only children’s book to come with an advisory at Aberdeen. Among others are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Last year the university put a trigger warning on Beowulf, the epic poem considered one of the most significant works in the English literary canon, for its depictions of “animal cruelty” and “ableism.” The year before that, the university pushed lecturers to issue content warnings for a long list of topics including abortion, miscarriage, childbirth, depictions of poverty, classism, blasphemy, adultery, blood, alcohol and drug abuse.
Aberdeen is not the only British university following in the steps of American counterparts. The University of Derby issued trigger warnings for Greek tragedies. The University of Warwick put a content advisory on Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd for “rather upsetting scenes concerning the cruelty of nature and the rural life.” At the University of Greenwich, the death of an albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th century poem, was deemed “potentially upsetting” and stuck with a content notice.
You can see that a trigger warning for the albatross in Coleridge’s poetry is simply too extreme, treating students as if the description of a dead bird would shatter their world.
b.) The futility of trigger warnings. I once met a guy who was a specialist in therapy for people with phobias or extreme anxieties. As I have a couple of friends who are really afraid of flying (something I don’t understand, as it’s safer than driving)—one of whom was my late Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin—I asked the therapist how he helped people overcome this. He said “We go as a group on a couple of flights to Milwaukee, turn around, and immediately fly back again.” He said it was okay to admit your fears to yourself, but you have to act against them. Same for those afraid of elevators. Controlled exposure to these things was the key to getting over them. But I digress; here’s Khalid’s summary of the data:
This trend is alarming for several reasons. First, it runs counter to research on the effects of such advisories. As early as 2020 the consensus, based on 17 studies using a range of media, was that trigger warnings do not alleviate emotional distress, and they do not significantly reduce negative affect or minimize intrusive thoughts. Notably, these advisories, which were at least initially introduced out of consideration for people suffering from PTSD, “were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas.”
On the contrary, researchers found that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD, prompting them to “view trauma as more central to their life narrative.” A recent meta-analysis of such warnings found the same thing: the only reliable effect was that people felt more anxious after receiving the warning. The researchers concluded that these warnings “are fruitless,” and “trigger warnings should not be used as a mental health tool.”
c.) The counterproductive nature of trigger warnings. Khalid’s view, with which I agree, is that “there is something particularly perverse about appending [trigger warnings] to works of literature and art.” It treats the students like fragile infants, and in fact could make them more traumatized (or fragile) by somehow validating their emotional responses. I would give a content warning to students were I to show a movie of lions taking down a zebra, but would not if I were teaching The Great Gatsby (“trigger warning: death, spousal abuse, adultery, religious stereotypes”).
In other words, literature is transformative precisely because it has the ability to shock and surprise. It can jolt us out of complacency, force us to contend with the uncertain, the strange and even the ugly. For Franz Kafka, the only books worth reading are the ones that “wound or stab us.” He observed:
If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?… we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like suicide. A book must be an ax for the frozen sea inside us…
Contending with “the frozen sea” opens the door for the kind of contemplation that is necessary for growth. When a classic such as Beowulf comes with “animal cruelty” and “ableism” on the cover, a piece of literature that offers us a unique window into the traditions and values of medieval Anglo-Saxons is devalued, and simply becomes a text riddled with “problematic” themes.
I read Beowulf in the original (I took a year of Old English in college), and I don’t remember “animal cruelty” beyond the death of Grendel, a fictitious monster, nor any “ableism” at all. But back to Khalid:
I can’t help but think that something is broken when universities, the very institutions entrusted with helping young minds mature, infantilize students by treating them as fragile creatures. What accounts for this shift?
Students across Britain seem to be in favor of trigger warnings. According to a survey published by the Higher Education Policy Institute last year, 86% of students support trigger warnings (up from 68% in 2016). More than a third think instructors should be fired if they “teach material that heavily offends some students” (up from just 15% in 2016).
Sadly, it appears that universities in Britain have fallen prey to the kind of corporate logic that is already firmly entrenched in the United States. This growing managerial approach with its customer-is-always-right imperative is increasingly evident in university policies.
. . .But university is not a television or radio show. Far from it. It’s a place where students come for an education. A model where faculty and administrators pander to student sensitivities—to the extent that it starts undermining the mission of the university—would be comical were it not so serious. If we fail to equip our students with the skills and sensibilities necessary to cope with life, we are doing them a great disservice.
When adult university students ask for trigger warnings for children’s literature, we as a society should realize that somewhere along the line, we lost the plot. Instead of coddling our students we should be asking why they feel so emotionally brittle. Might it be that their fragility is the result of limited exposure to what constitutes the human condition and the range of human experience? Is shielding them and managing their experience of art and literature not just exacerbating their sense of vulnerability?
Perhaps, in the end, what they need is unmediated, warning-free immersion in more literature, not less.
I know that some schools actually require trigger warnings on syllabi. Mine doesn’t, thank Ceiling Cat, so you’ll never get into trouble here if a student runs crying to the administration that you didn’t warn him about the albatross.
37 thoughts on “Trigger warnings are useless and counterproductive”
Here is a problem in the “no true Scotsman” category. How can mental comfort be ensured for those of us who are triggered by trigger warnings?
And here is another sociological research topic: who is responsible for compiling lists of works of literature that require trigger warnings? Presumably, they overlap with those who busy themselves making lists of banned words (such as “horsemanship”, “black box”, “dummy variable”, etc. etc.). Both undoubtedly overlap with members of the DEI Committees (in the US), and with members of the Committee on committees.
I love trigger warnings, it indicates there might be something worthwhile to read or watch.
I’m not yet at the stage where I decline to read anything without trigger warning, but a trigger warning is like an extra little star, I want to read or watch it.
You and me both, bro. I read book reviews; not the positive ones, but the negative ones, to determine if I might be interested in a specific book.
Started with the christian right & Parental Advisory on CDs
It’s a bit like the red triangle warning that Channel 4 (in the UK) had for a while to warn people that the film they were watching had adult themes and to boost viewer numbers.
I’d also point out that this is a species of the very worst kind of presentism; things that are “trigger warnings” today weren’t last year, and many of them won’t be next year (there will be a new list then). It’s just another in the endlessly ramifying list of ways in which a few power-mad administrators arrogate to themselves the right to determine what everyone else thinks. Or at least, is allowed to say in public.
Cognitive therapy 101 is that avoiding your fears and anxieties only worsens them.
“Serenity now, insanity later.” L. Braun, 1997.
I was going to wrote a funny satirical comment until I realized : video games and movies have scrupulous warning messages. There is some validity to that – we might leave a proof of that it to the imagination. (Less so for the “E” on music, which I loathe). Perhaps that is where this notion comes from – from the forges of Fantasyland itself – because everything is accessible on the Internet now without restriction.
However, one rating I would point out I have heard of is “rated M for mature”.
…. but, with writing, or speech, do we really need “M for mature”?
Regarding the “E” on music: when records with explicit content had to be labeled with a “Parental Advisory” sticker in the late ’80s, I bought Gun ‘N Roses’ album Appetite for Destruction specifically because it was the first album I’d ever seen with the sticker on it.
I think it’s too ubiquitous now to have the same effect, but I gotta think that many kids still seek it out. It’s the Streisand effect, really.
Everyone knows that lovely Green Day tune where he sings “I hope you had the time of your life”, right?
He mutters an inaudible/curt/indecipherable F-word during the sort of live warm up false start intro.
E? For that?!
I say F!
I endorse Khalid’s quotation of Kafka. Many books have acted as axes on my inner frozen sea. I have a distinct, powerful memory of one such book, The Collector, by John Fowles, which I read in my early twenties. (I haven’t seen nor do I want to see the film adaptation starring Terrence Stamp and Samantha Egger, as much as I admire those two actors, because I don’t think the screenplay and direction can translate the effect of Fowles’ ingenious literary device to the screen.) I will always treasure the benefit this ax had on me.
Regarding literature, I like Greg Lukianoff’s take (a propos of Roald Dahl):
“How about this instead? Teach children that the past is a foreign country (just as we all understood) & things are quite different there. It can lead to a deepening of your appreciation of the world & how even your historical norms will look quaint & strange to your children.”
My own anecdotal experience (n=1) is that trigger warners are bullshit. I have complex PTSD. The things that trigger me are everywhere. There are no warning signs in life. Like the post suggest I have learnt to control being triggered by re exposing myself slowly to life. Some days it doesn’t work and I retreat from the world and my Assistance Dog gets lots of pats. But a trigger warning has never helped
Was “Hwæt!” a trigger warning in Old English? 😉
Aaargh! That has set me off! I now need therapy!!!
Trigger warnings could be printed on the walls of neonatal units, to save time. Or it could be the first thing children learn. Life is full of sh*t, disease, pain, blood sweat & tears, & ends in death.
That would cover most bases & avoid having to repeat it later.
Birth is pain, life is pain, death is pain.
With live as we dream, alone.
Life: loathe it or ignore it, you can’t like it ~~ Marvin the paranoid android.
Ah – the ableism in Beowulf- Grendel is descended from Cain! 🤭
One of my favorite works of fiction is John Gardner’s marvelous “Grendel”, which is the Beowulf saga told from the monster’s point of view. I wonder what the Committee on Trigger Warnings makes of it. Come to think of it, can we soon expect art museums. art book publishers, and academic art historians to forewarn the public about the hazards of viewing such hellish paintings as those of Bondone, Fiesole and Bosch?
That is a good book.
Should guns have trigger warnings?
Should Roy Rogers…?
All these fragile snowflakes are in for a very rude awakening, called LIFE! All I can say is God help them and God help us al because we have to live with them.
Yes! Minus god!
Indeed. Were none of these administrators ever parents?
Baby falls boom on bottom, looks up at Mom and Dad to see how to react. If you jump up and scream “OH MY GOD ARE YOU OKAY?” and rush forward in a state of panic instead of smiling and going “whoopsy! you’re okay” then you are creating a child who will cry over every minor spill. Kneel down in front of your toddler and explain that the Wicked Witch in “Wizard of Oz” is very, very scary and it’s okay if they need to stop the movie and run to bed Mommy will lie down with them till they feel better and -guess what? Turn out they will need to do just that. All the freaking time.
I don’t know. Maybe parents today parent in such a sensitive, soothing, trauma-inducing way and they take this into the classroom to be practiced on their students. If so, then we might need a few common-sense grandparents to administer a brisk “you’re fine, knock it off, let’s do something fun” as reality-check antidote.
Occasionally, trigger warnings serve as the catalyst for offense, when some people would never have known they are “supposed to” freak out over X, Y or Z. They can literally be self-fulfilling prophecies in some instances.
Not to mention, of course, Tom Buchanan’s favorable mention in Gatsby‘s first chapter of “The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard” — a thinly veiled reference to The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy by Lothrop Stoppard, a forerunner of sorts to scientific racism and the so-called Great Replacement Theory, published five years before Gatsby.
It was Fitzgerald’s way of showing early on what an entitled prick Daisy’s husband is.
Avoidance is absolutely the wrong approach to combating anxiety—and can even lead sufferers to become socially phobic and homebound.
Most irksome to me are the trigger warnings that are issued simply to coddle people so that they don’t need to face the tiniest insult in the world. Real life, in work, at play, in families, in public spaces, comes with imperfections that functioning people need to deal with. Universities are perfect spaces to learn how to accommodate to those day-to-day insults. What will these poor students do when they get out of college? Will they collapse in a heap every time they experience something that is in the least but disturbing?
Come on. We need our young people to become resilient and strong. Colleges and universities abrogate their responsibilities when they try to isolate students from the challenges they will eventually face.
Although Amna Khalid doesn’t mention it here, the Hamline case she responded to earlier illustrates another reason why trigger warnings are futile: because in the case of the ultra-woke looking for an offence to complain about, they deliberately ignore the warning and then *still* complain that they were triggered anyway. Since the warnings gives no indemnity to those who provide them, why bother doing so?
It seems absurd to try to shield adults or even young adults from unpleasant sights or sounds like stereotypical Edwardian upper class ladies.
But it is all deception. The same people promoting trigger warnings and reporting people for saying or doing things that they claim are offensive, are simultaneously advocating that little kids be shown pictures of erect penises and told about what lubes are best for anal sex.
A couple of days ago, I watched a video where a woman claims that her 10 year old is pansexual, which she supports.
All I can think of is that all of these people are sliding into degeneracy, like the characters in Pasolini’s Salo.
Something that always leaves me astounded are the trigger warnings on Not Always Right, a humorous website primarily sharing stories of bad customers. They will include warnings like “death” on the tiniest mentions, e.g. “this happened 2 weeks after my gran died.” That doesn’t need a trigger warning! That’s just life. I’d understand if maybe it was a theme of the story but not for some minor aside.
The trigger warnings at the start of the video game Far Cry 6 are:
It’s a strong trigger warning – mind you the game can officially be played by some children. Does it work beyond protecting the game designers against legal claims?
I was once in a video game shop and I watched a kid carefully and surreptitiously picking the “18” sticker off the cellophane wrapper of a game he was obviously intending to buy. It turned out that there was a “18” symbol printed on the box itself underneath where the sticker had previously been.
Rural loife cru-ell? Well, maister, it bain’t no fun, I tell ‘ee. But I loikes it fine, better’n loife in one o’ them there cities. Oi be of a mind that young Fanny got wot she desairved, just loike that useless pup. No toime for them as won’t do as they’re bidden. Now I must go and prune me worzels afore they gets leggy! Oo argh!
(I’d have put a content warning on this for Cultural Appropriation, except for the fact I did speak like that as a child in Wiltshire, much to the amusement of the rest of my household, who were northern-born.)
I volunteer at progressive playhouse. Their ‘trigger warnings’, which they don’t call trigger warnings, are about warnings about manufactured haze, flashing lights that could induce epileptic fits, loud noises, and, occasionally, warnings about extreme violence (They did a play on school shootings).
These ‘trigger’ warnings remind me of the yellow plastic signs strewn around public places declaring “Beware Wet Floor!” The floor is almost never wet. It may have been wet at some point in the past, and there’s a slight chance it may be so in the future so let’s put a sign there just in case. So the sign/trigger warning is there just on the off-chance that someone might slip/get triggered. Can’t blame us, can’t sue us; we put up a sign!