Trigger Warnings: What Does The Research Say?

Trigger warning: trigger warnings (towards a different approach) |  openDemocracy

Note: This summary was created by the Center for Teaching at the request of Dean Papillon following a discussion on the use of trigger warnings at a meeting of department chairs and program directors in November 2021.  

Trigger warnings are statements “cautioning that content (as in a text or video) may be disturbing or upsetting” – a definition added to Merriam-Webster in 2016.  While increasingly popular in both classroom use and media attention since 2010, trigger warnings date back to PTSD classifications from the post-Vietnam War era. Feminist websites and discussion boards made use of trigger warnings in 1990s, and the warnings started migrating into the classroom in the 2000s.  The intention was to better prepare students suffering from trauma to engage with challenging material.  In some instances, this has been taken further: such students have been excused from reading or viewing such difficult material.

Recent Studies

The article The Data is In – Trigger Warnings Don’t Work in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept 2021) reported on research into the effectiveness of trigger warnings in improving students’ mental health: the upshot of that article was that “trigger warnings do not alleviate emotional distress.”  Summarizing a review of studies on trigger warnings (“Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals with Traumatic Histories” by Payton J. Jones, et al. in Clinical Psychological Science, 2020), the CHE article reported:

What’s more, [Jones et al.] 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.” “Trigger warnings,” they concluded, “may be most harmful to the very individuals they were designed to protect.”  

For those suffering from severe trauma, psychological counselors use exposure-based therapies rather than avoidance.

Likewise, the article Are Trigger Warnings Actually Helpful? in Scientific American (April 2019) cited the paper “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead” (Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Dec 2018) where authors Benjamin Bellet et al. found evidence that trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine resilience.

The Balancing Act

While research findings discourage the use of trigger warnings, students more frequently expect trigger warnings on course material, request trigger warnings from the professor, or comment on the lack of them in course evaluations. The professor can be caught between the research findings and their students’ expectations and also feel ill-equipped to anticipate all issues that might be problematic. A way forward is to provide students with the tools to prepare themselves to engage with potentially triggering material.

First, there is a difference between trigger warnings and the fairly common practice very early in a course of describing (both in the classroom and on the syllabus) the material that will be covered. This needn’t be a laundry list of “content categories” (i.e., nudity, profanity, smoking), but can tell the story of the course and its aims: “The texts here recall the rationales for imperialism, which is inherently a violent system. In order to dismantle and recognize racist regimes of violence, we must understand how they work…” Explaining what will be taught, why those topics and materials have been chosen, and what will be required to participate in the course can help students determine for themselves whether the course is one they are able to engage with.  In addition, courses with especially challenging content might consider putting a statement about the Wellness Center/CAPS and how to access it on their syllabus.

However, in a required course, a student may not have the option not to continue with the course. Encouraging students with concerns to speak directly with the instructor can be a fruitful way forward. This conversation might include the research findings on trigger warnings and working together to find alternative strategies that empower the student. One option could be for the student to find a synopsis of the text or video to be better prepared for their reading or viewing.  If the student suffers from panic disorders or other medical conditions that affect their studies, a professor could encourage contacting the Wellness Center.  Additionally, a good practice is to contextualize upcoming materials throughout the semester to remind students why they were chosen for the course. The overarching goal is to give the student support for building the coping skills that they can use in the current course and going forward.  

Furthermore, staff and faculty in the position of evaluating instructors for tenure and promotion ought to be informed of the most recent research on trauma-informed pedagogy and best practices.  Students, who are unlikely to be abreast of this research, might impugn an instructor for not including trigger warnings, when in fact the decision not to do so has been motivated by a concern for student welfare. Such comments should thus be bracketed in considering questions of pedagogical merit.